Noga Arikha, who calls herself ‘a science humanist’, is that welcome rarity today, a contemporary scholar and philosopher with a breadth of interests that transcends disciplines. Fascinated by the problem of consciousness and the still-mysterious complexities of the human mind, for eighteen months she attended clinics in the prestigious neuropsychiatry unit of Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, where alongside the medical team of clinicians she was able to observe patients with unusual and often inexplicable symptoms.
Her interest was purely scientific until, in a potentially tragic turn of events, she found herself studying her own beloved mother, the talented poet Anne Atik, whose journey into dementia had led to her becoming a patient at the same hospital.
I should declare that I have a dog in this fight. My own mother, maternal uncle and grandmother all succumbed to Alzheimer’s; given that the APOE4 gene that disposes people to Alzheimer’s often passes down the maternal line, I am likely to be in the sights of this cruel and unforgiving disease. This would ordinarily make me reluctant to dwell too much on the topic. It is a tribute to Arikha’s writing that my resistance was swiftly overcome, in large part thanks to the subtlety of her observations and conclusions, which go well beyond the materialism which too often limits scientific thinking on this and indeed all subjects.
The fact that Arikha has no qualms about including her own mother’s condition in this study gives a flavour of the book’s ambience. There is a fearlessness in her approach to tackling the more bizarre symptoms in the repertoire of the human condition that recalls the work of