Neurophenomenology: 3 books in quick review

There are plenty of people who write about their life experiences through a first-person account of their neurologically diagnosed conditions. While they might not call themselves neurophenomenologists or neuroanthropologists, they offer us insightful texts to reflect upon. The following post is a brief pointer to three engaging and well-written books that combine data from the neurosciences with personal experience and thoughtful introspection:
                   My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor 
                   Born on a Blue Day
by Daniel Tammet 
                   Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens
by Patricia Duffy

My stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (2009) Plume.

When Jill Bolte Taylor experienced a stroke, she had a thought that probably doesn’t go through the head of most stroke victims.
“In that moment I knew. Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!” (Taylor 2009:44).

From the beginning of chapter two, it is clear that Taylor has a sense of the phenomenological or anthropological somewhere in the subconscious of her writing.

“For any two of us to communicate with one another, we must share a certain amount of common reality” (Taylor 2009:9).

Taylor is a trained neuroanatomist who writes about her experience and recovery from a stroke buffered by the relevant anatomical and physiological information about the human brain. Her account of her recovery is deeply fascinating with great import for our understanding of brain insult and rehabilitation. One observation I found particularly interestingly was when Taylor touches on the ongoing interactions that occur between the environment and the brain.

“In the case of phone numbers, I generally memorized the pattern as it dialed on a touch-tone keypad. Privately, I always wondered how I would have survived in a world of rotary telephones where such schematic ploys would have been much more challenging!” (Taylor 2009:54).

She also offered a first-hand account of scaffolding in the process of rehabilation :

“My successful recovery was completely dependent on my ability to break every task down into smaller and simpler steps of action” (Taylor 2009:125).

For neuroanthropology, I find the book useful directly and on a meta-level. Taylor heavily subscribes to formulaic descriptions of left-brain and right brain activity and I found it particularly intriguing to see how she used this understanding to shape her recovery. She selectively chose skills and abilities she wanted to re-learn and had a deep awareness of which abilities she did not wish to practice. Perhaps people with healthy brains could learn from this model too. The book somewhat errs on the side of new age literature, but it makes me wonder if this is because new age spirituality and literature provides more tools for coping self-efficacy than strict biomedical practices. Recovery, like all parts of life, can be an opportunistic endeavour and Taylor chose to bring positivity into the life of her brain cells. There’s something to be said about that and I commend her warm-heartedly on an inspiring recovery and a fantastic book.

For clinicians, theorists, patients and the people close to them, I give this book four and a half neurons:
Full neuronFull neuronFull neuronFull neuronHalf Neuron


Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

One thing that strikes me about this book are the accounts of the patience, understanding and love shown by Daniel’s parents to a child who was brought up in a period where the social support for Aspergers was incredibly poor.

The book is highly accessible to the non-scientist, and deeply insightful for academics looking for perspectives unmarred by the hesitant hypotheses and disciplinary trappings of modern science. The book is richly descriptive with an autobiography that carries a strong thread from chapter to chapter and brings fascinating meaning to the latest data from the neurosciences. Covering language acquisition, mathematical thought, synaesthesia, emotions and social relationships, Tammet provides the reader with a sensual and intimate journey into his life. The development of his emotional and cognitive worlds keeps the reader turning pages. The ending is a touching explanation of Tammet’s own understanding of heaven and love. I would hope that all readers reflect on this ending as deeply as Tammet indicates that he does.

Whether it was psychosomaticism, or some other strange personal quirk, I actually found myself identifying with Daniel Tammet’s story at times. When I offered the book to my partner (who is a psychologist), she read a couple of chapters and without my prompting, she said, “You know, sometimes I think you have aspergers Paul.”
hmmm… As an escape, I am going to refer to Simon Baron-Cohen’s suggestion that Autism is an extreme form of the male-brain.

This book would be best complemented by an account by his life-partner, siblings or parents, but for shere endeavour and descriptive detail, I give this book four neurons

Full neuronFull neuronFull neuronFull neuron


Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens by Patricia Duffy

I read this book several years ago while doing Honours in Psychophysics. Out of all the books that I had read on synaesthesia at the time, this was by far my favourite. Perhaps it was because Patricia Duffy writes about a phenomenon with which she has personal experience. The book is an explorative journey into the ways we perceive the world and into the mind of synaesthetes. For those of us who have ever asked, “How do I know that for me a blue, isn’t a yellow to you?” Then this is a book for you. The book looks to both the neural and the cultural to ask how our perceptions are shaped and influenced. Since Duffy’s book, there have been numerous additions to the literature on Synaesthesia  and it is a wonderfully engaging field with data coming from all fields of enquiry; from philosophy to neuroscience, psychology to anthropology, phenomenology to linguistics, and mathematics to the creative arts. Whatever your entry-point, Duffy’s words soothe, inspire and inform.

For a light-hearted easy read with an enjoyable splash of neuroscience, I give this book five neurons.

Full neuronFull neuronFull neuronFull neuronFull neuron

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Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

One thought on “Neurophenomenology: 3 books in quick review

  1. I’m simultaneously attracted and annoyed by books like these, I have to admit. I only learned within the last few years that the weird spells I’ve had since I was a kid were down to TLE … and that I show the whole Geschwind spectrum in living color. It explained a lot — why words and numbers aren’t substantially different in my head, why my memory stinks, why I can achieve functional literacy in a foreign language in almost no time (fluency still requires immersion and hence money and free time, neither of which have a lot of), and why mathematics always went down like water. It also explains the annoying stuff like why I need such a vast amount of sleep, suffer diarrhea of the keyboard, and why I’ve got NO fuse to speak of much less a short one.

    I guess I prefer these sorts of books when they are first-person accounts at least. I’d heard about TLE a long time ago, but literally had no clue whatsoever that it had anything to do with me because it was always this sensationalist lurid account of someone who runs outside the house with no clothes on and thinks they see God. It wasn’t until I read a first-person account of it by someone who had it — not filtered through some chump journalist who belonged on the Weekly World News — that I realized it was the same thing I had. I was diagnosed afterwards.

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