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Edited by Reinhard Konig, Peter Heil, Eike Budinger, Henning Scheich. Published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey, 2005, £62.95 (hardcover), pp 493. ISBN 0-8058-4938-6
A spirit who hears me tapping/The five-sensed cane of mind
Amid such unguessed glories/That I am worse than blind.
H Kemp, Blind, 1919
Most clinical neurologists scarcely spare a thought for the auditory brain: it is what takes over where the VIIIth nerve ends, and if they think of it at all, it is probably in connection with such exotic maladies as cortical deafness or curios like musical hallucinations. But by any criterion this is an interesting place – from pitch-difference limens it is but a few synapses to Mozart and Shakespeare.
I attended the scientific meeting that spawned this book, and so I had the odd experience while reading it of hearing in my mind’s ear the cut and thrust of platform discussion petrified to the more sober exchanges of scientific prose. For the auditory neuroscientist, the book provides a state of the art overview of the field, refreshingly catholic in its scope. There are idiosyncrasies, but they are the quirks of luminaries, and all the more valuable for that. No question, then, that the book will please the crowd for whom it was intended. But is there anything for the neurologist?
Things start reassuringly enough in Part I (“Auditory cortical fields and their functions”) with auditory cortex anatomy. This is truly a closed book for most clinicians, both figuratively and, because the cortex lies deep within the recesses of the Sylvian fissure, quite literally. A chapter on the neurobehavioural study of auditory cortex reminds us that Ferrier, no less, used it to make fundamental claims about the organisation of the brain. We move on to voices, and speech: so far, so good. Part II (“Coding of sounds”), with its heavy-duty electrophysiology, is more of a challenge; and yet the coding of sounds is a problem of the most fundamental scientific and philosophical interest. How on earth is it possible to reconstruct the world we hear from the one-dimensional flutter of two membranes? Part III (“Plasticity, learning and cognition”) addresses the interface between the auditory cortex and experience. Confronted with a chapter about ferrets, perhaps the clinician will master an initial rising sense of alarm by recalling that this is the science that made possible the cochlear implant and may yet explain how cocktail parties work (or fail).
If neurologists should learn something here about bats, barn owls, or ferrets, it can’t hurt. This book is a bracing corrective to the error, too often implicit in clinical practice as in daily life, that the eyes (human eyes, at that) are the sole windows of the brain. To paraphrase that poem of Kemp’s, the unguessed glories of the auditory cortex remind us that the five-sensed cane of mind is, after all, five-sensed.