Tag Archives: brain

** World Wide Mind by Michael Chorost

World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet discusses how, one day, we may be fitted with devices that allow us to feel “as one” with others, to read their minds and their emotions as they are experiencing them. It’s all very futuristic, and remarkably un-creepy since the author has cochlear implants he makes it very clear that messing with the brain can be a great thing. Said author’s fumblings with dating and attending clothing optional New Age workshops (in California, of course) are less relevant and just over the line of dorkiness.

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** The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

In The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker tries to do two things: convince the reader that society has gotten less and less violent over time, despite what the 11 o’clock news would like us to believe, and also explain why that might be the case. I don’t think he succeeds completely on the first count and he definitely does not hit the mark on the second.

When it comes to violence diminishing over the millenia, his case is quite tight (if, perhaps, surprising to some) when looking at overall trends. Despite the limitations of crime statistics in olden times, it seems clear that murders as well as less lethal violent acts such as child abuse or even rape decline — not necessarily smoothly, not necessarily for a given small area, but definitely in the aggregate. What’s less obvious (and, in my mind, not true) is that massive-scale events would not reverse the trend. Sure, the world has been peaceful (again overall, not in every geographic area) since WWII, but if we had another WWII, or worse, tomorrow, the lovely downward trends would suddenly shift. It would have been a suitable time to evoke the possibility of Black Swan events.

Assuming we are evolving to a less violent society, why is that? I suppose it’s always difficult to explain large-scale phenomena and Pinker struggles mightily to show that the “civilization process” is at work (when in doubt, invent a new word to explain the unexplainable?) And then he goes to the brain, of course! But since our brains probably have not changed much at all in the past few hundred years, it’s hard to follow the arguments without smirking. I dutifully smirked.

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*** Incognito by David Eagleman

I very much enjoyed Incognito and its exploration of what our subconscious is doing while we pretend we are all about consciousness and reason. The author gives many enjoyable examples of how automatic processes constantly make our life easier without any effort on our part. Our eyes automatically scan scenes for what’s of interest to us at the time. We can be trained at tasks that cannot be really be explained (in a return performance of the fondly remembered chicken sexers). We can learn tasks automatically for maximum speed and efficiency. We can internalize complex logical rules that we cannot fully understand in their mathematical expression but use flawlessly in everyday situations. We can find patterns everywhere (but we already read about it.) And the author is not afraid to give some far-out applications, such as meting out sentences for criminals based on statistical predictions rather than often flawed human judgment — all that in an engaging style that kept me turning the pages.

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** The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran

I feel a bit sheepish admitting that I did not much like The Tell-Tale Brain, despite the subject matter(our brains) and the accolades from assorted luminaries on the book cover, so I feel I have to come up with specific concerns rather than a general lament. Here we go:

1. The book alternates between technical descriptions of brain functions and grandiose theories. For the former, we get intricate descriptions of how V4 and AG work with IT (real acronyms, for parts of the brain that probably never interact with each other, but you get the idea), which I just could not follow, did not want to follow, and eventually gave up on.

2. Moving on to the grandiose theories, I’m inclined to trust the author when he talks about V4 and AG, even if I don’t remember what they are, but his theory of art? Isn’t he a little presumptuous about the scope of his oeuvre (his word, alas, from page xii of the preface)?

3. And then there are the patients. There are many of them, all affected by mysterious and often dreadful handicaps, which lead to interesting discoveries of what V4 and AG are up to. Fair enough, but I would have liked to discern a little more human concern for these poor people. Oliver Sacks, who is one of the luminaries praising this book, is much more adept in this department.

I could go on, and note the nerdy and borderline inappropriately sexist humor, but I may be overly sensitive to that. On a positive note, I did enjoy a wonderful quote the author notes, from Francis Crick, “God is a hacker, not an engineer.” What little I understood of the technical descriptions in the book certainly bolsters this belief.

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The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch

It turns out that the “grown up” of the title in The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain is really the middle-aged, that is, us, and that our brains are working wonderfully well. What a feel-good book! It turns out that forgetting the titles of the books we read (guilty) or colleagues’ names (guilty) or why the heck we stepped into the garage (guilty, again) is nothing compared to the feats of integration and problem solving we can accomplish with our mature brains. It also turns out that we are much happier than the younger set  (must be all the forgetting!). O, and we are much better than our younger friends at considering the very big picture when resolving problems.

I loved that book. And I’m trying to ignore its noting that, after age 73 (why 73? why not 77 or 69?), we must be ready for a decline. I will take the next 23 years with glee and willful ignoring of what comes next.

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Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

I picked up Musicophilia because I had heard several interviews of the author and had enjoyed his unusual anecdotes, the kind way he talks about his patients, and his careful responses to some pretty inane audience questions. The book disappointed me. The unusual anecdotes abound, including several I heard during the interviews, but the book reads like a compendium of how the brain can go wild – both in a good and bad way – about music that lacks the warmth and charm of the author. Maybe it’s because we cannot read his English accent?

Try to catch him on a podcast instead.

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Kludge by Gary Marcus

Kludge is a funny and occasionally practical description of how the vagaries of evolution gave us brains with interesting quirks that can trip us up and mislead us. Definitely not a defender of intelligent design, Gary Marcus explains clearly why our brains (and indeed all the other features of our bodies) are  “locally optimized”, better than any of the small variants that could exist, but not necessarily perfect: what with the blind spot in our eyes, the layers of the three brains, each with overlapping tasks, and our completely imperfect memories compared to computers?

A nice, quick read about how evolution works – and how to distrust our brains.

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