On the 6th October 2016 the book of the podcast that is Geek Chic Weird Science hit the shelves of bookshops all over the UK. A couple of days prior to this my co-author (and co-presenter of the podcast) Lliana Bird and I threw a little party to celebrate this milestone with a few family and friends.
I’m quite literally just running out the door to record our 60th podcast tonight! For those who’ve never had a chance to listen, every couple of weeks we talk about the latest weird and wonderful science stories to hit the press in the past few days. We tend to favour the conversation starters: the whacky techy tales that people might pull out of the bag around the dinner table, at work/school or in the pub to spark a conversation around the latest strange/surprising scientific discoveries.
By the time we got about episode 50 we had an archive of about 200 or so of these science stories. So we thought: why not write a book. Happily the publisher Little Brown were prepared to publish it under their Orbit imprint and with only four months to bash it out we just about managed to hit the deadline. It’s a bit ragged in places, a few errors and slight inaccuracies here and there, but given the incredibly limited time we had to get it done I think we did a pretty good job.
We’ve had some tremendous reviews from the likes of Brian Cox and the Times Science editor. Some of our stories have already been picked up in the NME and the London Metro. And with Noel Fielding’s beautiful original artwork adorning the front cover we have high hopes for some good sales over Christmas.
We dedicated the book, with love to our parents, but also to Richard Boffin who has been our “sound guy,” editing our podcast, adding the music and sound effects and getting it up on iTunes, libsyn, podbay (click any of these links if you want to have a listen) and various other podcast media month after month for over two years now. Thanks Boff – you’re a legend!
A huge thanks must also go to our thousands of podcast listeners around the world – we’re really grateful for your continued support – and we really hope you enjoy the book, not to mention the quirky and amusing illustrations our talented artists conjured up for us.
Mice Who Sing For Sex by Lliana Bird and Dr Jack is now available to buy online and in all good bookshops like, my personal favourite, Waterstones.
Since its inception as a three-minute science splash on Lliana Bird’s Sunday show on XFM (now known as Radio X) Geek Chic’s Weird Science has gone from strength-to-strength. After 9 months of brevity we moved, in September 2014, to podcast format and promptly rocketed up the iTunes science podcast chart all the way to 4th place by the 31st October! I still can’t quite figure out how that actually happened. We were getting 20,000 downloads per month after just a couple of months. Weird. (Must be something Birdy did!) That said, we clearly owe a great debt of gratitude to all those who embraced us with such enthusiasm right from the outset. So ta! Gracias! Danke! Terima kasi! Grazie! Konnichiwa!
Now that we’ve crossed the 50-episode milestone we can safely say that we’ve had tens of thousands of downloads. Looking back at the strangest, most curious, thought-provoking, limits-of-mankind’s-knowledge-pushing science stories we’ve covered over the months is quite mind-boggling. Rainbow universes, panda’s feigning pregnancy, lab-grown human penises, discovering a new 9th planet to replace Pluto, boozy chimps, underwater cities, quantum teleportation for instantaneous communication across interplanetary distances (one day), musical marmosets, a paralysed woman flying fighter planes with thought alone, the imminent mini-ice age, a 6th mass extinction (this time it’s our fault), futuristic hover boards and a handful of dinosaurs thrown in for good measure – we’ve had it all.
No wonder Little Brown wanted to turn it into a book!
The illustrious Lliana Bird (@LlianaBird) and I (@drjacklewis) have just submitted the middle third of our wonderful tale of Geekery and Chicery to our publishers. Our book will take our readers on a carefully carved narrative that takes in the very best of all of the bizarre scientific endeavour and technological innovations we have encountered on our merry way through the last two years of science.
Best of all it will be illustrated by Dyna’s fantastically-talented, comedic, arty friends. [Dyna, by the way, is what I call Birdy in private – don’t ask].
So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported the Geek Chic cause so far. Whether it’s subscribing to our podcast feed at iTunes, streaming us each week from Libsyn, Podbay etc or simply following us on Twitter (@GCweirdscience) to catch the interesting stories that didn’t quite make the cut for the show, plus supplementary information on each of the stories we do cover each week – THANK YOU!
Without you, there would be no point in doing any of it. Okay so it would still be nice to know these things but if you hadn’t kindly taken the time to…
- Download it.
- Listen to it
- Let us keep you company whilst:
- partaking of exercise
- going to the shops
- loafing around in bed, or
- Mulling the stories we tell you over in your head.
- Discussing them with your friends, family and colleagues
- And choosing the steadily growing family of regular weird science listeners.
…we would soon have found ourselves not bothering any more. If you stopped being interested in what we had to say we would simply have lost the impetus to keep it up. The research, the preparation, the recording, the editing, the re-listening, the final edit notes, the sound production and the releasing of this podcast, month after month, year after year, was for love not money. So if nobody was loving it, then there’d have been no point in doing it.
A handful of generous benefactors have kindly covered the podcast hosting costs (by contributing at Patreon; so at least we have been saved the indignity of losing money despite working unpaid on this for the past 2 years!). We are particularly grateful to them for opting to give something back to this enterprise.
As for the rest of you… it’s not too late! If you’ve enjoyed any of our podcast over the years then you can show us some love by picking up a copy of The Mice Who Sing For Sex when it’s release at the end of this year – just in time for Christmas. Hey, why not pick up two copies – one for yourself and another as a gift. That is the kindest way you could say thanks for all our hard work.
Last but not least Birdy and I would like to thank Richard Boffin for two years of impeccable support as our sound guru and also Kate McLoughney for being sweet enough to look after our @GCweirdscience Twitter feed.
Over the past few years I’ve been reading copious amounts of popular science. My bookshelves are quite literally overflowing with books about the brain. Yet despite the fierce competition, when it comes to dreaming up metaphors to cut through the complexities of the mind in order to help people understand what drives human behaviour The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters is king of the jungle.
The main reason it is so brilliant is the elegant manner in which over a century of insights from the fields of psychology and psychiatry is effortlessly translated into a practical user guide to mind management. With The Chimp Paradox to hand, everyone can grasp what drives the internal conflicts that take place in our minds no a daily basis, not to mention the strategies they can employ to diffuse the tensions that inevitably arise as a consequence of being in possession of a piece of neural apparatus that evolved in leaps and bounds over millions of years. There is a delicate balance between simplifying complex concepts and dumbing them down to the point of being condescending. Steve Peters judges this to perfection.
We all have moments in life that we look back on only to find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief when we recall what we said, how we felt or what we wrote in the heat of the moment. Actions or comments that seem entirely justified on one day often lead to wholehearted regret soon after, yet we make the same mistakes over and over again. By developing an easy to grasp and simple to use model of our mind in which two individuals co-exist: the erratic, primal, emotional CHIMP brain on the one hand and the calm, highly-evolved, rational HUMAN brain on the other – it enables us to understand our own behaviours and, perhaps more importantly, those of the people that we encounter each day.
By thoroughly understanding what drives the decisions and conduct of not just ourselves but also other people, we can start to develop good habits of thought and action (or “Autopilots” as Prof Peters calls them) in place of bad habits of thought and action (dubbed by Prof Peters as “Gremlins”) that cause so much suffering and discomfort in the world. It also throws into sharp relief the times when it’s best to let others vent their frustrations (when their CHIMP is in the drivers seat) without taking any personal offense and saving what you really think of them for a later time when they might have achieved a more reasonable state of mind (when their HUMAN is in control) in which they might actually be capable of grasping the wisdom in your words.
In addition to these monthly blogs you can subscribe to @drjacklewis on Twitter where I share at least three good brain news related articles every day and if you love podcast you can catch Geek Chic’s Weird Science (on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn, podbay) which comes out each and every Friday.
Do No Harm by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh is a truly magical read.
This candid, blunt and often painfully amusing collection of tales about neurosurgical procedures that went well against the odds, that went catastrophically wrong when it really should have been plain sailing, drives home how tough being a neurosurgeon really is. Several passages describe what it’s like to carefully navigate the nervous tissue packed tightly inside a person’s skull so beautifully that it verged on the poetic. Others, conveying the profound guilt associated with the realisation that an inadvertently nicked blood vessel would ultimately leave the patient permanently paralysed for the rest of their life, were so honest as to be emotionally brutalising. And as for the how the changes in the NHS have impacted on the profession of neurosurgery, not to mention the Catch 22 of how do develop surgical skills when no one wants to be operated on by a novice, it generates tremendous empathy for those brave young souls embarking from scratch on this hugely challenging career path in a totally new era.
Do No Harm really struck a chord with me on a personal level. During my teens I was always torn between a career in medicine and my scientific calling. Friends’ parents often commented that I would make a brilliant doctor and my best friend’s father, who spent most of his career as head of immunology at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, urged me on numerous occasions to take the medical route and then branch out into research later. Deep down however I lacked the courage to accept the inevitable mistakes that might lead to catastrophe for my patients. I had watched far too many episodes of the 90’s medical drama series Casualty. This excellent series may well have inspired thousands of Brits to pursue careers in medicine, but for me, it instead made me acutely aware that unnecessary deaths were an unavoidable consequence of practicing medicine. I realised that errors of judgement could spell disaster at any moment and I knew deep down that these would inevitably weigh heavily on my conscience. So I chose to pursue neuroscience instead of medicine.
The first few chapters of Do No Harm brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion because the tales being told were not works of fiction, but instead the autobiographical real-life experiences of an extraordinarily honest man, brave enough not only to build a career in surgery but also to give equal voice to both his successes and failures.
This is an excellent book. Not only will you find it very rewarding but it might just make you realise how lucky we Brits are to have people like Henry Marsh in our beloved National Health Service.
In addition to these monthly blog postings I tweet about interesting brain-related articles in the press on a daily basis. You can follow me by clicking here.
I also do a weekly science podcast called Geek Chic’s Weird Science which you can download for free from iTunes or alternatively, if you’re not an iPhone or iPad user, you can download/stream it from a variety of online sources such as Podbay, Libsyn, and PodcastChart, amongst others!
Figuring out what I should write about in my blog this month really was a no brainer. It’s not every month that I have a new book about to hit the shelves (Friday 28th March 2014). So from April onwards, if you happen to be passing a WHSmith’s then please do consider popping in. You should find Sort Your Brain Out prominently displayed in the Non-Fiction and Business charts. If you can’t find it then please drop me a line!
Although we have specifically targeted the business market in the first instance, primarily due to their familiarity with my co-author’s previous work, this truly is a book for everyone. We hope that business professionals will decide that other members of their family would also benefit from reading it and pass it on; whether the recipients are their children – to help them get the most out of their brains to achieve more in their education, or their own parents – to help them get the most out of their brain during the post-retirement years. In fact, the book has been carefully put together to ensure that readers of all ages will be able to get something out of it. Happily we’ve already had some feedback that suggests we have been successful in achieving this goal. If you fancy flicking through a few select pages, or perhaps even pre-order a copy with a 30% discount, then please click here to see it on Amazon.
We are encouraging people to tweet photos of Sort Your Brain Out when they find it in the wild with the hashtag #SortYourBrainOut or #SYBO for short – we’ve been made aware of sightings all over the UK and the world – from Jamaica to Hong Kong and Cornwall to Edinburgh.
This is my first foray into the world of publishing. Strictly speaking it’s the second book I’ve ever written, if you count my Ph.D. thesis. However I doubt whether more than a handful of people have ever pulled it out of the vaults of the University of London library in Senate House. For most readers it would be pretty incomprehensible anyway what with being laden with complex scientific terminology. The whole point of Sort Your Brain Out is to make the latest neuroscience accessible for everyone, not just the science enthusiasts. So with this in mind, for my first published book, it only seemed appropriate to co-author it with someone who has extensive experience in writing books that everyone can get something out of. And a few years back, thanks to a fortunate twist of fate, I met the perfect collaborator.
Adrian Webster and I both contributed as motivational speakers at a conference in Tenerife in 2011, presenting me with the perfect opportunity to forge an alliance with a truly exceptional individual. An internationally best-selling author, his first book Polar Bear Pirates was a massive hit. It is very unusual to see a business book packed full of cartoon characters, yet this unorthodox approach may well be precisely what made it resonate with such a broad audience. We’ve tried to reproduce this effect with a handful of illustrations commissioned for Sort Your Brain Out. For a sneak preview: click here.
Over more than a decade Adrian has been one of Europe’s most popular and influential motivational speakers. His uncanny ability to spin a yarn in an entertaining yet impactful way, leaving audiences not just spellbound by his performances but also much wiser about how to get the best out of themselves at work is unparalleled. He distils many years of experience in the workplace into witty/moving anecdotes and wise observations about how best to motivate ourselves and those around us. Here’s a quick taste of his speaking style brilliantly animated by some young and very talented animators.
Our book Sort Your Brain Out aims to make what modern neuroscience has discovered about the strengths and weaknesses of human brain function accessible to the broadest possible market. We wanted to provide some powerful insights into how to get the most out of your brain, whoever the reader happens to be. After all, every one of us has a brain, but it doesn’t come with a user guide. So we thought we’d pen a book that illuminates what’s going on within our skulls and what brains need to function optimally. The Sunday Express kindly published an article we wrote to support the launch of the book and the following Monday we got a mention in the Daily Express. We also penned a short article on how to stoke the fires of creativity which you can also read online.
We asked a few kind souls to read the final version before it went to print and were overwhelmed by the positive feedback. Below you’ll find just a small selection of the endorsements we received:
This truly inspiring and fascinating book leaves you never wanting to waste a single second ever again. Everything you need to know about how your brain works and how to maximize it is contained in an easy-to-read way. The book proves you really can do anything and there are lots of simple ways to help ensure you too can make the most of your biggest asset – your brain! Without doubt, a book you cannot be without!”
Dame Sarah Storey, DBE
For all the debate about governments nudging people to make better decisions or to adopt better behaviours, it is easy to overlook the fact that we can actually nudge ourselves. This book is a wonderful guide to how to do just that.”
Executive Creative Director and
Vice Chairman, OgilvyOne London
I thought it was accessible, thought-provoking and full of useful, easy-to-follow tips about improving your everyday life through a better understanding of the brain.”
Writer for The Observer and other publications
This book explores the kind of topics we all think and talk about: Is the internet making us stupid? What do alcohol and caffeine really do to our brains? It provides you with kind of fascinating nuggets of information you end up reading out to whoever you happen to be with, as well as practical tips on how to maximise what we all have between our ears. Forget brainstorming, it’s all about brainshaking and dunking now. Neuroscience demystified and simplified without being patronising; a must-read.”
A really great book that explains in layman’s terms how the brain works and how you can then translate that knowledge to enhance your own performance. Thought-provoking and insightful, it will add considerable value to anyone still willing to learn, irrespective of which rung of the success ladder they are on. It’s an enjoyable and extremely useful read.”
Sort Your Brain Out is a must-read for everyone. It is a clever and thoughtful book designed to help the lay reader understand more about the brain’s most intimate workings but most importantly it provides erudite yet easily consumed bite-sized gobbets of information on how to improve one’s lobar lot. The fascinating examples are eminently readable and marvellously memorable; the reading of this book will stretch the brain in exactly the way the authors have devised. This is mental stimulation at its best.”
Head of Programming and Branded Content
As someone who has spent their life reviewing neuroscience material, I was struck by how the overview on offer contextualises some aspects of brain function in a novel and refreshing way. In short, this is a delightful and illuminating read – it is the book that I would (will) give my family, when they ask searching questions about neuroscience – and what it means for them.”
Professor Karl Friston FRS
Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging
University College London
Sort Your Brain Out is has clarity of purpose and many features that puts it ahead of its competitors in an expanding area of interest. Making the best use of the amazing brains we all inherit, even though they are destined to operate in a world far removed from the environment that shaped their evolution, is crucial. There probably is no more important a task for us as individuals or for the groups we live and work in than this. Help and the chance to expand our insight is at hand.”
Head of Strategy
Advertising Planning firm Vizeum
Engaging, accessible, demystifying.”
Dr Daniel Glaser
Science Gallery London
If you do decide to purchase a copy we’d be really grateful if you’d find time to review it on Amazon.
Every single day of my life starts with a 20-30 min read in the bath. I call it going back to the womb. Just prior to crinkle o’clock I emerge wide awake, refreshed, head brimming with pearls of scientific wisdom.
I’ve found that regular consumption of popular science books stimulates my own thinking. Furthermore, I’ve found that having a few books on the go at the same time can enable a beautiful thing to occur. That delicious coincidence when you can draw together themes and concepts from completely different fields: fact and fiction/ science and art, opposite sides of the spectrum, that nonetheless all share a common thread. The moment of realisation, when connecting the dots is totally effortless, can be extremely intellectually rewarding and is promoted by having more than one book on the boil at any one time.
So anyway, I get through a fair few books. In fact I stumble across excellent tomes at a rate that far exceeds the time I have to review them. So now I’m going to take the opportunity to briefly review 5 in one go. I felt immensely enriched by the broad knowledge base these great writers accumulated over several decades and brought together in each and every one of these books.
Lifelines by Steven Rose
I’m choosing this one to top the list largely because I recently hosted a post-film Q&A after the film screening of a great neuroscience themed play called “Broken Bridges, Stunted Trees” put together by the OneKX crew. On the panel of this particular audience discussion, along with several other distinguished guests, was Prof Steven Rose himself. A man who “retired into full time research” in 1999 having been the Open University’s Head of Biology for three full decades!
Every now and then I have the opportunity to thank an author for fundamentally altering my thinking about a subject very close to my heart. LIFELINES truly changed the way I think about biology. When I thanked Prof Rose for writing LIFELINES he was chuffed as it was a book felt particularly proud of when he finished it back in 1997. And I can see why.
I loved biology throughout secondary school and have specialised in neurobiology at university and beyond. But it wasn’t until I read LIFELINES that I realised biology is not about nature and it’s not about nurture, but a jaunty waltz between the two. You simply cannot consider one in isolation of the other. Evidence of the cyclical interplay between genes and environment abounds in this wonderful book.
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
There’s something magical to me about the way Jonah Lehrer writes. I’ve reviewed one of his books before: The Decisive Moment a.k.a. Why We Buy – was also extremely well written. I find his writing extremely compelling. He never labours the point too much. And so reading what he has conjured up in IMAGINE is effortless. He has a great knack for finding great stories to tell that really bring the scientific research to life by placing it in a familiar context. In IMAGINE he collates the latest research investigating how human brains do creativity and the types of environment that do and don’t foster it. He intertwines this science with genuinely fascinating anecdotes describing milestones in the creation of many products that we have all had experience of in some way, shape or form.
For the insights into how the most innovative companies in the creative industries stoke creativity so effectively alone it would still be in this list. These beautifully written, fact laden, tales of creativity-in-action are insightful, useful and have great retell value. Creative people will probably recognise some of the strategies already. Indeed, many people stumble on these behaviours going solo, through trial and error. Yet what lies between the covers of this particular book are all the effective strategies in one place, along with a little de-bunking of the common misunderstandings for good measure.
Better Than Human by Allen Buchanan
I’ve written articles about smart drugs and prosthetic devices in the past. This book is all about the long term ethical implications of both. Often neuroethics books are so dense with information that the reading of it can be really tough going. This isn’t one of those books that leaves you drowning in confusing terminology. On the contrary, it is an extremely easy read, conversational almost, yet it makes complex concepts crystal clear. It really makes you think hard about the powerful impact differences in access to technology have on the lives of various groups of people around the globe. But this isn’t just about any old technology, this is a new technology fit for the 21st century – technology that enhances your brain, boosting it’s capacities, going beyond good – BETTER THAN HUMAN.
It even explains why neuroethics is important. If you’re wondering – t’s important because current innovations in neuroscience could, in a very short time, fundamentally change human life on earth. Now you don’t want to get that kind of thing wrong. Once something has been invented, it cannot be uninvented. Neuroethics helps to establish what kind of research should be on and off limits. And if someone’s going to invent it anyway – what in the world are we do about it? BETTER THAN HUMAN make me glad that wise men and women have been thinking this all through, calmly and clearly, future gazing looking out for problems on the horizon. They predict which technologies are likely to come to fruition and identify solutions to certain potential problems before they happen. This book makes all this potentially foxing information very digestible, it brings the fruit all that experts’ deliberations to the table in finger bowls. A light meal of neural sustenance. Most importantly, it leaves the readers’ eyes wide open to the broader issues that may well face society in the not-too-distant future if the “haves” get all the benefits of technological enhancement whilst the “have nots” get left behind. Society needs to close the gap between rich and poor, not widen it – for everyone’s sake.
The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson
Drugs, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond was the first book that boggled my mind in terms of the staggering breadth and width of knowledge that was drawn upon to tell the story of how we got where we are. The trajectory of mankind’s development through the ages was plotted via compelling accounts drawing from evolution, palaeontology, archaeology, natural history, anthropology and modern science to explain how the global power balance is skewed, for the time being at least, towards “western” countries. E.O. Wilson’s book THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH takes an equally broad perspective on how in the world we came to be the most dominant creature on planet earth out of billions of species. The depth and breadth of E. O. Wilson’s knowledge is staggering. His ability to boil such a diverse spectrum of information down into punchy little chapters is remarkable. His understandable desire to draw parallels between human and insect social behaviour/evolution can, I must admit, become tiresome. Particularly when he digs down into real detail, presumably to settle a score with academic competitors, of insect behaviour. However for me, as a person obsessed with the human brain, by skim reading the dense passages of entomology and slowing down when the discourse becomes mammalian centred again – I found this to be, overall, a great read. Wilson consistently manages to condense the debate down to meaty little mouthfuls of insight regarding what our ancestors had to go through to survive / evolve into us. And the insect stuff really does add some context, despite being too detailed for my tastes in many place. As for the non-insect heavy chapters, every page is a pleasure due to a clear effort to cut back all but the most relevant information required to make his deeply insightful points.
Decoded by Phil Barden
This is the most accurate and coherent account of how neuroscience and psychology can contribute to marketing that I have read to date. Phil Barden has over twenty years experience in the marketing world, having worked for some of the world’s largest and most influential firms. In DECODED he explains, with great clarity, insights that he and the team of scientists he works alongside have brought to their clients’ attention that have helped them communicate more effectively with their customers. Many books aimed at this market – like Martin Lindstrom’s “Buyology” and AK Pradeep’s “Buying Brain” have a distinct tendency to veer into the realms of wildly over-inflated claims. More sales than substance. DECODED is a book of substance. It does it’s job of clearly communicating various ways in which marketing can gain extra leverage on the basis of properly executed science.
Even if you have no interest whatsoever in marketing you should still read this book. Why? Well I think that if a person wishes to protect themselves against increasingly influential marketing ploys, then surely a book that takes you through the favoured tactics may be very helpful in terms of facilitating the process of dreaming up countermeasures? When a consumer becomes aware of that tactics being used, whether in the context of TV / radio / billboard ads, or shop floor merchandising and promotions, merely spotting them can defuse their potency. Stopping briefly to contemplate what that particular message is designed to get you to do can be very empowering. Rather than just allowing it to happen you can take a stand, be determined not to give in to the path of least resistance and take steps to evade falling into those psychological traps.
I’ve been meaning to read this book for a very very long time. I spied it on a friend’s bookshelf and wasted no time in negotiating the borrow. I’d heard about it long ago from a mate from university who studied psychology and now works for a major record label. He had left me with low expectations saying that the hype that greeted it’s launch onto the market was unwarranted. In fact, he said, Mr Gladwell contradicts the point he makes throughout the book, right at the end.
I can see how this book might be a bit “Marmite” for some people (this is a spread that we Brits either LOVE or HATE to put on our toast in the market – and it really does split people into two distinct camps at opposite ends of the spectrum). It takes an interesting point: that the expert brain is capable of making very accurate judgements in a blink (or two) of the eye – and then hammers it to death with examples from many different walks of life.
Personally, having read hundreds of pop science books now with an eye on writing my own (in fact I have finally scored a book deal – only took 5 years!), I thought Blink was great. In my talks at business conferences and training employees in the worlds of Public Relations, Market Research and Advertising I find myself discussing the neuroscience of decision making at great length. The role of instinct, gut feeling, call it what you will has long been overlooked by economics in its first few decades and the brain sciences have been filling in the gaps in the last decade or so. What I’ve found is that lay audiences NEED concrete examples to really drive the message home. And Malcolm Gladwell is not only a great story teller but he has found many wonderful examples to put flesh on the scientific skeleton.
From art experts evaluating the authenticity of a priceless statue, to police evaluating the threat posed to them by a potential criminal, the power and weakness of instant judgements are thoroughly dissected in a very compelling manner. This book may not be to the taste of those already well versed in neuroeconomics and psychology, but for the layperson my instinct tells me this is a must read.
What I like most about this book is that, admittedly with a fair degree of repetition, it makes one point clear and true – if you have developed considerable expertise then you can make sound judgements in the blink of an eye, but if you haven’t got much experience then your instincts will probably misguide you and lead to potentially catastrophic consequences.
I have many more book reviews in the works for this blog and recently reviewed Phil Barden’s “Decoded” elsewhere. In the meantime, you might also consider catching my daily brain twitterings on Twitter.
If you are an actor or actress wanting to use the Memory Palace to help you memorise your lines then please allow me to recommend Josh Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein”. Of all the books I’ve read on memory I think it is the best combination of being an entertaining read AND very informative. It’s a real page turner, with all the most important bits of hard science scattered thinly, digestibly and evenly along the path of a real life adventure into the world of memory. He went from covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist one year, to winning the US Memory Championships the very next. A very impressive feat. But also, you get the impression, one that you or I could do if we got round to putting the time in! His is the best description I’ve as yet come across of how to use the Memory Palace to memorise lines of prose or poetry. If any of you know of any better techniques please leave a comment below.
In addition to these weekly brain posts you can get a daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter, which reminds me… I haven’t found today’s one yet so I’d better get searching 😉
I’ve been devouring popular science books over the last year, with a view to writing a book of my own, and there is no doubt that THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Through a series of well-researched scientific breakthroughs explained via a variety of compelling real-life stories, it effortlessly convinces the reader that the human brain is a highly adaptable, “plastic” organ capable of dramatically rewiring itself, at any stage in life, to enable significant recovery from even catastrophic brain damage.
This book is nothing less than inspirational. The 20th Century doctrine of the “unchanging brain” – hardwired throughout childhood and fundamentally unalterable by the end of adolescence – is well and truly turned on its head by this remarkable compilation of case studies to the contrary.
The miracles of modern neuroscience: 65 year old Professor Pedro Bach-y-Rita crawling around on his hands and knees, just like a baby, en route to recovering his ability to first walk, then talk and ultimately go back into teaching, after his brainstem stroke. Ingenious machines, sending computer-generated sensory information to a person’s tongue in place of visual or vestibular information lost to brain damage, enable people to see and walk again. The once seriously learning disabled Barbara Arrowsmith Young now heading up a school that uses novel programmes she developed to treat herself by forcing underdeveloped brain areas to up their game through intensive training sessions.
All of these and much, much more demonstrate that the brain CAN change. All that is required is a knowledge of exactly what is required to encourage those changes to occur – all clearly outlined in this book – and then dedication to putting the hours in to make sure those changes happen. It turns out that neuroplasticity can even explain how the miraculous psychological changes that can be enabled by psychiatric counselling might be underpinned by physical changes in the brain. Sexual attraction, love, pain, obsession, anxiety, compulsions and habits are all fundamentally influenced by neuroplasticity and the sooner the world gets to grips with this the better. Even putting the hours in using your imagination to practice cognitive skills to improve your mental abilities does so via physical changes to the number and connectivity of brain cells.
If I ran a school of brain science I would make this compulsary reading. Partly because the “neuroplastic revolution” that the author, Norman Doidge, envisages is extremely empowering to all people; not just the old and neurologically-impaired, but for every single human being on earth that wishes to improve their brain function. But also because it captures an essential truth about science – professors, medics and other experts who share with us their wisdom are not infallible. They do not, CAN not, know it all. They can only peddle the best of what has stood the test of time since they acquired their body of knowledge combined with the new research that has been confirmed by subsequent independent research. There is always the possibility that they, and their forefathers got the wrong end of the stick – which is almost certainly what happened with the concept of neuroplasticity. Consequently, we must all be critical of what we read and remain open to new findings and novel ways of thinking about how the world, and our own brains, truly work.
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I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand “how the brain makes up its mind”. Jonah Lehrer tells compelling stories about real-life decision making situations in order to bring to life several fascinating insights into the tug-of-war that goes on between instinctive versus thoughtful aspects of every choice we make. Tales of firefighters, surgeons, consumers, poker players, financiers, sportsmen and pilots compellingly and efffectively reveal the differences between decision making scenarios where we should TRUST our instincts and others in which we should DISTRUST them. An extremely thorough, readable and up-to-date account of the latest research into what goes on in our brains during a wide variety of decision-making scenarios, from picking a favourite jam to making a snap decision on a course of action that may, or may not, avert imminent disaster. It reveals that even expert decision makers can be just as bad as novices because the trade-off between the two competing influences is usually imperfect. The pursuit of an optimal decision is often be tripped up by malevolent forces such as loss aversion, confirmation bias and overconfidence – leading to a reluctance to evaluate decision making errors – our only hope should we wish to improve our decision making strategies. By the end of this fantastic book the reader will have developed a solid understanding of how the cold, rational, analytical apects involved during conscious evaluation of the benefits in light of the associated risks for each option must wrestle with the hot, emotional, impulsive aspects of decision making (providing a window into subconscious processing of the relevant considerations).
I have read a lot of popular science in recent months and have noticed that many authors have a tendancy to overuse scientific jargon, labour their point in overly-dense prose and/or try too hard to be funny. In stark contrast, I take my proverbial hat off to Jonah Lehrer – he nailed the tone and pace of this book perfectly – producing a truly great read!