Skip to main content

The Brain - Gary Wenk ***

There have been plenty of books about the brain, but 'Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics' (I bet he has a big business card) Gary Wenk is, according to the subtitle, out to tell us 'what everyone needs to know' about this important organ. (As the subtitle has a registered trademark symbol, I assume the book is part of a series.)

I found The Brain an easy read in terms of the language (though inevitably we get a string of labels for different parts of the brain), but sometimes I struggled to make sense of what was being said. For example, we're told: 'The brain is the organ of your mind; therefore, food and drugs can have a profound influence on how you think, act and feel.' There seemed to be something missing in the logical argument that allowed that 'therefore' to be used. Further down the same page we read 'Human behaviour has impacted [tobacco and coffee] plants as much as they have impacted human history; for example, the introduction of coffee and tea fuelled the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.' There's a similar logical disconnect. Even allowing for the dubious accuracy of the importance of coffee and tea to the Industrial Revolution, that 'for example' should presage an example of the impact human behaviour has had on the plants, not the other way round. It just doesn't quite make sense - and that happens a number of times.

The book is divided up into short segments, helping the easy reading, though sometimes the titles of these segments have similar issues with the wording. So, for example, there's one headed 'Why are close talkers so frightening?' (each heading is a question), but the text actually describes why some people get too close when they talk, not why they are so frightening. While we're covering writing style, though the book is an easy read, the wording can be very plodding. Take this example:
In order to understand how your brain makes a memory, you first need to learn about brain chemistry and the roles specific chemicals play in the creation of a memory. First, you need to know about a chemical in the brain called acetylcholine.
It's almost as if the text has been proofread, but not edited. An awful lot of it is made up of fact statements, without any narrative flow. However, I shouldn't be too hard on the book. Some sections are genuinely interesting, notably the part on how food and drugs (Wenk points out that there is no meaningful distinction - they're all collections of chemicals) influence the brain.

I end up, then, in a mixed frame of mind (an interesting brain state). I learned a lot and parts of the content were very interesting, but the writing could have been significantly better. You sometimes see a book by an academic that cries out for a co-author, and this is one such. Even so, despite the issues I have with it, it should be of interest if you'd like to take more of a dive into the most complex known structure in the universe.

Paperback:  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Science of Being Human - Marty Jopson *****

It might seem at first sight that a book titled 'The Science of Being Human' is about biology (or anthropology) - and certainly there's an element of that in Marty Jopson's entertaining collection of pretty-well freestanding articles on human science - but in reality a better clue comes from the subtitle 'why we behave, think and feel the way we do.'

What Jopson does is to pick out different aspects of the human experience - often quite small and very specific things - and take us through the science behind it. I often found that it was something I really wasn't expecting that really caught my fancy. The test with this kind of book is often what inspires the reader to tell someone else about it - the first thing I found myself telling the world was about why old 3D films used to give you a headache, but modern ones tend not to. (It's about the way that in the real world, your eyes swivel towards each other as things get closer to you.)

It's irresisti…

The Crowd and the Cosmos - Chris Lintott ****

We tend to have a very old fashioned idea of what astronomers do - peering through telescopes on dark nights. In reality, not only do many of them not use optical telescopes, but almost all observations are now performed electronically. Chris Lintott does a great job of bringing alive the realities of modern astronomy, and the way that the flood of data that is produced by all these electronic devices is being in part addressed by 'citizen scientists' - volunteer individuals who check image after image for interesting features.

Inevitably, all this cataloguing and categorising brings to mind Ernest Rutherford's infamous quotation along the lines of 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This occurred to me even before Chris Lintott brought it up. Lintott defends the process against the Rutherford attack by pointing out that it can be a useful starting point for real, new research. To be fair to Rutherford, I think this misses the great man's poin…

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…