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The Mind and the Brain

I'm absolutely fascinated by how the human brain works, and many of the books I own are some variation on this theme, from Malcolm Gladwell to V.S. Ramachandran, Oliver Sacks, Jill Bolte Taylor and a myriad of other doctors, historians, scientists and popular science writers.

The topics cover a huge spectrum: the history of neuroscience, brain surgery and chemistry, mental health studies and the ever-changing categorizations of mental illness, research into abnormal minds, genius vs. madness, altered states of consciousness, psychedelic science, nootropics, mind medications and mood drugs, neuroplasticity, developments in psychology, psychoanalysis, intelligence tests, personality tests, MKULTRA, brainwashing, propaganda, and everything in between.

Book Tour: The Red Shelf

Altered States by James Hughes

Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser

Strange Brains and Genius by Clifford R Pickover

The Magic Thread by Richard Idemon

The Book of Pluto by Stephen Forrest

For the Journey by Laurie Strong

The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD and Sharon Begley

Fear and Loathing in America by Hunter S Thompson

Awaken the Genius by Patrick K. Porter, PhD

Debt the First 5,000 years by David Graeber

The Corporation by Joel Bakan

Cosmic Trends by Philip Brown

Love Signs by Linda Goodman

At the Point of a Cutlass by Gregory N. Fleming

Pad: the Guide to Ultra-Living by Matt Moranian

If you read enough popular science books on the brain you will come across many of the same tropes and stories over and over again, like the story of Phineas Gage and the horrific accident that caused an iron spike to be driven through his brain, resulting in personality changes that ruined his personal life but benefited the study of neuroscience almost immeasurably. The gorilla basketball attention test, BF Skinner and his behavioralist research, Pavlov's dogs, the Stanford Prison experiment, lobotomies and electroshock therapy, the notorious experiment where participants were asked to shock fellow testers and raised the voltage to deadly levels just because they were instructed to.

Many of these tropes come with serious caveats and the true stories are often much murkier than the single-paragraph or chapter takeaways would have you believe. I've often thought about making a brain science bingo card with a square for each of these studies or stories that have become widespread to the point of cliché in popular science writing. Another common topic is previous misunderstandings or debunked theories...

​​​​​Top five brain myths

  1. The 10% trope Probably the most popular misnomer these books like to debunk is the idea that we only use 10% of our brain, now understood to be the result of a misunderstanding of historical studies. MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) now provide visual insight into the parts of the brain at work when we do certain tasks, or imagine doing them, or view or hear certain stimuli. The various parts light up in beautiful, mostly predictable patterns. We now understand that while we don't use 100% of our brains all the time, if you test the same person over a wide enough range of areas, you will eventually see very nearly all the brain light up at some point.

  2. "X" kills brain cells Then there's the myth that neurons are inevitably decimated by time, drinking, drugs, etc. It was previously thought that the number of neurons we had were set and died off over time to the point where mental degradation after a certain age, or as a result of drinking, partying, etc. was inevitable. Now we know that moderation is the key to most things, and a healthy diet, exercise, good genes, keeping your brain active through education, novel experiences and social connections, plus a little bit of luck, can go a long way towards protecting brain health well into senescence.

  3. Right brain/Left brain You'll often see right brain vs. left brain thinking described as a myth but really it's more like a useful metaphor used by self-help gurus and creatives to describe a person's orientation toward either analytical, verbal, linear thinking (left hemisphere) or abstract, creative, spatial and holistic thinking (right hemisphere). While it's technically true that both hemispheres of the brain do equal work in most normal brains free of specific damage to one hemisphere, it's also absolutely true that there are specific, hemispheric differences and that certain regions control certain types of thought and function. The brain is all about division of labor at its most efficient and beautiful. For an amazing illustration of exactly how this works, and what happens when it suddenly doesn't, watch Jill Bolte Taylor's mind-blowing TED Talk on her "stroke of insight."

  4. The "chemical imbalance" cause of mood disorders This is less a myth than a wickedly successful marketing campaign that became so widely adopted, many people think it's a fact. Back in the day, the fledgling SSRI industry used this catchphrase to market antidepressants, and now they're prescribed to tens of millions of people for whom life in our late-stage capitalist dystopia has failed to be the endless joyride of adventure, achievement and acceptance they were somehow led to believe it should be. Worse than that, entire generations have grown up thinking it's okay to prescribe speed to millions of children just because they don't like to sit still in class. Don't get me wrong... depression is real, anxiety is real, your problems are valid! Everyone is different and everyone deserves to be happy. But millions of kids addicted to speed before they've even hit puberty? That's not evidence of a "chemical imbalance," it's a red flag of a society in free fall.

  5. Our brains are more complex than the galaxy There's an oft-quoted statistic that there are more neurons in the brain than there are stars in the night sky, which turns out to be (only) a slight exaggeration. The human brain is incredibly complex, with current estimates putting the count of neurons at about 86 billion, compared to 200 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Still pretty fucking impressive if you ask me.

Understanding ourselves

These days, the brain is most often compared to a computer and we talk about our brains in terms of computing power, glitches, system overload, random access memory, maybe even defragging the hard drive, LOL. My grandmother noticed this back in the early 90s and told me that when she was in school the human body was often compared to an automobile, a relatively new technology in the 1930s when she was in school. The digestive system was compared to the combustion engine, ingesting fuel and outputting energy, etc. We humans are perpetually inventing systems in our own image, and those inventions go on to become metaphors we use to better understand ourselves.

As much as we've learned about the brain over the last 150 years, and as amazing as recent developments have been in terms of neuroplasticity, brain computer interfaces, the ever-expanding array of mind-altering substances, mood and behavior drugs, microdosing psychedelics, etc., what's most exciting to me are the breakthroughs yet to be made... Cranial implants granting miraculous abilities to people suffering from paralysis, revolutions in the treatment of patients in comas, novel methods of enabling people to communicate despite speech impairments due to brain damage, potential cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and dementia, novel treatments for concussions, traumatic brain injury and brain cancer. Even the potentially terrifying concept of reading people's thoughts via computer, recording your dreams and AI-assisted telepathy are absolutely fascinating. For me, learning about the brain is like learning about outer space. It fills me with wonder, curiosity and optimism for the future of humanity... precious commodities in this day and age, or any, really.

Related posts:

Book tour, part 1: Nostalgia, about Douglas Coupland and my early adulthood

Books, part 2: the Power of Personality, about astrology and other personality studies

Books, part 3: I heart New York, about my love of and visit to New York City

Order my Badass Goddesses book in paperback, hardback and Kindle/tablet formats.

Check out my RedBubble shop for Badass Goddess art prints, apparel and more.

Listen to the Starzology Podcast featuring me, Alison Price and other special guests.

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