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Bailey on books: making the brain accessible

 

YOUR BRAIN BECOMES YOU . . . BUT HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

Attempting to describe the workings of a human brain in just six chapters of a 246-page paperback might seem like an impossible task but David Eagleman has had a very creditable go at it in The Brain, The Story of You.

Further, what he has put into print has lived up to the expectations generated by his recent and highly acclaimed TV series on the same subject. (Interestingly, Eagleman writes that in childhood he and his family rarely watched television; Carl Sagan’s Cosmos being a rare exception but no surprise.) In fact much of what he rehearsed in that TV series is refreshed in this slim volume. But the real value of The Brain, The Story of You is its style; punchy, straightforward and mostly written in a simple style that requires little if any re-reading, so clear is Eagleman’s exposition throughout. To match his style the layout follows on admirably with a large readable typeface, good line spacing, plenty of white space and some interesting graphics.

The author has avoided over-elaboration by the use of scientifically verified examples. The danger is that developments in neuroscience are moving so fast that new discoveries are likely to surmount some of what has been set down here almost before the ink has time to dry. But no matter, because there is at present no more easily digested review of what has been described as the most complex structure in the universe.

Eagleman deserves every success for providing readers with such an easy-to-follow guide as to who we are and how and why we think the way we do. One of the positive features of the text are the boxed summaries that give readers time to absorb the significance of what has been read previously. These include clear interpretations and examples of how research and experimentation have helped determined brain function.

Nothing is left out in this comprehensive review including details of operations that didn’t work out well but added to the scant knowledge of brain function as recently as the mid-twentieth century. Experiments that were always dubious or chancy on those who were clearly unwell also are covered. Added to this, the Endnotes, of which there are plenty, form a very useful bibliography and the descriptive glossary is invaluable in furthering better understanding of what Eagleman has described.

This book is worth carrying around to read of course but also to use in translating and understanding our own behaviour and that of others with whom we interact.

The Brain, The Story of You is published by Canongate Books. For further information go to http://www.canongate.tv/the-brain-ebook.html or have a look at David Eagleman’s website.

 

Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

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