Noe Valley Voice March 2006

Medical Student Writes a Brainy Book

By Heidi Anderson

When Shannon Moffett started medical school at Stanford a few years ago, she took a required course in neurobiology. The classes were anything but dull.

"Every class was led by an expert in some part of the brain," she recalls. "Each lecturer was so passionate, informative, and inspiring that I kept thinking, What a great way to learn!"

She liked the course so much that she decided to write a book--one that would share with the outside world some of the mind-blowing (literally) stuff she was learning about the brain from top scientists in the field.

The result is The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries, published in January by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

The book explores the latest research on that three-pound "block of cheese" at the top of our spinal cord--which Moffett points out is 80 percent water--through a series of personal interviews with scientists, doctors, patients, even philosophers. The lively profiles and case studies are interspersed with a timeline showing the human brain's development from conception to death.

Single-Cell Clintonia

Moffett says her research for the book took her far beyond her Stanford classroom. She traveled to Chicago, Boston, the Hamptons on Long Island, and to places all over the Bay Area. One of her more interesting subjects was a neuroscientist named Christof Koch, whose experiments involved listening to neurons through electrodes planted in patients' brains.

"He seems to have found single neurons in our brains that are active only when one is conscious of [a particular person or object], say, Bill Clinton," says Moffett. "This is the first concrete look, on a neuron level, that seems to have found the link between the brain and conscious perception." (See excerpt , below.)

Moffett's book covers more than the microscopic, however. She interviewed a woman who lives with dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, a condition made famous by the movie Sybil. "Say 'multiple personality,'" Moffett writes, "and people think of Dr. Jekyll and the terrible Mr. Hyde or imagine inchoate screams and shattering glass.... But when [Judy] Castelli [her interview subject], a strawberry blond wearing a pink jersey top and striped pedal pushers, came out to meet me holding a coffee mug and accompanied by Dolly, a little multicolored terrier with a bandy-legged trot, the whole scene looked about as scary as a Folgers commercial."

She also visited a hospital operating room where she observed a team of doctors removing a bullet from the head of a gunshot victim. From that session, she learned that surgeons tend to leave most of a bullet's fragments in the patient's brain nowadays. More damage can be done by poking around the brain looking for pieces than by just leaving them in.

Perhaps the least scientific of Moffett's experts was found here in the Bay Area.

"I talked with Norman Fischer, a Zen monk who was once the co-abbot at the San Francisco Zen Center," says Moffett. "He believes that our brains are actually lenses of a vast universal consciousness, all focusing in different ways and channeling the same energy."

Moffett says that while the Zen stance is much harder to prove, she finds that on a cultural level it makes a lot of sense. "The concrete areas of brain research were easier to write than the Zen chapter. But it was a great counterpoint to all my other subjects."

Many Labors of Love

The book took about six years for Moffett, 33, to complete. During that time, she managed a reduced load at Stanford. (She'll graduate this June with an M.D. and plans to go into emergency medicine.) Oh, and she gave birth to twin girls last August.

The twins were born prematurely after Moffett diagnosed her own case of preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure) while working a night shift at a local emergency room. Park and Ivy are about 6 months old now, happy and healthy.

"I am definitely not clinical in my observations as they develop, but I have to say, even though they can't walk or talk yet, already their behavior is so complicated!"

She credits her sanity and many accomplishments to the girls' father (boyfriend of three years Mike Choy, with whom she lives), her nanny two days a week ("the most wonderful nanny ever--I dreamt I married her the other night!"), and about six professional journalists whom Moffett calls Mom, Dad, Uncle, or Granddad--in other words, her parents and relatives.

"I swore off journalism when I was in college," says Moffett. "I grew up watching all the legwork it took."

But after a brief stint as a starving actress in New York, then medical school, then discovering she had a passion for brain research, she says the writing part of Three-Pound Enigma came naturally.

"The people who live and breathe this research every day have a hard time explaining it to lay people. I felt that, with one foot in science and one foot in the lay world, I could do this."

She credits her mom, Nancy Moffett, for the book's readability. A city editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, her mom edited the manuscript, and very critically.

"My mother is a fantastic line editor. She'd always come up with a better way to say something."

Shannon Moffett didn't write the book in Noe Valley--she and Choy have lived on Douglass Street for less than a year--but perhaps she'll write her future books here.

"When my boyfriend and I came to San Francisco to look around, I immediately liked this neighborhood. It's a great place with lots of coffeehouses, and it seemed like a place a writer could be happy."

You can pick Moffett's brain at a reading and book-signing at Cover to Cover Booksellers, 1307 Castro Street, on Saturday, March 18, at 7 p.m.

From The Three-Pound Enigma by Shannon Moffett:

Nevertheless, Fried and Koch may have found some such cells in their experiments recording from single neurons. "We have neurons," Koch told me, "that seem to respond very specifically, there's no question about it," to images of particular things and not others. For example, Gabriel Kreiman, at the time a graduate student in Koch's lab, found "one neuron that only responds to three very different pictures of Bill Clinton: a color portrait, a pencil drawing, and a portrait with him and two others--his wife and somebody else," he said. "The images couldn't be more different at the pixel level, but the neuron responds very strongly to all of them." The neuron was not active at baseline, when its owner wasn't being shown a picture, and it did not respond to images of other men, other famous people, animals, objects, or landmarks.

"Now I cannot exclude," Koch said, "that it might respond to yet another Southern Baptist politician, because we only had half an hour to record from, and you know, in that time you can only show so many images."

Excerpted with author's permission from The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries, c. 2006, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C.