When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

paul kalanithi when breath becomes air

A neurosurgeon’s quest for meaning while living with terminal cancer

When Breath Becomes Air is a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was written by Dr Paul Kalanithi and published posthumously. It is an autobiography of the author’s life and the years surrounding his cancer diagnosis, treatment, and death. In it, he explores the struggles he faced in his quest to become a top neurosurgeon, his personal relationships, and what it felt like to be on the opposite side of the doctor-patient relationship. He also shares his quest to find meaning and purpose in life.


Career as calling – The author reflects on the demands, physical and emotional, that surgeons (especially neurosurgeons) face as they climb their way through medical school and the years of residency afterward.

Search for meaning – Dr Kalanithi traces his search for meaning and purpose in life from his early childhood days through med school and to the very end of his life. He offers a very candid take on how he dealt with those deep, existential questions of life.

Life as a cancer patient – Though he had much experience in interacting with cancer patients and performing countless surgeries to remove cancer, life is very different on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship. These sections of the book are very moving and profound.


This book will tug at your heartstrings. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster in sections for me and I know the same will be true for others, especially those who have lost loved ones to cancer. It’s amazing how much a book like this can change your perspective in many areas of life. If you’re up for the journey, this book is a well-needed dose of humanity.

Here is a link to the Wiki page for this book. You can find the book on Amazon here.


The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel van der Kolk

the body keeps the score book cover

Exploring the neuroscience of the brain-body connection in mental health

In “The Body Keeps the Score”, Dr Bessel van der Kolk shares what he’s learned as a researcher and mental health professional in caring for patients who have experienced trauma. The author covers the medical history of how we have treated those dealing with mental health conditions, what we’ve learned along the way, and he shares many patient stories that help to illustrate the topic.

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably
​the single most important aspect of mental health;
safe connections are fundamental to
meaningful and satisfying lives.”

“Neuroscience research shows that
the only way we can change ​the way we feel
is by becoming aware of our inner experience
​and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” ​

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. https://besselvanderkolk.net/index.html

Trigger warning: this book doesn’t go into graphic detail, but it does cover topics that may be disturbing to some readers who have experienced trauma. For example, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are discussed, as is addiction and self-harm.

Topics Discussed

Adverse Childhood Experiences – also known as ACEs and discussed in a previously reviewed book Supernormal – are traumatic events or lived experience of abuse and neglect throughout childhood. The higher your ACE score, the more likely you are to develop chronic conditions (mental and physical) later in life. Dr van der Kolk pays special attention to how this relates to psychiatric diseases like PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

The Science of Trauma – Dr. van der Kolk goes over the history of how our understanding of trauma has changed over the years, including the neuroscience of how the brain processes threats, danger, abuse, and trauma. The development of advanced imaging techniques (fMRI and PET scans) has allowed scientists to see which parts of the brain are over or underactive during various mental states.

Treatment Options For Psychiatric Disorders

Talk Therapy – the ability to talk about our experiences and problems has been shown to help many people. Perhaps the more studied of these is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but there are many others that are covered in the book.

Yoga – connecting with your bodily senses in a meaningful way is what yoga is all about. This is a way to integrate physical activity into healing the mind.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – this type of therapy uses eye movement while processing negative events from your life (trauma) and the feelings and emotions connected to it.

Internal Family Systems – also known as Self Leadership, is a system of therapy that helps you to look at how your conscious mind is a collection of sub-personalities. IFS can be used to evaluate each perspective/personality in the system and address negative, harmful, overly critical, or violent ones. (I didn’t do a very good job of explaining it here, which is why you should read the chapter about it!)

Neurofeedback – this type of treatment uses electrodes on your head to detect the electrical signals happening in your brain. With these on, the patient then goes through guided imagery to learn how to engage parts of the brain that are helpful for focusing attention, calming anxiety, and processing emotions.


This is a really, really important book that I highly recommend. I appreciate how the author explains the science and research while mixing in patient stories to help illustrate the concepts and topics. Some of the patient stories were too painful for me to read and I’m guessing that anyone with a history of trauma or abuse may have a similar experience. I especially recommend this book to anyone who works in healthcare and for those who have friends or family that have experienced trauma.

You can find the book on Amazon here. Click this link to go to the author’s website.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain – Oliver Sacks

oliver sacks musicophilia book cover

Science meets art, neurology meets music in this fun book

Are you the type of person to carry a tune around in their head wherever you go? Some people are good at visual imagery, I have a very vivid auditory/musical mind. Dr Sacks is the author of some great books, but this one is my favorite from him because I am also a lover of music. Music is almost magical to me. It has the power to move us in a deep way that is beyond words. It even has healing power. The author explores this and much more in Musicophilia.

Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does–humans are a musical species.

From Dr Sack’s official website – https://www.oliversacks.com/books-by-oliver-sacks/musicophilia/


Case Studies – The author covers cases studies of musical savants as well as things he has learned from many of his own patients over the years. He shares stories of how music is used as a tool for therapy and healing and stories of the blessings and curses of expert musical ability. He was there during the beginnings of music therapy and speaks to how it can help patients with a variety of conditions.

Humans are a musical species – Dr Sacks explains some of the theories out there about the origin of language and makes a case that music came before language, not the other way around. Why does music play such a major role in almost every documented culture? What is it in us that is drawn to music, rhythm, and how it draws people together.

Musical hallucinations – I never had heard of this, but it is very much a real phenomenon and it is underreported. People who once were able to hear but have since become deaf often develop musical hallucinations. The same is true for blind people experiencing visual hallucinations. The neuroscience behind it is interesting, though it does make some folks question their sanity, even though there’s a perfectly good explanation for it.

Pathology – Dr Sacks also covers more rare disorders like amusica. Some people are unable to differentiate between tones, rhythms, melodies. This can be congenital or acquired (stroke, head injury, illness). Absolute pitch is much more common in populations that have a tonal language (like Mandarin) and for people who are blind.


If you are a music lover who is interested in learning more about the science behind it and how it can go right (and wrong), you should check this out. While reading this book, I went on a deep rabbit trail in checking out the musical savants listed in this book. It’s so fascinating to me. Dr Sacks has a unique writing style and can tend to ramble on a bit in some of his books (not to mention excessive footnotes!), but I really enjoyed all of that in Musicophilia.

To Learn More

You can find the book on Amazon here. You can find out more about Dr Oliver Sacks on his website. You can learn more about the NOVA production that features a few of the case studies in this book here.

Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death – Adrian Owen

adrian owen into the gray zone book

A science book that forces you to consider philosophical and ethical questions

I first picked this book up because I was curious about learning more regarding consciousness and the science behind it. This book delivered on that, but it also opened so many other doors of thought that I didn’t realize were there. What is consciousness exactly? What does it mean to have a good quality of life? What if we’re wrong in our assumptions about these questions? Who gets to decide? These questions go beyond the scientific method.

Science and storytelling

What I like most about this book is that it isn’t just a science book or textbook. Adrian Owen is a neuroscientist and researcher, but he also does a great job of telling the story of his discoveries and the patients he encounters along the way. It can all too easy to dismiss or gloss over data points and numbers, but when you hear the stories that people have gone through it makes you stop and put yourself in their place. While the science part really is fascinating, you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to benefit from (or understand) this book. The stories of Kate, Juan, and Scott will stick with you for a long time.

It turns out, we were wrong about consciousness

Spoiler alert: many people who were previously thought to be non-responsive or in a vegetative state are actually aware of what’s going on. Up to 20%, it appears. This raises all kinds of ethical questions about how we treat people who are non-responsive or appear to be in a vegetative state. Until the science improves and we can truly know who is conscious and who isn’t, should we change how we handle these cases from a medical standpoint? Are we being ethical in making decisions about care?


If you have a science background and are interested in the study of the mind and consciousness, you really should read this book. Those who are on the fence or are willing to reconsider their stances on the right to live or right to die movements will also find this book interesting, if not challenging. I definitely recommend this book. It is thought-provoking and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. In fact, it will likely leave you with more questions. If you’re okay with that, check this one out.

You can find “Into The Gray Zone” on Amazon here and find out more about the book and the author here.