Medical books round-up: Brain food, self-diagnosis and tales of a bygone age

Medicine is suddenly a hot topic. And the hottest topic of all is the brain

Following the success of books by Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Henry Marsh, medicine is suddenly a hot topic. And the hottest topic of all is the brain. It used to be thought that the brain was irreparable: lose some neurons and they'll never be replaced. But though individual neurons cannot be replaced, new routes can be found.

Welcome to neuroplasticity and Norman Doidge's The Brain's Way of Healing (Allen Lane, £20). The catalyst for the new understanding was Paul Bach-Y-Rita's work in the 1960s in which blind people were enabled to "see" by means of a camera feeding into a 400-plate array on their backs. Although not connected to the visual system, images were perceived. Doidge works through many such cases of sensory substitution. An adaptation of this process, using the highly sensitive tongue, has been claimed to help in a case of multiple sclerosis.

Daniel J Levitin's The Organized Mind (Allen Lane, £20 is one of the flood of books from the school of Daniel Kahneman but it earns its keep. It is very much a self-help book, suggesting organisational techniques to cope with risk and the blizzard of information. Levitin demonstrates how easily we are bamboozled by statistical tricks in medicine, finance and safety, making his points with pithy stories, such as an expose of financial scams based on selective windowing and, best of all, the following allegory: an amateur decides to build a collective jet plane in a field; anyone can come along and add or subtract parts: Wikipedia! This book is already deservedly a bestseller.

In The Patient Will See You Now (Basic Books, £18.99), Eric Topol unveils a visionary new world of patient empowerment through apps. Self-diagnosis via smartphone is already a viable technology and Topol sees virtually no end to the possibilities. Topol, a self-professed medical McLuhanite, is director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute at La Jolla, California and translational means taking new techniques from the laboratory into the actual practice of medicine. But – a health warning: although the technologies Topol writes about are applicable everywhere, the motivation behind the book is a passionate denunciation of some of the excesses of the US healthcare system which is, in his view, more "eminence-based" than "evidence-based". The grossly inflated charges for healthcare in the US do not translate to the UK but Topol's is yet another book – like Levitin's – that condemns the statistical ignorance of many doctors. He also denounces the excessive use of scans, many of which are giving patients, especially children, dangerous doses of radiation. Excessive testing and wasteful, Big Pharma-inspired over-prescribing are evils everywhere. For Topol, smartphone technology is the answer.

A world away from Topol's evangelical apptivism is John Berger and Jean Mohr's A Fortunate Man (Canongate, £14.99), a classic humanist memoir of an English country doctor in the 1960s, now reissued. The world of a GP's beat in the deprived Forest of Dean at that time now seems impossibly remote. His country doctor was a Conradian, a lord of his practice (more like a parish) as Conrad was a lord of the sea, "a mobile one-man hospital", one who lived among his patients and knew their developing stories. Reading of this unconventional – existentialist even – man and the simple life of this community suddenly seems to shame our world of apps and our obsession with burnishing our life strategies in a digital age. A Fortunate Man, with its grainy black and white photographs by Mohr, has the stink of the real: the real engagement we are losing as our world is diced into bits and bytes.

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