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Dennis Cass discusses Head Case

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

When reading Dennis Cass’s Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), it’s important to manage your expectations about genre.  The title might lead you to believe it’s going to be a work of science reportage, like Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open.  That’s not quite right.  The book jacket compares it to Supersize Me, which implies a sort of culture-jamming, quasi-political approach.  That’s not right, either.  And the blurb says it’s “touching,” which is always a little worrisome.  If you bracket those expectations, however, Head Case turns out to be quite interesting. 


Head Case is actually several different books in one: Cass does subject himself to a battery of neurological tests, even self-medicating with Adderall, and he attends several neuroscientific conferences and has read a lot in the journals, and so to that extent it is a work of science reporting.  But thinking about minds and brains leads him, inevitably, into thoughts of his stepfather’s brain, tormented by addiction and manic depression, and of his first child’s rapidly forming brain.  Triangulating with wry humor among these three stories, Cass unpacks the discomfort many feel about thinking too closely about the brain. 


Thinking about the brain is so uncomfortable that at one point, while looking at functional MRI image of his brain, Cass “didn’t believe this brain was mine.  I found this disturbing.  Even though not feeling your brain is a perfectly healthy and normal thing, I thought that there was something sinister in how my brain denied its own existence.”  More darkly, he “went back over the Brain Logs, my diary of all the bad TV and fast food, and cringed.  I thought I was watching Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with ironic detachment, but in reality the crap I was feeding my head meant something.  The brain was always on.  There was no work time and leisure time.”


Although Cass was raised by two drug addicts, one of whom ultimately suffered a psychotic break (and his natural father probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder), his stories of his childhood are not sentimental tales of victimization.  Instead, given the discussions of children’s theory of mind, the influence of childhood experiences, and so forth, Cass’s childhood emerges as a blackly comic source of potential psychopathology. 


Head Case is thoughtful, funny, and very accessible—I read it while proctoring an exam, and would vouch for it as summer reading.  An index and list of sources would be helpful; their absence serves as a cue that this book is less about understanding the brain and more about living, for better and for worse, with one’s mind.



Cass graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Head Case this week:


Head Case‘s distinguishing feature is its mix of science writing with two slightly different (though related) personal stories—your unforgettable relationship with your stepfather, and your slightly more standard-issue anxieties about fatherhood.  How/when did you realize that the book needed to open with your stepfather sprinting down Amsterdam Avenue?


When I started this project I had no intention of writing about my family. Yes my childhood was awful, but was it memoir awful? But then about halfway through my research I realized that in order for this story to make sense I would need to deal with my stepfather’s grandiose idea of conquering 80s New York. Then it became a technical matter. I wrote dozens of different opens, but having a prologue type thing about my stepfather’s psychotic break seemed like the best way to start. 


What interested me about Head Case‘s mixing of narratives is that it seems implicitly to contrast the two most culturally pervasive theories of mind in the past century: psychoanalysis and neuroscience.  (Implicit because you nowhere mention Freud or psychoanalysis, but that cultural mythology is so much about fathers and sons that it’s hard not to read it in.)  Was that deliberate?  If so, to what end? 


I wish I could take more credit for exploring thoughtful dichotomies, but in truth writing this book was an exercise in survival. Every day I got up and tried to make it good and every day the subject matter (neuroscience), the story (weaving together personal narrative, participatory journalism and memoir) and the tone (it’s supposed to be funny) kicked my living ass. But when it works (and it doesn’t always work) I think there is a lot of room for the reader to make these kinds of larger connections. This is a book that invites you to talk about it behind its back. 


A follow-on about psychoanalysis: In the 20s and 30s, many artists turned their back on psychoanalysis, not so much on scientific or medical grounds but on epistemological/aesthetic/ontological ones: They didn’t want to unravel the source of their art.  You voice similar doubts throughout Head Case.  Is this just part and parcel of thinking about the mind or brain? 


I don’t think this resistance is limited to artists or writers. Imagine that you and your friends are at a bar getting deliciously drunk. Nothing ruins the moment more than someway exclaiming, “We’re so wasted!”


After your experience with Adderall, which I recognize is colored to some extent by your experience of your parents’ drug abuse, how do you view the increasing use of, or acceptance of, such cognitive enhancers by college students and others?  Will our children see Adderall much like coffee? 


My problem with any kind of drug is that there is always a price. And I mean that physiologically, not morally. Because it’s time-released Adderall has lower side effects than traditional amphetamines, but still: after up time it’s down time. Which is too bad, because you can really read on that stuff. 


Near the book’s end, you’re not just skeptical about neuroscience’s ability to decode the brain, but instead see neuroscience as treating you abjectly.  (I’m thinking of the moment where you describe yourself as “covered in science cum,” even though you were “not having a good time.”)  Do you have ethical reservations about neuroscientific research, or is your recoil more idiosyncratic?


I think it’s a little of both. I think we’re probably going to discover something about the brain that we’ll regret discovering. That is no fault of science; it’s more a matter of the law of unintended consequences. Other than perhaps outright curing a disease like polio it’s hard to find any human endeavor where there weren’t unintended negative consequences. But mostly in that moment I just felt like a jerk. 


Head Case is preoccupied with its own writing—you take on several different roles during the narrative; you spend some time talking about the nature of insight, and so forth.  Has your writing process changed much since working on this book?


I often write myself into my stories and I do it for a lot of reasons. First, it’s fun. I can tell jokes and make observations that are more personal and idiosyncratic than if I were writing from a distance. Plus, I can serve as the through line, which lets me juggle a lot of different elements. I also feel that it’s more honest. If I’m there talking to someone or witnessing something, why pretend like I’m not? 


What bit of brain knowledge is either your favorite or something that haunts your dreams?  For myself, I could have done without learning that an “unpreserved brain would spread like pudding.”


Yes: the physical brain is pretty gross. But I think the most haunting thing is the idea that the 10% myth is just that: a myth. There is no secret door behind which lay wonders or a hidden switch that activates cognitive afterburners. We are using all of our brains all the time and this is what we get. This is your life. This is the world we have made for ourselves. Bon chance.

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