Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brainby Dennis Cass
Infiltrating the world of neuroscience, Dennis Cass offers up his own brain to "research," subjecting his mind and body to electric shocks, mind-numbing attention experiments, cigarettes, stress tests of his own devising, and the comedy of Bill Maher. Like a slightly off-kilter George Plimpton, Cass, in his daring exploits, reveals the intricacies of fear, attention, stress, reward, and consciousness from the inside out. Along the way, he weaves in the story of his stepfather's manic depression and drug addiction, in addition to his own problems - which are many. Cass attacks the subject of the human brain with wit and candor, turning popular science into something distinctly human. Head Case is an imperative read for anyone who has ever wondered, Why am I who I am?
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Head CaseHow I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain
By Dennis Cass
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Dennis Cass
All right reserved.
I am not a scientist. When I was a boy, I went on field trips to the Seattle Science Center and watched the occasional nature show. I might have even enjoyed a book about dinosaurs. But by the age of twelve, whatever affinity I had for the scientific arts had turned into disinterest mixed with fear. Even though I went to a math-and-science high school, I hid in the English department, while in college I barely survived gut-level astronomy. Then science disappeared from my life for over a decade. Today the "latest findings" means an e-mail from a friend about the discovery of a 900-pound prehistoric guinea pig. Otherwise the sciences bring news that I would rather not hear—stories about deadly rays and faltering ecosystems and genetic betrayal. If science can't provide an easy laugh, then I do my best to avoid it.
If I weren't such a stranger to science, I doubt my idea to learn about my brain would have affected me so profoundly. It was the summer of 2002 and I was at my desk in my home office in Minneapolis, suffering from the worst case of writer's block I had ever experienced. All the office toys and charms that were intended to inspire—the picture my wife, Liz, took of my nakedfeet; my Greek good-luck eye; my Playmobil dragon—instead mocked me with their empty whimsy. My mental frustration was so powerful it manifested itself physically. I had a headache. My vision was blurry. My jaw hurt. Instead of writing, I passed the morning torturing myself with an internal monologue of self-rebuke. I am truly astounded at how much you suck.
Then my brain suddenly offered a simple, clear thought, a question that I heard in my head as clearly as if I had said it out loud:
How can you expect to live by your wits if you have no idea how your wits work?
This thought was accompanied by a positive emotional charge of a magnitude that I hadn't felt before, and haven't felt since. It was as if some kind of orgasmic yes juice were surging through every cell in my body. Centuries ago, the Greek mathematician Archimedes was taking a bath when he suddenly realized he could use water displacement to measure the volume and density of a solid object. He was so moved by his insight that he jumped out of the tub and ran naked down some ancient Greek street shouting, "Eureka!" I have found it! I knew exactly how he felt. After my insight I immediately left my office, went to the corner store, and bought an ice cream sandwich. For the next two days I was so pleased with myself that I did absolutely nothing.
Eventually this question about how my wits worked led me to the science of the human brain. At first my approach was casual. I started poking around the Internet, and what I found astounded me. While I had spent the nineties being angry at bands for selling out, neuroscientists seemed to have been making startling advances in our understanding of how the brain worked. I read about how brain scans might be able to detect potential terrorists, and about research into a neural prosthesis for storing memories, and efforts to make a monkey move a robot arm with his thoughts. Unbeknownst to me, I had been living in the middle of a cognitive revolution.
Once brain science was on my personal radar, it seemed like the entire world was taking part in a Mardi Gras of the human brain. There were brain-centric movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix and Memento. Schoolkids by the thousands were taking part in Brain Awareness Week and writing poems with titles such as "Oh, My Sweet Hippocampus." I started seeing references to brain structures in places as disparate as The New Yorker and the supermarket tabloid First for Women. While shopping for hot sauce, I stumbled across a brand that featured a brain scan on the back label. That settled it. When condiments start offering signs and portents, I listen. The insight became a plan for living: I decided I would learn everything I possibly could about my brain.
But was this a good idea? Was the aha! moment a good indicator of a quality thought? Anecdotally it seemed that way. We owe the discovery of the ring structure of the chemical benzene, a prototype of the theory of evolution, and the theme of a symphony to insight. The fact that I had my insight in an office chair didn't discount its potential. The aforementioned insights could be credited, respectively, to sleeping, fighting a fever, and unwrapping a piece of cheese.
The science of insight, however, told a more cautious story. Insight sounds glamorous, ripe for a self-help book on how to think like a genius, but insight is only one of the cognitive tools the brain uses to conduct its daily business. "In real life, because you have an insight, it doesn't mean it's right," Mark Jung-Beeman, an insight researcher at Northwestern University's Brain Mapping Group, later told me. "You still have to go back and check your work."
If I had thought more critically about my insight, if I had kept a cooler, more scientific head, I might have answered my question the day I posed it to myself. The answer to "How can you live by your wits if you don't know how your wits work?" is this: It's easy. People do it every day. In the same way you don't need to know how a computer works to send an e-mail, or how an internal-combustion engine works to ride the bus, you don't need to know anything about the mechanics of your brain to live your life. The enthusiasm that can accompany a thought is meaningless: ideas are only as good as the outcomes they produce.
I knew this. I had seen what could happen when enthusiasm ran amok. I not only knew it, I had lived it.
Excerpted from Head Case by Dennis Cass Copyright © 2007 by Dennis Cass. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Dennis Cass has been a journalist for ten years, writing for Harper's, Spin, Mother Jones, and Slate.com. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.
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