BOOK REVIEW: Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham

Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short IntroductionCognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book provides a brief overview of cognitive neuroscience, a discipline that has really only been around for the past few decades, one that uses technologies allowing scientists to see what parts of the brain are active during a given mental activity. The reader learns what parts of the brain are involved in the various activities of being human from perception through action, and what can go wrong with these processes. While that sounds simple and straightforward, the immense complexity of the brain makes it anything but, and there is a lot of medical jargon and qualifying statements to explain how a given relationship between brain location and activity isn’t as simple or well understood as we are frequently led to believe. [Any plain and direct explanation of the brain workings is likely to be at best partial truth, and more likely outright deceptive.]

I found the organization of this book to be logical and conducive to learning about this complex and technical topic. The first chapter, “A Recent Field,” describes what cognitive neuroscience is and where it fits in among the various sciences that deal with mental activity including, psychology, psychiatry, etc. This gives one an idea of both how cognitive neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of mental activity, but also where its limitations lie and why it has not displaced all the other disciplines.

Chapters two through eight make up the core of the book and present an exploration of the various aspects of mental activity and what has been learned about them through studies in this field. The progression is logical and elementary: perception (Ch. 2,) attention (Ch. 3,) memory (Ch. 4,) reasoning (Ch. 5,) decision (Ch. 6,) confirmation / checking (Ch. 7,) and finally action (Ch. 8.) In each chapter practical questions are discussed, questions that will be of interest to readers whose goal is not vocabular expansion, in addition to the discussion of what brain region is involved with what activity. What kinds of questions? How amputees “feel” pain from the missing part of the body? Why humans suck at multitasking, and under what circumstances they can do better at it? How come people who have amnesia remember how to talk and engage in physical activities? Is there free will, and – if so – in what sense? Do we think in language? Etc.

The last chapter reflects upon the future of the discipline. Over the course of the book, the reader learns the limitations of what functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans can tell one about what is happening with the brain, and in this chapter one is introduced to the next generation of technologies that may take our level of understanding to another level.

This book has an excellent feature that I don’t recall seeing in other AVSI books. (That is probably, in part, because many of them don’t need it like this one because their subject matter is more readily grasped.) Said feature is a text box at the beginning of the chapter that asks some relatively rudimentary and practical questions, and then – at the end of the chapter – those questions are answered in another box. I think the author recognized that there was a high degree of risk of losing readers if the entire book was, “and when you do decide how many minutes to microwave your Hot Pocket, the temporo-parietal junction works in conjunction with the …” [not an actual quote fragment] he would produce book of limited benefit. [i.e. it would be too technical for the neophyte reader who just wants some practical insight (the AVSI target demographic,) but not technical enough for students of brain anatomy.] These text boxes help keep the reader focused on what is being conveyed while not getting too caught up in arcane terminology.

Other ancillary matter includes graphics (photographs of technology and readouts and diagrams showing where brain areas are located,) references, and a further reading section.

I found this book to have some intriguing discussions on interesting topics. That said, those discussions are interlaced with some necessarily complicated and dense subject matter (that’s the nature of the discipline.) That said, I think the author recognized his challenge and the question boxes and answer boxes that bookended the core chapters were very useful in offering focus for a non-expert reader. It you want a bare-bones overview of cognitive neuroscience, it’s worth reading this slim volume.

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2015 Martial Arts Movies, Revisited

As promised, I’m updating this post at mid-year because in January there’s a lot of uncertainty about what movies will actually come out and when. If you’re comparing notes, my original 2015 Martial Arts Movies post was here.


Wild Card (January 30 in US): This may be a cheat given what I said above. However, it’s a Jason Statham film, and like the “Transporter” films it probably doesn’t amount too much without the ass-kickery. Let’s face it, you’re not going to see Jason Statham for his extensive acting range.




Dragon Blade (February 19 in China, March for India, September for US): Featuring Jackie Chan, John Cusack, and Adrien Brody. This is a period piece, and–as you can tell from the casting–is big budget as martial arts flicks go.




Wolf Warrior (April 2) [China]: This looks like more of a shoot-em-up action film than a martial arts film, but some have listed it as a martial arts film and the close quarters action is definitely reminiscent of a martial arts film.




Skin Trade (April 23, direct to DVD): This film stars Tony Jaa and Dolph Lundgren as the good guys and Ron Perlman as the villain. As the title suggests, it’s set around a theme of human trafficking.




Kung Fu Killer (April 24 in theaters, July 21 on DVD): A Donnie Yen action flick in which Yen is in prison.




Pound of Flesh: (May 15 limited theater, June 23 to DVD, etc.): Jean-Claude Van Damme. The blurb says: “A man’s heroic attempt to help a woman in distress ends up with him waking up the next day without a kidney and plotting his revenge.”




Redeemer (June 12 in theaters, August 31 to DVD): A hit-man goes good. This is a 2014 movie that’s receiving an expanded international release.




SPL (Sha Po Lang) II / A Time for Consequences / SPL2: Rise of Wong Po (June 18): This Hong Kong film will feature Thai superstar Tony Jaa. (Like Donnie Yen, this guy is in everything. I don’t know whether they’re cloning these guys or what. Maybe they just don’t need to sleep, eat, or poop like the rest of us.)




The Monk Comes Down the Mountain (July 3): This movie is based on a popular Chinese novel entitled Dao Shi Xia Shan (A Monk Comes Down the Mountain) and is a comedic kung fu flick.




Underdog Kids (July 7, straight to DVD / online): Looks like The Karate Kid but with a lower budget but more [karate] kids. Here is the trailer:




The Boy and the Beast (July 11) [Japan]: This is an animated film, but martial arts is a prominent and necessary feature of the movie. (I believe I included one of the Kung fu Panda movies in one of my past posts, so I think this is fair game.)




Brothers (July 31) [India, in Hindi]: An Indian remake of the American film Warriors. In the American movie, two estranged brothers must fight each other in an MMA bout. (Hence the name of the Indian version, Brothers.)




The Martial Arts Kid (August 21): As the unimaginative title (a generic knock-off of the alliterative “Karate Kid”?) suggests, this is a low budget work, and the acting–if the trailer is any indication–is atrocious. It features competition martial artists-turned actors Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.




Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend (August 28): Interestingly, this sequel to an immensely popular film will be released on Netflix and IMAX simultaneously. If this were some risky, low-budget film, going straight to Netflix wouldn’t be at all surprising, but this is the sequel to the highest grossing foreign language film in America.




The Transporter: Refueled (September 4): Another “Transporter” film, but Ed Skrein plays the role of Frank Martin in this one. As with “Wild Card” it may be a cheat to include it as a martial arts film, but car chases and shoot-outs don’t get these movies all the way to watchability.




Skiptrace (December 24): This is a martial arts comedy featuring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville as buddies on the lam.



Movies with unspecified release dates:



The Bodyguard (undesignated release) [China]: Featuring and directed by Sammo Hung. The lack of trailer makes me not optimistic for a 2015 release, but who knows…
sammo-hung-740x400



The Chemist: A grain of salt on the 2015 release. This is an “assasin-who-can’t-bear-to-kill-his-victim-and-ends-up-protecting-her-instead” film. It’s been in post-production for a while.




Iceman 2 (in post-production): This Donnie Yen sequel doesn’t have a set release date and I expect a 2016 release, but it’s still listed as a winter 2015 film. It’s a Kung fu Encino Man. I haven’t seen any publicity, but the plot blurb is: The imperial guard and his three traitorous childhood friends ordered to hunt him down get accidentally buried and kept frozen in time. 400 years later pass and they are defrosted continuing the battle they left behind



Close Range (in post-production): A guy is looking for a girl. It looks like a low budget Taken, but the fight scenes may be better.




Unlikely 2015 Releases:



White Tiger: Another film with Don “the Dragon” Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock.



A Man Will Rise: A Tony Jaa and Dolf Lundgren film with a “delayed” release status.



Black Salt: (in post-production): The blurb is: With time winding down towards world-ending devastation, the fate of mankind rests in the hands of Interpol agent Samuel Tharpe.

Are Action Movies Dazzling Us Stupid?

AvengersJust like everyone else, when I first watched The Avengers, I was awed. As I digested the experience, however, I realized how appallingly flawed the story was. Can a film that is visually impressive enough dance over the hard parts of story?

Alright, it’s not just being visually impressive. If it were, then the Transformers movies (I’m thinking particularly of the second one) wouldn’t be so sucktacular. No. Filmmakers also need clever quips. This feeds an inexplicable urge of young people to repeat the witty remarks of movie characters ad infinitum. (Confession: I’ve always longed for an excuse to say, “I’m your Huckleberry,” as per Doc Holliday’s words to Johnny Ringo in Tombstone.) It’s not just that the Hulk bashes a marble floor to dust using Loki’s lanky frame, but that he delivers that witty, two-word rejoinder. Together the CGI and the quip seal the scene in one’s mind.

[Spoilers ahead] If one looks up deus ex machina in the dictionary, one learns that it means: “someone or something that solves a situation that seemed impossible to solve in a sudden and unlikely way, especially in a book, play, movie, etc.” If one’s dictionary is online, one would then probably be treated to a video clip of the scene in which Professor Selvig is knocked on the head, becomes unenslaved, and consciously realizes that his subconscious built a backdoor that will allow him to shut down the portal that were previously told can’t be shut. The clip could then continue through the end of the movie (minus the post-credit shawarma scene.)  The following are key incidents of deus ex machina in this film:

-a bump on the noggin releases one from the mind-control of a god (A “puny god,” indeed.)
-a conscious mind (in a waking and non-meditative state) knows in great detail what happened in the subconscious
-an attack on the mothership disables all troops on the ground, Independence Day style (worst command and control ever.)

One may be thinking that I’m just one of those douches who picks nits, but I’m really not. These flaws are fundamental to how the story is resolved. They are cheats that make everything that happened leading up to the climax irrelevant. Think about it; if the Professor had gotten knocked on the head 20 minutes earlier, the massive Avengers battle through Manhattan would never have been necessary. They could have called the movie “Professor Selvig’s Magical Mind” and left the Avengers out of it all together.

I’m willing to sustain disbelief about the small things. There are plenty of critics who get into the minutiae of continuity gaffes and the like. A couple of my favorites are below.

Lest one think that I’m picking on The Avengers, that’s only because it’s the third highest grossing film ever and first in the superhero genre. If you’re spending hundreds of millions on a film, you’d think you could throw some chump change into good story-building.  I realize that filmmakers have a jaded audience to contend with, and that they have to ramp up the peril to impossible heights to impress. Maybe they are forced to then throw away the resolution of story. Those who read my recent review of The Wolverine, will know that my criticism isn’t restricted to The Avengers.

Well, I’ve got nits to pick.