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 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…