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BRAINSCAPES by Rebecca Schwarzlose


The Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain―and How They Guide You

by Rebecca Schwarzlose

Pub Date: June 15th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-328-94996-7
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A thorough delineation of neural representations, or brain maps, that affect our sensory, motor, cognitive, and emotional capacities.

Schwarzlose, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, explores literal brain maps, within human and animal brains, comprised of cells. Unlike traditional geographical maps, they are dynamic by virtue of electricity and time. "Neighboring neurons in your brain represent neighboring plots of land on your skin,” she writes. “The result? A beautiful, honest-to-goodness map of the surfaces of your body built into your brain." The author uses the metaphor of subway tunnels in not only explaining  how brain maps affect our sight and feeling, but also to demonstrate that a map's inherent two-dimensional distortion sometimes makes it better at magnifying important information. "Vision as you know it is born in the darkness at the back of your skull, reflecting what is happening in your visual brain maps more than what is happening in your two eyes,” she writes. “This is why it matters so much exactly how your maps are warped: these maps, in turn, warp your conscious perception." Schwarzlose illuminates four primary themes of brain maps: their universality, respective uniqueness, the idea that they are created out of necessity, and their ability to give organisms the opportunity to adapt. Not only are brain maps spatial, but they can also use nonspatial phenomena, such as vibrations, to reveal where a source of sound is located. Human brain maps were discovered in 19th-century London through experiments on patients who experienced seizures and the study of their paths. The parietal lobe, writes the author, holds maps that do not belong to a single category: “They actually combine and align information from touch, vision, and hearing with information about body position and space around the body to which actions might be guided." The scope of the book is staggering, as is the potential of technology's role in decoding minds, and yet Schwarzlose successfully and enthusiastically relays the research in relevant, understandable, and absorbing language. The black-and-white illustrations are also helpful.

A digestible, intriguing academic read on a complex subject.