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Brain Book Reviews – Updated Mar 13, 2011

So you want a little closer look at the books on the brain bibliography. You got them:

1. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness- VS Ramachandran

When I began my inquiry into the relationship between current brain science and art, this is the first book I read. While I had been reading in the area for a decade, I decided to write a book on the Brains of Poets (two extensive bibliographies on and zeroed in on books like this to pick up and read.

This book does not go where the title suggests. It is not a brief tour of human consciousness, but, instead is a fascinating look at how lesions (small cuts) cause disabilities in human thinking, and how, using lie detectors (galvanic skin response) to understand problems that develop in human brains, scientists can understand how ‘normal’ human thinking works.

Issues such as blind sight (a blind person ducking a ball thrown at them, though they cannot see it), synaesthesia (mixing two types of perceptual information, for example, seeing the number five as a red five), how language works (using Chomsky’s well known expression: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously), kinds of amnesia (prosopognosia, more commonly known as face blindness, inability to recognize faces), phantom limbs (being able to feel limbs that a person has lost), allow Ramachandran to enter and describe crisply, quickly, and without too much science-talk, various aspects of the human mind. A definitely readable book that is well worth the purchase by a general reader who is interested in knowing more about the brain.

But there are two important criticisms of this book for the more widely read reader: Ramachandran, without telling you this, presents perception as a passive reception of what we see out there, rather than active searching for things out there, a view that is not very successful as a basis for understanding human consciousness; and, his ‘universal laws of art’. He says artists manipulate them to make a viewer see the beauty of art, and thus that art is about the pleasure centre of the brain. Tsk Tsk. As a poet for more than the past 30 years (and one of my degrees in biochemistry), I can tell you that I have never written anything to make it beautiful, though many poems are beautiful. Ramachandran’s mistake about art is simply being a bright, bold, award-winning neurobiologist, thinking he can make deep statements about fields he doesn’t know anything about. You can follow the subsequent ‘spirited debate’ amongst academics in many journals about human consciousness, and, of course, in dozens of books on

2. Proust was a Neuroscientist – Jonah Lehrer, 2008

This excellent book does two things exceptionally well. It presents 2008 brain science, and marries it seamlessly with art. It has a chapter on Proust – the memory one – about his tome: In Search of Lost Time, coming to the startling conclusion that the more we remember something, the less the memory is real. The book is not a book about Proust, per se, but, has chapters on different artists, for example: Walt Whitman – I Sing the Body Electric – literally; George Eliot, and the biology of chaos theory, and how this presents the ability for us to will our way to new brain cells; Cezanne and his understanding that brains take visual perceptions and impose upon them the need to recognize form, and this results in another unsettling truth: we see what we want to see; and, Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who discovered that glutamate – yes, really, MSG – from rendered animals and plants, is the key to all of smell.

Other chapters include Igor Stravinsky who introduced the 20th century of music dissonance and atonality by trying to change all the old rules about how classical music should sound and progress, harmonically, that the mind rebels at newness but soon it becomes, familiar, trusted and wished for; Gertrude Stein and her unending battle to write language without its form, essentially random gibberish, but had to concede that no matter how much she tried, underneath it all there was the structure of grammar – Chomsky’s universal grammar; and, Virginia Woolf and how her stream of consciousness novels reveal our emerging selves, in that the odd notion that we exist only in so far as our attention is focused on perception is true, and thus the self exists only in these moments, though we experience it as an ongoing river through time; the self exists for 10 second lengths before short term memory collapses and attention makes the next splinter seem joined as though seamlessly.

This ‘lad’ has managed to put in his brain more science and art than most people manage in a lifetime. And he expresses it so clearly that when you hit hard, dry, stuff like quantum mechanics, you go, oh, so that is what that means. The book is endlessly brainy, inventive, charmingly erudite, and at the same time cracklingly readable. I say this as a person with one of my degrees in biochemistry and who has been a poet for more than 30 years. I am in the process of writing a book on the brains of poets, (see, and have read tons on these subjects. This is wonderfully well wrought stuff about difficult things to understand.

3. The Stuff of ThoughtSteven Pinker, 2007

The Stuff of Thought ought to be titled The Stuff of Language – a tale told by a linguist full of sound and parsing signifying a fair bit of neat info about language but not a lot spot about the brain. This is because the book leans heavily on linguistics rather than the biological sciences and talks of how language has been taken apart by linguists and what this suggests about how our linguistic minds work. And if that is what you want in a book of this title, written by a well-known, clever, disciple of Chomsky, this is it. Pinker is an engaging, magpie intellectual in that he has an almost endless, tantalizing list of interesting facts, jokes and permutations at his fingertips while ripping through such subjects as: the social purpose of language, the mind as metaphor machine, the relation between language and the ‘reality’ we share, the relation between words and thinking and emotions, the etymology of words, for example, names, and naming, the symbolism in language, how we say one thing while meaning something quite different, how we use language as a medium of mental exchange, and so on.

The last paragraph of Chapter 1, Words and Worlds, is a quick summary of this book. If you are looking for someone to disaggregate language and show what this reveals about humans, this is a good book to buy. On the other hand, at 439 pages (bef0re chapter notes) of medium-sized print, the book is 100 pages too long. I found myself skipping here and there, rather than my usual slavish attention to the first word, second word and every word until the last word thing.

What I would have been more interested in a book of this title was to hear an update on books by Damassio and Panskepp about the role of the sub-conscious in our thoughts, particularly as we do not think in our emotions in words, an important distinction, because when we think consciously, much of what we do is in words. So that words have a primacy in our conscious thinking, and thus the world that Pinker is talking about, but have zero, zilch, nada, nothing to say about the mid-brain where emotion is situated and sends its tendrils up into our conscious brain behind the right front eyebrow for us to focus our attention on and then be brought to life.

I would have liked to hear his take on how Wernicke’s (recognition of language) area in our left temporal lobe has a role in recognizing what others are saying to us and our visual understanding of written language (whether in letters or hieroglyphs). I would have liked to hear him address the role of Broca’s area (speech) in our being able to communicate with one another through making our lips, tongue, lungs, mental feedback loops and etc. work.

And I was interested, as a poet, in his take on metaphor, because that is a primary part of poetry. Here, again, in chapter 5, he breaks metaphor down into different types based on this and that distinction on subject matter, time sequence, spatial separation and so on. All of these are important to the student of language in that person’s quest to understand our medium of mental exchange. And how our language is saturated with metaphor to an extent that we don’t even recognize that many things we say are metaphors. If someone offers the symbolic ice-breaker: ‘Hi, how are you?’ And we answer: Feeling up. Feeling down., or, I’m dead. All of those responses are metaphors, as in, to feel good is up, to feel bad is down, and being dead simply conveys how tired we are. All three are metaphors, but trivial ones.

I found it fascinating that our speaking is drenched in metaphor. On the other hand, the distinctions, of different metaphor type as parsed in this book is irrelevant to a poet. A poet is interested in producing more, more apt, more original, non-cliche metaphors out of the endless manic creativity that we have in Wernicke’s area linked to frontal creativity, influenced by the subterranean currents of the subconscious. But, perhaps this is expecting too much out of this kind of book.

4. How We DecideJonah Lehrer, 2009 (This book has been re-released in 2010 as, The Decisive Moment.)

After being blown away by his previous book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, on the relationship between brain science and art, I snapped up Lehrer’s next one. Its purpose is to demonstrate the relationship between brain science and the way we make decisions in our everyday world.

It points out early that the old dichotomy that we all know and our western tradition has believed for the past three millennia is in fact false. That tradition is that the brain is divided between reason and emotion and that from Plato on forward we have been told we have to pay attention to reason because emotion leads us of the rails and has to be cajoled and bullied back into place by reason.

Wrongo. The brain is a prediction machine and conscious and unconscious factors lead people to made decisions, sometimes favouring the speed and experience of intuition and on other occasions mulling over the facts.

In this context, Lehrer uses compelling real life situations to make his points. How Tom Brady passed into the ‘future’ to win the Superbowl; how the radar tech felt a returning jet blip was wrong and ordered it downed, less than a half mile from a battle ship he was not on – it was a missile; how the mind is averse to loss and that we invest money in the stock market for bad reasons; that superstar basketball players do not get on streaks of success; and so on.

Early on, Lehrer points out that a brain injury patient who has the connection between the subconscious and conscious centre (behind the right eyebrow) severed cannot make decisions because without emotional preferences consciousness has no way of determining which action to take. Then he gets into the dopamine system that makes us feel pleasure, but at the same time tells us when something is wrong (the blip being an enemy missile rather than one of us good guys in a fighter jet) by stimulating long slender spindle cells that go all over the brain so we get the jolt simultaneously. Interestingly enough these ’emotion’ sensors are only found in higher primates, and humans have 40 times more than our closest monkey friends, pretty conclusive proof that our emotions are a highly flexible system for real time predictions with a mistake recognition loop for improving our expectations for the life we move into.

Intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. That is the conclusion of one of the best chess, backgammon and poker players in the world, Bill Robertie. If you want to improve, review your mistakes. Lehrer even tells you how to stop spending so much on so many credit cards, based on brain science of the small ‘insula’ in the brain that recognizes negative feelings – it’s far harder to hand across cash than plastic. Got suckered in the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage debacle? There’s a brain region for that, too. And Herman Palmer, a New York debt counselor (part of the every day use of this book) says, ‘…read only the fine print,” on credit card come-ons.

On mulling the facts, in a crisis, Chapter 4: The Uses of Reason has a stellar section in it about two pilots trying to save their DC-10 (no not because of the faulty baggage door that put the company out of business) from crashing, pages 120 – 132. This tells you how the brain works through a problem when terrified, and coming to a counterintuitive conclusion that has never existed before when 500 lives, most importantly your own, is at stake. Afterwards, 57 pilots crashed in a simulated version of this problem, before one landed safely.

Chapter 5: Choking on Thought, is about how when we think over something we know well, that we inhibit our conscious attention and we choke. This is intended to further develop the intuition, subconscious part of decision making. For my tastes, this was a tad repetitive, and perhaps too many scientific studies to make the same point several times. But, interesting stories, nonetheless, for example, it has been conclusively shown that MRI examinations for lower back pain have resulted in more than 50% more ‘invasive’ incorrect outcomes from doctors because our conscious centre in the right prefrontal area can only handle, get this, seven different factors before its ability to make decisions goes down the tube and we make worse decisions. And you thought the brain worked like a computer. Wrong.

Chapter 6 is about how we make ethical discriminations. Kant, Descartes and lawyers won’t be happy to know it doesn’t take a lot of rational thought to make moral decisions. It turns out that we are hardwired to do so. We get the feeling, and then the rational mind makes up reasons to explain the feeling. This is because mammals need the warm feeling of mothers and others from the first moment to turn out okay. Our minds innately sympathize with others, empathize, then make altruistic decisions based on, actually, not wanting to see others suffer. We have active emotional reactions from our amygdyla, mirror cells that key in on others expressions so we experience the feeling, then our fusiform area recognizes particular people, and unlike psychopaths who do not feel, an amygdyla problem, or autists who cannot recognize the facial features (fusiform face area) that mean certain emotions (superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulate, and medial frontal gyrus) and we want innately are wired to theorize that others are like us (no existential loneliness for us – despite JP Sartre et al). The three parenthesized regions do the anthropomorphism that poets and those who think pet rocks are happy. We are all imbued with this need. It’s not about rational thought at all; that comes later in the justification stage. Interestingly, if we are deprived of others our abilities to empathize and take actions to help others go way down, so think about various types of child abuse that change people when they most need those various centres to be turned on, nurtured and grown. Fascinating chapter. Oh, and all you parents who have been deprived of your child or lost a child feel intense pain because of simple hormones that also regulate water level in the body – vasopressin and oxytocin. Such a loss wipes most people out for the rest of their lives.

The collected wisdom of How We Decide comes on pages 244 – 250, but the book is much more fascinating than the summary. And The Coda puts neatly the mesh between the experience (emotion) and reasoning (conscious thought) components of our thoughts. Both have their specialties and both are required all day long every day.

Lehrer takes my vote as the science writer who has best thought through the science – their papers often written with tentative conclusions, in gibberish text and with the need to pass peer judgment, demonstrate repeatable experiments and with an overladen Latin weight – and translated it into incisive, sparkling, accessible, understandable and compelling reading for the human being who is interested in investigating how things work in their heads. And it passes the short attention spam test: the book ends in less than 250 pages. As previously mentioned, I am working on a book: The Brains of Poets (, and would always like more science and more art. This book will appeal to a broader audience. It will help you make better decisions every day.

5. Descartes’ Error – Antonio Damsio, 1994

I came to this book after reading 10,000 pages on the issues of art and science – bibliography on I decided to go back and read this 1994 book because it underlies a lot of current discussion and dispute on the role of emotions in thinking and decision making. Because of this central influential role, I gave this book a five star rating. It is highly scientific, so not a light read, and will annoy those with a philosophy background; the title makes you pick up the book, though this is not, ultimately, a refutation of Cartesian views: mind and body, reason and emotion.

First published in 1994, Damasio’s classic brain science book put on the map that the emotional and sub-conscious brain is far more important to our thought than the last three millennia of western thought has believed. This is must-read background for those who want to understand how the brain works. The current Penguin paperback has a new – 2005 – Preface where Damasio updates the science of the intervening decade and posits a good summary of what the book covers – you can get the complete argument from it, for those who like to cut to the chase.

The book makes a good case for the use of emotion, feelings, intuitions, and underlying currents of electrical activity from the body (the brain exists in a body after all that bathes it with more than six million nerve impulses a second) in the process of making decisions some of which require much thought and some of which happen instantly without any thought.

For those looking for a quick, decisive account of brain anatomy, Damasio has done a good job on pages 24 – 30. But, of course, a well put together, book length treatment can be found in Rita Carter’s, Mapping the Mind, a good introduction of depth for non-scientists.

Early in the book, the case of Phineas P. Gage, circa 1848, who got a metal bar shot through his brain but survived, is discussed. The poor fellow made poor decisions for the rest of his life and had various personality issues – understandably. These result from the areas of the brain that were severed. Then Damasio moves to the present, discussing clients/patients who had lesions (cuts) in the brain and specific personality problems because of them.

Chapter four gets into the nitty gritty science involved in the parts of the brain responsible for normal processing of emotion, personal feelings and its integration with attention and reasoning. Essentially the central lower part behind your eyes, the bands of brain beside and up from your ears and various centres, particularly on the right side, along with the high emotion centre, the amygdala are the areas involved. I have a science background and the chapter had so much content it left my brain whizzing, fascinating as it was about how cuts that separate different parts of the brain result in specific problems that can be teased apart in experiments. Page 83-85 of the next chapter neatly summarizes the science in non-science speak.

One problem with brain science books, and this includes this title, is that memory is not adequately understood yet. Here we do not store true images, but dispositional representations, yet, at the same time we can all recall the Mona Lisa’s face, our children and waves dropping on a shore. In other words, I don’t think science yet has a convincing argument. Time will tell.

One of Damasio’s central insights occurs on page 111: the body exerts effects on our minds and our emotions constantly. It does this through nerve circuits of ‘modulator neurons’ that are interested in survival and so monitor our conscious mind’s, the relative goodness or badness of circumstance and influence our thinking and acting toward or away from them. The end of the chapter section: Beyond Drives and Instincts, p 123 – 126, is a good summary of the science, genetic, biology, reductionist side of the equation with the effects of humans living in and being affected by a communal society.

Damassio then moves to a central distinction for him: the difference he posits between emotions and feelings. The former are, in his definition, about the body, and the latter about the mind; however they are linked in that a conscious feeling results in effects on the body (more than just a GSR polygraph sense), and those effects also can affect the way we think. He sees feelings of three types: basic universal (like fear), subtle universal (like guilt) and background feelings derived from the body in which the brain sits. The full system is drawn on page 163, but don’t just flip to the diagram; you need to understand it in context. This again is full of science and I suggest you go through with a yellow magic marker and highlight the high points, if you need something to make you pay attention.

Chapter 8 is the meat of the book: the Somatic-Marker Hypothesis. This means the body’s images, or emotions. I think it a bad term, but it was not my choice. The chapter is about how our underlying emotions, our body states help us make decisions, whether good or bad. We can’t make ‘rational’ decisions without the body’s input on how it ‘feels’ about a situation, say avoiding a car accident, how a smile can make your defenses melt, how even the love of rationality is about the love, not the rationality, and so on. This centre which is brought together in time with working memory in the prefrontal cortex, is much about the spindle cell system and its distribution of dopamine as a ‘reward’ for a gut feeling, whether good or bad. This theme is well extended in Jonah Lehrer’s, recent book, How We Decide. Damassio’s pages 196 to 201 are where he brings together the entire subject and how the mind, and body movement work through time, and are a fascinating completion of his thoughts, that you should not read before reading the chapter preceding this last section. Basic emotions manage actions in a rational way.

Chapter 9 relates interesting gambling experiments with normal subjects and with ones who have lesions in their prefrontal cortexes where conscious attention is focused. The results are clear that those without proper wiring to receive the bodies accumulated ‘knowledge’ about past events cannot predict what will happen in the future and thus result in disastrous decision making skills. Normal participants come to learn when to avoid certain decisions because they can read the body’s experientially derived feelings about a possible choice. Note that this type of analysis is about our abilities to predict future events, and is from an entirely different perspective than those scientists who focus on, say, how the eye picks up images and sets the mind in motion.

Chapter 10 has two fascinating explanations of central features of the human mind: consciousness and subjectivity. Consciousness arises in the instant of the mind focusing on a subject, not the other way around. So it is ephemeral and gives way to another and then another consciousness in an endless stream. Subjectivity arises from the mind reviewing the effects of events the mind is engaged in, a triple mind event.

This book does not pass the short attention spam test. At 267 pages, the book is not that long, but the type is small and the text is dense. Tough sledding for those looking for a not-so-deep look.

6. The Brain that Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

This is an excellent book for the general reader of the new concept of neuro-plasticity. Doidge is a doctor and worked with Paul Bach-y-Rita, the scientist who brought this subject on stream since the 1970s when every other neurobiologist thought he was a nutbar. That was because the view was that once a brain was formed, it could not change. If you had a stroke, head injury, or eye damage, tough, you were stuck with it for the rest of your life.

Bahc-y-rita found out differently. His own father, a professor, had a large stroke and could not get himself on or off the toilet, could not crawl, could not lift his arm. But with much ongoing work of doing things like learning how to crawl again, then to stand without falling over, and so on, he ultimately regained his abilities – including speaking and typing – to be a professor for many years, and go mountain climbing, where he died on a holiday – he fell off a mountain. Very ironic.

The concept of brain plasticity means that if you can give stimulation to one sense for another sense, that the brain changes itself to process the new information and also connect with the areas that require responding to the world – like walking or talking – and the damage is ultimately repaired. For example, a woman who was given too much antibiotics in an infection in a hospital lost her sense of balance so badly that she could not stand up, lost her job, lost everything. She was treated by Bachy-Rita in the following way: a hat with gyroscopes and vision devices was put on her head and then the leads were attached to a small paddle that she placed on her tongue. The small electrical discharges to her tongue were taken up into her head to compensate for her ruined vestibular system (our balance centre in our inner ears), made connection with the visual cortex and the parietal body command centres and ultimately she got to the point where she only had to put the hat on for a few minutes every four months. I have grossly simplified this one example of dozens in the book.

In another example – this has been made into a documentary, that I have seen on PBS and CBC – a blind man was given a vision hat and the tongue paddle. In the end he was able to navigate his way around a room, and, ‘see’ and pick up a ball from the floor, spot a garbage can across the room and toss it into it. I don’t think I could do this, and I’ve got sight.

Plasticity, like the left brain right brain concept, is currently being dumbed down into psycho babble on many tv shows. This book gives you a much better introduction to the concept and is definitely worth looking at for anyone who wants to understand how the brain can be trained to use another area to provide a function. Many products have been made using these concepts. Space suits are so thick that people can’t feel nuts and bolts in their fingers. Gloves with sensors on the outside connected to the inside make this possible. Men who have lost the ability to ejaculate have been provided with a sensory condom that takes the friction information to another area of skin that then gets taken to the brain and processed so that sexual pleasure is enjoyed and ejaculation happens once again. Tests have shown promise for dealing with the tremor of Parkinsons… it’s a very useful concept of wide application. If you have a brain ‘misfunction’, you should read this book. The problem is not your brain, the problem is that no one has devised a rehabilitation program that you can follow to get the functions back.

And for a Brave New World concept, read page 84 for descriptions of how, in future, we will be able to turn our ‘learn easy’ centre (nucleus basalis) on with yet to be developed drugs and learn anything with the ease we did in childhood. It will be for us the Matrix response to the question: Can you fly this thing? Answer: Not yet. And then you get loaded.

Do focus on chapter 4 that is about love, sex, parenting changing our attractions, losing a love, grieving and learning to love another. All are plasticity events whereby certain brain chemicals (for ex, oxytocin and vasopressin) allow us to unlearn old loves and form new attractions, but at the same time change sexual attraction into love. It also has an excellent section on sexual fantasies, how they arise, stimulate us, and when knowing their origin, change can begin. You will be able to look at your own mind with new light, a common association is sex and violence, and this chapter will give you some insight into yourself. I lost my children through divorce 15 years ago, and this chapter has a good explanation of how one begins to feel less pain by making small steps away over the years, or how, for instance, a new love can shield you from the necessary grieving over the loss of children. It’s still there, waiting to be faced and let go.

Chapter 7 has a fascinating section on pain in phantom limbs (Ramachandran, as above). Using a mirror box that projected a limb for an amputated limb, Ramachandran, was able to have patients lose pain from the limb they didn’t have and to unfreeze limbs that had been in slings or casts before amputation. This means that pain is in the brain, not the body, and that the entire body is really just a phantom the brain has constructed for its own use. This means that with the correct mind stimulus that a person could become anything they wanted to be, including a rocket scientist, or a better rocket scientist.

Chapter 9 focuses on psychoanalysis/psychotherapy and how the mind through its ability to change, does so, and at the same time, can become completely rigid, too. Anyone who has done the shrink thing must read this chapter as it is fascinating and deep stuff. I have done so, and believe me it was painful, but, in my case, allowed me to find my life, something I could never have done on my own. I changed beliefs I didn’t know I had and beliefs that were what I considered my most important good points, and so very hard to give up. Very difficult, very painful, but all plastic. You will also see Freud in a new light – he has had the bad rap of being all about sex for too many decades. And it has much about the left and right hemispheres of our cortex – the left is about explicit memory, the right about implicit. This is a good description of a topic that became dumbed down in the 1970s to serve a pop psychology industry. You will learn much about memory and the hippocampus that mediates learning and long term memory, much during sleep.

7. The Element : How Finding your Passion Changes Everything – Ken Robinson – 2009

This is a well-known book on creativity. Not particularly scientific, so it is to the side of what I am doing, but the gist is that you have an aptitude for something that you are passionate about and you should pursue it because that is the best thing for you to do. He has much to say about how the education system is narrowly focused on reading/riting/rithmetic, but that the world is in a period where change is happening at a far greater speed than in the past and as it is about technology not yet invented our children will be in a world with jobs not yet conceived. We are educating for the wrong thing: the past, the Industrial Revolution when basic math and reading was required and passed to a greater percentage of the human race in the western world in the 17th and 18th century. See for videos of Sir Ken doing a lecture.

The first chapter explains what Sir Ken means by the Element. Pages 21 – 26 sum the situation up: I get it: I love it: I want it: Where is it? The next chapter has a good take on western thought that our interest in reason against emotion is deep-seated and not a good measure of intelligence. The IQ section is very interesting. The inventor, Alfred Binet, did it as a contract for the French government, thought of it as the opposite of an intelligence test, but for the use that children could get their special needs met in schooling and that intelligence was something that was not innate but could be made greater and greater.

The second part is the addition of Lewis Terman in 1916. He felt the exact opposite: eugenics. He thought it shows how inferior races were not intelligent, and this was innate and unchangeable, and thus they should only be given education to the point where they could labour. He identified: Indians, Mexicans and Negroes as races that should be given rudimentary practical training only. Today, of course, we call this discrimination – a word that, incidentally, has changed its meaning over the decades from good to bad or both. And then there is that old notion about ‘breeding’. IQ tests was used by 30 states who passed laws allowing them to neuter people below a certain number because they reproduced too fast and had to be stopped. Pretty bizarre. The rest of the chapter argues the notion that there are many types of intelligence, for example, as Howard Gardner argued: linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. So ask not how intelligent you are but, how are you intelligent.

This book has an excellent method for you to follow if you want to reach your potential – not in simply a $$ sense – but in the sense of fulfillment. Check out Miles Davis and the section on Kind of Blue, p 124, how it came to be from talented musicians, with no prior practice with one another, recorded that jazz great disc largely in one takes. Davis got them moving in a direction together and their talents created more than the sum of their parts. There are literally dozens on examples of identified people and how they did what they did, well known or not.

Page 161 has a very interesting take on ‘lucky’ people. They: maximize chance opportunities, listen to their intuition, expect to be lucky and turn bad luck into good. Are you lucky? Maybe you should change your attitude. Oh, and by the way, Sir Ken started out to be a soccer player and after having polio as a kid, his parents got him thinking education because he never was going to make it in sports. Lucky that.

And as Sir Ken’s underlying big interest is the education system, the last major chapter: Making The Grade, p 225, contains some of the ideas he is so famous for – do look at the video lecture, too. He points out that education typically does three things: has a curriculum of study, the method or pedagogy of making students learn and assessment, as in exams. Typically, reform seeks to ratchet up the basics over and over. Today, 70% of American kids have no arts education (and I can tell you that I would never have realized I could write poetry – now it is a necessary love – because I could never understand what the teacher was trying to make me see – until a poet, when, a decade later, I was in the Banff Centre rite of passage for Canadian writers, told me that something I had done was terrific poetry, and would I just make it into short lines. Now I have five books of poetry out, and my next will be a webpresence non-printed-page ‘book’. I couldn’t think of my life now as being anything other than a poet, though I have several other hugely important interests). The process works ‘better and better’ by standardizing testing, clarifying curriculum, and drilling things into people. He points out that this leaves out things like innovation and creativity – the whole point of his book, and underlying views on education reform.

Robinson points out that the No Child Left Behind thrust that gets rid of principals, teachers, schools etc. if they don’t measure up statistically, makes them conform even more to redn, ritn and rithmtc. And the businesses in the business of school testing business have made more than $100 billion in the past seven years. So, don’t expect change. You have to do it yourself. And making great teachers is one of the most important changes, along with finding out what each child’s strengths and interests are and teaching to those. This then leads back to the IQ tests that were put together originally for just this purpose. It’s only over the past century they have been used more and more to rate people.

And all you teachers who come to this book, do read, his wife’s take on education in the slums of Liverpool (I lived there doing a degree in the seventies, and so I can use that word), starting on page 239. It will raise your spirits greatly and the rest of the chapter will keep on lifting you, higher and higher.

8. The Midnight Disease – The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain – Alice W. Flaherty

I have to admit that even in the first pages of the introduction I became uneasy with this book. It makes the fundamental error in saying that art is about beauty, though it mentions meaning which is the important thing. Art is a search for meaning set in some form. And it also says that art is about communication to others, tsk, tsk.

The introduction tells you what the book will be about on pages 14 – 16: Chap 1 is brain conditions that increase desire to write; Chap 2 is about how the temporal lobes drive both writing and writers block; Chap 3 is writers block psychology; Chap 4 is biochemical explanations and treatments of block; Chap 5 is the new science brought to bear on ‘normal’ desire to write, and writerly things like metaphor; Chap 6 is about how the drive to communicate pushes writing (oh, sure); and Chap 7 argues that metaphoric thinking is a temporal lobe function and mediates most types of establishing meaning.

Chapter two transmits a good understanding of the neurobiological base of the desire to write, along with some pretty darn good quotes. It covers epilepsy, temporal lobes, and a brief run through of the major brain functions involved in writing (p20 – 23). But I agree with the other reviewer at that her understanding of one of her own breakdowns seems so superficial (the Cap’n Crunch ‘scene’ for instance) that you wonder if the rest of the stuff is so also. Perhaps knowing the self through bi-polar disease is not the same thing as understanding the drive to write. One more and I will not bring the subject up again, p 36, Flaherty says that behind locks, her desire to leave the hospital was seen as proof of needing to stay, and it made her frantic. “Thinking about the experience even now makes me sweat.” I think she should have delved into her frantic feelings to understand herself, as she has obviously not understood because she still sweats. She needs more meds, so she can gain more self-knowledge.

Here is one other quote that gives me pause in accepting her overall theories: Writer’s block… can stem from… insulating ourselves so well from the desire to succeed that we weaken our motivation to write. My experience of writers is that this is total rubbish. Writers are driven to write, the issue of ‘desire to succeed’, whatever that may mean, is totally irrelevant. Okay, I won’t carp any longer.

Okay, one more. Flaherty says that in, In Search Of Lost Time, Proust’s smell of the much-quoted madeleine spurs him to huge output of associated memories because smell is processed in the temporal lobe. She is a neurobiologist and missed the main point: smell is the only sense that passes first into the subconscious brain – dreams, memories, feelings, emotions, etc., – and then is shunted up into the temporal lobes.

And then, like after reading a hundred turgid pages of Sartre’s, Being and Nothingness (phew), we come to some clear, succinct, well put together words on the combination of left and right hemispheres that increases creativity, and fosters written art – p 68 – 73, with the rest of the chapter devoted to what the new tools can do: PET, MRI, fMRI, TMS. The latter can change our thoughts and abilities simply by aiming magnetism at the brain. Fascinating, Brave New World stuff.

Chapter 3 is about writer’s block and contains some wonderful quotations on the subject from writers down the last few centuries. It’s discussion of what block is is good at considering all the nearby states as well. As a writer, none rings much true to me, but that is because of being a writer – nothing else matters. It’s like breathing, if you can’t do it, you die. Flaherty points out that psychologists don’t think much of the notion of inspiration that is separate from skill or hard work aren’t writers. And there is the issue that the definition of block is dependent on one’s point of view: cognitive psychology. behaviourism or depth psychology like psychoanalysis, under the control of conscious drive or the will ‘o wisp intuition. And, of course, it makes a great deal of difference on what the definition of creativity and psychopathology means, as in the Emile Glazer paper – 2009. Check out the Charles Ducey, quote on p92, for half a dozen different reasons for block. This chapter’s good point is that it is a good introduction to the literature on writer’s block and fairly evaluates them. The appendix at the back let’s you get into the subject further, if you wish.

Chapter 4 presents a general discussion of a lot of brain states that affect writing: such as sleep, mood, length of day light, time of day, hormones, drug therapies, anxiety, depression (causes block by sapping energy and motivation), procrastination, high-energy block, rejection of ideas prematurely, alcohol, Xanax, sleep medications, beta-blockers, SSRIs (Prozac, Effexor), self consciousness, talk of block leads to block (so say it to writers you don’t like), block is caused by the failure of helpful repressive mechanisms, compulsions, listening to music, antipsychotics, dopamine’s effects of increasing motivation, initiation of movement, these neuroleptics suppress the critical internal voice, epilepsy and their anticonvulsant drug effects for stabilizing mood, perfectionism, self help press, placebo effects, ‘objective’ tests or tools like the number of words you have written this week to counteract negative perceptions, exercise, drugs, diurnal rhythms, therapy and the right therapist, intense moods, these are mediated by the limbic system in the desire to write.

Chapter five is about how we write. For the reader without a scientific background, this one will be difficult sledding. On the other hand, it gives the actual parts of the brain where language and parsing language occur. If this is something you must learn, then it is all in one place, and for the general reader, a chapter to be reread whenever you have questions about the minutia of reading, writing and speaking. Most discoveries have come from brain-damaged patients, those with lesions or cuts, and what they lose. For example, a lesion can be so small and so precise that it causes the sufferer to not be able to visually recognize a capital letter, while leaving intact recognition of lower case letters. Other subjects: synaesthesia, dyslexia – Winston Churchill, autism. The main centres are: Broca’s and Wernicke’s area in the left hemisphere.

Chapter six is about why we write. The underlying motivation, arousal and continuing to prefer writing over other activities is mediated by the limbic system, various neurotransmitters and parts of the conscious brain. The limbic system of the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus are subconscious and about emotion, memory and action.

Humans have the instinct for language as evidenced by the notable asymmetry of our left hemisphere. It is larger before birth, when we have no need of speech. Speech explodes from us starting at about 18 months after birth and we learn a word every two hours until we are 18 years old. That’s an amazing 70,000 words. Flaherty goes through what speech is for in communicating, its development in our lives and the underlying motivation for writing, as well as the seemingly trivial exchanges. Gossip, for example, is an entertainment and a way for us to share some good juicy stuff with one or more or our confreres, and foster group identity: man as monkey.

A good part of this chapter discusses both language and behaviour in our social species and other social animals, the interdependency that language or complex behaviour creates. Think of weeping or screaming, for example, both express a need and request a response. Or winning the lottery results in joy. And there is laughter. This underlies her point that language is about emotion, not about expressing logical propositions in a detached way. Descarte’s and the western tradition of mind/body, or reason/emotion to use Plato’s distinction. And then she moves to say that writing is an extension of our emotional speaking, our unlanguaged utterances. Read page 205 for her lovely metaphor of eating grapes out her window at night above a ruined garden. The rest of the chapter has some great quotes by a long list of authors on why they had to write versus do anything else..