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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POEM: In Focus

A sight enflames my consciousness,
and the world blurs away.
And nothing vibrant or golden
can hold my mind in sway.

A simple beauty does the trick —
no gemstones are needed —
to ensure the cosmos beyond
lies wholly unheeded.

I never know what simple sight
will capture my focus —
perhaps, a cloud, or just a curve,
a creature, or a crocus.

POEM: Focus Flagging

bell clanging
incense burning
garlands hanging

a hint of sacred in the air
and yet the mind is tossed
nothing sticks in one’s attention

any more than a rider can stay saddled on a dragon

if you can trip into the space between peals,
and ride that into the void,
you may find what you’re looking for

BOOK REVIEW: On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert EyesOn Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a field guide to getting the most out of walks in the city; though it’s presented through a series of essays. City-centeredness is the book’s niche. There are tons of books that teach one how to get more out of the subtle signs and signals seen in nature, but we tend to miss the nature (and a good deal of the culture) in our city walks because we view them in a utilitarian fashion and because there is so much shouting for our attention that it’s easy to miss nature’s subtle cues.

The book consists of 12 chapters—each of which is organized around a city walk. Eleven of these walks are with experts who offer the author (and her readers) greater insight into some dimension of the city walk experience that is often lost to the limits of our attention. When I use the word “expert,” I use it broadly. The reader may find some of these individuals more worthy of the title “expert” than others—e.g. two among them are the author’s 19 month old son and her dog—but they all offer a unique insight. [You may recognize the author’s name from a popular book she wrote on dog behavior, and that’s a particular area of interest for her.] Others are the kind of experts that might testify in court or be asked to give a consultation at a corporation. Along the way, Horowitz inserts more general information on the psychology and science of human attention–and its limits—as is relevant to the larger discussion.

The twelve chapters are organized into three parts. The first part deals with the inanimate dimension of the city. Its four chapters deal with the things that children notice owing to either their height or their unjadedness, the natural materials of the city (rocks and biomass), fonts and signage, and the under-appreciated ordinary.

The second part explores the animate part of the city, including insects, animals, and humans. The reader will learn that–despite the fact that they may only see the occasional bird or squirrel—the city is teeming with non-human fauna. The two chapters that deal with humans take quite different perspectives. One is with the Director of the Project on Public Spaces, an expert on how cities are organized (by planning, organically, and by default) and the effect that this has on people and their movement through cities. The last chapter in this part is by a doctor whose expertise is making diagnoses in the style of Sherlock Holmes by means of close observation of the minutiae of a person’s appearance and posture.

The final part is about the sensory experience of a city walk. The first chapter in this section details a walk with a blind woman who is attuned to moving about the city using her other senses. There’s a chapter with an expert on sound, and the walk she takes with her dog—whose experience is largely informed by its olfactory sense. The last chapter is a short summation of what the author has learned and begun to apply in her own solo walks.

The book has few graphics, e.g. depictions of relevant art. There are source citations arranged by chapter in end-note form.

I found this book to be intriguing and beneficial. I think we could all benefit from city walkers who were more tuned in to what was going on around them. (Sadly, the trend seems to be going the other way.) I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to take a walk, and nature lovers may find it unexpectedly fascinating.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to be more observant while avoiding the pitfalls of drawing faulty conclusions based on unsound reasoning, tainted memory, or faulty assumptions. Examples from the canon of Sherlock Holmes (i.e. the 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) are prevalent throughout the book, but Konnikova also discusses Doyle’s limited real life investigations as well as those of the men who influenced the writer. Doyle lived at time when science and reason were making great strides in overcoming superstitious and spurious ways of thinking, and so the Sherlock Holmes works were cutting edge for their time.

The book is neatly organized into four parts with two chapters each. The first part is entitled “Understanding Yourself” and it unpacks what we have to work with in the human brain. One learns how one’s brain works and how it sometimes leads one astray. It also introduces how the scientific method can provide a framework to harness the brain’s strengths and avoid the hazards of its weaknesses.

Part II investigates how one can become more skilled at investigation, as well as the role played by creativity and imagination. We learn how our attention is much more limited than we feel it to be.

The third part reflects upon the building one’s powers of reasoning as well as the importance of knowledge-building in the process. Konnikova describes “deductive reasoning” using Holmes’s favorite term. [She doesn’t really get into the whole muddle of—as many have pointed out—the fact that Holmes more often uses induction than deduction, i.e. going from very specific observations to draw broader conclusions.] The second chapter considers the importance of being knowledgeable and broadly educated. Holmes’s conclusions often hinge on fairly arcane knowledge about a range of issues: animal, vegetable, and mineral. However, a large part of the discussion is about the idea of degree of confidence. It’s also pointed out that knowledge can be double-edged sword—an impediment as well as a tool. Extraneous knowledge may lead one down the wrong path.

The final part suitably closes the book with one chapter on practical advice for how to put all of the knowledge discussed in the book to work and another on the recognition that even the best minds can go astray. The first chapter summarizes as it offers pragmatic advice. The second of these chapters discusses a fascinating investigation of a supernatural phenomenon (i.e. the existence of fairies from photographic evidence) upon which even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind led him astray.

The use of the Sherlock Holmes character is beneficial as many readers have consumed the entire Holmsian canon, or will do so, because it’s short and readable even today. Even those who haven’t read it will at least be familiar with the lead character and his proclivities as well as the other essential characters, such as Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler. There are too many television shows, movies, and pop culture references to not be aware of these characters. One needn’t have read all Doyle’s Holmes to benefit, as Konnikova offers the essential background. However, one might find it a bit more intriguing if one has read the canon. At the end of each chapter, Konnikova offers a set of references that point to the sections in the Sherlock Holmes canon relating to that chapter’s discussion. Konnikova uses quotes and stories that aren’t attributable to Doyle to good effect throughout this book as well.

Graphics are used sparsely and only as absolutely necessary. There is a “Further Reading” section at the end of the book in addition to the end of chapter pointers. Besides a list of the Sherlock Holmes books, there are chapter-by-chapter prose suggestions of relevant key readings.

I found this book interesting and informative. While it may be most useful for someone who wants to become more attentive, less prone to biases, and more effective in drawing conclusions, it could also be enjoyed by Sherlock Holmes fans as a way to drill down into stories a bit further.

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