An intense lesson in the neuroscience of getting around.



The latest knowledge on how we find our way.

Kemp, a molecular biologist specializing in neurodegenerative diseases, admits that he gets lost in his native city. So he admires virtuoso navigators, like his wife, who always know where they are. This short book delivers an expert education in how the brain guides us. As the author shows, it’s not a matter of intelligence; plenty of smart people lose their way. The key is memory, largely centralized in the hippocampus, a small structure deep inside the skull atop the brainstem that’s literally packed with cells vital to our sense of direction. Licensed London cab drivers, who must memorize every one of the city’s 25,000 streets, possess a hippocampus much larger than London bus drivers, who only memorize a single route. The first symptom of Alzheimer’s is not memory loss but inability to navigate. “Essentially,” writes Kemp, “navigation is…a seamless combination of sensory memory, and short-term and long-term memories spliced together, interpolated and intertwined with one another by the hippocampus and other related brain structures.” Early knowledge on the subject arose from studies of rats and mazes, and the Einstein of rat navigation was Edward Tolman. According to Kemp, Tolman’s 1948 paper, “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men,” is a work that "should sit alongside other great scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.” Tolman’s rats did not memorize a series of turns to achieve their goal; rather, they built a cognitive map of the maze, which is not topologically accurate but superb for choosing a precise route. Except for two illustrations, Kemp relies on prose to explain a complex process involving dozens of structures and specialized neurons throughout the brain. Readers with a well-developed hippocampus will have an easier time, but everyone will appreciate the author’s stories of how some Indigenous cultures learn their territory (they get lost, too) and concluding sections on how to become a better navigator and how to behave if lost in the wild.

An intense lesson in the neuroscience of getting around.

Pub Date: Jan. 25, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-324-00538-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2021

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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A straightforward, carefully detailed presentation of how ``fruit comes from flowers,'' from winter's snow-covered buds through pollination and growth to ripening and harvest. Like the text, the illustrations are admirably clear and attractive, including the larger-than-life depiction of the parts of the flower at different stages. An excellent contribution to the solidly useful ``Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science'' series. (Nonfiction/Picture book. 4-9)

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 1992

ISBN: 0-06-020055-3

Page Count: 32

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1991

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