• Brain Book Reading List for 2013

    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

    LifelinesI’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

    imagineThere’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

    Better than HumanI’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

    Social Conquest of EarthDrugs, 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

    DecodedThis 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.

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  • Adolescent Brains in the 21st Century by Dr Jack

    I was once told that adolescence is the hardest thing I would ever have to do in life. Up to that point in time I had got the overwhelming impression that most adults wished they could go back to the simple life they seemed to distinctly remember enjoying during childhood. All this smacked of rose-tinted glasses to me, but still I asked myself what exactly was I doing so wrong to find the teenage years a bit of a grind.

    Teenagers tend to experience life in the extreme. The highest highs rub shoulders with the lowest lows. They tend to experience everything as either fabulously exciting, depressing, or mind-numbingly boring, with very little in between. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case:

    • during adolescence the brain is a patchwork quilt of work-in-progress (see video below)
    • it is undergoing a neurochemical conspiracy that simultaneously amplifies emotions
    • whilst encouraging risk taking and exaggerating perceived benefit

    …all in the absence of any extensive experience that, in adults, can occasionally step in to trump the usually erroneous risk/benefit calculations that accompany every decision at an unconscious, implicit level.

    I personally found the acknowledgement that being a teen is tough to be profoundly reassuring. Now as a neuroscientist I can go one step further by actually showing WHY being a teenager will always feel tough at times. More importantly I will describe why teenagers of today will turn into adults that are even more different from the previous generation than ever before in the history of man.

    Human brain maturation does not reach completion until after adolescence. During the teenage years the brain is literally caught midway between adulthood and childhood. In the mid-teens cerebral maturation looks like a patchwork quilt, with some areas that have already reached their adult form intermingled amongst others that have not changed significantly since childhood. Yet other regions of cortex find themselves in a transition state part way between the two extremes. This is why a teenager can seem so bright and intelligent one minute, whilst making the most disasterous decisions and over-reacting in the most outrageous emotional outbursts the next. There is a child and an adult co-existing in the brain of a teen. Below is a video that tracks the brain’s maturation over the course of adolescence starting in the early teens and ending in late teens (blue colour = mature cortex; so keep an eye out for how much green, yellow, orange and red is still in the mix throughout most of adolescence).

    The process of adolescent brain maturation, counterintuitively, does not involve an increase in the thickness of the brain’s outer surface (the cortex). On the contrary, it actually involves a reduction in cortical thickness – as less important synaptic connections and brain pathways are “pruned” away; presumably to free up resources for more intensively-used neural networks. This process enables the brain to function more and more efficiently the more certain behaviours are repeatedly performed and elaborated upon. Skills that we acquire with a great deal of time and effort during childhood are performed effortlessly by the time we reach adulthood.

    The human brain will adapt to any environment with which many, many hours are spent interacting. These days the real life immediate environment of a teenager’s home, school, playground, social settings etc in which they spend their waking hours is increasingly supplemented by a wide variety of virtual and online spaces and places into which innumerable hours are poured. This means that digital natives – kids that cannot remember a time before the internet – are going through their “synaptic pruning” maturation phase of accelerated teen brain development synergistically with virtual, as well as real, worlds. The brains that result from this interactive process will be specialised differently to those honed during a twentieth century adolescence.

    Cause for alarm? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. It will undoubtedly be a mixed bag. Brain specialisation to improve efficiency in the execution of one behaviour will always come at the expense of specialisation that could have been invested in something else. This is displacement.

    When time spent playing massive multiplayer online games (MMOG) entirely displaces time spent engaging in old fashioned face-to-face interaction with a friend or group of friends certain brain areas will be improved in preference to others. That teenager would develop superior visuospatial, rapid task-switching and quick decision making abilities, but at the expense of social skills; unless time is also invested in extensive face-to-face communication with peers. Social networking and instant messenging services actually takes this social displacement to a whole different level by actively disrupting what little time is acutally spent in the company of real people.

    Teen social lives are increasingly becomeing less about the face-to-face and much more about face-down-to-phone. The right to choose which smartphone alerts they do and don’t respond to are waived in favour of a slavish dependency. The attention of many teens is immediately diverted to any BBM, Twitter, Facebook etc alert that squarks and vibrates from their smartphone – regardless of where they are or who they are with. This constant disruption must surely degrade the quality of in person social interaction and brain specialisation supporting this vital skill. So does this mean the art of conversation is utterly doomed?

    If teens can be made aware of the need to take control of their digital consumption then there is hope. Otherwise they’ll find themselves distinctly uncomfortable being in the same room as other people and will much prefer to communicate through the written word – a scenario that will inevitably leave them feeling empty. Brains that evolved to communicate much more effectively through body language than speech will inevitably miss the physical presence of another person when communication becomes exlusively remote. Not to mention the fact that physical touch is one of the primary ways in which a brain is inspired to activate brain circuitry that makes a human being feel safe, secure and content.

    In addition to these monthly brainposts you can catch daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter.

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