I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, per se, but one of my goals for 2009 has been to downsize the towering pile of unread books in my office. This formation is caused by the simple fact that it’s so much easier and faster to acquire books than it is to read them. Why can’t anyone do something about this? Where are the books in pill form we’ve all been waiting for?

More or less at random, I began this program by cracking open the irresistably titled The Mystery of the Mind, by the equally well-named Wilder Penfield. I don’t remember exactly when I added this to the collection, but it was some years ago. I’ve always been interested in the brain as a subject, and a blurb on this back of this book promised that Penfield’s “lucid writing and depth can be appreciated by the lay public.”

Maybe so, but unfortunately I found that this book went pretty much over my head. I got the part at the beginning, where he asks whether the brain and the mind are one thing or two. I got the part at the end where he says that we can’t say for sure, but it seems more likely that they are two. In between it was hard for me to follow.

I do want to share with you the following passage, because it seems to say something about how the brain works, and also because it has a hint of poetry to it.

In the course of surgical treatment of patients suffering from temporal lobe seizures (epileptic seizures that are caused by a discharge that originates in that lobe), we stumbled upon the fact that electrical stimulation of the interpretive areas of the cortex occasionally produces what Hughlings Jackson had called “dreamy states” or “psychical seizures.” Sometimes the patient informed us that that we had produced one of his “dreamy states” and we accepted this as evidence that we were close to the cause of his seizures. It was evident at once that these were not dreams. They were electrical activations of the sequential record of consciousness, a record that had been laid down during the patient’s earlier experience. The patient “re-lived” all that he had been aware of in that earlier period of time as in a moving-picture “flashback.”

On the first occasion when one of these “flashbacks” was reported to me by a conscious patient (1933), I was incredulous. On each subsequent occasion, I marvelled. For example, when a mother told me she was suddenly aware, as my electrode touched the cortex, of being in her kitchen listening to the voice of her little boy who was playing outside in the yard. She was aware of the neighborhood noises, such as passing motor cars, that might mean danger to him.

A young man stated that he was sitting at a baseball game in a small town and watching a little boy crawl under the fence to join the audience. Another was in a concert hall listening to music. “An orchestration,” he explained. He could hear the different instruments. All these were unimportant events, but recalled with complete detail.

D.F. could hear instruments playing a melody. I re-stimulated the same point thirty times (!) trying to mislead her, and dictated each response to a stenographer. Each time I re-stimulated, she heard the melody again. It began at the same place and went on from chorus to verse. When she hummed an accompaniment to the music, the tempo was what would have been expected.