Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience (Book Review)

On May 2, 2015


Below you can read the book review of Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience (by Michael S. Gazzaniga, published in 2015) that I wrote for publication for the 12th issue of Neuromarketing Theory & Practice Magazine (published by Neuromarketing Science & Business Association in May 2015).
Michael S. Gazzaniga is one of the fathers of cognitive neuroscience and an internationally recognized neuroscientist. In his latest book Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, he offers us a detailed overview of his research life and work on the most known couple in neuroscience: left brain and right brain. His great contribution in the history of neuroscience is the revolutionary split-brain theory, which states that the right and left hemispheres of the brain can act independently from each other. Steven Pinker notes in the foreword that “Mike Gazzaniga is known for his monumental discoveries and for midwifing the field of cognitive neuroscience, but he is also known for showing that science is compatible with all the other good things in life“.
From this memoir of a leading neuroscience researcher I enjoyed that the book highlights not only the discoveries, but also the contribution of the collaborators with which the author has tied friendships. This scientific journey presents the change of focus of the author from split brain research on animals to the study of epileptic patients who went under surgery to control intractable seizures. From this, it was only a step until he could describe his stunning realization that his first human subject’s “right brain completed an act of which his own left hemisphere had no knowledge“. Actually, two separate minds were functioning in the same body, and this development in knowledge is the basis of understanding how normal brains use parallel processes in order to process information and make decisions.
Tales from Both Sides of the Brain is a 448 pages scientific autobiography that tells the story of the author’s life in science and points out the peak experiences in his life, such as: his ambitious character as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, his membership of “Animal House” fraternity, his graduate student life at California Institute of Technology, the first experiments he conducted or how the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience was born. The book also highlights his split-brain patients (study participants with disconnecting left and right hemisphere) and their collaboration, but also the brilliant researchers that participated in research are multiple times appreciated in the book, as Gazzaniga understands that they are the ones that allowed the researcher get to his discoveries. The author’s life has been sprinkled with “incredible characters, some famous; many great scientists; and some captivating split-brain patients. They all played a part in the evolution of my understanding of the overriding question: How on earth does the brain enable mind?“.
The book focuses on “six split-brain patients who have changed how we think about how the brain carries out its work“, according to the author, as these research subjects are the center of his scientific life. Michael S. Gazzaniga changed the field on brain research with his theory that originated with an experiment detailed in the book where he observed that the right brain of a study participant completed an act of which his own left hemisphere had no knowledge. The answer for this continues to be the focus of his current research and after 50 years of science dedicated to searching for the brain’s Morse code, the author considers that “humans may have discovered some of the constraints on the thought processes, but we have not yet been able to tell the full story“.
Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience is written in an entertaining and accessible style, using everyday language to describe complex processes, and although the main focus is on the origins of split-brain research and investigating if each hemisphere of the brain could learn independently from the other, it reveals how science is done: with collaboration, information sharing, ups and downs, ambition and the struggle for finding answers. I highly recommend this book not only to the people with an interest in neuroscience, but also to anyone involved in research, as it brings a human touch to science and inspiration to the reader.

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