Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery” as Want to Read:
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  10,686 ratings  ·  1,037 reviews
From the author of the bestseller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience.

Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 6th 2014 by Little, Brown and Company
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.24  · 
Rating details
 ·  10,686 ratings  ·  1,037 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery
Petra X has the munchies
I really like books on neurology. I like to know how our our behaviour changes when something goes wrong. I am a lot less interested in the normal working of the brain. I just can't get excited about glia, synapses, astrocytes and all the other bits that are of interest to neurologists. It is the telling of anecdotes about people that illustrate disorders, malfunctioning and occasionally extraordinary abilities and talents that I relate to.

I recently read Oliver Sacks Hallucinations and VS Ramc
Sean Gibson
Jul 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Brains are funny, and fascinating, things. Sam Kean is a funny, and fascinating, writer. Sam Kean writing about brains leads, perhaps unsurprisingly, to a fascinating (and sometimes funny) book.

Part of the reason brains are so fascinating is that they operate with such prodigious levels of speed and processing power that even the most powerful supercomputers can’t replicate everything that they do (they also look kind of like something Scots would boil in a sheep’s stomach with neeps and tatties
David Rubenstein
May 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is the fourth book I've read by Sam Kean, and they have all been excellent. This fascinating book describes the history of our understanding of the brain in the last couple hundred years. It is not a comprehensive treatment, but instead it is an in-depth look at a number of episodes that gave quantum jumps into our understanding. Often, these episodes are centered on some type of brain injury or illness.

One of the central questions about the brain is whether or not thought processes are dec
Kean’s third popular science book tells fascinating stories about how the brain works. “Tiny flaws in the brain [have] strange but telling consequences all the time,” he writes. King Henri II incurred brain injuries in jousting accidents and suffered headaches and seizures. The rival neurosurgeons of the title examined him but found no skull fractures. Yet Henri died of an intracranial hemorrhage – proof the brain could be damaged even if the skull stayed intact.

The book is crammed full of such
Jan 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those with interests in medicine, psychology; fans of Oliver Sacks;
This book is a delightful tour around the brain with a knowledgeable and gently humorous guide who never loses focus but is quite prepared to be diverted if there is a chance to enrich the story.

The dueling neurosurgeons of the title represent both Paré and Vesalius (the founder of modern anatomy) who were called upon in 1559 to treat King Henri of France who, while jousting, had suffered a penetrating wound to his eye and brain. Thankfully we have now in pathology more sophisticated tests for e
This book is structured by alternating anecdotes and then science, anecdotes then science, etc. It helped break up the technical info so it wasn't so overwhelming for a reader like me. And I love a good science story.

The brain is a fascinating thing. How did Phineas Gage survive a metal rod through his brain? It bypassed vital regions and flew out the other side. The author doesn't want us to think the brain is totally localized for certain functions - we use our entire brain in subtle ways for
Hayden Houck
Sep 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The tale of the dueling neurosurgeons
This book interests me a lot. I am very interested in most things science, especially neuroscience. I read the book The Female Brain, and my mom was talking to a friend about that. Her friend gave me this book to read.
I'm so glad she did. I love reading things that have to do with science and that have random little fun facts that you can tell to your friends or family. It had a lot of short stories about a ton of cases and some of them are really strange
Apr 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites, science
There are so many reviews I need to finish typing up, so I hate to stick another RTC on a book, but... RTC!

Interesting blend of history + science. Very easy to read and accessible for people with no background in neuroscience imo. A lot of the science info was stuff I'm already familiar with but it was cool learning about the people who made all of these discoveries. (view spoiler)
Joy D
The subtitle gives the best description of what to expect from this book. Sam Kean traces the history of neuroscience by providing examples of major advances, including brain traumas, experiments, accidental discoveries, and the causes of each. He includes fascinating stories from history. The science is explained in an easily understood manner. It is an informative and entertaining combination of science and history. This book will appeal to anyone interested in how the human brain works.
Jun 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in a broad survey of neuroscience
The title suggests an anecdotal romp propelled by Kean's chirpy narrative voice. However, these props are actually designed to lure the reader's entry into a much more serious domain. Kean's book is arranged as a survey of neuroanatomy. Five broad sections are broken up into individual chapters that each highlight a particular structure: Neurons, the occipital lobe (a key element in visual recognition), the cerebellum (part of a system that modulates motor control), the corpus callosum (the conn ...more
Mar 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I’d been eyeing this for a while, but Robert really convinced me to read it. I was worried with that title it would be a bit too silly, but I shouldn’t have worried. The tone can be light, and there are a few jokes cracked and some wry asides, but it’s more scientific than the title suggests, while still being accessible to the general reader. A lot of the cases it discusses were ones I was already aware of, but it added depth and colour. I really need to get round to reading Permanent Present T ...more
Apr 28, 2014 rated it really liked it

This entire book was just endlessly fascinating to me. It's all about how traumatic insults to the skull and brain, whether by physical force or insidious viruses, affect our physical abilities and thoughts.

Kean expertly weaves storytelling about particular brain trauma patients with carefully explained science. I knew of a few of the conditions discussed, but certainly not in the detail Kean devotes. He explains the process of how damage occurs and then why that damage can cause co
Feb 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I loved this.

Like The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean uses anecdotes and humor to share scientific discoveries that shaped our knowledge of how things work. This book was longer and more detailed, but also more relevant to my field since the focus was on neuroscience.

Though lighter in tone than the works of Oliver Sacks, this book similarly contained many fascinating tales of neurological da
Thomas Edmund
Sep 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There is little to say about this book, because it is simply so brilliant. Kean has successfully melded legitimate science with entertaining history, and a touch of historic drama too. His prose is a perfect mix of easy to understand (except for his pictograms, but don't worry) technicality and almost irreverent language which adds to the entertainment. ...more
Lubinka Dimitrova
What a wonderful book! Shouldn't have waited so long to read it. ...more
May 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
Two of the most interesting, engaging, and informative science books I've ever read were published in the last five years and written by the same person: Sam Kean. The first of these books, The Disappearing Spoon, is a history of the varied elements that make up the Periodic Table, which hangs in every American science classroom and is almost Borgesian in its functionality as both a serious emblem of scientific discovery and a series of 118 doorways that open to reveal 118 separate stories. Kean ...more
Oct 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Love me some good brain stories. A still mysterious but amazing organ.
Sep 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Author Sam Kean does a wonderful job in this book weaving together human interest stories and historical accounts with complex neuroscience to educate the reader without ever being boring, unapproachable, or condescending. I love this approach to nonfiction writing. It is so much easier to retain the facts when they’re couched in entertaining tales of wild accidents and spontaneous personality changes.

There were countless times during this book that I felt the urge to stop and tell someone what
The good:
- Interesting and easy to understand stories (for the layperson)
- Distinct writing style that kept my attention

The bad:
- Felt like a collection of separate stories rather than a coherent narrative. Though the author does weave the narratives of subjects introduced in the first half back into the second half.
- The “dueling neurosurgeons” of the title seems to represent about a dozen different neurosurgeons. This felt weird, but maybe others interpreted the title in a different way.
- I a
May 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reread-sometime
If you are fascinated by the brain then I'm going to bet that you will enjoy at least some part of this book. I found it incredibly fascinating. I've been unofficially studying everything on brain research that I can find for years now. I love where psychology and neuroscience collide. If I could have five careers in my life time a research neuroscientist would definitely be on that list. I will definitely be rereading this at some point. ...more
Nancy Mills
Nov 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Love Kean's books, they are all fabulous and so far this is my favorite! I was sorry when it ended. Fortunately he has great footnotes and suggestions for further reading, and a website with the notes for studies which did not make it into his book. (As he writes, electrons on cheaper than ink, thus we are grateful for the internet.)
Many, many fascinating case studies. The conjoined twins who share part of a brain are particularly intriguing. They each sort of have their own hemisphere so they d
Aug 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
You can also find my review of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons on my book blog

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a slightly misleading title: there is not a single incident of dueling neurosurgeons in the book.

As a non-fiction, popular science primer on neuroscience, however, the books is splendid. I've heard quite a few of the anecdotes / case studies before, but this book pulls together all the incidents and anecdotes that have shaped neuroscience, and presented them in an engaging
May 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: listened
This was Really fascinating. Kean goes through the history of advances in the scientific understanding of how the human brain works through a series of stories, starting with the damaged brain of Henri II of France, in 1559, and ending with brain science from the early 2000's. He starts with basic brain structure and operation and goes all the way through science exploring mind/brain issues and consciousness. I actually listened to this as an audio book, so I missed out on the diagrams, which I' ...more
Jul 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing

Sam Kean has become my favorite, currently active, science author/interpreter. In this book, he sorts and distills scientific literature about neurological disorders, brain injuries, and illnesses that impact the brain into the parts of the brain most impacted and the stories they generate. Kean then tells the stories of the affected person, the scientists who interact with the patients, interactions with the family and community, and the significance to the understanding of brain functioning.

Ruhshan Ahmed
May 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Most of the time, we are unaware of what our brain doing. Most of our life, we are unaware of what our brain capable of. Most of us, are unaware of how horrible life would be if things go south inside the brain. Some of us, who finished reading the book have experienced in a fascinating fashion the progression of neuroscience through centuries, where heroes[as well as villains] are the neurosurgeons themselves!

Every chapter made me wanted to touch my own brain, and thank it for a lot of thing..
Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
Another excellent science book from Sam Kean; this one looks at how we learn about the brain and how it works mostly from when things go wrong. Looks at cases ranging from Henri II of France (bashed in the head by a broken tournament lance in 1559) to Phineas Gage (a railway iron went in through one eye socket, and then out the top of his head) and the sufferers from kuru ("the world's rarest disease") in Papua New Guinea. ...more
Megan Hawley Steinfeld
Aug 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobooks
I'm a big fan of Sam Kean in general, but this might be my new favorite. Highly recommend the audiobook version. ...more
Mar 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
As always an amazingly interesting and easy to read book from Sean Kean.
Holly (The GrimDragon)
To be useful, to enrich our lives, memory cannot simply record the world around us. It needs to filter, to discriminate. In fact, while we joke about a poor memory as a sieve, that's actually the wrong way around. Sieves let water leak through, but they catch substantial things -- they catch what we want to preserve. In the same way, a mind functions best when we let some things, like traumatic memories, go. All normal brains are sieves, and thank goodness for that.

This was a fantastic random fi
Fawkes Phoenix
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting read. Essentially the book is broken up into different chapters based on different areas of the brain. The authors depicts what each area does by a mixture of story telling and info session - so it is part historical fiction/non-fiction and part lecture. Some of the stories are really neat - like the story about Henry 2nd and his jousting accident contributing to neuroscientist discovering concussions. There are also assassins, and remote tribes, plus crazy experiment ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug
  • Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside
  • The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the "Jennifer Aniston Neuron"
  • The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease
  • The Nocturnal Brain: Nightmares, Neuroscience, and the Secret World of Sleep
  • Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To
  • The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
  • Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong
  • From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival
  • This is Your Mind on Plants
  • Caravaggio, 1571-1610
  • Black: The History of a Color
  • The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine
  • Olağanüstü Buluşlar
  • BEYOND THE RAGE BY BOB WOODWARD : Amazing things you don’t know about the USA president
  • Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History
  • The Renaissance (The Story of Civilization, #5)
  • Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine Forever
See similar books…
See top shelves…
Sam Kean is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, The Believer, Air & Space, Science, and The New Scientist. He is currently working as a reporter at Science magazine and as a 2009 Middlebury Environmental Journalism fellow.


(Un)Official Bio:
Sam Kean gets called Sean at least once a month. He grew up in South Dakota,

Related Articles

  Mary Roach is a science author who specializes in the bizarre and offbeat. With a body of work ranging from deep-dives on the history of...
79 likes · 10 comments
“In these days before antiseptics, doctors themselves also suffered high mortality rates. Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean War (1853-1856), watched one particularly inept surgeon cut both himself and, somehow, a bystander while blundering about during an amputation. Both men contracted an infection and died, as did the patient. Nightingale commented that it was the only surgery she'd ever seen with 300 percent mortality.” 15 likes
“Biologists summarize these hypothalamic duties as the "four F's" of animal behavior—feeding, fleeing, fighting, and, well, sexual congress.” 11 likes
More quotes…