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Overloaded - Ginny Smith ***

In Overloaded, Ginny Smith gives a light, entertaining view of the way that the chemicals that act both as messengers and controls in the brain influence our behaviour, feelings, memory and more. Smith's writing style is conversational and fun. For non-biologists, many books on the brain spend far too much time mapping and describing various parts and structures of the brain, when what we're really interested in is what it does. Smith deals neatly with this by not telling us much at all about these structures, just naming them and getting on with it. I found this extremely refreshing - especially not to be told yet again that the hippocampus is so-named because it looks like a seahorse. It really doesn't.

As a result of liking Smith's approach, I feel quite guilty that I found the book hard to read all the way through. This isn't down to Smith's writing - it's all the fault of biology. The workings of evolution rarely manage to produce simple systems, and while the basic workings of neurons and receptors is relatively straight-forward and interesting, the way the brain uses different chemicals to carry messages, enhance the strength of a signal or suppress a response is messy and requires Smith to describe over and over the way that different molecules act. After a while this got a touch tedious. Again, I stress it's not the writing, it's the subject. Yes, it's fascinating to hear once how the manipulation of various chemicals at the interstices between brain cells enable our brains to the many ways that we act and respond as humans. But by the time we get to the fifth or sixth different system doing the same kind of things in different ways, it gets distinctly samey.

This is a real shame as we learn about the mechanisms behind all kinds of behaviours and responses: memories, motivation, moods, fear, sleep, hunger and satiation, logic, love and pain. My only small criticism of Smith's work is that where the inputs are primarily from brain studies, a lot of the work on outputs here are based on the results of psychological/sociological studies. Since the reproducibility crisis, we have been strongly aware how poor many of these studies have been - it would have been helpful if we had some indication of the quality of the studies relied on in the observations we read about.

If this is a subject you specifically want to find out more about, Overloaded is a great introduction. And the first few chapters work really well for the general reader. But after that, the inclination is strong to dip in and out, which is a real shame.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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