A neuroscientist’s irreverent guide to the brain.
In this witty and informative debut, popular Guardian science blogger and sometime stand-up comedian Burnett (Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences/Cardiff Univ.) describes “the weird and peculiar processes” of the brain and the bizarre behaviors that often result. “You have only to look at the thing to grasp how ridiculous it is; it resembles a mutant walnut, a Lovecraftian blancmange, a decrepit boxing glove, and so on,” he writes. “It’s undeniably impressive, but it’s far from perfect, and these imperfections influence everything humans say, do and experience.” Sustaining that tone throughout, the author traces the habits, traits, and inefficiencies of the organ that defines us. In vivid, highly accessible language, he explains how the brain controls appetite, sleep, memory, hearing, touch, attention, and other processes and how it works when we fall in love, become delusional, or convince ourselves that we’re brilliant when we are not. Why do we remember faces before names? Why do our egos often override accuracy? Why do emotional memories of negative events fade faster than positive ones? How is it that you can enter a room and have no idea why you decided to go there? Did you know that the thrill of fear and the gratification gained from sweets emanate from the same region (the mesolimbic pathway) of the brain? Whether describing the absurd inefficiencies of having both a primitive reptile brain (for survival) and a neocortex (governing advanced abilities) or explaining why less intelligent people are often more confident or why the Myers-Briggs personality test may not be that useful, Burnett manages to both entertain and inform in engaging ways that would benefit the performance of the most humorless pedant. In each instance, he piques readers’ interest with some whacky or puzzling behavior and thoughtfully explains the underlying neuroscience.
Burnett should give a TED talk. His book will appeal immensely to general readers and deserves a place on college reading lists.