Life Lessons from a Brain Surgeon : the new science and stories of the brain

Dr Rahul Jandial

It would be almost impossible to read Life Lessons and not conclude that Dr. Jandial is an exceptional human being, absolutely the kind of guy, crisis having struck, you will want to see walking towards you with clinical purpose in his eyes. The stories of how he opens the skulls of very sick people to reassemble their beige matter are – somehow not quite the appropriate word – truly riveting. Here is a scientist whose scalpel rests on the very rim of the adventure that is human consciousness. And his profession and his experience equip him to provide a good deal of lifestyle-enhancement advice for young and old.

So is there, as they say in Glasgow, a soapy bubble? Well, one issue is that the book has no solid identity. Not that skillful commentators cannot write successful genre-benders, viz part autobiography, part popular science, part futurology, part agony aunt for the soul, part health primer, part myth-busterama, part handy tips for a happier life. This is essentially the package we have here and it can become an ungainly, misshapen read. It might well be true that Dr. Jandial could be the very best person with whom to talk about how best to avoid dementia, how best to adjust your diet, how best to parent your young, how best to organize your sleep, how best to regulate your consumption of alcohol or caffeine…

But even for this super-talented guy this really does become a bit of a stretch. Even the big, big dollop of charm is not enough to fill every analytical cranny, as freewheelingly opened along the way. The text is too full of “studies show that…” references to a very wide range of academic journals and their sometimes well-informed and/but sometimes rather early conclusions. No doubt that Dr. Jandial is well-read and well-intentioned but, bluntly, he tries to cover too much ground, at a cost of not a little definitiveness. For example, “research has shown”, he says (in the chapter The Older Brain), “that older adults have a greater sense of well-being and greater emotional stability than do teens or young adults”. The implication that the older we grow the wiser and therefore the happier we become is one of the most contestable ideas in the whole of social science. Especially if the claim is based on longitudinal self-reported wellbeing studies, then what we hear is a crescendo of deeply unreliable narration.

Imagine you have turned 75 years of age this very day. Coincidentally contacted by a respectable research agency, you are invited to rate your general level of personal happiness / life satisfaction on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 would equal totally blissed-out). You agree to participate. But a silent inhibition tugs at your guts. If you were to say that you are, in fact, dreadfully unhappy, will the whole world know that this whole life has ipso facto been a failure? And do you really want to admit this to yourself? Is it possible that you will give yourself a defiant score of : 8.2? Will it be just too demoralising and sad to answer : 4.9?

But let’s take another quick thought- bite : Just how regularly could, say, one spouse ask of another at any given dinner-time : Are you happy, darling? Asking it too often could get somehow dangerously irritating, no? And would one indeed be wise to ask it only in circumstances where an enthusiastic and unmistakable affirmative was bound to be forthcoming? In so many situations, how much does such happiness as we hold actually depend on limited disclosure and partial honesty? Happiness has no biology. It is a circumstance. And the gray and the bald are no more favored than the wrinkle-free virgin.

More worryingly still, we do not need a brain surgeon to tell us that alcohol is not “a smart drug”. And we should not at all be concluding that there is a scientific consensus to the effect that moderate alcohol consumption reduces exposure to certain life-threatening diseases and conditions. How many people across the world this very day are really going to be told when visiting the doctor for a check-up : drink more alcohol or indeed start drinking alcohol? Every ad agency and trends analysis company knows that the drinking population will exploit each bit of pseudo-science that appears in the popular press – headlines like “Japanese study confirms that beer boosts muscle development in teenagers”. (We have made up this one). How often have we been drinking wine at a party for the man next to us to say : I read in the paper today that red wine is good for the heart? Or some such drivel? We need a heavy tincture of caution whenever drink is about.

However, it is impossible not to admire Dr Jandial’s overall effort here; the lesson is as provocative as it is humane. We who can but read his books would do well to hear a whole lot more from him. A lot of popular science deservedly gets a, er, kick in the head. But, some quibbles aside, this is good stuff – specially for the sexagenarians in our midst, them that want to become successful centurions.

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