The Brain: A book review by Bob Morris

The BrainThe Brain: The Story of You
David Eagleman
Pantheon Books (2015)

How and why our lives shape our brains and our brains shape our lives

Those of us who watched the six-part PBS series based on this companion book are especially grateful to have it available so that we can continue to increase our understanding of what the human brain is and does…as well as of what it can do if properly nourished. With all due respect to the value of space exploration, it is also important to explore — with David Eagleman’s assistance –the “inner cosmos” where we learn “how we decide, how we perceive reality, who we are, how our lives are steered, why we need other people, and where we’re headed as a species that’s just beginning to grab its own reins.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me in Chapters 1-4, also listed to suggest the scope of Eagleman’s coverage:

o Livewiring (Page 7)
o Plasticity in adulthood (16-19)
o The fallibility of memory (24-26)
o I am sentient (30-33)
o The illusion of reality, and, Your experience of reality (37-40)
o Seeing requires more than eyes (43-44)
o Synchronizing the senses (47-49)
o Seeing our expectations (53-55)
o Believing what our brains tell us (60-61)
o Timewarp (61-66)
o Consciousness, and, The unconscious brain in action (69-76)
o Running on autopilot (81-84)
o The deep caverns of the unconscious (85-90)
o The feeling of free will (94-97)
o The sound of a decision (101-103)
o The brain is a machine built from conflict (104-110)
o States of the body help you decide (110-114)
o Traveling to the future (114-118)
o The power of now (118-120)
o Overcoming the power of now: the Ulysses contract 120-121)
o The invisible mechanisms of decision making (121-124)
o Decisions and society (124-129)

I want to praise the production values of this volume. They are outstanding. Most of the images are from the PBS series — “The Brain with David Eagleman” — and supplement the lively and eloquent narrative. The generously annotated “Endnotes” are also enlightening as is the “Glossary.” Credit Blink Entertainment for much of the artwork. This is a visually stunning volume in which Eagleman provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel with regard to what the brain is and does. (A case can be made that the mind is what the brain does. I am unqualified to agree or disagree.) Key concepts are illustrated (with photographs or reproductions) to the extent that scientific accuracy allows and a mini-commentary accompanies most of them.

Here is a brief excerpt from David Eagleman’s concluding remarks: “In the coming years we will discover more about the human brain than we can describe with our current theories and frameworks. At the moment we’re surrounded by mysteries: many that we recognize and many we haven’t yet registered. As a field, we have vast uncharted waters ahead of us. As always in science, the important thing is to run the experiments and assess the results. Mother Nature will then tell which approaches are blind alleys, and which move us further down the road of understanding the blueprints of our own mind.

The last time I checked, Amazon offers 112,150 books that discuss the human brain. Over the last two decades, I have probably read about 35-40 and reviewed many of them. Duly acknowledging that I am a tourist in the field of neuroscience, I know of no other book that offers more and better information than does this one in layman’s terms , with its value enhanced even more by the aforementioned illustrations. This is a stunning achievement. Bravo!

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