Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Book Review: Welcome To Your Brain

Welcome To Your Brain by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang seemed like the kind of book I would love. Unfortunately, I didn't.

The book is sort of a popular textbook on neuroscience and there are some interesting historic and scientific anecdotes in the book but overall the tone is really odd. On the one hand, there's a really poppy voice like a sidebar on marijuana studies ending with the point that more studies are necessary. "Volunteers?" they ask. On the other hand, there's serious science about neurotransmitters, etc. The transition between these two voices tended to make me zone out before I got back on track.

It's also a bit odd in that the chapters are really short. I mean like 5 pages is maybe the longest one, and that includes page long sidebars. Because of this, none of the ideas feels fully fleshed out and there isn't an argument that is carried through the book.

Okay, but those fascinating anecdotes! Here're my favorites:

p. 4: Although the left and right brain are usually divided as the logical/linguistic left side versus the artistic right side, that's not really a good distinction. The left side requires logic so badly that it will make up theories to fit the facts. The right side is more grounded in spatial perception, touch and visual-motor activities; it's the right side that prefers "Just the facts."

p. 18: Remember The Matrix? How the machines used human brains as a source of power? The brain uses only 12 watts of power, less than the light in your fridge.

p. 56: There really are people who sneeze when they see a bright light. (Also: certain men will sneeze during orgasm). This is because of crossed wires in the brainstem, a really mixed up region of the brain that seems to have been jury rigged into various functions over the course of evolution. The authors note, "the brainstem is about as good an argument against intelligent disign as one could ever hope to find in nature."

p. 52: How to better hear your cell phone in a loud room: Turns out your brain is good at distinguishing noises from left and right. So, instead of holding your phone to your right ear and sticking your finger in your left ear, what you should do is use your left hand to cover the mouthpiece of the phone. That way the phone will not pick up and retransmit the local room noise into the earpiece and your brain can sort out a clearer phone signal on the left from the room noise on the right.

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