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The Man with the Electrified Brain
The Man with the Electrified Brain
The Man with the Electrified Brain
Ebook52 pages58 minutes

The Man with the Electrified Brain

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



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“The mind can be a fragile gift. Sometimes it fails us, and often when we need it most. Happily, mine appears to be working reliably now, and so I am perhaps as able as most to confront and cope with the madness of the moment. But during a lengthy period some fifty years ago, my mind unexpectedly broke down.”

These words, from the new introduction to Scribd’s reissue of Simon Winchester’s The Man with the Electrified Brain, are all the more insightful and resonant now as a historic pandemic tests the mental and physical health of people on every continent. The bestselling author understands this better than most, having nearly lost the battle for his own sanity as a young man. How he triumphed, and by what unexpected means—told in this rare and riveting piece of memoir from Winchester—should be a light in the dark for us all, a reminder that from crises can come rebirth.  

Winchester has never shied away from big, even enormous, topics: the Atlantic Ocean, the Krakatoa volcanic eruption, early exploration of the wilderness that would become the United States. His beloved bestseller The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, explored the workings of a brilliant yet troubled mind. In The Man with the Electrified Brain, Winchester takes on arguably his most daunting subject yet: 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.” 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. An attempt to drive ended in a crash, and he abandoned the vehicle. When the episode finally passed, he returned to his former self, 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 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 a controversial treatment—electroconvulsive therapy—that may or may not have cured him once and for all.

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

Release dateMay 7, 2020
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Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is the bestselling author of Atlantic, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (The Professor and the Madman), The Fracture Zone, Outposts and Korea, among many other titles. In 2006 he was awarded the OBE. He lives in western Massachusetts and New York City.

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Rating: 4.2298850574712645 out of 5 stars

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  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    Nice for a short but fast read, not really sure what is the purpose of it but the description of what happened and you get a clear picture of what luckily not so many have gone through.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    This was an interesting look into what it is like to lose your sanity and come back from it. I recommend this book-it’s a quick read but fascinating.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Exquisite autobiographical essay about the author's bout with an unknown episode of malady and seeming disassociation of the mind that one day came out of nowhere, and took hold of his life for four years...// I cannot say anymore about the plot without giving away the journey Simon was forced to travail, trying to live and work while succumbing to these episodes bimonthly. In a curious note, being a fan of ON HUMAN BONDAGE since I first read it 30 years ago, I find it quite interesting that the author was reading Of Human Bondage when his bouts of undiagnosed melancholy and fugue states began; curious, but in no way a causal effect of said malady. This short essay was so well written. I thank Scribd, for recommending this piece. I look forward to reading more of Simon Winchester's work.

    6 people found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    More a short story than a book. This is a riveting account of the experience of psychiatric illness.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Should be read by all mental health care professionals. I am a psychologist and I have learned something from it. I have used talk therapy rather than the DSM approach in my work as a matter of preference.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Book preview

The Man with the Electrified Brain - Simon Winchester


to the New Edition

This is a time so strange and surreal that not a few of us must be enduring existential angst on a titanic scale. For the first time in many of our lives—9/11 being the last occasion, but that now nearly a generation past—we have come face to face with the apocalypse, a violent unwinding of society more terrifying than anything Hollywood might offer us as diversion or forecast. And we worry. Under the daily assault of all the dreadful news, we have to wonder if our faculties are all intact, whether they are telling us the truth of what is taking place, allowing us to understand, evaluate, and manage the grotesque complications, consequences, and casualties of our new and dystopian situation.

The mind can be a fragile gift. Sometimes it fails us, and often when we need it most. Happily, mine appears to be working reliably now, and so I am perhaps as able as most to confront and cope with the madness of the moment.

But it was not always so. During a lengthy period some fifty years ago, my mind unexpectedly broke down. It needed to be fixed. Fifty years ago, few were certain just how that might be done. All that I know now, using the reference language of today’s computer-driven world, is that my mind, my brain, needed to be rebooted.

The term reboot, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary means to restart a computer especially after a malfunction, first entered the language in 1971—three years after the events I describe in the story that follows. It was to be a further twenty years before it assumed the everyday familiarity it enjoys today. Only very recently have students of the brain and its workings begun to employ reboot as a term of art to describe what happens when you fire a powerful electric current through a human brain that has somehow gone awry—has experienced a malfunction—in the hope that the exercise may perhaps change matters for the better.

What follows is a story of the government-enforced rebooting of my then twenty-five-year-old brain, at a time in the development of neuroscience when precious little was known empirically about what this might achieve and when there wasn’t even a word in the English language for what the effects of all that electricity on the brain might be.

The account concerns a series of events that culminated in the spring of 1969, in a Victorian lunatic asylum in the north of England, when a doctor whom I mostly recall as having piercing blue eyes and breath smelling of violet cachous, violently recalibrated—rebooted—my broken-down brain, in six separate and memorable weekly sessions.

It was at the time something of an experiment. I’d like to think I was lucky, in that all of my brain’s various components functioned once the procedure was done with, exactly as they should. More than that: to the extent that my life has since unrolled in a generally satisfactory manner, I can without reservation say that, but for the intervention of those six great jolts of electricity, but for the wise counsel of a venerable country doctor and the expertise of a man in a crumbling English asylum, this most probably would not have been the case.

Half a century late, I give thanks to them all. For they gave me back a mind that is allowing me some measure of sympathetic understanding, just when I need it most, at a time when it seems that the world around me is in the process of going quite irredeemably insane.

Simon Winchester

Barnhill Farm

May 12, 2020


I was standing on the very edge of the crevasse, an edge sculpted smooth by years of blizzards and sunshine until it had been chamfered to a near-perfect glassiness, its surface like pure white obsidian. The edge arced down from the Greenland ice cap into a blue abyss of incalculable depth, out of which echoed the sounds of meltwater torrents raging far down at the base of the glacier. To slide down into the gash would be

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