A search for how the brain works, and where it ends and the mind begins.
It must be tough for Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, etc.) to get through the day, enraptured as she is by the buzzing synethesia of sight, sound, and smell around her all the time. Fortunately, she writes quite well about the sheer wonder of being and manages to pose a few meaningful questions about it along the way. She tackles a fairly massive subject, the brain, but she manages to break the quest down into some basic categories of inquiry. “Why We Ask ‘Why’?” and “ ‘Hello,’ He Lied” are typical chapter headings in a work divided between sections discussing evolution, the physical brain, memory, the self (“and other fictions”), emotions, language, and the world we share. As she wrangles with the subject of memory, how it’s gained, lost, and used, Ackerman folds some particularly interesting research into her narratives, especially when she gets into the area of shared or false memories and the fact that people are more likely to remember things they have talked about. Although she comes down pretty squarely in the middle on the nature/nurture divide, the author does cite some intriguing studies about how predetermined our lives are; one looked at a group of nuns and discovered that you could pretty well predict which of them would develop Alzheimer’s later in life simply by studying their writing styles. Ackerman has a tendency to wander, dazed and marveling, through the gardens of her own reckoning, and this is at once her greatest strength and besetting weakness. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and most readers will quickly be engaged by her fascination with the brain, “that mouse-gray parliament of cells,” but occasionally her reveries can seem like extended diary entries, or plain old wheel-spinning.
A playful, rewarding jaunt through the brain’s chemical realities and emotional intangibles.