Despite some minor flaws, Ramachandran produces an exhilarating and at times funny text that invites discussion and...

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THE TELL-TALE BRAIN

A NEUROSCIENTIST'S QUEST FOR WHAT MAKES US HUMAN

Ramachandran (Psychology and Neurosciences/Univ. of California, San Diego; A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, 2005, etc.) sets his sights on explaining the neuroscience that underlies characteristics he considers unique to humans beings.

The author suggests that some 150,000 years ago, hominid brains underwent a “phase transition” (like water becoming ice), so that some brain centers expanded and developed new functions, leading to language, aesthetics, consciousness and self-awareness. Like Oliver Sacks, Ramachandran finds illumination in the analysis of patients with anomalous syndromes. Thus he begins with studies of phantom limbs and synesthesia, most commonly manifest as the condition in which individuals see specific colors associated with numbers or musical notes. The roster of syndromes grows to include language and memory disorders, cases in which a stroke patient denies the existence of a paralyzed limb, a patient recognizes his mother’s face but says she is an impostor, or a patient who believes himself dead. Ramachandran’s argues that the lesions in such patients disrupt specific sites in multi-branching pathways that create mismatches between sensory and motor areas, or between emotional and perceptual areas. In turn, the brain adapts, often making matters worse. Early on, the author introduces mirror neurons, which are abundant in human brains. These are cells that mimic the actions of another person as you watch, but are inhibited from executing the action. They are considered the source of empathy or “theory of mind” by which humans can read other’s intentions. Ramachandran invokes mirror neurons as essential for social learning, language and cultural transmission. For the most part, the author argues convincingly, except where he defines aesthetic principles, which seem no more than a rehash of old Gestalt ideas. Nor is it certain that all the traits he discusses are unique to humans.

Despite some minor flaws, Ramachandran produces an exhilarating and at times funny text that invites discussion and experimentation.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-07782-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2010

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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