Book Review: Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole by Allan H. Ropper

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain
by Allan H. RopperBrian David Burrell

Publication date: October 2nd 2014
Publisher: Atlantic Books (first published September 30th 2014)
Pages: 272


“Tell the doctor where it hurts.” It sounds simple enough, unless the problem affects the very organ that produces awareness and generates speech. What is it like to try to heal the body when the mind is under attack? In this book, Dr. Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell take the reader behind the scenes at Harvard Medical School’s neurology unit to show how a seasoned diagnostician faces down bizarre, life-altering afflictions. Like Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Ropper inhabits a world where absurdities abound:

• A figure skater whose body has become a ticking time-bomb
• A salesman who drives around and around a traffic rotary, unable to get off
• A college quarterback who can’t stop calling the same play
• A child molester who, after falling on the ice, is left with a brain that is very much dead inside a body that is very much alive
• A mother of two young girls, diagnosed with ALS, who has to decide whether a life locked inside her own head is worth living

How does one begin to treat such cases, to counsel people whose lives may be changed forever? How does one train the next generation of clinicians to deal with the moral and medical aspects of brain disease? Dr. Ropper and his colleague answer these questions by taking the reader into a rarified world where lives and minds hang in the balance.

Source: Goodreads


“How do you begin to understand a sick brain? The only viable answer, as this book will show, is that you do it by engaging the person inside, and you do it on a case-by-case basis.”

“Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole” is written by Dr Allan Ropper, a clinical neurologist and a professor of neurology in the US.

Did I know anything about neurology before starting this book? Nope! But it didn’t really matter as the topic is made very accessible and could, for the most part, be understood by someone with no medical knowledge. I did find that some chapters were a little too much for me and the content flew over my head, but this was only some and certainly not the majority.

This is essentially a collection of stories about the patients that the author has met and treated and it isn’t an easy read as the majority of these conditions are life changing. For the most part I was engrossed in reading about the problems affecting these people. I especially enjoyed a small insight into the appointments and treatment of Michael J. Fox who was once under Dr Ropper’s care.

This is one of those books that you feel that you can’t really say you enjoy, because you’re reading about someone else’s suffering, but I can say that it was engaging, interesting and educational in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading a school textbook.

My one grumble was that I found that a lot of the book was about the neurologist himself and how he’d done such an amazing job in quite a self-inflated manner. I appreciate that his job is no walk in the park and I don’t wish to downplay some of the amazing things that he has done, but I did feel that some of his achievements could have been expressed in a way that would make him seem a little more likable! His opinions of mental health were also archaic which is pretty shocking given that this isn’t an old publication!

Overall rating: For the most part, “Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain” is a really engaging, interesting and educational read. The conditions that are described are fascinating, especially from the doctor’s perspective, but I couldn’t really warm to the doctor or his outdated opinions. This one gets 3 stars from me.

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