You might guess that Helen Thomson, a journalist who studies neuroscience, would be a fan of the late Oliver Sacks. And you’d be right. Like Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Thomson’s Unthinkable features case studies of people who inhabit unimaginable realities, among them a man who believes he is a tiger, a woman who is continually lost and a man who feels the bodily sensations of others as he observes them.
Thomson brings to the project an eye for detail and narrative prowess, and unlike a scientific investigator such as Sacks, she does not seek to study these astonishing minds in clinical settings, but instead in more natural ones. Based in England, Thomson travels thousands of miles to meet her contacts and visit their homes. She asks the kinds of personal questions scientists might avoid. For instance, she queries one subject, who strongly associates people with colors, what color he associates with his mother—and even with Thomson herself.
Yet Thomson’s aim, ultimately, is to shed light on what each case can tell us about our own life experiences, particularly as they are mediated by the three-pound lump of flesh in our heads. How do we find our way around, perceive our bodies and record our memories?
Neuroscience has exploded in the last two decades as imaging technology and a renewed exploration of human cognition have illuminated the inner workings of our minds like never before. Thomson traces the roots of this enterprise and shows how these extraordinary cases relate to ongoing investigations into the nature of perception. Fans of Sacks will enjoy and quickly devour this insightful and very readable book.