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Unthinkable: What the World's Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own

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Our brains are far stranger than we think. We take for granted that we can remember, feel emotion, navigate, empathize, and understand the world around us, but how would our lives change if these abilities were dramatically enhanced--or disappeared overnight? Helen Thomson has spent years traveling the world, tracking down incredibly rare brain disorders. In Unthinkable she Our brains are far stranger than we think. We take for granted that we can remember, feel emotion, navigate, empathize, and understand the world around us, but how would our lives change if these abilities were dramatically enhanced--or disappeared overnight? Helen Thomson has spent years traveling the world, tracking down incredibly rare brain disorders. In Unthinkable she tells the stories of nine extraordinary people she encountered along the way. From the man who thinks he's a tiger to the doctor who feels the pain of others just by looking at them to a woman who hears music that’s not there, their experiences illustrate how the brain can shape our lives in unexpected and, in some cases, brilliant and alarming ways. Story by remarkable story, Unthinkable takes us on an unforgettable journey through the human brain. Discover how to forge memories that never disappear, how to grow an alien limb, and how to make better decisions. Learn how to hallucinate and how to make yourself happier in a split second. Find out how to avoid getting lost, how to see more of your reality, even how exactly you can confirm you are alive. Think the unthinkable.


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Our brains are far stranger than we think. We take for granted that we can remember, feel emotion, navigate, empathize, and understand the world around us, but how would our lives change if these abilities were dramatically enhanced--or disappeared overnight? Helen Thomson has spent years traveling the world, tracking down incredibly rare brain disorders. In Unthinkable she Our brains are far stranger than we think. We take for granted that we can remember, feel emotion, navigate, empathize, and understand the world around us, but how would our lives change if these abilities were dramatically enhanced--or disappeared overnight? Helen Thomson has spent years traveling the world, tracking down incredibly rare brain disorders. In Unthinkable she tells the stories of nine extraordinary people she encountered along the way. From the man who thinks he's a tiger to the doctor who feels the pain of others just by looking at them to a woman who hears music that’s not there, their experiences illustrate how the brain can shape our lives in unexpected and, in some cases, brilliant and alarming ways. Story by remarkable story, Unthinkable takes us on an unforgettable journey through the human brain. Discover how to forge memories that never disappear, how to grow an alien limb, and how to make better decisions. Learn how to hallucinate and how to make yourself happier in a split second. Find out how to avoid getting lost, how to see more of your reality, even how exactly you can confirm you are alive. Think the unthinkable.

30 review for Unthinkable: What the World's Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own

  1. 4 out of 5

    Petra-X is getting covered in Soufriere ash

    This is the sort of book I like. Neurology, problems of the brain told through the stories of people who suffer from them. In the hands of a brilliant writer, like Oliver Sacks, both the person and their issues come to life and we see the author too. In this book there are nine problems, all neurological except one, told through the stories of nine people (including HM, does everyone have to include him? (The definitive book for me was Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnes This is the sort of book I like. Neurology, problems of the brain told through the stories of people who suffer from them. In the hands of a brilliant writer, like Oliver Sacks, both the person and their issues come to life and we see the author too. In this book there are nine problems, all neurological except one, told through the stories of nine people (including HM, does everyone have to include him? (The definitive book for me was Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M.). All the people seem to be jolly good characters who rather enjoy their issues like synaesthesia or else in a jolly good way, deal with it, like the deaf lady with continual audio hallucinations. I didn't feel I knew any of the people and therefore didn't identify or sympathise with them. If you can't connect with the characters in a book, fiction or non-fiction, it's a kind of dud. The exception was the man who suffered from lycanthropy and thought he was a tiger quite often. Since he had schizophrenia, I thought his lycanthropy was a symptom rather than a discrete different-functioning of the brain as in the other eight cases. His issue was of mental illness although how much schizophrenia (or perhaps any mental illness) is neurological at least in part is something I am not clear about, despite the books I've read on the subject. In any case, I had even less interest in this person as he was very one-dimensional. Maybe if you don't read books on neurology this would be new and fresh and more engrossing than it was to me. 3.25 star, rounded down because it would give a false impression to round it up. However, the author was by far the most interesting person in the book. I liked her enthusiasm and how she connected her life to the people she interviewed for the book, I'd give her 5 stars.

  2. 5 out of 5

    ☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣

    Q: ‘I could see the beauty in everything. I had all these thoughts in my head that I’d never had before. I suddenly had these emotions and cares and worries. I could taste the femininity inside of me.’ (c) Q: Tommy described his brain as having gone into overdrive. ‘If I go for a walk inside my brain, I see all this information,’ he said. ‘Angles, languages, structures, mathematics, wild colourful pictures. Everything I look at sparks six memories or emotions or smells, they’re each spinning in my Q: ‘I could see the beauty in everything. I had all these thoughts in my head that I’d never had before. I suddenly had these emotions and cares and worries. I could taste the femininity inside of me.’ (c) Q: Tommy described his brain as having gone into overdrive. ‘If I go for a walk inside my brain, I see all this information,’ he said. ‘Angles, languages, structures, mathematics, wild colourful pictures. Everything I look at sparks six memories or emotions or smells, they’re each spinning in my mind – just for a moment – and then it’s like one of those thoughts crashes against another and that sparks six different thoughts, and then the corners of those thoughts touch and create six more. I’m constantly bombarded with patterns and details and information and faces. It’s like walking inside a corridor of endless, endless information. ‘My brain is like bees in a hive,’ he continued, barely taking a breath. ‘In the middle, all you see are honeycomb cells covered in clingfilm. When you stroke those little honeycomb cells, lots of other cells break out from it, like a lightning flash touching a brain cell. And from that cell comes a volcano, emitting Fairy Liquid bubbles with billions and billions of images. They’re pouring out like Mount Etna, they never stop. Each of these bubbles contains another million images. That’s a split second in my mind. I feel like I’ve been shown just how endless the brain is. It’s inconceivable, we use such a tiny percentage of it.’ (c) Q: ‘My brain is filled with endless details but I’m too uneducated to understand all the information that’s popping up inside there. It’s telling me there are all these different languages, all this knowledge, pinpricks of it, microscopic hints of it all, so that if I wanted to use it, it would be there for me to use. I feel like I could talk Italian if the right thing triggered it: it’s all within me. I feel like we’ve all got sweeping talents in our brain but we don’t know they are there because we’ve never been forced to use them. That’s my vision of what I see in my brain.’ (c) Q: His mind travelled rapidly from one concept to the next, his thoughts turned on a sixpence. (c) Q: It’s not often that we take the time to consider our personality, who we are and how we make our choices. Perhaps it’s because we tend to think our personalities are innate, that they are what they are. I can’t help wondering whether knowing more about the mechanisms that help to build them could help us navigate life a little more successfully. Perhaps even make us all a little happier. (c) Q: It’s a delightful concept and one that we would do well to remember. That our brain does not exist in isolation. We discovered that it relies on our bodies earlier in this book, but its reach stretches further still. It extends beyond the boundaries of our skull and enters the bodies of those around us. In that way, we are all connected with each other. When we smile at someone, we leave a tiny imprint on that person’s brain. Somewhere, deep within their motor cortex, their brain is smiling back. (c)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jenna

    ​ Reading this book, I was reminded of how awesome the brain is, and how lucky I am that mine (mostly!) works like it's supposed to. Helen Thomson investigates nine unique brain conditions by interviewing people who have, and neurologists who have studied, these conditions. Included are: •A woman whose brain causes her to hallucinate and "hear" continuous music ​•A man who sometimes feels like he's turning into a tiger (the condition which possibly gave us the myth of werewolves) •A woman whose brai ​ Reading this book, I was reminded of how awesome the brain is, and how lucky I am that mine (mostly!) works like it's supposed to. Helen Thomson investigates nine unique brain conditions by interviewing people who have, and neurologists who have studied, these conditions. Included are: •A woman whose brain causes her to hallucinate and "hear" continuous music ​•A man who sometimes feels like he's turning into a tiger (the condition which possibly gave us the myth of werewolves) •A woman whose brain does not create spatial maps and thus is permanently "lost", even in her own home •A man with Cotard's syndrome which makes him feel like and believe he is dead There is not as much science as I'd have liked in this book; rather, it focuses more on the individuals who have these and some other conditions. Still, I learned a few new things, and always find books about the brain to be fascinating. Some of the conditions I've read about in other books, but I had never heard about Lycanthropy (in which people feel they're turning into various animals), Cotard's syndrome, or Xenomelia which is a condition where people feel as though one or more of their limbs do not belong to them and thus wish for their removal. Anyone who is interested in the brain will most likely enjoy this book. Ms. Thomson writes compassionately and descriptively, providing an in-depth look at how it feels to have brains that work so differently from the majority of people. There is so much yet to learn about the brain, and I wonder if we ever will or ever can. "...if the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."

  4. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    3.5 Our brains are capable of so many things, such a complex organ, and the least understood. This book highlights the many ways a glitch in the circuitry of the brain can cause some unique, and at times harrowing conditions. I was drawn to this book because of a show on TV I saw a while back. It featured some people who can remember in detail every day of their lives. I have a pretty good memory, but nothing close to that, but I was curious about how that type of memory came to be, what were th 3.5 Our brains are capable of so many things, such a complex organ, and the least understood. This book highlights the many ways a glitch in the circuitry of the brain can cause some unique, and at times harrowing conditions. I was drawn to this book because of a show on TV I saw a while back. It featured some people who can remember in detail every day of their lives. I have a pretty good memory, but nothing close to that, but I was curious about how that type of memory came to be, what were the changes in the brain. Memory as a whole interests me, as the closer I get to the age where memory supposedly drops off, can that be prevented? This is the first topic covered, the science behind memory, well explained in understandable terms by the author who even offers tips on how to improve memory. The other sections cover other conditions that can manifest, such as synsthesia, a person who believes they are dead, a man who turns into a tiger. How they live with these conditions, and again the science behind them. Never really felt the connection as a reader to these people, though I thought the science was explained well, and I enjoyed the authors musings. I think if you enjoyed the books of the late Oliver Sacks, you will enjoy this. It is both interesting and informative. ARC from Edelweiss.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    How would you deal with hearing music that is not there 24 hours a day, every day; or thinking that you turn into a tiger periodically; or having every memory of your life at your fingertips? These are just some of the neurological issues addressed in nine cases covered in this interesting book about rare brain disorders, why they happen, and how the affected person lives with it. The author, a neuroscientist, writer and consultant, was fascinated with the mysteries of the brain and how it "talks How would you deal with hearing music that is not there 24 hours a day, every day; or thinking that you turn into a tiger periodically; or having every memory of your life at your fingertips? These are just some of the neurological issues addressed in nine cases covered in this interesting book about rare brain disorders, why they happen, and how the affected person lives with it. The author, a neuroscientist, writer and consultant, was fascinated with the mysteries of the brain and how it "talks to itself" to control our senses and behavior. She clearly describes the various control centers of the brain and how they interact, although there are still mysteries of brain activity which have not been clearly defined. or understood. She discusses nine cases of abnormal brain activity which cause strange phenomena and interviews the subjects suffering from the following: never forgetting a moment in life; being permanently lost; seeing auras; switching personalities; endless hallucinations; turning into a tiger; becoming unreal; believing that you are dead; and physically feeling other people's pain. Some of these individuals have learned to lead a fairly normal life, while others are so debilitated as to be hospitalized or have caregivers to assist them through the distorted lens of their lives. The book is not without humor as some of the subjects who live fairly normal lives relate the shortcuts and tricks that they use to maintain their mental equilibrium and rise above the fact that "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" is playing loudly in their head or that their neighbor is surrounded by the colors of the rainbow. An interesting read which makes one marvel at the complexities of the brain and how one little "blown fuse" can cause some very strange perceptions.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jeanne

    I wanted to like Unthinkable, as I love books that make me think differently about the world and have really enjoyed Oliver Sacks' books. Comparisons are dangerous, especially in this case, as Sacks and Thomson appear to be doing the same thing, but really are not. Sacks was a brilliant neurologist writing insightfully about a variety of neurological disorders and what this means in terms of the brain's function. He was insatiably curious, so even his observations in modern-day example. Maybe thr I wanted to like Unthinkable, as I love books that make me think differently about the world and have really enjoyed Oliver Sacks' books. Comparisons are dangerous, especially in this case, as Sacks and Thomson appear to be doing the same thing, but really are not. Sacks was a brilliant neurologist writing insightfully about a variety of neurological disorders and what this means in terms of the brain's function. He was insatiably curious, so even his observations in modern-day example. Maybe three things were happening: strong initial (innate) startle responses that were encouraged by repetition and with laughter. I don't think the Jumping Frenchmen have a neurological disorder but a startle reflex that is more extreme than typical. This reflex was strengthened through classical conditioning (connecting the startle reflex with a range of external stimuli), then further reinforced through operant conditioning (by laughter and attention). Thomson came close to this description, but without the label, the Jumping Frenchmen's behavior is less understandable and more bizarre. If Thomson had taken this a step further and labeled this "neurological disorder" as a more extreme version of normal behavior – as she came close to saying about some of the synaesthesias, for example, I think she would have had a more interesting, parsimonious, and supportable thesis. Some GR reviewers have loved Unthinkable, while others responded like me. If you haven't read Sacks or if you find his writing challenging, but enjoy science reporting, you will likely enjoy this book. From Thomson's university professor: “if the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” (p. 250)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Liza Fireman

    I really liked that one. Brains are so intriguing, so interesting, so important. The stories that were mentioned in this book are outstanding one by one, and I enjoyed and was interested throughout the whole book. The first part is talking about people with exceptional memory. And maybe that was the best start for me as a person that has a really great memory as well. Later, the reader is introduced to a vast amount of syndromes such as people that cannot navigate and are consonantly lost, or peo I really liked that one. Brains are so intriguing, so interesting, so important. The stories that were mentioned in this book are outstanding one by one, and I enjoyed and was interested throughout the whole book. The first part is talking about people with exceptional memory. And maybe that was the best start for me as a person that has a really great memory as well. Later, the reader is introduced to a vast amount of syndromes such as people that cannot navigate and are consonantly lost, or people that hear tunes in their ears, some of them all the time. These people tend not to tell other about their conditions, since they know that "it is not normal", and that hearing sounds most of the time is diagnosed as mental illness. One of my top favorite was the part on people that feel dead. It is quite outstanding to look at what they feel as well as their vital symptoms. If you want to find out that every human is easily hallucinating and you are interested in reading more about our complex brain you might really like this one. I highly recommend. 5 stars.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Camelia Rose

    3.5 star round up. I read science books, books about medicine, psychology and neuroscience. Helen Thomson is a science journalist with degrees in Neuroscience and Science Communication. In Unthinkable, she sets out to write about patients with rare neurological conditions. Her focus is not these conditions, but the people who have them. Within nine (ten if you count the closing chapter) such conditions, some are obvious disorders (schizophrenia, Cotard's syndrome), some are not (various types of 3.5 star round up. I read science books, books about medicine, psychology and neuroscience. Helen Thomson is a science journalist with degrees in Neuroscience and Science Communication. In Unthinkable, she sets out to write about patients with rare neurological conditions. Her focus is not these conditions, but the people who have them. Within nine (ten if you count the closing chapter) such conditions, some are obvious disorders (schizophrenia, Cotard's syndrome), some are not (various types of synesthesia), some are in-between. According to the author, patients with Cotard's syndrome have lower activities in the Default Mode Network of their brain, which is an indicator of their condition. It reminds me something else I've read: mindfullness meditation can quiet down one's Default Mode Network and it's kind of positive outcome associated with reduced anxiety! Human brains are fascinating! I find the book easy to read and entertaining. Like my book friend Nancy points out, it's a kind of "Oliver Sacks Lite". The writing is somewhat bland if you consider the author intends to write about people's life. Perhaps over time, she will truly become my next favorite writer in neuroscience.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette

    I truly don't know what I expected with this book. But it sure was some content with a more scientific and specific study core. I might have given it a 3 star if the tone had not been as "off" as I felt it to be. She's Miss Friendly "fellow well met" kind of writer who lets you know every nuance or conversational tidbit during the exchanges with some of these witnesses, or people who have studied or been medical personnel to the witnesses or cases cited. It's me and not the book. But even so, fro I truly don't know what I expected with this book. But it sure was some content with a more scientific and specific study core. I might have given it a 3 star if the tone had not been as "off" as I felt it to be. She's Miss Friendly "fellow well met" kind of writer who lets you know every nuance or conversational tidbit during the exchanges with some of these witnesses, or people who have studied or been medical personnel to the witnesses or cases cited. It's me and not the book. But even so, from a scientific perspective- the conversational tangents and asides are, IMHO, way too much of the resultant / finished copy. Because I've had some years of tracking and cognitive psychology work in memory and other brain system related trials, I wanted to know far more than "the thalamus" or "the hippocampus" etc. Just not my speed. It will be appreciated far more the less you know about the brain and the more you prefer light conversational whimsy.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jo

    Thomson travels the world meeting various people with 'strange' brains. She meets a man who thought he was dead, a woman who can get lost in her own house and a man who believes he turns into a tiger. For anybody interested in the workings of the brain, especially when it goes awry, this is a must-read. I found it absolutely fascinating. Thomson travels the world meeting various people with 'strange' brains. She meets a man who thought he was dead, a woman who can get lost in her own house and a man who believes he turns into a tiger. For anybody interested in the workings of the brain, especially when it goes awry, this is a must-read. I found it absolutely fascinating.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    Up until the final chapter this trodded familiar territory, and what made it valuable wasn't the originality but the author's earnest curiosity and her meetings and interviews with people suffering from the neurological problems she discusses (e.g. lycanthropy). But the final chapter on mirror-touch synaesthesia was fascinating and completely new to me. Joel Salinas, the doctor who can literally feel his patients' pain, also has a book (called Mirror Touch), which I just ordered. Up until the final chapter this trodded familiar territory, and what made it valuable wasn't the originality but the author's earnest curiosity and her meetings and interviews with people suffering from the neurological problems she discusses (e.g. lycanthropy). But the final chapter on mirror-touch synaesthesia was fascinating and completely new to me. Joel Salinas, the doctor who can literally feel his patients' pain, also has a book (called Mirror Touch), which I just ordered.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Mills

    Very interesting and easy to read. Kind of Oliver Sacks Lite. The author tells the personal stories of people with very weird brain impairments or idiosychronies. I'm impressed with the grace and sense of humor many of these people exhibit, in the face of sometimes debilitating problems. The author seems to be very sympathetic and gracious. I'd say 3 1/2 stars, and probably would have rated it higher had it been a little meatier. I read a lotta LOTTA science and this one was very easy to read, w Very interesting and easy to read. Kind of Oliver Sacks Lite. The author tells the personal stories of people with very weird brain impairments or idiosychronies. I'm impressed with the grace and sense of humor many of these people exhibit, in the face of sometimes debilitating problems. The author seems to be very sympathetic and gracious. I'd say 3 1/2 stars, and probably would have rated it higher had it been a little meatier. I read a lotta LOTTA science and this one was very easy to read, which is probably a GOOD thing!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Chung

    For as long as I can remember I've always been fascinated by the human brain. As I grew up I'd have deja vu episodes or feel like I was looking down on myself in whatever situation I was in. I even used to think about what if the reality I am living in now was actually the past. That I was currently an old women and I was thinking about the past (my present) in a very detailed way. No, I wasn't on drugs when I was thinking about these things, but it always made me ponder what is reality? In this For as long as I can remember I've always been fascinated by the human brain. As I grew up I'd have deja vu episodes or feel like I was looking down on myself in whatever situation I was in. I even used to think about what if the reality I am living in now was actually the past. That I was currently an old women and I was thinking about the past (my present) in a very detailed way. No, I wasn't on drugs when I was thinking about these things, but it always made me ponder what is reality? In this book Unthinkable, "our reality is merely a controlled hallucination". This is quoted by Anil Seth, a cognitive and computational neuroscientist at the University of Sussex. There are many people that study the mind and how it works. Specialists for every inch of the two hemispheres and we are still learning. I found this book amazing. Each chapter just got more and more interesting and I highly recommend. 5 stars all around. Within the book there are 9 chapters, titled for the main person Helen Thomson interviewed for this book. We have Bob, who has the ability to remember mundane details of his past on any given day. He can tell you what he had for breakfast when he was 5 on March 12. He can tell you what he was wearing, the weather outside and many trivial things. He is not the only one to do this. Many people have this ability. Some are savants like Flo and Kay, twins from the United States. They have Autism. While others are just typical average people that just so happen to have this talent. There are three types of memory: sensory, short-term and long-term. The most important of the three is the long-term "a seemingly limitless warehouse for storing recollections for the long haul". Luis Bunuel states "Life without memory is no life at all... our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing." Sharon is a woman who is permanently lost. There is something about her internal compass that is off. Everyone has the ability to have a internal map. This map lets us know the direction to the kitchen in our own home or how to get to the grocery store in our own neighborhood. For Sharon and others like her...she is missing this piece of her brain. She can be standing in her kitchen and turn around to get something from the fridge and all of a sudden her world is transformed into a strange unfamiliar place. To combat this Sharon has learned to spin in a circle a few times, for whatever reason this combats the confusion and she is able to get on with the rest of her day. This doesn't work for others like her and they have to find landmarks to keep them on the right track. For these people they feel like everyday is the "first day" in a new place. Ruben is our third chapter and he can see auras not in the mystical sense like a fortune teller, but in a more relevant way. This is kind of like an intuition or gut feeling. When he looks at people he perceives colors. "Everyone has a distinctive color, which changes with time depending on how I know that person, or the main attributes of the person. It's not a hallucination, not something visually happening in front of you, but at the same time I'm aware that it's there. I can't avoid seeing it." People who see colors or numbers in their minds eye are called a synesthete or having synesthesia. Which is a neurological condition where information stimulates several senses at once. Vladimir Nabokov was a synesthete. In his autobiography, he wrote..."The long a of the English alphabet... has f or me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony..." 4 percent of the population has this harmless trait where numbers have colors and music can be perceived with particular shapes. The downside to having synesthesia is that many considered it to be witchcraft, schizophrenia or a sign you were a drug addict. Ruben doesn't always have an explanation for why certain colors are associated with people. Sometimes, "...It doesn't have anything to do with emotions It's more to do with their identity and how their voice sounds." Tommy switches personalities is the next chapter. Growing up in Liverpool as a poor Irish family, Tommy had to be tough to overcome the bullying he faced in school which caused him to be angry as an adult. Tommy struggled with aggression and often drank and took hard drugs, but he could have really good days were he was sweet and everything was grand. Personality traits are are broken down into what scientists call the "Big Five", Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. These traits are being studied today and the big question is... do we express these traits because of our genes or our environment? Jim Lewis and Jim Springer are a good example of this study. They are twin males who were separated at birth. They were both adopted by different people in different walks of life and in different places. However, when they found each other 39 years later...they found many similarities (trait wise) among them. Is this just a coincidence? This was the catalyst for the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart that was initiated in 1979. These studies suggest that our genes may predispose us to certain paths, but our personalities are shaped by our environment over a lifetime. This can change sometimes overnight however if the patient has a tumor or a brain injury. In Tommy's case he experienced a subarachnoid hemorrhage due to a ruptured aneurysm. "As soon as I woke up, I knew immediately that something was different, my mind had changed totally and dramatically." This dramatic transformation for Tommy was emotional. He saw beauty in everything. "I could taste the femininity inside of me." His brain was like an explosion of information and senses that he didn't see or feel before. "Everything I look at sparks six memories or emotions or smells, they're each spinning in my mind...I'm constantly bombarded with patterns and details and information and faces. It's like walking inside a corridor of endless, endless information." Tommy's new behavior suggests that his brain has stopped filtering the irrelevant stimuli that usually gets screened out of our conscious awareness. Sylvia's chapter deals with hallucinations. Jean-Etienne Esquirol a French psychiatrist was the first to characterize a hallucination, which is when something experienced by someone who "has a thorough conviction of the perception of a sensation, when a non-external object, suited to excite this sensation, has impressed upon his senses." For Sylvia, this hallucination came later in life and in the form of music. Helen's research into hallucinations found that not only are hallucinations common and vital to producing our perception of reality that we are probably hallucinating right now. Sensory loss, even non permanent sensory loss can cause intense hallucinations. In the case of Sylvia, her sensory loss is her hearing. She lost her hearing from an ear infection. When her hallucinations started she had tinnitus. Gradually over weeks the phantom notes she was hearing turned into full blown music. She tries to ignore it, but sometimes it's so loud that all she can do is try to think of something else as a distraction. "I've never had quiet since". She was worried when words tried to form to go along with the music. She didn't want to be known as having schizophrenia so "I did my utmost to prevent that happening." Scientists say that most hallucinations aren't associated with schizophrenia. "The brain doesn't tolerate inactivity, it seems to respond to diminished sensory input by creating autonomous sensations of its own choosing." Just like when amputees have phantom pains from limbs that are no longer there. The brain creates it's own reality without our input. These first 5 chapters are not new to me. I've watched brain documentaries since I was small. Always wanting to learn more about why we are the way we are, and how our minds and bodies work together. What I found really peculiar are the next set of chapters. I won't go into as much detail as I did in the above sections because this review is getting a bit long, but don't think they are less fascinating to me. Matar from India believed he was turning into a tiger. In every period of human history there are tales of turning in to a werewolf. One of the most famous werewolf accounts is of 14 year old Jean Grenier, from Les Landes, France. In the early 17th century he boasted to have eaten more than fifty children. Before the boy could be hung for his crimes he was examined by two doctors and they decided he was suffering from "lycanthropy-induced by an evil spirit, which deceived men's eyes into imagining such things." In modern medicine/science the definition of lycanthropy is the delusion of having turned into an animal and is a mental condition, not mystical in nature. Louise doesn't have lycanthropy but believes she isn't real sometimes. This started at the age of 8 after a bout of illness. "Everything about yourself and everything around you feels alien. You know rationally that it can't have changed, but it's like you're walking around in this world that you recognize but no longer feel. It's like this unshakable sense of detachment from your body and the world. It's like you are watching the world, but are no longer part of it." What Louise is describing is called depersonalization. Those that suffer from this infliction describe it as an emotional numbness and disconnection with themselves and the outside world. Graham, like Matar and Louise suffered from something that just seems in my mind bizarre. He thought he was brain dead. Not in medical terms of being a "vegetable or in a vegetative state", but in the sense that he didn't have a brain at all. Some others like Graham think or know for a fact that they are dead. They can not be convinced otherwise. There is no reasoning with them. In all cases however these feelings of "waking up dead" disappear, leaving those like Graham wondering why they felt that way in the first place. This delusion of death is known as Cotard syndrome or the waking corpse disorder. This disorder doesn't stop with the persons self. Sometimes like Graham it's just a limb that they truly believe is gone. In one case a women thought she no longer had a throat, stomach or blood. With all cases however, if they found out they were missing something from themselves then they must be dead and would go about life in that fashion. Not eating for instance because if you are dead or you do not have a stomach than there is no reason to eat. The final chapter is about Joel Salinas who feels others pain. More than that though he feels whatever he sees. If someone laughs he feels himself laugh. Not outside of himself, but inside his mind. If he sees two people hugging he feels those feelings of warmth, love and comfort. He can sense on his physical body what he sees. If you were to touch your cheek, he would feel that same sensation on his cheek. This condition is called mirror-touch synesthesia. It differs from other kinds of synesthesia because it has more visceral results. We all have this mirror-touch neuron system, but our brains check to see if the tactile receptors in our skin are being stimulated and veto the signals if they find that there is no stimulation. The people who are mirror-touch synesthetes are found to have less brain matter in their temporoparietal junction, which is the area of the brain that helps us distinguish the self from others. When a women with this condition had her brain scanned it showed that her mirror neuron system was much more active than in other people of her age. With Joel this condition could be good or bad. He chose to become a doctor as his career and finds it can be helpful to his patients because he literally can feel what they are going through. He does find it hard sometimes as well of course cutting into someone and feeling that kind of pain is also something he has to overcome. Helen leaves us with this quote, "when we smile at someone, we leave a tiny imprint on that person's brain. Somewhere, deep within their motor cortex, their brain is smiling back. I found this book informative. Although I was familiar with the first half of these conditions due to my own curiosity into the human brain, the last several made me realize we are all so unique and our brains are such wonders. If you feel the same way I do about the brain and the ways it functions, I'd highly recommend reading this one. Such a great find.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Essam Munir

    Some want to read it expecting one of Oliver Sacks books, but this is not Sacks! The stories were good and for those who haven't read so much neurological stories, then they will find it quite interesting. Her narrative was good and engaging and she presented some of the "routinely- mentioned" cases in a novel way. Good, smooth book. Some want to read it expecting one of Oliver Sacks books, but this is not Sacks! The stories were good and for those who haven't read so much neurological stories, then they will find it quite interesting. Her narrative was good and engaging and she presented some of the "routinely- mentioned" cases in a novel way. Good, smooth book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ann-Marie

    If you are fascinated by our interesting brains, if you have wondered as I did when I was a child whether we see colors differently, what it is like to be aware of our existence, if others observed the world the same way you do (they don't), you will enjoy reading this book. I learned so much about people who experience the world in ways many of us cannot imagine. I even discovered some wonderful things about myself. I am not over imaginative, or a daydream for thinking numbers have colors and If you are fascinated by our interesting brains, if you have wondered as I did when I was a child whether we see colors differently, what it is like to be aware of our existence, if others observed the world the same way you do (they don't), you will enjoy reading this book. I learned so much about people who experience the world in ways many of us cannot imagine. I even discovered some wonderful things about myself. I am not over imaginative, or a daydream for thinking numbers have colors and personalities that affect how they interact with each other. I have a form of synesthesia. How exciting! There are people who think they are dead. Can you imagine? Do you want to imagine? If you do, this book is a good, scientific place to start.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Yumiko Hansen

    “Our brain is a mystery that has not yet revealed the extent of the unimaginable lands it is capable producing. And when it does, it will be the most romantic story of all.” The people who future in this book are extraordinary. Award-winning science writer Helen Thomson unlocks the biggest mysteries of the human brain by examining nine extraordinary cases. She has spent years travelling the world, tracking down incredibly rare brain disorders. Each story was so fascinating that I had a hard time pu “Our brain is a mystery that has not yet revealed the extent of the unimaginable lands it is capable producing. And when it does, it will be the most romantic story of all.” The people who future in this book are extraordinary. Award-winning science writer Helen Thomson unlocks the biggest mysteries of the human brain by examining nine extraordinary cases. She has spent years travelling the world, tracking down incredibly rare brain disorders. Each story was so fascinating that I had a hard time putting down!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    Unthinkable is a journey through some non-neurotypical brains. It’s a bit of a mix, actually; some of them have neurological conditions, while others are more psychiatric, and others straddle the border. In part, it illustrates the difficulty in drawing a line between the two. Most of the cases in this book weren’t new to me (or at least, I’d read about similar ones before), although Thomson approaches each person with sympathy and a determination to try and understand them and how they think. Th Unthinkable is a journey through some non-neurotypical brains. It’s a bit of a mix, actually; some of them have neurological conditions, while others are more psychiatric, and others straddle the border. In part, it illustrates the difficulty in drawing a line between the two. Most of the cases in this book weren’t new to me (or at least, I’d read about similar ones before), although Thomson approaches each person with sympathy and a determination to try and understand them and how they think. They’re still interesting stories, even though they’re not surprises to me, and there were some details I wasn’t aware of — for instance, the man who believed he was dead was found to have very little brain activity, when scanned, more like someone in a coma than someone alive and walking around. It’s silly, but I did have to laugh when Thomson mentioned someone “watching manga”. Yikes.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ginny

    "If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't." Our brains are fascinating. In 'Unthinkable' Helen Thomson travels the world tracking down people with incredibly rare brain disorders - from the man who thinks he's a tiger, to the doctor who can physically feel the pain of his patients. From these extraordinary cases, Thomson aims to teach us more about our own brains and the mechanisms that control our personality, emotions, creativity and consci "If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't." Our brains are fascinating. In 'Unthinkable' Helen Thomson travels the world tracking down people with incredibly rare brain disorders - from the man who thinks he's a tiger, to the doctor who can physically feel the pain of his patients. From these extraordinary cases, Thomson aims to teach us more about our own brains and the mechanisms that control our personality, emotions, creativity and consciousness itself. A fair amount of the research and studies Thomson uses throughout the book I was already aware of from studying and teaching Psychology (e.g. Sperry's split-brain research, the case of Phineas Gage), but there was also a lot of really interesting ideas I was unaware of, for example: 1. Introverts salivate more than extroverts, and they also need higher doses of anaesthetic to knock them out- due to higher levels of arousal. 2. Hallucinations are not always due to mental illness. They can begin to occur when one of the senses fail- such as in the case of Sylvia who began to hear music in her head after she became deaf, or the author's grandmother, who began to see Victorian ghosts after she developed cataracts. When deprived of sensory information, the brain 'estimates' what should be there. 3. Phantom limb pain can be fixed by placing a mirror between the remaining limb and the phantom limb- this tricks the brain into thinking the limb is still there, and moving it or clenching and unclenching, can settle the pain or even make the phantom limb disappear altogether. 4. Anyone can experience synaesthesia, by training the brain- for example, you can download e-books in which certain letters appear in specific colours. Before long, you should start seeing those letters appear in colour elsewhere in the world. (I want to try this) 5. For people who have high empathy levels, emotional contagion and burn-out can be a problem (I know I've definitely experienced this in therapy work- working with other peoples emotions can be exhausting). Compassion training can help. Concentrating on compassion- extending warmth and caring feelings to those around you, rather than empathy, can protect you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Overall, Unthinkable was an enjoyable read. The only negative, was that this felt very scientific and emotionless- I would've enjoyed this more had Helen Thomson delved a little deeper and really gotten to know the nine people with extraordinary brains she was meeting and interviewing. I wanted to know them better.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

    Utterly fascinating and wonderfully readable. Was given it for Christmas and that evening I opened to the first page, intending just to take a quick glance, and was immediately engrossed in these well-written, real-life stories of people who experience the world in incredibly unusual and often amazing, sometimes terrifying, always fascinating ways. I couldn’t put it down! The exact same thing happened to my boyfriend when he glanced through it too and became absorbed in the writing immediately. Utterly fascinating and wonderfully readable. Was given it for Christmas and that evening I opened to the first page, intending just to take a quick glance, and was immediately engrossed in these well-written, real-life stories of people who experience the world in incredibly unusual and often amazing, sometimes terrifying, always fascinating ways. I couldn’t put it down! The exact same thing happened to my boyfriend when he glanced through it too and became absorbed in the writing immediately. From the man who thinks he is a tiger, to the women who is forever lost & can’t navigate round her own kitchen, to the doctor who can literally feel others people’s pain, every single story was so interesting and written with emotional engagement and sensitivity. Really eye-opening as to the kaleidoscopic nature of human experience. A wonderful read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    As promised on the cover, this book takes a look at 9 different types of unusual conditions that can be present in our brain. These are not scientific accounts but more interviews with the individuals who display these conditions and the effect the conditions have on their lives. Readers will be introduced to a man who believes that he is dead, a woman who is unable to recognize locations very familiar to her like her home or street, and a man who has an extreme form of synesthesia. Interesting As promised on the cover, this book takes a look at 9 different types of unusual conditions that can be present in our brain. These are not scientific accounts but more interviews with the individuals who display these conditions and the effect the conditions have on their lives. Readers will be introduced to a man who believes that he is dead, a woman who is unable to recognize locations very familiar to her like her home or street, and a man who has an extreme form of synesthesia. Interesting and entertaining reading.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jennopenny

    I love neuroscience and found this book to be so interesting. Reading about people with strange or extraordinary brains is great. I would really recommend it if you want to read about people who turns into a tigers, about being constantly lost and feeling other peoples emotions and much more. Sometimes it hurt my brain because I'm not very sciencey but really good. If you know good neuroscience books, that aren't too sciencey, please recommend them to me. (I have read and will read more by Oliver I love neuroscience and found this book to be so interesting. Reading about people with strange or extraordinary brains is great. I would really recommend it if you want to read about people who turns into a tigers, about being constantly lost and feeling other peoples emotions and much more. Sometimes it hurt my brain because I'm not very sciencey but really good. If you know good neuroscience books, that aren't too sciencey, please recommend them to me. (I have read and will read more by Oliver Sacks)

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jubin Kuriakose

    This is an eye opener to the notion of ones own mind / brain. I especially enjoyed the part where author explains how the brain makes prediction and weighs them against the external inputs from the sensory organs and how mental illness is mostly about our brain trying to cope with defects of nerves and organs in the body. Definitely humbling to know that we are just a nerve away from being completely irrational to others. You will definitely take more care of your brain after reading this! 👍😀

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sophie Dickins

    A fascinating and well-written book on the many ways our brains can differ and, in some cases, be led astray. A quick read despite the fact that it is full of scientific explanation. My favourite chapter was the last one, about mirror-touch synaesthesia.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Marie

    Brilliant

  25. 4 out of 5

    Renita D'Silva

    Fascinating. Intriguing. Just wonderful!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Renita D'Silva

    Fascinating. Intriguing. Just wonderful!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Saarah Niña

    The brain is a magnificent organ (huge understatement!) We've all marvelled at the human brain, at one time or another, even when it has us do something insanely ridiculous. I'm reminded of the time I forgot that we had a new family car, and spent ten or so minutes looking for the one we had sold the month before. So distracted I had been in getting out of the rain, that the new car had slipped my mind completely. That, and I was drenched. Oh, how the mind works! Lucky for us, Helen Thomson brings The brain is a magnificent organ (huge understatement!) We've all marvelled at the human brain, at one time or another, even when it has us do something insanely ridiculous. I'm reminded of the time I forgot that we had a new family car, and spent ten or so minutes looking for the one we had sold the month before. So distracted I had been in getting out of the rain, that the new car had slipped my mind completely. That, and I was drenched. Oh, how the mind works! Lucky for us, Helen Thomson brings together far more intriguing stories of individuals and how their extraordinary brains work. We all hear people discuss how not everyone sees the world through the same lens as us, we learnt this with the blue and black or white and gold dress in 2015 which Thomson, herself, references. Though, we don't tend to think beyond this. The idea that we are all considerably different, some more than others, can be entirely inconceivable. Until now. Thomson's recordings of the many real life stories, rather more personal case studies, can shift your perspective of the world. Individuals who can't forget anything, or have been fooled by their brains to believe they are an animal, people whose personality deserts them to the extent they may as well be a stranger, amongst many others. One of the more intriguing, for me, was the brain that fooled a man to believe he was dead simply because it was the most reasonable explanation for his new way of seeing the world. Of course, then there was the man who possessed a rare variant of synaesthesia called mirror-touch synaesthesia which was on a whole new level of 'astonishingly amazing'. I suppose what I enjoyed the most about this book was how powerfully Thomson articulated the experiences of the individuals she had read about or had personally met. The interviews were remarkably natural. It was as though you were sharing a conversation with the author about all the extraordinary individuals she had met on her travels, venturing from the UK, across Europe, to America, to the Middle East. Having gone into reading this book with some standard knowledge of psychology, I was familiar with some of the older cases mentioned. But absolutely blown away by the brains of these people, whose cases have not yet made into psychology textbooks. You may read this book and believe that those who possess such skilled minds are modern day superheroes. Thomson lets us entertain those ideas but also gradually disuades the reader of such notions. A mind that can remember every moment can be exhausting, debilitating, it can be a prison. That, and we have more in common than we might think. Helen Thomson writes as a science journalist with a degree in neuroscience, with an understandable fondess for the old, more descriptively written cases of patients. She successfully makes the individuals behind the conditions, more human. They become more than whatever it's that makes them rather exceptional. I appreciated her enthusiasm for the subject which was clear in her writing, and I welcomed her delightful vision that all our brains are connected in some unfathomable way. As well as how all our brains possess the ability to be phenomenal. "Nothing is Unthinkable", as Thomson writes. I received this book through Netgalley.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sergey Grinev

    You should know about your brain! “We are our brains!”*Thomson H.

  29. 5 out of 5

    David Ward

    Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World's Strangest Brains by Helen Thomson (Harper Collins 2018) (612.82). This is one truly fascinating book about the brain that delivers the goods as promised. This volume by Helen Thomson is a survey of the brains of the true outliers among our fellow human beings. In the context of this book, the term “outliers” doesn't refer to a group of individuals who can remember better or imagine better than the majority of the populace. Rather, Helen T Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World's Strangest Brains by Helen Thomson (Harper Collins 2018) (612.82). This is one truly fascinating book about the brain that delivers the goods as promised. This volume by Helen Thomson is a survey of the brains of the true outliers among our fellow human beings. In the context of this book, the term “outliers” doesn't refer to a group of individuals who can remember better or imagine better than the majority of the populace. Rather, Helen Thomson has written here about those exceedingly rare individuals whose brains function differently from anyone else's. For instance, we meet a man who is convinced that he is dead, and another who is absolutely convinced that his brain has been removed. (How he could function without a brain was just as much a puzzle to the patient as it was to the doctors.) We meet a man who has an absolutely unshakeable belief that he is a tiger. We meet a patient who wanted so badly to have his leg amputated that he covered it in dry ice until he succeeded in damaging it badly enough that it DID have to be removed. We are introduced to a physician who actually physically experiences whatever pain or emotions his patients exhibit. Author Helen Thomson not only introduces these strange characters, she also discusses the current medical understanding as to what mechanisms cause these bizarre thoughts. Even more amazingly, Thomson pinpoints for her readers the region of the brain whose overactivity or lack of activity has lead to such extreme examples of brain function. It's a great relief to read a book about mental illness that doesn't rapidly devolve into a recitation and debate about the efficacy of the psychiatric medications currently in vogue. After reading this volume, it is obvious that author Helen Thomson knows this subject like the back of her hand. Only an author who knows her subject cold could do such a masterful job of explaining the significance of such esoteric material in a fashion that a even a layman like me can grasp. My rating: 7.5/10, finished 6/20/19.

  30. 4 out of 5

    K. Lincoln

    Thomson has an engaging way of presenting kind of narrative summaries of neurological research framed by her travels to meet different people whose brains are wired in non-mainstream ways. Her research really focuses on sense of self: people who are synthesthetes, people with very active mirror-nuerons, people who turn into tigers, and people who are lost within their own houses. The science in presented in easy-to-read chunks and never delved beyond surface level explanations of the research. I Thomson has an engaging way of presenting kind of narrative summaries of neurological research framed by her travels to meet different people whose brains are wired in non-mainstream ways. Her research really focuses on sense of self: people who are synthesthetes, people with very active mirror-nuerons, people who turn into tigers, and people who are lost within their own houses. The science in presented in easy-to-read chunks and never delved beyond surface level explanations of the research. I wished there had been a bit more science, but the book as it is is pretty easy to digest for all levels. Some of the chapters end with little experiments Thomson suggests to find out things like if you're extroverted or introverted or are able to build memory palaces, etc. Some of them struck me as possibly unlikely to help ye olde regular person in terms of providing accurate results, but they were fun to read and speculate. What struck me personally as the most interesting were the explanations of certain conditions as our brain's way of interpreting short-circuited signals somewhere. For instance, Louise, in the book, suffers from episodes of depersonalization, where she feels numb and distanced from everything in her life. The book makes the case that part of our sense of self is based not on actual observation of our own limbs' movements and touching of objects, etc, but that our brain actually makes predictions of position of limb and sensation, and then confirms the actual accompanying sensations that occur. When there's something wrong with connection between the part of the brain that predicts and the part of the brain that confirms....our brains "make up a story" for that short-circuit...i.e. we are dead or its happening to someone else...or in another case it might lead to hallucinations when the brain attempts to make sense of a sensation it can't attribute to our own body. Super fascinating stuff. I did get a bit jealous of all the flying around the world Thomson got to do as a journalist to interview different patients!

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