Unthinkable, by Helen Thomson

In her book book Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains, science journalist Helen Thomson writes about a group of remarkable people. The reader meets Sharon, who is always lost, Matar, who thinks that he is a tiger, and Joel, who feels other people’s pain, among others. Odd people with odd brains.

In the opening chapter, Thomson refers to neurologist Oliver Sacks and his 1985 classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. Thomson revisits Sacks’s idea to write about people with rare neurological conditions, ”to see what a thirty-year neurological revolution had revealed” (p. 14). Because Thomson’s book is (discretely) pitched as an independent sequel to Sacks’s, it is impossible not to compare them.

I loved Sacks’s book, which is why I threw myself at Thomson’s Unthinkable. However, and it pains me to say this, I am disappointed.

The stories and the people in Sacks’s book are rememberable in a way that those in Thomson’s book aren’t. Years after reading his book, I still giggle at Sacks’s patient who placed a level on his glasses to help him walk straight, the old lady whose untreated syphilis made her horny, and, of course, the man who mistook his wife for a hat.

There is something about Sacks’s low-key storytelling that makes the people in his book shine, whereas Thomson’s writing is more—and I apologize, as Thomson is British—American. It seems that Thomson begins each chapter by building up the reader’s expectations through vivid thought examples, such as ”imagine that you woke up DEAD,” then there’s a cliffhanger, and then… Not much. Or rather; not enough follows to warrant the grandiloquent introduction.

To me, Thomson’s style of writing is almost unfair to the people in her book. She writes as if their stories and their brains aren’t interesting enough, but needs amplification through linguistic exercises. This shadows, for instance, Sylvia, who hears music that isn’t real. Her story would have been better told without a bombastic framing.

Thomson knows the science behind the stories she tells, and that makes her book an interesting read nonetheless. Unthinkable is better as a science book than as entertainment, and I can recommend it to anyone with a general interest in neurology (or strange brains). But don’t expect it to match Sacks’s classic.

Thomson, H. (2019). Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains. John Murray Press.