Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind

Nicola Redhouse

Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind
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Unlike the Heart: A Memoir of Brain and Mind

Nicola Redhouse

‘Unlike the heart … a brain cannot be understood as a static organ. It changes with its history and with every present moment.‘

After the birth of her first child, Nicola Redhouse experiences an unrelenting anxiety that quickly overwhelms her. Her immense love for her child can’t protect her from the dread that prevents her leaving the house, opening the mail, eating. Nor, it seems, can the psychoanalytic thinking she has absorbed through her family and her many years of therapy.

In an attempt to understand the source of her panic, Nicola starts to thread together what she knows about herself and her family with explorations of the human mind in philosophy, science and literature. What role do genetics play in postnatal anxiety? Do the biological changes of motherhood offer a complete explanation? Is the Freudian idea of the mind outdated? Can more recent combined theories from neuroscientists and psychoanalysts provide the answers? How might we be able to know ourselves through our genes, our biology, our family stories and our own ever-unfolding narratives?

In this compelling and insightful memoir, Nicola blends her personal experiences with the historical progression of psychoanalysis. In the end, much like in analysis, it is the careful act of narrative construction that yields the answers.


In this extraordinary memoir, the reader is taken into the confidence of Nicola Redhouse: writer, editor, reader and, above all, someone who constantly seeks to better understand the human condition and her own unique mind. Unlike the Heart is an insightful account of mental health experiences in a family, particularly postnatal anxiety. It is also a profoundly personal reflection on navigating through competing frameworks – in particular psychoanalysis, psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience – for understanding these issues. The result is a sophisticated examination of the tensions between these sparring schools of thought and their theories, and the story of a quest for self-knowledge that makes for compulsive reading.

Redhouse brings an open mind, an appetite for research and an occasionally devastating turn of phrase to her endeavour: ‘I lay in my bed beset by an impermeable doom; not quite thoughts about particular events but a climate of dread in me.’ She captures the mental gymnastics of early parenthood with crystalline accuracy: ‘I feared that Reuben wasn’t sleeping because of something that I was doing to him or not doing to him.’ In the midst of this work of serious enquiry and complex theoretical engagement, her presence is vivid and relatable: ‘Which of me was the real me? The one who woke with terror in the pit of my guts? Or the one who could enjoy a bowl of porridge once the terror was annihilated?’

Unlike the Heart is intense, rigorous and impossible to ignore once you begin it. Having already monopolised the attention of numerous Readings staffers, it shows every sign of becoming an influential book that will be discussed for years to come. It will resonate with readers who have experienced perinatal depression or anxiety, but it is also a must-read for anyone interested in the history and future of the study of the mind.

Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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