Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason

Earlier this week I finished reading Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason (click here to read all my entries about this book).

I was surprised by Mason’s references to Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

In the chapter titled Wood of the Suicides, Mason shares the tragic story of expressing his belief that suicide is okay with his friend John who subsequently hung himself.To cope with the suicide of his friend John, Mason visits a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York.

And on page 125 through 127, Mason summarizes the three death bardos described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and on page 213 introduces some of the Zen koans complied by the Chinese monk Mumon in The Gateless Gate.

Mason uses his discussion of Zen koans to illustrate the power of mindfulness training through guided meditations as a treatment for brain injury patients.

He even uses a haiku — a kind of traditional Japanese poetry (俳句) — in his Introduction (page 6):

In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at the flowers. *

While I appreciate reading these Buddhist and Eastern ideas, I felt they were out of place in this book.

Also, while The Hospital in the Desert, the Chapter on Balad Hospital in Iraq, was interesting I felt that it too seemed out of place and perhaps could be the start of another book entirely.

I was also disappointed by the depressing and severe tone of this book and I much preferred the hopeful tone and the hard science of Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph From the Frontiers of Brain Science.

Both books use stories of real life brain injury cases and while Head Cases uses them to paint a bleak picture of traumatic brain injury (TBI) without teaching readers much science, The Brain That Changes Itself inspires readers with the astonishing findings of neuroplasticity research.

As I recall, Mason dedicates just one page to neuroplasticity (page 169) and manages to make it sound unscientific.

My recommendation? Stick to Oliver Sacks and Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. If you read Head Cases, be prepared for depressing hopeless stories; to be expected, I suppose, from a man who must feel constant frustration at the poor treatment available to patients with traumatic brain injuries.

* In case you’re curious about the original Japanese text by Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶), I looked it up:

世の中は
地獄の上の
花見かな

And here’s the romanization (also not included in the book):

Yo no naka wa
Jigoku no ue no
Hanami kana

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