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Episode 335

Brainy Books About the Brain

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Posted by Mary Ann

My goodness, our brains are complicated! Sam Kean, author of “The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons,” has a large brain, I think. Particularly advanced, I’m guessing, is the section where he inputs impenetrable scientific content and outputs accessible prose that the rest of us can understand.

Several books, like Kean’s latest, use brain disease, brain injury or brain malfunction to illustrate how the brain works. There are other books whose scope is broader – nothing less than how the brain works in general.

So…I’m going to mention some of both. In the first category:

“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks. How can anybody not pick up a book with this title? This book came out in 1985, but does it have legs – it’s even been made into an opera!

Sacks is a neurologist who has made a second career out of writing entertainingly about brain function. This book has 24 essays, each describing one of his patients and their brain injury or malfunction.

I think this was the first book I ever read that made me realize what a fine-tuned instrument the brain is. There’s the story of a sailor who, due to something called Korsakoff’s syndrome, lost the ability to form any new memories after 1945, and literally couldn’t remember what he did from one moment to the next. There’s “The Dog Beneath the Skin”, concerning a 22-year-old medical student, “Stephen D.”, who, after a night under the influence of amphetamines, cocaine, and PCP, woke up to find he had a tremendously heightened sense of smell. Sacks would reveal many years later that he was the medical student! His recreational drug use when he was young does not seem to have damaged his brain much, since he has juggled two careers in a splendid manner.

“My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor. Taylor was a neuroanatomist, who, as you can probably tell from the title, had a stroke. Because of her area of expertise, in this book she is vividly able to describe the onset and progression of her stroke.

“In the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information,” she writes. “On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life,” Oddly, as the left side of her brain shut down, she felt a strange euphoria, as she was left with only her right brain functioning. She described it as being “totally disconnected from your brain chatter.”

The experience also greatly changed her view of the way patients with injured brains are treated, since she became one herself and could look at the experience from the point of view of both the patient and the medical personnel.

2007’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge shows how our conception of the brain has been revolutionized. We used to think of it as an immutable and unchangeable organ, but as Sam Kean’s book also shows, it has the power to change and regenerate. This is of course great news for people with brain injuries, and Doidge provides several examples of how people have recovered from major brain trauma. And he shows how the brain can change simply through its own activity.

Now on to books that more generally address brain function.

A book I have read about a third of, and hope to get back to someday, is Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize for economics, and he has spent his life studying people’s behavior in relation to economics.

He writes about the brain’s function, breaking it down into roughly two systems: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. You may not be surprised to learn that the two systems do not always mesh perfectly! Just think about that the next time someone offers you a particularly delectable piece of chocolate, or another glass of wine after the first glass. He writes that, while you might think logical old System 2 is in charge, often it’s system 1 that takes over. Would you pass that chocolate over here, please? One thing I really liked about this book is that is has short chapters. I’m not kidding. Kahneman is conveying a lot of information, and it helped me that he dispersed it in digestible bits.

Another book in this category is the 2013 book “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist and psychology professor at Barnard. Her theme is how we often don’t see what is hidden in plain sight, and to illustrate she takes walks, mostly in her Manhattan neighborhood, with a number of “experts:”   a geologist, a typographer, an illustrator, a naturalist, a wildlife researcher, an urban sociologist, a blind woman, a doctor, a sound designer and engineer, her toddler son, and her dog, Finn. It’s a reminder of how much there is out there to see …if you’re really looking..

Finally, I want to recommend two books by Steven Pinker. 2002’s “The Blank Slate” is really an attack on the concept of “the blank slate,” that human minds can be molded pretty much into anything. Pinker shows how humans are hard-wired for certain behaviors and traits, such as language and cooperation.

Some people are born with criminal tendencies, but most of us are born with a tendency towards what he calls “reciprocal altruism.” Of course, he also says that people are not preordained to act a certain way. Though there is such a thing as human nature, we have control over it.

He extends that line of thinking to his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which is a long but ultimately encouraging book that shows that contrary to your impression, people are not getting more violent and more murderous, that they are becoming less so over time, despite the daily dose of violence and war we experience from our instant access to media.

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