Action Potential

Summer reading

Enough with the cranes already! Richard Powers’s 2006 novel The Echo Maker, a National Book Award winner, is a great book to take to the beach (or the bench while the PCR machine is running), even if it is about 100 pages too long.

The Echo Maker follows Mark Schluter’s recovery from a mysterious car accident that leaves him with Capgras syndrome, the delusion that one’s loved ones have been replaced by imposters. His sister Karin calls in a celebrity neuroscientist, the Oliver Sacks-ish Dr. Gerald Weber, and all three struggle with issues of identity and self. Oh, and there are also those blasted cranes, who pass through this book far more frequently than they do the Nebraska Platte described in the novel.

Capgras is a fascinating disorder worthy of fiction and nonfiction alike. Ramachandran describes Capgras, in which familiar faces fail to illicit proper emotional responses, as the mirror to prosapagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. He has suggested that injury-induced Capgras (approximately 33% of all Capgras cases) may be caused by lesions of the connections between the inferior temporal cortex and the amygdala. Capgras patients, unlike people with amygdala lesions, show elevated galvanic skin responses to emotional stimuli, but not to pictures of people they know, suggesting that it’s not the amygdala itself that is affected, but the information flow to the amygdala from the visual cortex.

Like Ramachandran’s case study D. S. (not me, I swear), Mark Schluter doubles himself, describing his pre-injury self as ‘old Mark’, someone who looks very much like the person he used to be. Powers sprinkles references to 9/11 throughout The Echo Maker, perhaps implying that we are all quite different than the people we used to be. A point very elegantly made, but one that used way too many birds in the making.


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