Review: Unthinkable

3 stars
An entertaining whirlwind tour of unusual minds

In Unthinkable: What the World’s Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own, science journalist Helen Thomson chronicles her meetings and interactions with a set of people whose minds have unusual qualities, e.g.:

  • one subject hyper-empathizes with the emotions he sees in others, experiencing touch and pain almost physically;

  • another, for some time, was utterly convinced that he was dead;

  • one remembers nearly every day of her life in vivid detail;

  • another sees auras around people, reflecting his own feelings about them.

Thomson interweaves these stories with neurological research and short “here’s a thing you can try at home right now” experiments, some more practical than others. From each episode, she tries to draw conclusions that can apply to many of us—about how our memory really works, or how to manage our own empathy.

The science here is light reading, and sometimes too light; for example, while Thomson spends a couple of paragraphs debunking popular misconceptions about “left brains” and “right brains”, she quickly embraces “top brain / bottom brain” theory as an alternative explanatory model, without applying similar skepticism.

Overall, though, Unthinkable is a quick and entertaining read that personalizes a complex subject through a necessarily arbitrary but interesting cast of characters. 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down because each of these stories would have deserved a bit more depth than Thomson gives them.