I strongly suspect that most of the 159 Amazon reviewers of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World did not actually read the entire book. Not because it’s long, at 600 pages, but because the writing is often impenetrable. Here’s a sample: “There are several ways in which the Reformation anticipated the hermetic self-reflexivity of post-modernism, perfectly expressed in the infinite regress of self-referral within some of the visual images which Koerner examines [..]”.
This is from the second part of the book, in which the author boldly (foolishly?) understates to explain all of humankind (Western) history through the thesis of the collaborating brain hemispheres. The first part is much more accessible and convincing, as the author wades through published research to illustrates how the right hemisphere, the big-picture hemisphere, collaborates with the left hemisphere, the detail-oriented hemisphere. lf you pick up the book, you may want to stop after part 1.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, despite its title, is not a self-help book, but a serious book written by a scientist who has spent his life studying sleep — and is firmly convinced, as I am, that good things come to people who sleep long and well.
The author provides many examples of studies that show that poor sleep wrecks memories, destroys healthy eating, makes us susceptible to diseases, and overall turns us into blubbering idiots (and blubbering idiots that do not know they are blubbering idiots, to boot!) Interestingly, the exact mechanisms of sleep are not well understood, even though the consequences are.
So, good night! (Sadly, there are no magic tricks to it, just the old boring techniques of sleeping at regular hours, long enough, avoiding caffeine, etc.)
The author of Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death tells medical stories of how his team found that some people in vegetative state actually had some brain function, and some subsequently regained some consciousness. The science if fascinating, if a work in progress. The concern, if course, is that although some patients, can indeed “wake up”, it’s completely unclear whether they will regain full consciousness or continue to exist in an in-between state. It seems, for now, that the few complete successes recalled in the book are more flukes than models.
The Man Who Was Not There: Investigations Into The Strange New Science Of The Self is an enjoyable whirlwind through neuroscience, looking at strange syndromes and disorders through many portraits of unfortunate patients who are not quite sure who they are. It’s a little depressing to see how little we know about what causes all of these woes…
The Man Without a Shadow is an amnesiac, abundantly studied by the heroine, a neuroscientist whose professional fame comes from her exceptional subject. Many professional boundaries are crossed, and in any case the line between studying and exploiting is very porous.
I thought that the author captured in fine and interesting details the travails of the dedicated female scientist in a hostile time and place. The vagaries of memory are also explored in compelling and disturbing ways. The story moves slowly and the end is disappointing, but it lingers in the reader’s brain.
I was quite disappointed by The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, but I also learned a lot by reading it. Let me explain.
The author is a neuroscientist, and also a mother, who tried to bring together rigorous scientific research and practical advice, but not successfully. So we get detailed descriptions of, say, cannabis activating glutamate receptors (no doubt fascinating, but not to most parents, I suspect), jumbled together with dire stories about adolescents developing schizophrenia after consuming the drug. Apart from the obvious problem that correlation is not causation, it makes the book read like a bad high-school health class, the one that pretends that one glass of wine will make you an alcoholic. It’s a pity because the book also describes important facts for parents who wonder how their almost-adult children fail to plan properly. For instance, I did not know there was such a thing as prospective memory, which allows us to hold in mind the intention of doing something at a future time — and that prospective memory does not get established properly until our twenties (I think it declines later in life, but that’s another story!)
In short, I would have liked less fear mongering and more direct links between research and the real world.
Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain explores how we make decisions, and it’s no wonder that sometimes we don’t make the best choices, with one hemispehere (right) trying simply to maximize pleasure while the other (left) primed to see patterns everywhere. A very engaging discussion of neuroscience and many other topics, including the law.