Anybody familiar with the work and writing of Dr Oliver Sacks, including his popular book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, will find themselves on similar, friendly territory with Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land. Like Sacks, Broks’ specialism is neuropsychology, a discipline he has practised for 30 years as a professional clinician. But, as with Sacks’ work, this is no dry tome, beset with academic jargon but a compassionate and deeply human book regarding as one reviewer puts it “the mass of goo inside our heads”, and how psychologically and physically brain injured individuals live (and often enjoy) their lives despite their trauma. However, to say Silent Land is about the brain is akin to saying Moby Dick is about a whale; it is but it is about so much more than its central matter.
Broks’ primary interest in the brain is to understand how people deal with the malfunction of their brain, learning to compensate for “missing” elements that govern their behaviour. Like the man, who through an accident to his left frontal lobe is now so desensitized – unable to empathise – that despite himself he no longer loves his wife. Or the over-sensitized man who through a trauma to his right frontal lobe can’t help himself from hugging everyone he meets. Their histories are told by Broks with great warmth and kindness and if one can’t help but smile at the individuals’ predicaments it is a smile born of the “there but for the grace of God go I” kind. Ultimately, handled with a lightness of touch that borders on the poetic, Into the Silent Land is as much a philosophical meditation on the 21st century human condition as it is a book about neuropsychology.