A neurologist tours current research on the mysteries of perception, habit, learning, memory, and language—our very selfhood and identity—and their underlying brain mechanics.
In our subconscious, there are innumerable systems that process the countless sensations we experience and add their input into the conscious stimuli we use to make sense of our surroundings. Sternberg (My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility, 2010, etc.), a resident neurologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, explores the research that has been getting inside our heads, into the neurosystems at work, both conscious and unconscious. This is an enchanting journey, and the author writes with brio and dash. Of course, neuroscience is young, and Sternberg is quick to admit that much of this is preliminary investigation. However, it is not without footing, so it is well worth the effort to analyze these experiments. Sternberg presents intriguing anecdotes—how the blind conjure visualizations, why one person yawning often triggers others to yawn, how visualizations aid in competitive sports, what is behind alien abductions and hallucinations—and then follows the evidence, both historical and up-to-the-minute, to explain a variety of phenomena, including how “the precise stimulation of the temporal lobe can create the perception of a foreign presence in your vicinity.” Some of the anecdotes are incomplete and therefore unconvincing—e.g., how did a man whose “visual system had been destroyed” after a stroke negotiate his way into a doctor’s office to pretend he still had normal eyesight?—but Sternberg’s delineations of mirror neurons (a network to create simulations) and “beautiful indifference” (the inability to discern the peculiarity of one’s unnatural condition) are enthralling and highly thought-provoking.
A fine exploration of the brain’s ability to draw the story of our life, from experience and from thin air.