Only too eager to have the machine installed in their brains, they did what they could, and, instead, installed their brains into the machine. Data sparkled in the mind void, bouncing about and careening into other bytes and clusters. But the crash cascades always came, a cannibalistic consumption of fact, transmogrifying it into a shabby soup of quasi-reality. Brain-pans paining, densely packed with alternate realities that could never be rectified. By the time they realized the virtue of going out to play, they were no longer sure what "outside" meant -- Outside of what? Where's the exit? Where is there something else? -something simple? How's one get off this speeding bus? It became the pain that ruled that last lost generation.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This nonfiction graphic novel surveys the brain and what it does, including: sensory processing, memory, attention, unconscious activities, learning, language, emotional experience, etc. It also reviews some of the more intriguing brain disorders (e.g. synesthesia, apraxias, phantom limb syndrome, etc.) and what they tell us about the nature of the mind.
If you’re looking for a soup-to-nuts overview of the brain that covers the gist without getting in too deep, and which is quick and easy, this book is hard to beat. If you have read much about neuroscience, you probably won’t be introduced to anything new. The book employs the usual suspects of pop-sci neuroscience and cognitive psychology: Phineas Gage (i.e. rebar through the brain guy,) H.M. (i.e. couldn’t form new memories after brain surgery guy,) the rubber hand experiment, the gorilla basketball experiment, etc. However, because it’s such a quick and light read, it’s not much of an investment to review these topics, and – who knows – maybe you’ll retain more due to the graphics.
The premise is a simple one, the brain is being interviewed for a Larry King-style talk show that at times becomes a Jerry Springer-style show as “characters” (e.g. a neuron, a homunculus, the conscious mind, etc.) charge the stage to get in their two cents. This might not be the most creative or clever approach that could’ve been taken, but it also doesn’t distract from the objective of teaching about the brain – as a more intense plot might have done. The art is crudely drawn, though I suspect this is on purpose to make clear this is not a textbook, but rather a pop-sci book.
If you are looking for an introduction to the brain, you should check this book out. (Also, if you’re looking to review, quickly and concisely, you might find it of value as well.)
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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Time to get meta, and do some reading about reading. Wolf’s book explores the neuroscience of reading, the evolution of writing systems, and what keeps some children from learning to read as rapidly as most. If you’re wonder about the seemingly arcane title, Proust’s essay “On Reading” planted a seed of thought that would become this book. The squid bit reflects the aquatic creature’s famous neurological adaptability, which is also witnessed in the learning human brain. Reading as both a mystic experience and as the unanticipated consequence of an extremely plastic brain are among the book’s recurring themes.
Another recurring idea is that reading has a cost. This view was famously expressed by Socrates, who believed reading would contribute to diminished memory, intellectual laziness, and other problems. Wolf reflects upon Socrates’ criticisms, but also draws a parallel between Socrates’ ideas on the subject and the present-day argument that the internet / social media is driving us inexorably and inevitably toward an “Idiocracy” type world.
The parts of the book that deal with the neuroscience of reading do get a bit complicated. It would be hard for them not to as reading is a complex task unfolding within the most complex system that we know of. However, wouldn’t say that this book is any more dense or incomprehensible than most pop neuroscience books – especially as it’s mixed in with less challenging material.
My understanding of dyslexia (Ch. 7 & 8) grew considerably while reading this book. I learned that it isn’t a unitary affliction, but can come about at any of a number of cognitive tasks that have to transpire during reading.
If you’re interested in how humanity learned to read, the benefits and costs of this capacity, and what dyslexia really is, this book is definitely worth reading.
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I wrote a post a while back about six persistent brain myths that has some overlapping relevance to this one.
5.) A person is a unitary actor (the spherical cow of social sciences.) When I was a graduate student studying International Relations, a popular theoretical assumption was that nations were “unitary actors.” This meant that no matter how schizophrenic a government (and a nation’s civic institutions) might appear, they ultimately always pursued a national interest via a solitary hand. Like physicists assuming spherical cows, this makes life easier — even if it bears little resemblance to reality.
The full extent of the folly of the rational unitary actor assumption became apparent when I discovered that an individual isn’t even a unitary actor systematically pursuing its best interest. An individual is a collection of impulses, thoughts, feelings, etc. that seems like its under the command of a central authority only because that “central authority” [our conscious mind housed in our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] is really good at forming post-hoc rationalizations and making up stories that let us feel unitary. The reader may think I’m just talking about some slim segment of the population with a multiple personality disorder, but no. I’m talking about anyone who has ever agonized over whether or not they should have an ice cream treat or take the healthy route. At the end of an internal battle that ends with the levers of action being operated by parts of your nervous system beyond your conscious control, you walk away with your conscious mind building a nice story that explains how it chose to either treat its taste buds or take it easy on its pancreas by keeping insulin production stable.
To consider how the conscious and subconscious mind can be on two entirely different pages on a subject, we’re going to veer into controversial and provocative territory. [So be warned, and if you’re sensitive about sexuality and particularly coercive sexual fantasy, you may want to skip down to the next paragraph.] Across a series of studies, an average of 40% of subjects (generally, or maybe exclusively women) admitted they’d had a fantasy about being raped. Many readers will react with incredulity, perhaps suggesting that there must be something wrong with such a person. However, obviously numbers like that aren’t describing a lunatic fringe. The next response one might here is, “Why doesn’t a person with a rape fantasy know how horrible and decidedly unsexy rape is?” If you’re following my gist, you know the answer is that said person knows very well. Consciously, she is aware that rape is violent and horrific, and moreover she probably even knows that it’s about commanding power rather than sexual desire for the rapist. This knowledge doesn’t undermine the fantasy [unless, perhaps, she really forces herself to think about it intensely] because the arousal is driven by a more visceral part of the mind that FEELS that the act is about the rapist being overwhelmed with sexual attraction even though the person KNOWS that that’s not the case.
[Note: I do realize that it might theoretically be possible that a much more complex collection consisting of many individuals and organizations might behave in a more unitary fashion than an individual. That is, even though a nation his made up of many non-unitary actors, perhaps the nature of the game forces it to behave in a unitary fashion. I don’t buy it. I’ve been reading a great example in a biography by Ingrid Carlberg about Raoul Wallenberg where both the Soviets (who had Wallenberg in custody but wouldn’t admit it) and the Swedes (who didn’t know whether Wallenberg was alive and sent mixed signals) were befuddled by varying actors sending mixed messages and collectively behaving ineffectively. It’s hard to come away thinking that Stalin and his Ministers had a rational and unified decision process. Instead, it seems like a perfect storm of incompetency and incorrect assumptions resulted in an outcome that wasn’t ideal for any of the parties.]
4.) Everyone can be hypnotized via instant induction and then commanded to do anything that’s asked of them. Hypnosis is among the most misunderstood activities around. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that hypnosis is a favorite device in movies and fiction, and people draw information from these fictitious sources. The “Now You See Me” movies (see above) offer many such displays of a person being instantaneously hypnotized against his will even when the person is an expert himself, and made to do things against his interests. Misconception also flowers when people hear real or fictitious accounts of Cold War programs like America’s MK Ultra or the Soviet’s psychotronics. The lesson to be taken away from those expensive and morally-dubious programs is that it may be possible to break a person’s mind, but you can’t force someone to do something they abhor while programming them to forget all about it afterwards.
Another reason for the misunderstanding, is that there’s a disreputable group of stage hypnotists and others who love to spread these ideas because it’s more intriguing if people think they can do it to anyone at any time than if they understand that their subjects have been carefully selected to be among the more readily prone to achieve trance states and to be responsive to suggestion. It’s true that most people are hypnotizable and will respond to suggestions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do.) But highly hypnotizable individuals are only about 15% of the population, and there’s another 15% at the other end that are virtually impossible to hypnotize. The video below has more detail on the science.
3.) One has no access to one’s subconscious mind. The conscious mind is like the loudmouthed drunk who swears he invented the potato chip bag clip, the envelope-wetting sponge, and Velcro. That is, it’s hard to hear over the din of incessant yapping, and since the conscious mind claims credit for everything, it’s easy to be fooled that there’s nothing else to listen to in the mind. However, if you can knock the drunk out, you start to become aware of what the subconscious has to say. Those who don’t meditate may be aware of subconscious imagery as they are falling to sleep (the hypnogogic state), as they are waking up (the hypnopompic state), or sometimes even during dreams (i.e. so-called lucid dreams or dream yoga.) Those who do meditate will be well aware of images that spontaneously form and fade in the meditative mind, and which can give rise to conscious thoughts if left unchecked.
2.) Memory is a recording of life events. I’ve been reading Julia Shaw’s “The Memory Illusion” recently. It’s a fascinating look at false memories. There are many famous cases of false memory, but what is most interesting is Shaw’s success in planting false memories of criminal activity. “Planting” isn’t the best term to describe this. It’s more about getting the subject to visualize events such that they create the false memory. While I stand by what I said about the myths of hypnosis, there have been a number of cases of false memories being implanted while an individual was in a hypnotic trance, and so one shouldn’t disregard the power of hypnosis altogether. The fact of the matter is that what we remember isn’t the occurrence of the event itself, but the last remembrance of said event. This means that there’s a great deal of room for memory degradation over time, and for a false transcript of events to form in the mind.
1.) Emotions get in the way of good decision making. I just posted a review of Antonio Damasio’s book “Decartes’ Error,” which examines this subject in great detail. Damasio found that patients who had damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion often became victims of paralysis by analysis. That is, without emotion to give them a kick, they can’t make decisions. Reason doesn’t always provide a clear answer because the world is filled with uncertainty. When there’s not enough information, we still need to make decisions, and this is accomplished by emotional “gut instincts.”
5.) Anil Seth: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality
4.) David Chalmers: How Do You Explain consciousness?
3.) Max Tegmark: Consciousness is a Mathematical Pattern
2.) Antonio Damasio: The Quest to Understand Consciousness
1.) Oliver Sacks: What Hallucination Reveals about Our Minds
This is the book that started me on a fascination with the science of the subconscious mind. In it, Eagleman explains that our subconscious mind has a much bigger role than our consciousness lets us believe. We feel that the conscious mind is in charge of the whole enchilada of our mental being, but in reality the conscious is often late to the party while still managing to weave a narrative about how it saved the day. The conscious has an important role, but one much more limited than it seems, but because consciousness Is the frame through which we are aware the world, it’s easy to miss how much the subconscious handles.
The book is organized into seven chapters. The first chapter sets up the notion that the mind is like an iceberg, the subconscious is the more massive portion that lies below the waterline, and the conscious is the peak that lies above.
The second chapter explores the interface of the senses and the mind. We think that our sensory experience of the world is like looking through a spyglass, but it’s much more a secondary rendering—subject to editing and corruption. Eagleman discusses many illusions that serve to show us that our sensory experience is not as true as we feel it to be.
Chapter three investigates why it is that in some cases the more we think about a task the worse we do with it, and how biases show up even among those who swear they don’t have a racist notion in their body. A number of interesting cases, such as chicken sexing, are used to convey where our conscious mind is of no use to us. Anyone who’s practiced a martial art is aware that sometimes thinking is death.
The fourth chapter explains concepts like instinct and our perception of beauty and attractiveness. It’s entitled, “The Kind of Thoughts That Are Thinkable,” and that gives some insight into the theme.
The next chapter covers one of the most important ideas of the book, that our brains are not all on one page on any given idea. This is one thing that our conscious mind dupes us into believing, that we have a certain belief and that we are uniformly of that view. In fact, our reasoning and emotional systems often have quite different perspectives on a matter. As I mentioned earlier the people who think they don’t have a racist notion in their body. In one sense, they are correct in that they can reason that it’s illogical to think of people differently based on skin color, but such a person still often shows a marked bias when asked to make associations that are made more quickly when they are not at odds for the subconscious.
Chapter 6 gets into the policy ramifications of what has been discussed to this point. If decisions aren’t a product of the conscious mind, then are we right to send people to prison for crimes that they didn’t consciously decide to commit and couldn’t have consciously overruled? The case of Charles Whitman who took up a sniper position in the University of Texas clock tower in 1966 takes center stage in this discussion. Whitman suffered a great change of behavior that was posthumously (by autopsy) linked to the development of a tumor. Eagleman proposes that the traditional question of blameworthiness is the wrong one.
The last chapter reflects upon what it means to be a human person in light of a mind arising from material activity. A central idea is the self as an emergent property rather than the “thing” we feel it to be.
The book presents many monochrome graphics of various types to support the text. It’s also annotated and has a substantial bibliographic section.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested the nature of the subconscious mind. Eagleman uses interesting cases to demonstrate his points. This makes it quite readable while conveying some challenging ideas.
In a world free of frontiers, the subconscious mind is the final frontier.
Below are a few books that I found useful. The hyperlinks forward to my review on GoodReads or the book’s GoodReads page.
Also, I’ve included three honorable mention books that I haven’t yet reviewed, but which seem both relevant and intriguing.
5.) Brainwashing by Kathleen Taylor: What makes some minds more malleable than others and how are minds bent to a given purpose? In learning the answers, one discovers that the bases of our beliefs are often more deep-seated than one might believe.
4.) Sleights of Mind by Macknik & Martinez-Conde: Magicians and mentalists are notoriously skilled at exploiting the chinks in the armor of our minds.
3.) Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow: Physicist and pop science writer, Leonard Mlodinow, explores the many ways in which our behavior is more influenced from the back of the house than we feel to be the case.
2.) The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: This is my nod to the fact that the Western scientific community isn’t the only entity that has something useful to say on this subject. Tibetan Buddhists have a long tradition (arguably predating Buddhism and into the Bon-era) of dream yoga (lucid dreaming) and our dreams offer the greatest portal to the subconscious.
1.) Incognito by David Eagleman: Eagleman tells us that our conscious mind represents the tip of the mental iceberg, and he explores the many ways in which we are subject to the vagaries of what exists below the surface.
Here are a few others.
The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: I just finished this book. In it, the author investigates whether there really is such a thing as the self by studying a number of diseases and phenomena of the mind that look like negations of self. (e.g. Cotard’s Syndrome in which people insist they are dead, depersonalization disorder in which life seems a dream in a literal rather than poetic sense, out-of-body-experiences in which there is a hallucination that one is outside one’s body, etc.)
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu: I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s said to be good and is about how our programming is exploited to keep us clicking. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t seem to just drop social media even when it seems like a phenomenal waste of time–why it exerts such a strong pull–this book delves into what proclivities of the mind have been seized upon.
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal: I’m about 1/3rd of the way through this one. It has some overlap with the Wu book. In it, McGonigal asks why games have so much appeal–even to the extent of becoming addictive. As with why we keep clicking, the answer has a lot more to do with the primitive parts of our mind than the high tech subject matter might suggest.
As the title suggests, this is a book of guidance about how to get the most out of one’s mental life. Medina goes a mile wide, looking at twelve areas in which one can improve the performance of one’s brain, including: exercise, attention, memory, sleep, stress management, sensory integration, and visual acuity. It also has chapters that explain how evolution and gender affect the way in which one’s brain operates.
After an Introduction that sets up the premise of the book, there are twelve chapters. The first chapter explores the well-documented connection between exercise and mental performance, and offers insight into what type of exercise has been shown to be most helpful to the brain. The second chapter pertains to our brain’s evolutionary history. The conscious mind housed in the cortex is but the top floor of a multi-story enterprise, and understanding this has important ramifications for how one gets the most out of one’s brain. Chapter 3 explores the way brains are wired, which turns out to be flexibly and diversely. By flexibly, I mean that brains can be rewired by way of what is called neuroplasticity on the proviso that neurons that fire together wire together. By diversely, I mean that each individual’s brain is a bit different, and these differences can explain how someone gifted in one domain may be an idiot in other aspects of life. The next chapter deals with attention and explains why humans suck at multi-tasking (despite thinking they are the bomb) and why an extended ability to concentrate is essential to success.
The next two chapters both deal with memory, but with different types of memory—each having its own unique considerations. The first, chapter five, describes the peculiarities of short-term memory, that part of the memory that can hold a finite amount of data points at the forefront of our minds for a limited period. Chapter six deals with long-term memory, the part that holds vast stockpiles of information for extended periods (sometimes across a lifetime) but with lower fidelity and accuracy than we generally believe. While the rule offered for both forms of memory is simple—i.e. repetition is key—there is much to consider in the details. For starters, there are many other ways to divide up memory other than with respect to the short-term / long-term dichotomy (e.g. procedural v declarative) and differences in the way these types of memory work affect how they are both optimized.
The influence of sleep on mental performance is the subject of chapter seven. There is a vast pile of research on this subject, including a number of famous cases of extreme sleep deprivation—some of which are touched upon herein. It’s true that there is a great deal of variation in how people sleep (e.g. morning v non-morning people, and those who can power nap and those who can’t.) However, one thing remains unambiguous and that’s that we need sleep and must have full cycles of it in order to not suffer mental degradation. Chapter 8 is about how stress can kill mental performance. Of course, not all stress is the same. When one feels in control, short bursts of stress can be just the motivator one needs, but when feeling out of control stress can become crippling.
Chapters 9 and 10 are both about the senses. The first, nine, explains how one can obtain synergistic outcomes in a multi-sensory environment, and the second focuses on vision—arguably our most dominant sense. Our sensory experience is much more a product of the brain (and much less a pure representation of the outside world) than we tend to believe.
Chapter 11 reports on the gender differences that have been discovered with respect to brains. Before anyone lights a torch or sharpens a pitchfork, this isn’t the old “boys do math and girls do language” line. The differences are more nuanced, and it’s not clear in every case that the differences matter—or how. E.g. Men have bigger amygdala (involved in emotional response) and produce serotonin more quickly. While it’s not clear that these differences make a big difference, it’s know that men and women use their amygdala differently in times of stress, men activate the right amygdala and tend to remember more of the gist of events while women trip the left and remember more emotional details. The last chapter is about our human proclivity to explore, but it focuses heavily on infancy and childhood, during which the world is novel and the impulse to explore is at its height.
Each chapter ends with a summary box that both restates the rule and offers a few bullet points of key takeaway lessons, which may either be more specific guidance or summary of relevant research findings. There aren’t many functional graphics—by functional I mean as opposed to the ornamental drawings used throughout. I only remember one brain drawing. However, the reason for the dearth of graphics may be that there is a link to a 45 minute video that one can access, and the publisher probably thought that was a much more useful way to impart graphic information. It should also be noted that in the Kindle edition that I have, the references are also on-line.
I found this book to be useful. As I mentioned, it’s a broad overview. One can get books that dive more deeply into all of the topics addressed. But this is a nice mix of popular science and self-help. It’s readable, and the summaries and concise statement of rules help make the content stick more effectively.
I’d recommend this book for those who are seeking a book that covers a lot of ground, and which offers practical guidance as to how to put scientific discoveries on the brain into use in one’s own life.
Hallucinations are among the most captivating, yet misunderstood, phenomena of the mind. In the popular imagination, they are synonymous with losing one’s grip on reality and are considered evidence of a full-blown psychosis. However, there are a great variety of causes and forms of hallucination, many of which occur among the sane. What Sacks provides in this book is a survey of the forms of hallucination through exploration of cases and anecdotes. To emphasize the point that hallucinations aren’t just for the insane, Sacks doesn’t arrange the book around the idea sanity and insanity. Cases of mental illness are peppered throughout, but there are even more cases of people who fully realize that their hallucinated sensory experiences aren’t real. In fact, he starts with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, hallucinations among blind individuals who are often scared to discuss the phenomena for fear they will be labeled insane even though they know they aren’t really seeing anything. (The brain’s abhorrence of under-stimulation is a recurring theme in the book.)
As mentioned, the approach of the book is to discuss cases of hallucination, and not so much to delve into the research on causes and treatments. This anecdotal approach makes the book readable and offers a unique and intimate insight into hallucination, but it doesn’t drill down into the brain science as much as some might like. This will no doubt be a positive for many, and a negative for others. The author describes several of his own hallucinatory experiences related to drug use, drug withdrawal, and migraine headaches. As I understand it, that level of candor was par for the course for Sacks (though this is the first of his books that I’ve read.) At any rate, his personal experience offers a particularly vivid portrait, and moves the book beyond the sterile feel often found in scientific works.
The book consists of 15 chapters, organized by types / causes of hallucination. After an introduction and the aforementioned chapter on Charles Bonnet Syndrome, there’s a chapter on sensory deprivation hallucinations that’s aptly entitled “the prisoner’s cinema.” Chapters three and four are on olfactory and auditory hallucinations, respectively. The fifth chapter focuses on cases of hallucination experienced by those with Parkinson’s Disease. Chapter six is entitled “Altered States,” but it deals largely with drug-induced hallucinations (it should be pointed out other “altered states” of consciousness, notably sleep, are dealt with in other places), and it’s where Sacks’ personal story begins to be detailed. The next chapter deals with migraine headache related phenomena, and—as the author suffered from such headaches—his story is also imprinted on this chapter.
Chapter eight deals with epilepsy, and, like the Sam Kean book that I reviewed yesterday, is entitled “The Sacred Disease.” That name derives from the fact that those who develop temporal lobe epilepsy are sometimes known to become spontaneously hyper-spiritual in the process. In fact, many scientists now believe that Joan of Arc, Saint Paul (the Apostle), and [for my Indian readers] Ramakrishna were afflicted by this ailment. (Not based on their high degree of spirituality, but rather on accounts of sensory phenomena they were said to have experienced.)
Chapter nine examines cases related to hemianopia—a situation in which one occipital lobe is damaged resulting in a kind of “blindness” in half one’s visual field. While people think of blindness as being a problem with the eyes, it’s possible to have perfectly good eyes and optic nerves and be blind (on a conscious level) due to brain’s incapacity to process the input it is receiving. (Incidentally, in his book “Subliminal” Leonard Mlodinow describes engrossing cases of people who were blind due to brain damage, but–owing to a redundant subconscious systems–they could walk around without running into obstacles.)
Chapter ten describes cases associated with delirium, a common cause of hallucinations that can be the side-effect of any number of physical problems including fever, blood sugar imbalance, and liver failure.
The next two chapters are about sleep-related sensory imaginings. Chapter eleven details cases of hypnagogic and hypnopompic imagery, which are what we see as we are on the edge of falling asleep or awaking, respectively. Hypnagogic hallucinations may be as simple as shifting shapes, or more elaborate. If you’ve gotten this far in the book without any experience that corresponds to what Sack’s is describing, you’ll almost certainly have some experience with hypnagogic images. If not, you should stop consciously counting sheep (or whatever other daydreaming you do as you fall asleep) and just watch what your mind projects. You’ll know it when you see it because you won’t be able to control the imagery (though you can distract over it with conscious thought) and—as in dreams—it probably won’t make a lick of sense. Hypnopompic images are quite different, less widely experienced, and often more disconcerting. Chapter twelve presents cases dealing with narcolepsy (random spontaneous falling asleep) and sleep paralysis, a common experience on the trailing edge of sleep in which one can’t move and which often comes with imagined sensations of a more nefarious variety—hence the widespread lore of night hags and the like.
Chapter thirteen scrutinizes cases that are associated with traumatic events from one’s past. These can involve sightings of ghosts of departed loved ones or replays (flashbacks) of the traumatizing event. This chapter, in a discussion of dissociation, also foreshadows the phenomena of out-of-body (OOB) experience that’s dealt with in more detail in chapter 14. The theme of that penultimate chapter is seeing oneself. Beyond OOB, it deals with a variety of hallucinations of oneself, including those in which one’s body appears distorted (i.e. so-called “Alice in Wonderland” Syndrome.)
The last chapter discusses hallucinations in the tactile domain, and, specifically, the most widely investigated form of these phenomena—the phantom limb. Phantom limb syndrome is experienced by amputees, many of whom can still feel the lost limb. This has resulted in nightmarish scenarios in which an awaking patient complains of an itch on the sole of his or her foot only to be shown that they have no legs from the knee down.
There are no graphics in the book, but, because it’s based around cases, it doesn’t need them for clarification of complex ideas. There are footnotes, as well as a bibliography.
I found this book to be absorbing, and I learned a great deal from it. I’d recommend it for anyone who seeks greater insight into hallucinations or unusual mental phenomena more generally.
Once upon a time, our knowledge of what the brain did, how it worked, and the degree to which its parts were specialized came from observing people who had brain injuries or a disease of the brain. Kean’s book examines the evolution of our understanding of the brain by way of investigations of historic cases. Looking at damaged brains is obvious not the ideal way to study the most complex system in the known universe—accidents and brain-eating diseases aren’t discriminating. Still, over time, a few conscientious [and sometimes warped] doctors and scientists pieced together important clues. From the rudimentary observation that people conked on the head often pass out temporarily, doctors began to learn about the degree to which brain parts were specialized and how changes in the brain effected beliefs, memories, and behavior.
Kean’s book is in part a history and in part a work of popular science, and the cases selected are often of interest both as history and as science. We learn about the damaged brains of kings, assassins, soldiers, adventurers, and those with more mundane jobs but no less fascinating brain trauma (e.g. Phineas Gage, one of the most well-known cases in the book, a construction foreman who had a steel tamping rod rocketed through his skull.)
It’s this historical approach that builds a niche for Kean. There have been a massive number of popular science books on the brain in recent years. (You’ll note that I’ve reviewed many of them.) While other books discuss many of the same intriguing neuroscientific phenomena (e.g. synesthesia [mixing of sense and / or mental data, e.g. people who see colors with musical notes or even with numbers], phantom limbs, epilepsy’s effect on beliefs, and the brain’s role in aberrant behavior) most of them are rooted in the mother-lode of discoveries that have come out of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other modern technologies. Even the works of V.S. Ramachandran, which largely deal in discoveries rooted in low-tech but exceedingly clever science, are placed in the context of present-day science. (You should read Ramachandran’s book “The Tell Tale Brain” also.)
Kean’s book is complementary to the body of works on popular neuroscience. While some of those books mention the same (or similar) cases as Kean, they do so to illustrate the Dark Age origins of many of these questions. Kean delves into the intriguing details of such cases. On the other hand, while Kean is dealing in the historic, he brings in modern science on occasion to give the reader insight into what ideas have been confirmed and which overturned. That’s important as Kean is often telling the reader about the opposing theories of the day—as the title suggests.
The book contains an Introduction and twelve chapters that are arranged into five parts. The book’s organization is by brain structure and key (interesting) functions tied to those various parts. It’s logically arranged, starting with a question as crude as the skull’s role in brain injury and ending on a topic so challenging that there remains a great deal of mystery (and controversy among scientists) about it, i.e. consciousness. In between, we learn about neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity, and the brains role in sensory processing / presentation, bodily awareness / movement, emotion, belief, delusion, and memory—as well as the degree to which the two halves of our brain are independent and what severing the connection does.
The book is end-noted and has a works cited section, but it has a couple other noteworthy features. A fun feature of note is that each chapter begins with a rebus, a kind of word puzzle that relates to an anatomical part relevant to that chapter. There are also graphics in the form of both diagrams and black-and-white photos, and they are interspersed throughout the book with the relevant text (as opposed to in special sections.)
I’d recommend this book for individuals not only interested in neuroscience, but in the history of science generally. Even history buffs who don’t think much about science will likely learn a thing or two from Kean’s presentation of the cases—e.g. there is much discussion of Civil War wounds.