Skip to main content

The Secret World of the Brain - Catherine Loveday ****

I tend to be a little wary of highly illustrated books like this, as often they can be a matter of style over substance, but The Secret World of the Brain has plenty of text content to accompany the detailed colour pictures, and Catherine Loveday packs in plenty of valuable and up-to-date information on the human brain, with a few 'users manual' elements (e.g. how to get to sleep) but mostly simply exploring and explaining what we know and don't know about the brain (and to some extent the nervous system too).

There are wide ranging sections, from very broad description to brain functions and memory through to very specific chapters on, for instance, the brain and music, why we cry at films and laugh at jokes and altered states of consciousness. If I have any criticism it's that some of these sections (for example the altered states one) felt a bit 'so what?', while I was disappointed that there wasn't a section on creativity, innovation and ideas, my personal specific interest in the brain - the closest we got was 'music in the brain', but this was all about the impact of music, rather than composing.

I particularly enjoyed the little 'myth buster' boxes, taking on the likes of the 10% used brain, people's belief that memories are accurate representations and the suggestion that women are less aggressive than men. (There's a whole section, in fact, on 'are female brains different from male brains?')

With the exception of the gap on creativity, I felt that Loveday got the balance just right - the book is detailed enough to give sufficient depth to get a working appreciation of what's going on with this immensely complex organ, but the text never feels as if it's overloaded with jargon. It's approachable without ever being condescending.

The full price is on the expensive side for what it is, but at the time of writing it has a good discount. If you want a good, modern primer on the human brain, we've now got an excellent recommendation.


Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…