A brainstorm that brings regrets yields a different sort of popular book on the state of neuroscience.
Grappling with a bad bout of writer’s block, freelancer Cass suddenly asked himself: How can you expect to live by your wits if you have no idea how your wits work? He would explore the inner workings of the brain, he decided, entering into communion with the organ. So, notebook at the ready, Cass visited state-fair exhibits and serious labs. He interviewed various doctors, researchers, behaviorists, cognition experts and one transcendental-meditation guru. He checked out legions of lab rats enlisted in the cause of brain science. He started a “brain log” and considered how Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Maher affected his mind. He got himself tested for ADD. He studied—and reports assiduously on—evolutionary psychology, the galvanic skin response to nicotine and, inevitably, alcoholic cognitive impairment. He contemplated the cracks and fissures of the brain, the cortex, nuclei, gyri and suki, neurotransmitters, the hippocampus and dopamine receptors. With flimsy protocols, he conducted amateur experiments at home, in the Mall of America and at an Arby’s fast-food restaurant. But there was a dark history interlaced with the sometimes antic behavior. The author blends his excursions into the science of attention and emotion with the harrowing tale of his stepfather, a seriously crazy man: arrogant, addicted and out of control. The birth of Cass’s first child makes for happier tales, but on balance, his text brings stark news. For all its wonders, through the mysterious amygdala so carefully described, the human brain is also responsible for stupidity, aggression and the sport of competitive eating. Despite the intelligence and easy wit of Cass’s prose, it is all somehow a bit dismal, and he ultimately expresses regret for the effort that produced his earnest, honest testimony.
Science for liberal-arts students.