Dec 09

Dean Burnett’s “Idiot Brain” and Ours

If an “irreverent guide to the brain” is what you’re seeking, says Kirkus Reviews, British neuroscientist and sometimes comic Dean Burnett‘s Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To (2016) is the book for you. Or maybe it’s the book you’d rather give as a gift.

Burnett’s basic view of the brain: “It’s undeniably impressive, but it’s far from perfect, and these imperfections influence everything humans say, do and experience.”

Some of the questions posed and answered:

Why do we remember faces before names? Why do our egos often override accuracy? Why do emotional memories of negative events fade faster than positive ones? How is it that you can enter a room and have no idea why you decided to go there? Did you know that the thrill of fear and the gratification gained from sweets emanate from the same region (the mesolimbic pathway) of the brain?

Some of his interesting conclusions (with sources in parentheses):

Less intelligent people are often more confident. (Kirkus)

The Myers-Briggs personality test may not be that useful. (Kirkus)

Motion sickness is caused by the brain reading the mismatch between seeing a landscape move and the body feeling still. (Publishers Weekly)

You’re far less likely or able to empathize with someone who is suffering or in an intense situation if you yourself are not in that situation or in a similarly unpleasant environment. (Kylie Sturgess interview,

Anger can reduce stress. (Leyla Sanai, Independent)

The brain often chooses being liked over doing what we believe to be correct. (Independent)

We tend to embellish our memories if we’re telling someone about it. (Terry Gross interview, NPR)

Anything longer than a minute is long-term memory. (NPR)

With most neuroscience claims and studies, you’ll find another one which says the opposite pretty easily because it’s a very confusing organ. (NPR)

Finally, a little side note, a point made to Terry Gross about the post Burnett considers the most controversial ever on his blog (which he writes for The Guardian and is called “Brain Flapping”): Not transgender issues or immigration or same-sex marriage, all of which he’s written about, but “whether or not you should put milk in your tea before the water or after.”

Selected Reviews

Publishers Weekly: “…[Burnett] packs an incredible amount of information into an accessible package with this breezy, charming collection of pop neuroscience musings on ‘how the human brain does its own thing despite everything the modern world can throw at it.’”

Bookish: “We love a good brain book, and Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett might just be our new favorite.”

David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart: “In Idiot Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett doesn’t just explain the weird inner workings of our brain’s most bizarre bits and pieces in terms that we can understand, he explains them in terms we can laugh at, and relate to. If you’ve ever wanted to sit down with a neuroscientist, have a few drinks, ask a zillion questions, and laugh until you snorted, read this book.”

Dec 07

Neuropsychoanalysis: Casey Schwartz Examines Emerging Field

Psychoanalysis looks at the brain from the inside out: What does it feel like to be this thing? Neuroscience looks at the brain from the outside in, measuring its behavior, investigating its physical mechanisms. Casey Schwartz, In the Mind Fields, introducing concept of neuropsychoanalysis

Casey Schwartz has studied both psychoanalysis and neuroscience, and in her new book In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis she investigates how these two fields might intersect effectively. Her publisher:

Schwartz discovered that neuroscience and psychoanalysis are engaged in a conflict almost as old as the disciplines themselves. Many neuroscientists, if they think about psychoanalysis at all, view it as outdated, arbitrary, and subjective, while many psychoanalysts decry neuroscience as lacking the true texture of human experience. With passion and humor, Schwartz explores the surprising efforts to find common ground.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes the author’s approach:

After a bow to Freud and his followers, Schwartz focuses on two men: Mark Solms, both a psychoanalyst and a neurosurgeon, coiner of the term ‘neuropsychoanalysis,’ translator of Freud, and founder of the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society; and David Silvers, not a psychiatrist but a practicing analyst, who has as a patient an aphasic stroke victim—i.e., a man who has lost the ability to speak. Schwartz follows Solms’ working and writing lives and includes some fascinating stories about his experiences and those of others working with brain-damaged men and women. She then connects with Silvers, who has been treating a man seemingly unreachable by psychoanalytic technique, a man whose case seems to offer the possibility of a bridge between psychoanalytic ideas and neuroscientific ones.

One of Schwartz’s main conclusions: “…(H)owever unlikely the idea, however unimaginable the design, neuropsychoanalysis may offer something valuable: a sketch of inner life where creativity isn’t simply explained as patterns of electrical waves, sadness as the number you circle between one and nine, and love confused with the mating habits of prairie voles.”

To read the excerpt from which this quote was taken, see this link at The Atlantic.

Selected Reviews

Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: “For too long, we’ve had to choose between the mind and the brain, between a psychodynamic vocabulary and a neuroscientific one. In this generous, insightful, witty book, Casey Schwartz looks at the steep cost of that dichotomous construct. Her meticulous reporting and lucid reasoning resolve seemingly intractable dialectics with the sheer grace of common sense.”

Publishers Weekly: “Though clearly knowledgeable, Schwartz is honest about her moments of indecision, further humanizing the narrative—indeed, the book ends with more questions yet to be answered rather than with concrete conclusions. Schwartz demonstrates the value of embracing confusion and the limitations of one’s knowledge while exploring the vast expanses of the mind.”

Scott Stossel, author of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind: In the Mind Fields is a brilliant and enthralling exploration of a scientific and philosophical conundrum that has preoccupied thinkers from Descartes to Freud to Oliver Sacks: the relationship between brain and mind. Weaving together intellectual history, science reporting, bits of memoir, and a deep reservoir of humane sympathy, Casey Schwartz brings readers along with her on a bracing quest to bridge psychoanalysis and neuroscience. A work of remarkable brio, wisdom, and wit, with gems of insight shimmering on nearly every page.”

Mar 18

“The Brain’s Way of Healing”: Neuroplasticity Explained By Norman Doidge

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge is on the cutting edge of the study of neuroplasticity, the subject of his book The Brain’s Way of Healing.

Asked by Leigh SalesABC.netto define the term, Doidge broke it down: “Well, neuro is for neurons, the nerve cells in the brain, and plasticity means adaptable, changeable and modifiable. And neuroplasticity is that property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to activity and mental experience.”

Although Doidge explains in The Brain’s Way of Healing that there are “critical periods of plasticity in early life” he also says “(w)e’re plastic until we die.”

John B. Saul, Seattle Times“Doidge explains the processes of the brain and body in a clear and understandable way, even to those of us who previously couldn’t distinguish a hippocampus from a hippopotamus…For someone who suffers — or knows someone who suffers — from an injury or illness related to the brain, both this book as well as Doidge’s previous will provide information — and perhaps hope — that the brain can heal itself.”

In The Guardian Doidge recently listed five ways to improve brainpower. Click on the link for details:

  1. Walk two miles a day–“Regular exercise, such as walking, has been shown to be a key factor in reducing the risk of dementia by 60%.”
  2. Learn a new dance (or language or musical instrument)–these and other things engage the nucleus basalis part of the brain.
  3. Do serious brain exercises–“These exercises are very different from most computer brain games or those in newspapers; they are very challenging and require intense concentration.”
  4. Pay close attention to your voice–“If you listen very carefully to what you are saying as you speak – to the sound of it, not just the content – you will refine it, and energise it, into a voice that charges, as opposed to one that drains yourself and others.”
  5. Get the rest your body requests.

Selected Reviews of The Brain’s Way of Healing

Bookpage: “Norman Doidge, M.D. marches enthusiastically into the future in a dazzling collection of stories about neuroplasticity and the ever-changing brain…Each of Doidge’s examples suggests tangible treatment ideas for patients who may have thought they were out of options. Doidge’s penchant for considering unconventional approaches to healing offers hope for all.”

Charles Euchner, Boston Globe: “In this age of distraction and unnatural environments and actions — like staring at screens all day — brain science offers all kinds of useful techniques to care for our infinitely complex selves. Norman Doidge’s work is a Michelin Guide to this hopeful new trove of knowledge and insight.”

Kirkus Reviews: “A lively, anecdotal account of potential new directions that may point the way to major therapeutic breakthroughs.”

Sep 10

“The Organized Mind”: Daniel Levitin Tells You How to Get One

While our brains evolved to take on the daunting challenges of life in the Stone Age, they now have many redundant, maladaptive, and not quite finished features that clash with the huge demands placed on our attention by the modern world. Publishers Weekly, about The Organized Mind

For once and for all here’s one thing we should get into our disorganized minds: the notion of multitasking is a myth. So states, in so many words, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

What we think of as multitasking, Levitin says, is actually better viewed as “sequential tasking.” As Michael Andor Brodeur, Boston Globe, explains on his behalf, “you’re less doing a hundred things at once than breaking your cognitive potential into a hundred pieces, and wasting valuable oxygenated glucose in the process.”

Another point made by the author of The Organized Mind is that at any given time we have the capacity to be either focused or daydreaming—just one of these. “This two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the human brain…”

Yet, interestingly, it’s probably not the focused part that first absorbed this scientific fact but that other part, the mind-wandering one.

This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.

What other interesting things does Levitin say in his new book? Take a real vacation. Not the kind where you go somewhere and continue to plug into all sorts of info sources at all hours of the day. The unplugging kind.

Why is this necessary? In a nutshell, “…The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited,” he wrote recently in The New York Times. We need to regularly “hit the reset button” in our brains. Not just on vacations, actually, but continuously. Take regular mental staycations, in other words.

Lucy Feldman, Wall Street Journal, breaks down Levitin’s advice into a handy list of 10 items:

1. Take breaks. 15 minutes every hour or so!

2. Set up different computer monitors for different activities. (Something about making effective use of spatial memory.)

3. Embrace a (modified) paper to-do list. A key part of this is that “(y)our eyes have to pass ones in the beginning to get to the ones in the middle,” says Levitin.

4. File correspondence in multiple ways. “If your inbox sometimes feels like the Times Square of the Internet, it can help to file each thread of correspondence in more than one category,” Feldman reports.

5. Purge, when needed. An example from Feldman: “Some people declare ’email bankruptcy,’ delete everything and write to all their contacts asking to please try again if whatever they sent is still important.”

6. Designate time for short tasks and longer projects. Feldman: “Some tasks take weeks, and some only a few minutes, and you shouldn’t switch back and forth between them all day long.”

7. Don’t spend more time on a decision than it’s worth. (I couldn’t decide whether to quote someone or explain this one further or what—and then decided on neither. It didn’t take long.)

8. Sleep, and nap on the job. Levitin: “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, the events of the day are not properly encoded in memory.”

9. Don’t over-organize. Feldman quotes Levitin: “The obvious rule of efficiency is you don’t want to spend more time organizing than it’s worth. If you’re finding things quickly enough as it is, then don’t go to all the trouble.”

10. Leave work at work. Simply put, work is for work; leisure time is for leisure.


Kirkus Reviews: “A prolific genre of books covers this subject, but Levitin holds his own, and his examination of brain function stands out.”

Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, President of the American Psychological Association: “Fascinating…Invaluable insights are offered with regard to organizing our homes, social world, time, decision-making, and business world.”

Gerry Altmann, Professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut: It is engaging, witty, compelling, and infused with science.”

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness: “Dan Levitin has more insights per page than any other neuroscientist I know. The Organized Mind is smart, important, and as always, exquisitely written.”

Feb 27

Richard Davidson: “The Emotional Life of Your Brain”

Just as each per­son has a unique fin­ger­print and a unique face, each of us has a unique emo­tional pro­file, one that is so much a part of who we are that those who know us well can often pre­dict how we will respond to an emo­tional chal­lenge. Dr. Richard Davidson, The Emotional Life of Your Brain

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson‘s book The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them (2012), with contribution by science writer Sharon Begley, addresses the concept of us each having an “emotional fingerprint” based on where we fall on six different continuums:

  • Resilience–recovery from adversity
  • Outlook–duration of positive emotion
  • Social Intuition–sensitivity to social cues
  • Self-awareness–awareness of internal signals
  • Sensitivity to Context–ability to modulate emotions according to context
  • Attention–how focused or scattered

As Davidson states in a Huffington Post article, “The latest neuroscience shows that while these styles are consistent over time they can be changed: we can change our brains by transforming our minds and behavior. Specific mental exercises, when practiced systematically over time, can lead to enduring changes in the structure and function of our brains and, as a result, alter different facets of our Emotional Style.”

Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. calls it “(t)he best book I know on how to use the exciting discoveries of neuroscience to change your life. A fabulous read – a scientific adventure story like Sherlock Holmes meeting Watson and Crick with the Dalai Lama as their advisor.”

And psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., says, “Whether he is measuring neural activity in the laboratory or climbing the Himalayas to meet the Dalai Lama, Davidson is an inveterate explorer who has spent a lifetime probing the deep mystery of human feeling. Don’t miss this smart and lively book by the world’s foremost expert on emotion and the brain.”

And how does the Dalai Lama weigh in on Richard Davidson? “Sometimes I call him Guru of Science!”

Phie Ambo‘s 2012 documentary Free the Mind follows Davidson’s workas he combines his scientific research with his interest in meditation to explore treatment for a couple veterans with PTSD and a five-year-old boy with ADHD. According to the production staff, “The film poses two fundamental questions: What really is consciousness, and how does it manifest in the brain and body? And is it possible to physically change the brain solely through mental practices?”

Marco Chown Oved, Toronto Star, describes the film’s subjects:

Will, an adopted toddler with ADHD, wears his emotional turmoil on his face. His anger, frustration and joy is so transparent that it’s hard not to empathize with him as he confronts his fear of elevators after having been caught in one some time ago.

Stephen and Rich have both returned from tours of duty in Iraq and are closed and opaque young men who calmly describe the horrors they witnessed and participated in. They are heavily reliant on medication to sleep, and complain of the constant anxiety and overwhelming emotions associated with PTSD.

Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times: “All three seem poised for potentially suicidal lives of anger, frustration and violence. While engaged in breathing, visualization and meditation exercises (which, as we see, don’t always work for everyone), their ability to recognize and defuse feelings of fear, anxiety and anger is powerfully reinforced — without, it must be noted, the use of prescription medications.”

The conclusion of the above-cited Oved: “Whether you buy all this new-age Zen talk or not, it’s hard to argue with the results. As the sweatpants-clad vets do breathing exercises and yoga stretches, their anxieties start to slip away. The children learn to recognize their emotions and develop coping mechanisms for their anger.”

Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times: “There’s something healing about simply watching ‘Free the Mind,’ Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo’s gentle, compassionate documentary spotlighting the use of such drug-free options as meditation and mindfulness to treat anxiety and trauma.”

The trailer: