Monday, 14 November 2011


Everyone loves a whodunnit. And what better territory than figuring out why people behave as they do?

Harold Klawans is a brain detective - trained as a neurologist, he is also a gifted writer. As a storyteller, he draws on decades of clinical experience to inform and challenge.

His book "Strange behaviour - tales of evolutionary biology" is a gem. The 'Aha' moments for me include the following:

- the critical importance of the 'window of learning' (up to the age of about 14) after which the brain 'prunes' its own pathways, abandoning those it reckons are superfluous. If you don't acquire language by that age, you will never acquire proficiency thereafter. Similarly, it is vastly easier to acquire a second language (or third or fourth) or a motor skill (such as playing an instrument) if you start before 14. It's not impossible afterwards, just much harder (having taken up the piano some years ago, I now realise why I had to practice so much!)

- how handedness (right or left) is basically inherited but also acquired. About 90 per cent of people are right handed (left brain dominant) based on an inherited bias; the other 10 per cent inherit a non-bias (thus becoming either right or left handed) or are pathologically left handed (they have a problem in the brain that stops them becoming right handed). (I can see my better half and my son arguing in future that they are neurologically non-biased. . .)

- how symptoms of Parkinson's Disease manifest in related but separate conditions. Klawans is especially good at explaining the process of differential diagnosis (a skill, based on my experience, evident only in the best doctors).

- why are brains are simply not designed to read subtitles while watching a movie (two very different parts of the brain required, apparently)

- how literacy changes the brain (he describes a case where a neurologist diagnosed severe neurological damage but Klawans' examination concluded the opposite. This has to do with the way oral cultures, with no knowledge or use of writing, handle information and knowledge completely differently from those where literacy, especially writing, is deeply embedded. The first neurologist failed to take into account the illiteracy of his patient)

- how identifying an unbalanced diet (in this case excessive consumption of leafy vegetables!) explained why a rare recessive gene triggered Refsum's disease (I never heard of it either!). Brings a new perspective to "Eat your greens!"

- how the development of CJD was identified (particularly from insights into a disease called kuru in Papua New Guinea (due to cannibalism)).

Klawans is the author of six other non fiction books (I can recommend them all!)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

No comments:

Post a Comment