BOOK REVIEW | A Portrait of the Brain

Review by Tina Hesman Saey

What you don’t know about the brain could fill a book. That’s true even if you happen to be a brain surgeon or neuroscientist.

Luckily, Zeman, a British neurologist, has painted A Portrait of the Brain in lucid, conversational prose.

Zeman steps us through the brain’s inner workings, starting with the most fundamental element — the atom — and, by chapter, guiding us from there to the gene, to the protein, to the organelle, to the neuron … to the psyche and then even to the anatomy of the soul.

Case studies drawn from Zeman’s practice illustrate exactly what happens to a person when something in the brain goes wrong. His examples include a case of which few neurologists have firsthand knowledge: the story of a man who contracted a brain-wasting disease from eating beef infected with mad cow disease. Studying such unfortunate disruptions in the brains of people and animals gives doctors and scientists more information on how the brain functions normally.

Zeman leads us through the same learning process. He isn’t afraid to show his work, even a potentially fatal mistake he made in one diagnosis.

Passages of poetry, along with uncluttered black–and–white illustrations, enhance each chapter. Zeman also provides suggestions for further reading, which is helpful because his easy-reading book will likely serve as an appetizer for learning fully about what goes on inside people’s minds. A helpful glossary and index sandwich a one-page appendix, which features an illustration (and scale) for each chapter’s subject.


Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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