Neurology Is the Country We All Inhabit

In 1989, I was reading through Psychology Today when I noticed a short article that intrigued me.  It was about a neurological phenomenon that alcoholics are quite familiar with but researchers knew little about.  When someone wakes up after a night of heavy drinking, of course, they often can’t remember what happened the night before.  That’s the definition of the term blackout.  But when they get drunk again, mysteriously, many can suddenly recall everything that happened.  The article was discussing recent research into this phenomenon.

Alcohol 1a smallerSuddenly, a light turned on in my brain.  Might I be able to use that phenomenon in fiction?  What if a life-or-death clue were buried deep within that blackout?  And what if the character was a recovering alcoholic, and getting drunk again was the last thing she wanted to do?

The concept seemed earth-shattering to me, and I carried it around in my head for 18 years before I began writing it.  Six years after first putting pen to paper, I’ve finally published the novel as What Happens to Us, available as an ebook

In recent years, popular books about neurology have become a bestselling category.  Oliver Sacks, V.S. Ramachandran, David Eagleman, and others have brought cutting-edge neurological science to the ordinary reader.  We now know about encephalitis lethargica (the malady in Sacks’ Awakenings, later made into a movie starring Robin Williams), synesthesia (depicted in the books of Vladimir Nabokov, Frank Herbert, Aimee Bender, and many others), autism spectrum (the malady spotlighted in the HBO film Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes), and so many other neurological abnormalities.

Neurology is the country we all inhabit.  In writing my own book, I discovered that my leading man, Dante, is a magician who had learned some sleight-of-hand moves as a teenager from a magical genius who never passed down his sleights to anyone else.  After the master died, Dante carried around irreplaceable treasures in his fingers.  When he unexpectedly lost three of his fingers, though, he discovered to his delight that the treasures were not lost, since he could still feel and describe those rare sleights to other magicians.  That neurological cache becomes as real to Dante as a table or a car.

Perhaps these phenomena are fascinating to us because they tell us so much about ourselves.  Phantom pain in lost fingers is analogous to what happens when we lose a loved one: They are never completely gone.  We may not all have full-blown synesthesia, as do Billy Joel, David Hockney, and Itzhak Perlman, but we can all relate to the blending of the senses.  We may not all have Asperger’s Syndrome, but we can all identify with the sense of being unable to read nonverbal cues in a foreign or disorienting culture.


Music suffuses What Happens to Us, so I read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia (Vintage, 2007,, which focuses on neurological abnormalities in music.  The book opens with a case study of a surgeon, Dr. Tony Cicoria, who was struck by lightning.  Soon, he became obsessed with piano music—first listening to it, then playing it, then furiously composing it from the notes he heard in his head.  By now, the obsession has lasted for nearly 20 years.

Sacks offers anecdotes of people blessed with absolute pitch, the ability to immediately detect the pitch of any note, offering the example of Sir Frederick Ouseley, who at age five was able to remark that his father blew his nose in the key of G, that a particular thunder was in the key of C, and that the wind was blowing in the key of D.

Sacks examines fascinating neurological afflictions.  One young professional violinist, for example, found that his fingers began disobeying his mind, making performance impossible.  One brilliant engineer had an aneurysm that destroyed his ability to feel emotion, and it was only when he sang that his range of feeling returned.   One elderly patient developed an increasing dementia that seemed to cause her to sing, to the point that towards the end, she was singing virtually nonstop every day.

The most fascinating phenomenon for me actually happened to Sacks personally.  In 1974, Sacks dreamed of a slow, dirge-like song that continued playing in his mind even after waking.  All day, he couldn’t get the song out of his head.  He tried many things to stop it, but to no avail.

Finally, Sacks called a friend and recounted his problem. He even hummed the tune a bit over the phone.  Then his friend said something rather strange.

Neurology face 1a

“Have you abandoned some of your young patients?” he asked.  “Or destroyed some of your literary children?”

Sacks was shocked.  He had in fact done both.  The day before, he had resigned his position in the children’s unit of a hospital where he worked, as well as burning a book of essays that he had just written.

“Your mind is playing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, his songs of mourning for the death of children.”

The moment Sacks’ friend identified the problem, it cleared right up, and it hasn’t recurred in the 30 years since.

I’m so fascinated with neurology that I make a large portion of my living from it.  As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I’m a professional magician, a sleight-of-hand artist.  One of the more neurologically fascinating feats of magic that I perform is the classic of magic, Paper Balls Over the Head, my performance of which can be seen on YouTube:

This is one of the few feats whose secret I can freely explain.  Here, I take advantage of peripheral blindness to give the illusion of making the paper ball disappear.  In addition, I take advantage of an alternating current of attention and inattention in the onstage volunteer, an AC current that is all too common—and not widely noticed—in our daily lives.

In What Happens to Us, my leading man is a magician, which gives me the opportunity to talk about some of these issues from an informed character’s point of view.

“Magic is the lie that’s presented to you,” my leading man says.  “Just like any lie.  The lie that advertisers tell you.  The lie that you tell yourself about your own limitations.  The lie that your mother told you about why she had you.   But it’s your job to see through the lie.”

A lie is certainly an excellent metaphor for the holes in our perception that are taken advantage of by magicians.  But the truth is also an excellent metaphor, as well, for there is nothing more true, disarming, and inspiring than the way in which our brains work.


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