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Livewired - David Eagleman ****

Popular science book topics are a bit like buses - you wait ages for one on a particular topic/route and then a whole string of the turn up. This is yet another title on the workings of the brain (though to be fair to David Eagleman it was already out in hardback, so he was at the start of the queue). Thankfully, Eagleman gives us a whole new way of looking at the human brain's capabilities, suggesting the reason Homo sapiens is so versatile and capable is down to the extreme plasticity of the human brain - its ability to rewire itself on the fly, or livewiring as Eagleman calls it.

This is a fascinating topic. It's not that the idea of the brain as a self-patterning system that adapts and changes as inputs vary is new, but the sheer depth and speed of the phenomenon is only relatively recently understood and Eagleman gives us a very wide range of examples, from a young child who had half his brain removed, but developed normally, the remaining half taking on all the roles of the other, to the remarkably short term adaptations that enable us to cope with, for example, changes in lighting colour and intensity. We also see some aspects where the initial plasticity locks in, restricting future development if children haven't, for example, developed language skills by a particular stage.

Eagleman peppers the book with stories and examples - my absolute favourite was the way that in the late 70s and early 80s, people thought that the IBM logo on floppy disks had changed from white to red. This was a result of one of these short term adaptations to compensate for an apparent oddity of the surroundings. You need to read the book to get the details, but the cause was apparently due to the people handling the disks (on which the logo was made up of a set of white horizontal lines) spent a lot of their time staring at VDUs, which contained lots of horizontal green lines of text. (My only slight doubt about this one is that I was a person who did this at the time, but I never noticed the effect, nor did I hear of it from anyone else.)

The subject really grabbed my attention, and Eagleman is good at storytelling, but there were a couple of things about the writing style that irritated me. Particularly in the first chapter, the writing was very jerky, suddenly changing topic, even telling half a story then abruptly switching to something else before coming back to the original subject again. The flow could have been better. The book is also overloaded with analogies, some of which simply get in the way. For example, Eagleman spends two pages telling us why the English colonists beat the French colonists in the US simply to make the point that a part of the brain that no longer sends information loses territory. Similarly, there's a bizarre reference many pages after telling us about Nelson's experience with his lost arm that out of the blue says 'Most visitor's to Admiral Nelson's statue in London's Trafalgar Square have probably not considered the distortion of the somatosensory cortex in the left hemisphere of that elevated head.' Well, yes. That's probably because that elevated head doesn't have a somatosensory cortex. It's a statue.

Despite occasional issues with the writing (and a warning that if you're squeamish that there are quite a lot of medical details as a lot we learn about the brain is from the results of damage and surgery) this is one of the best brain books I've read this year.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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