The “Dr. Carson Challenge”

I recently came across the book “Gifted Hands” by Dr. Ben Carson, MD. My NOOK reader had it on sale for $1.99 and since it received large acclaim I decided to splurge. First published in 1996, it was apparently widely popular-enough so that Cuba Gooding Jr. played Dr. Carson in a made for TV movie on TNT. The book is an autobiography of one of the most celebrated neurosurgeons in the world. Or so the description reads…

 “…he tells of his inspiring odyssey from his childhood in inner-city Detroit to his position as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital at age 33. Ben Carson is a role model for anyone who attempts the seemingly impossible as he takes you into the operating room where he has saved countless lives. Filled with fascinating case histories, this is the dramatic and intimate story of Ben Carson’s struggle to beat the odds — and of the faith and genius that make him one of the greatest life-givers of the century.”

Overall, a decent read-I did however find some of the book’s events to be too “miraculous” to believe. Never mind the fact that Dr. Carson has openly debated Richard Dawkins on evolution- he does make some powerful and uplifting motivational statements. He credits much of his success to his upbringing  and the particular emphasis his mother placed on education. Although she only had a third grade education, Dr. Carson’s mother challenged him and his brother to reading two new books a week, and limited them to watching only three television programs weekly. Seems like a great goal. One that apparently many of us should take to heart.

The National Endowment for the Arts has found that reading has declined among every group of adult Americans, and for the first time in American history, less than half of the U.S. adult American population is reading literature.

As much as I love learning, I must admit, it doesn’t always come in the form of a book. I am a huge documentary film buff. And although my NOVA collection has given me a basic understanding of dark matter-apparently even when the programming is educational- the passive act of television watching doesn’t quite compare to the brain strengthening benefits of reading a book. Furthermore, recent studies at Stanford have found that it’s not just reading, but how we read that makes a difference.

By asking a test group of literary PhD candidates to read a Jane Austin novel inside of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a Stanford researcher has found that critical, literary reading and leisure reading provide different kinds of neurological workouts, both of which constitute “truly valuable exercise of people’s brains”-See This is Your Brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford Researchers Are Taking Notes

The readers were instructed to read in two different ways: to leisurely skim a passage as they might do in a bookstore, and then to read more closely, as they would while studying for an exam.

What the researchers found was intriguing: when we read, blood flows to regions of the brain beyond the ones responsible for executive functions. Rather, it flows to areas associated with close concentration. That may not seem so odd-reading requires concentration-but they also found that critical, close reading requires a certain kind of complex cognitive function that we don’t usually employ.

Moreover, the study showed that simply by asking the readers to alter their method of reading–from “leisure” to “analytical”–they could drastically alter the patterns of neural activity and blood flow within their brains. The study could have implications in the way reading affects the brain and how we train our brains to be better at things like concentration and comprehension. []

Hey, there may be something to this! In high school, I prepared for the SATs by reading the newspaper every day. I have no way of knowing if this helped or not, but I did end up scoring near 1400.

Given the indisputable benefits, I have decided to take on Dr. Carson’s challenge. (And I welcome you to join me!) Starting this week, I will aim to read two books a week in their entirety (limiting television should happen by default as I certainly won’t have time for both).

To go along with our medicine theme, my reading list will ultimately try to focus on what interests me most- disease! I have scoured the internet for lists of the top “medical” best sellers and have found the following:

1. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD

Awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, and it has received acclaim from critics and clinicians alike. Dr. Bruce Cheson, a hematologist and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, recently gave a copy of the book to each of his fellows. “It talks not only about how we arrived at our current surgical techniques and chemotherapy, but also about the people and how important their personalities and their drive were; what they did; and how they sometimes missed things,” he explains. “I gave this book to my fellows because my feeling is, if you don’t know where you have been, you are not going to know where you are going.”

2. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, by Abraham Verghese, MD

The book describes the first days of the AIDS epidemic in rural Tennessee. As the epidemic begins to loom over cities such as New York and San Francisco, many patients (typically gay men, once ejected from their homes) return to Tennessee to live out the last days of their lives. Verghese’s portrait of these patients is intimate, compassionate and unforgettable.

3. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, MD

Set in Ethiopia, this epic novel tells the story of twin brothers who grow up at a mission hospital and eventually become doctors themselves. It has appeared on several prestigious bestseller lists, including The New York Times.




4. The House of God, by Samuel Shem

Originally published in 1978 amid considerable controversy, this book has become a cult favorite among physicians. It offers a fictional account of a medical intern at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Hospital and it satirizes the dehumanizing demands of residency. “I read House of God over and over as an intern and resident,” says Dr. John Tydings, an orthopedic surgeon in New Jersey. “I read it again after residency and thought it was one of the saddest books I ever read,” he continues. “Much is outdated but much is still painfully true.”

5. Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis

Published in 1925, this book won the Pulitzer Prize the next year (though the author refused to accept it). It follows the life and evolution of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, while providing social commentary on the state of medicine in the United States. The book has received much critical acclaim, and it is still popular among current physicians.

Side Note: My husband has asked me to first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and although it doesn’t fit into the “medical” category- he [my husband] has never let me down regarding good books. In any case, that makes the reading selection for this week pretty easy.



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2 responses to “The “Dr. Carson Challenge”

  1. I started reading House of God a few years ago and then stopped. I wonder why I didn’t finish it, maybe it was some of the unsavory sexual elements and how they referred to old patients as gomers or something. I’ll give it another go!

  2. Pingback: The Friday Rewind 5/10 | TheMedSchoolDiary

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