For the past quarter century I have had the marvelous privilege of being able to work in the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience. This book is a distillation of a large chunk of my life’s work, which has been to unravel — strand by elusive strand — the mysterious connections between brain, mind, and body. In the chapters ahead I recount my investigations of various aspects of our inner mental life that we are naturally curious about. How do we perceive the world? What is the so-called mind-body connection? What determines your sexual identity? What is consciousness? What goes wrong in autism? How can we account for all of those mysterious faculties that are so quintessentially human, such as art, language, metaphor, creativity, self-awareness, and even religious sensibilities? As a scientist I am driven by an intense curiosity to learn how the brain of an ape — an ape! — managed to evolve such a godlike array of mental -abilities.
My approach to these questions has been to study patients with damage or genetic quirks in different parts of their brains that produce bizarre effects on their minds or behavior. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of patients afflicted (though some feel they are blessed) with a great diversity of unusual and curious neurological disorders. For example, people who “see” musical tones or “taste” the textures of everything they touch, or the patient who experiences himself leaving his body and viewing it from above near the ceiling. In this book I describe what I have learned from these cases. Disorders like these are always baffling at first, but thanks to the magic of the scientific method we can render them comprehensible by doing the right experiments. In recounting each case I will take you through the same step-by-step reasoning — occasionally navigating the gaps with wild intuitive hunches — that I went through in my own mind as I puzzled over how to render it explicable. Often when a clinical mystery is solved, the explanation reveals something new about how the normal, healthy brain works, and yields unexpected insights into some of our most cherished mental faculties. I hope that you, the reader, will find these journeys as interesting as I did.