KArl Deisseroth’s book is so richly adorned with endorsements that I wanted to dislike it. A world-renowned psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Deisseroth is also a talented writer who, when technology falls short or science falls short, always seems to have the perfect metaphor or line of poetry at hand. There are times when the literature provides “a more informative window to the brain than any microscope objective,” he writes, sprinkling each chapter with epigrams from Joyce, Milton, and Millay.
Using optogenetics, a technology that makes individual, highly specific brain cells photosensitive and then activates those cells using flashes of light emitted through a fiber-optic cable, Deisseroth’s research focuses on the brain circuits behind it all. from our sudden mood swings to behaviors, like crying, that are unique to human beings. By comparing these complex axonal connections to “warp threads,” Deisseroth hopes that by using optogenetics to turn these circuits on and off, he can better understand the physicochemical basis of human behavior and with it the “tapestry of human history” by which It signifies the evolutionary roots of mental illness and emotions such as joy, hope, and anxiety.
But Deisseroth is first and foremost an emergency psychiatrist and it is in his encounters with distressed patients that his talent for marrying science and imagination becomes more apparent and that his writing truly comes to life. In this sense, Connections justifies the comparison with books like Do no harm by Henry Marsh and Great idea by Suzanne Sullivan, physicians for whom, like Deisseroth, medicine is both an art and a science.
What unites many of the stories in Connections it’s the eyes. Thus, in the first chapter, Deisseroth introduces us to Andi, a four-year-old girl with a slit left eye, and to Mateo, a newlywed inexplicably incapable of shedding tears for his recently deceased girlfriend. In Andi’s case, her crossed eye is a sure sign of a glioma in the pons, the region of the brain stem responsible for a variety of functions including breathing, eye movements, and tear production. Using optogenetics to probe the mysteries of Mateo’s arid lacrimal glands, Deisseroth is also brought to the bulge and a region of the amygdala called BNST involved in regulating emotions like hope and anxiety.
Mateo’s tearless gaze seems to indicate the absence of hope. Ideally, Deisseroth would continue to interrogate Mateo to make sense of the “intertwined thread of biological, social, and psychological” that has led him to the ER. Instead, you have no choice but to move on to the next patient. Shedding a tear for himself, as well as for Mateo, Deisseroth speculates that crying could be a recent evolutionary innovation, a way to find strength and purpose in adversity, hence why we cry alone and in the presence of predators, though let’s do it. it is to point out our vulnerability.
Deisseroth offers equally enriching and tentative perspectives on the pathways involved in depression and disorders such as mania and bulimia. By juxtaposing the case of a lonely Uyghur woman with a deep need to tell stories about her distant homeland and an autistic man who is uncomfortable making eye contact, Deisseroth also illuminates how the brain has developed a series of behaviors and emotional drives to regulate social interactions. and the pain that often accompanies its absence.
Connections It is subtitled “A History of Human Feeling,” and by combining his case notes with ideas from optogenetics and philosophical disquisitions, Deisseroth accomplishes the difficult feat of moving and enlightening the reader at the same time. In the process, he manages to tell a larger story about the origins of human emotions while illuminating the roots of disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia. However, after a while, his method becomes a bit formulaic; each chapter opens with a troubled patient and a revealing anecdote followed by insights from the latest scientific research leaven from personal apercus.
At various points, Deisseroth hints that this is both a journey towards its psyche as those of his patients. “At the heart of every story here, there is a lost child,” he writes towards the end. But frustratingly, these and other cryptic comments remain pending (perhaps Deisseroth plans to reveal more in the inevitable sequel).
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism