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A Brain for Numbers: Andreas Nieder ***

In dramas it's not usual for someone dumping a partner to say 'It's not you, it's me,' - and that's how I felt about this book. I'm sure some readers would find it really interesting, but it didn't work for me.

I think the main problem is that that I'm interested in maths, but not so much in how human and animal brains handle numbers. So I found the opening and closing chapters, which deal with the nature of numbers (specifically zero in that closing chapter) I enjoyed, but the vast majority of the book explores the design of experiments to try to understand how animals perceive numbers (or don't), what we can learn from them, and how animals' and our brains react to numbers.

As soon as I see a map of the brain, I'm afraid I turn off - there's an element of Richard Feynman's famous complaint about biology students wasting their time learning the names of all the bits in a cat's nervous system. However, if you are interested in how the brain responds to numbers (we're talking specifically whole counting numbers here), then I've no doubt the book would prove more interesting.

I don't think it helped that there's some quite heavyweight language used, which my eyes tend to bounce off. After a while I struggle to keep going when this is the case. I've just opened the book at random and the first sentence I came across was 'This study showed stable neural representations of sequential numerosities [sic] across visual and auditory modalities.'

For the right audience - I suspect biology students wanting to explore this area further - this is undoubtedly a great book. But it didn't do it for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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