Katrina S. Firlik
Barnes & Noble, New Hope Commons—The mystery of consciousness is that it's not that mysterious, according to Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA's double-helix structure and author of the influential mid-1990s book An AstonishingHypothesis. It boils down to mechanics: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." In other words, consciousness is brain; brain is consciousness.
If you read Katrina Firlik's Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside, it's astonishing how little time Firlik and her colleagues in neurosurgery spend thinking about such brainy topics, despite the intimacy they have with the brain. Her 2006 memoir goes to great lengths to demystify the brain by describing the organ in ways only surgeons could know: "The brain is soft," she writes. "Tofu—the soft variety, if you know tofu—may be a more accurate comparison."
Firlik's profession is akin to auto mechanics, she deadpans. Doctors working on the spine are far more careful during operations than their counterparts are in removing brain tumors. Illustrating how "rough" neurosurgeons can be, Firlik recounts the time she treated a carpenter who'd accidentally put a nail through his head. Like a technician pulling a dent out of your car's fender, she goes to work: drilling out a small disc of his skull, pounding out the nail with a hammer, tapping the disc back in place, and, within a day, sending the poor guy on his way good as new. Firlik's larger point is that the brain, with all of its soft, tofu-like malleability, can take a licking and keep ticking. Even from brain surgeons. Firlik reads tonight at 7:30 p.m. —John Stoehr