BOOK REVIEW: The Brain: A Very Short Introduction by Michael O’Shea

The Brain: A Very Short IntroductionThe Brain: A Very Short Introduction by Michael O’Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The human brain in 120-ish pages, it’s an ambitious goal considering that the brain is widely considered to be the most complex object in the known universe. Still, this is one of Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” (AVSI) series, so the only promise is to give one a concise overview of the subject for beginners. In that task, the book succeeds. In fact, the book takes on some subjects that one might think beyond its scope, such as the historical progression of our understanding of the brain and how technology might be used to repair damaged brains.

The book consists of seven chapters and an epilogue. The first chapter introduces the brain, and it makes this monumental subject manageable by considering reading—a skill that we take for granted but for which the brain conducts miraculous feats from rapid accurate eye movement to turning abstract symbols into meaning. The second chapter takes the reader on a tour of the changing understanding of the brain leading up to the discovery of the neuron—the brain’s basic unit. Chapter three explores how those neurons transmit signals, the fundamental action of the brain. Chapter four examines the evolution of the human brain, both from the perspective of how it could become so complex, and of why it needed to become so. Chapter five is about how the brain receives information and uses this information to conduct activities. A majority of this chapter is devoted to how patterns of light are recognized and turned into the meaningful basis upon which to make decisions or perform actions. Chapter six offers a basic understanding of memory, one of the roles we most closely associate with the brain. Chapter seven considers whether we’ll be able to fix damaged brains, and, if so, using what technologies. A brief epilogue tells us where the future of brain research will go–having gained much understanding since the invention of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), neuroscience must find new approaches to take itself into the future.

The book uses line drawings to depict concepts that are hard to convey via text. While the graphics are simple black-and-white drawings, they are immensely beneficial. Like other AVSI books, there are no citations or notes, just a couple of pages of “further readings.” That’s not a criticism; it’s perfectly acceptable for this type of book.

I found “The Brain: AVSI” to be informative and interesting. The author uses some illuminating examples and cases to cover a lot of ground in a small package. I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants a neophyte’s introduction into the human brain.

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