A Neurosurgeon Reflects On The ‘Awe And Mystery’ Of The Brain

But given that the tumor looks like the brain, and if you’re operating near what we call eloquent brain – that is brain where, if it’s damaged, the patient suffers serious troubles such as paralysis or inability to speak – something like that – it’s very – it can be very helpful to have the patient awake, talking or moving the relevant limbs as you remove the tumor to make sure you’re not doing any harm.

And I was one of the first people to do this in this country many years ago. And it was considered rather eccentric at the time. But, in fact, it’s now the standard way of operating on these tumors and is practiced everywhere.

.. But it is one of the various themes of the book, which is this extraordinary fact which is very hard to come to terms with. It is a fact for all people who work with the brain that thinking and feeling is a physical process. It doesn’t feel like it. You know, my thoughts don’t feel like electric chemistry. But that is what they are. And I find it quite a consoling thought that our modern scientific view of the world which has explained so much – we can’t even begin to explain how consciousness, how sensation arises out of electric chemistry. But the fact of the matter – it does.

.. So does the work that you do as a neurosurgeon increase or diminish your sense of the mystery of consciousness?

MARSH: It increases it.

.. But you’re very nervous, as you describe it, during this procedure because you just recently performed surgery removing a tumor…

MARSH: Which had gone very badly, yes.

GROSS: Yes, from the cervical spine – cervical spinal cord of a woman. And she was left paralyzed on one side of her body.


GROSS: You fear that you removed too much of the tumor, and that’s what damaged her spinal cord. And you confess to several times when you felt responsible for a spinal or brain damage as a result of a surgery. And I’m interested in why you wanted to share that. You’ve even given a lecture called, like, the 10 worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

MARSH: Well, something like that. I’m a great believer that doctors and patients should, in a sense, be equals, I mean, especially as we give advice. I’ve always hated sort of paternalistic, condescending doctors. And I’m all for patients making demands and patient’s rights. But it’s a two-way process. And I think patients in the modern world where – certainly in England, you can’t open the newspapers without reading about the latest medical scandal and incompetent doctors. Now its incompetent nurses.

The public need to understand that medicine, actually, is often a very uncertain process.

.. I think, on the whole, if you – as a patient, if you go and see a doctor, and you could only choose one quality, I think most of us would go for honesty (laughter) because if you see an honest doctor, if he knows what should be done, he’ll tell you. If he thinks somebody else can do it better than he can, he can tell you. And I think honesty is, in a sense, a more important quality than steady hands or nerves of steel or heart of a lion – all the old cliched ideas of what surgeons should be like.

Radiolab Extra: Henrietta Lacks

With all the recent talk about HBO’s upcoming film, we decided it would be good time to re-run our story of one woman’s medically miraculous cancer cells, and how Henrietta Lacks changed modern science and, eventually, her family’s understanding of itself.

George Guy didn’t sell cells to Merc, but sent Hela all over the world for free (10 min)

Henrietta Lacks’ Hela cells helped create cells used to test polio vaccine.

First for profit (12:45 min)

Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets

High-tech tools divulge new information about the mysterious and violent fates met by these corpses

.. Scholars tend to agree that Tollund Man’s killing was some kind of ritual sacrifice to the gods—perhaps a fertility offering. To the people who put him there, a bog was a special place. While most of Northern Europe lay under a thick canopy of forest, bogs did not. Half earth, half water and open to the heavens, they were borderlands to the beyond. To these people, will-o’-the-wisps—flickering ghostly lights that recede when approached—weren’t the effects of swamp gas caused by rotting vegetation. They were fairies. The thinking goes that Tollund Man’s tomb may have been meant to ensure a kind of soggy immortality for the sacrificial object.

The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society

THE arrival of the “post-truth” political climate came as a shock to many Americans. But to the Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, charges of “fake news” are nothing new. “The deep distrust of the media, of scientific consensus — those were prevalent narratives growing up,” she told me.

.. She was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a “biblical worldview.”

.. this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right.

.. Ever since the scientific revolution, two compulsions have guided conservative Protestant intellectual life: the impulse to defend the Bible as a reliable scientific authority and the impulse to place the Bible beyond the claims of science entirely.

.. The second impulse, the one that rejects scientists’ standing to challenge the Bible, evolved by the early 20th century into a school of thought called presuppositionalism.

.. Cornelius Van Til, a theologian who promoted this idea, rejected the premise that all humans have access to objective reality. “We really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly,”

.. he doesn’t see “how you can teach ‘Christian journalism’ any more than you can teach ‘Christian mathematics.’ ”

.. a network of institutions and experts versed in shadow versions of climate change science, biology and other fields

.. Dr. Jeanson calls himself a “presuppositionalist evidentialist” — which we might define as someone who accepts evidence when it happens to affirm his nonnegotiable presuppositions.

.. “The skeptic looks at something and says, ‘I wonder,’ ” he said. “The cynic says, ‘I know,’ and then stops thinking.”

.. “cynicism and tribalism are very closely related. You protect your tribe, your way of life and thinking, and you try to annihilate anything that might call that into question.”