REVIEW: The Man With The Electrified Brain by Simon Winchester

The Official Description: “I glanced at myself in a mirror and, though unshaven, and my hair still morning-tousled, I appeared to be just the same. It was inside, inside my head, where all had become so wretchedly different. I had the night before been incontrovertibly a man of stable mood, of calm, of good cheer and unforced bonhomie. Now I had become changed, with dreadful suddenness, into another being altogether.”

Simon Winchester has never shied away from big, even enormous, topics—as evidenced by his bestselling biography of the Atlantic Ocean, his account of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption, and his wildly popular “The Professor and the Madman,” about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. In his Byliner Original “The Man with the Electrified Brain,” he takes on arguably his most daunting subject yet: his own flirtation with madness, and one of nature’s greatest and most enduring mysteries, the human brain.

As a geology student in his second year at Oxford, Winchester was known as a young man of even temper and keen intellect, until one June morning when he woke to find himself “changed with dreadful suddenness into another being altogether,” his normal life “slumped into chasm” and “folded in the dirt.” For a period of nine days, he lived in immobilizing fear. Everyday items—familiar paintings, a pile of books, his own robe hanging from a hook—became objects of horror; the world lost color, purpose, all sense and safety. When the episode finally passed, he returned to normal, presuming that what had happened to him was a fluke. It wasn’t. The episode repeated itself at unpredictable and dangerous intervals for four years—always lasting for nine days—and very nearly caused the author’s death while he was on an expedition in the Arctic.

What was wrong with him? Where could he find help? Would he spend the rest of his life anticipating the return of these mental blackouts? With the urgency of a whodunit, Winchester describes the coming and going of these terrifying dissociative states and the chance encounter that led to the controversial treatment of electroconvulsive therapy, which may or may not have cured him once and for all.

Written by a consummate storyteller, “The Man with the Electrified Brain” locates that finest of lines between sanity and insanity and is Winchester’s most riveting and deeply personal work yet.

Just the facts: Non-fiction, Mental Health

Simon Winchester recounts his experience with mental health and the controversial treatment that may have been responsible for his recovery. – Kinzie Things


My thoughts bit: Simon Winchester awakens one morning while at Oxford and suddenly everything around him seems threatening … nothing has changed … but everything is different. Everything from his housecoat, to painting and books, was terrifying. All of this happens about two weeks before he’s to set off on an expedition to the Arctic.

After 9 days of suffering in a world of his own… the “fog” lifted. The expedition began without a hitch. He was suffering from strange compulsions – dangerous ones int he arctic, and retreated within himself. He speculates that it was the intense physical labor of the expedition that kept him from focussing too much on his own state. The pattern continued and Winchester began the process of understanding what was going on.

There are pills, doctors, things that don’t work, side effects, and no progress for four years. When he found himself attempting suicide and leaving his job the healing began.  He met a doctor on a house call to see his Aunt… and he suspected he knew what was wrong. This meeting leads to Winchester getting electroconvulsive therapy. After six weeks of therapy… Winchester’s life was returned to him. He was cured.

He didn’t write about his mental health challenges and the subsequent treatment for many years. In part, he says, due to the thoughts/ concerns of his parents. It wasn’t until he was researching years later for a book he was writing that he picked up a copy of the DSM-IV and discovered that a diagnosis of dissociative disorder matched his symptoms perfectly.

There’s some discussion in this book about the validity of the DSM-IV and the like as tools for diagnosis, the stigma of living with mental illness, fear of relapse and both sides of the argument regarding ECT.

Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) Description of dissociative disorder, description of fear and anxiety, description of electroconvulsive therapy.

Readalikes: Other stories that are similar or give the same feel.

Links: Goodreads // The Author // The Publisher

I received an ARC of The Man With The Electrified Brain by Simon Winchester from Scribd via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.


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