A Review of The Brain

The Brain is a book by David Eagleman.  The subtitle is “The Story of You.”  I gave the book 5 stars in my review on Amazon.  I wrote, “Anyone with a brain should read this book.  (Knowing) how the brain works is essential for the individual.  It also provides the basis for more effective government.”

The brain is the most important organ of the body (even though Woody Allen said it was his second favorite organ).  It informs us who we are.  Growing the brain provides us with additional knowledge and know how.  This much should be obvious.  However, when I see the problems we have, many of them are due to a lack of knowledge as to how our brain works.  That is what I meant by writing, “provides the basis for more effective government.

Eagleman writes, “Your brain is a relentless shapeshifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry—and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast detailed patterns in your neural networks.  Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target;  it never reaches an endpoint.  Eagleman explains how the brain develops and why the teen brain is set up to take risks.  Moving from childhood into adolescence, the brain shows an increasing response to rewards in areas related to pleasure seeking such as the nucleus accumbens.  In deems this activity is as high as in adults but activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, which is important  for executive decision making, attention, and simulating future experiences, is still about the same in teens as it is in children.  In fact, the prefrontal cortex, which is important for executive decisions, dos not mature until the mide-twenties, which provides adequate time for ruining our lives.  The brain continues to change physically as we learn new skills and information and memories themselves change each time they are summoned.  Memories are highly fallible and can be easily changed, which are facts not generally recognized by courts of law.

Eagleman includes a study of nuns who are willing to provide their brains for study after they die.  The nuns are tested while they are living and then autopsies are provided after they die.  They have found brains that are wracked by the defining neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s, but these  nuns never exhibited any of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and remained mentally sharp until they died.  The nuns are not unique, other autopsies on other populations have resulted in similar findings.  The nuns interacted with each other, they had growth mindsets, and the meditated with prayer, presumably continuing to develop a cognitive reserve.  Yet Alzheimer’s research is focused on finding drugs to destroy or inhibit the growth of these physical symptoms as well as tests to detect the early development of these symptoms.  There are no drugs that can cure Alzheimer’s, and there are knowledgeable scientists who believe that there never will be such drugs (See the healthy memory blog post “The Myth of Alzheimer’s).  All that drugs can do is to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.  In my view all this does is to prolong the suffering.

People need to understand that reality is an illusion.  True there is a real physical world, but we learn of this world via our senses, which are used to build up mental models.  Moreover, each of us has different views of this world, one that changes, or should change with experience and learning.  People who fail to understand this are naive realists, and one of the reasons for the problems of the world is the existence of these naive realists.  Eagleman explains how this learning takes place.   He notes that the brain is like a city.  When one looks at a city one sees buildings, roads, structures and so forth, but to find out where businesses are and how the city actually functions, it is due to interactions of different parts of the city.  The same is true of the brain.  It is a complicated structure that operates by intercommunicates among the different elements.  Most of these intercommunicates are unconscious, but some raise to he level of consciousness.

It is interesting to note that the visual system has some connections that feed forward and others that feed backwards.  What makes this interesting is that the ratio of connections feeding backward are ten times those of feeding forward.  This provides a strong indication how much we know bears on what we actually see.  Expectations weigh heavily on what we see.

Our brain is a storyteller.  It serves us narratives that bear on what we believe.  Ascertaining truth usually entails the critical thinking about different narratives.

We are unaware of the vast majority of the activity in our brains.  It remains below our level of consciousness, so one may well ask, who is in control.  A good way of thinking about this is to regard our consciousness as an executive office that makes important decisions.  There are some who believe that our conscious minds are only along for the ride, but I am not one of them (see the healthy memory blog post, “Free Will”).

The healthy memory blog argues that the memory is a device for time travel and Eagleman agrees.  It is a device that travels back to the past to plan for the future.  This involves generating scenarios for what might happen in the future.  The same parts of the brain that are involved in remembering are used in imaging alternative  futures.

Eagleman writes,”Although we typically feel independent, each of our brains operates in a rich web of interactions with one another—so much that we can plausibly look at the accomplishments of our species as the deeds of a single, shifting mega-organism.”  A subsequent healthy memory blog post will expound more on this topic.

The final chapter is titled “Who Will We Be?” and addresses the possibility of our transcending our biological selves.  This is an interesting chapter, but we might be constrained by our limited levels of attention.  We can only consciously attend to several items at once.  We become skilled or fluent via many hours of practice.  Can this bottleneck be transcended?  This question is key to the answer to the question of whether we can transcend our biological selves.

There is a PBS series based on this book, that I strongly recommend.  I recommend both reading the book at watching the series multiple times.  Understanding our brains is of paramount importance.

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