Your Brain, Explained by Marc Dingman explores the weird and interesting ways in which our brains work. The author aims to find a happy medium between complex neuroscience and brain talk dumbed down to the point that it’s inaccurate, and I think he achieved that goal.
The author also aims to spark curiosity. He writes, “I hope this book will get you thinking enough about all the interesting, peculiar, and downright amazing things the brain does that, when you finish it, you’ll have more questions than you started out with—because those questions might prompt you to continue learning about neuroscience.” This is someone who’s clearly passionate about his field.
Each chapter is devoted to a kind of different brain function: fear, memory, sleep, language, sadness, movement, vision, pleasure, pain, and attention.
The book contained lots of examples of people with fascinating conditions affecting the brain. Did you know there’s a rare condition called fatal insomnia? Another example was someone who had lost his sense of touch and proprioception (the ability to recognize where body parts are in space) but learned to walk again by using visual information rather than proprioception to guide his muscles as he moved. Other examples included people with prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces, and hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy, which is the inability to feel pain. While the not feeling pain thing might sound good on the face of it, you could bite your tongue off or get your foot run over and not even notice it, which would be a problem.
The book explores some of the ways neuroscientists developed an understanding of how certain brain functions work. For example, research on sea slugs was an important part of understanding how memory works. I’ve gotta say, sometimes my memory feels like it’s regressed to sea slug level…
You’ll also learn about what neuroscientists have uncovered about how different illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s affect the brain. There are curious facts thrown in, like smoking is associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease for some unknown reason (still not a great reason to smoke, though).
The author acknowledges the complexity of brain functions without getting confusing about it. Something like language doesn’t happen in just one area of the brain or even one half of the brain, and even though the left brain plays a significant role, the right brain gets involved in certain aspects. He also acknowledges what isn’t known yet; for example, children can pick up new languages much more easily than adults can, but scientists haven’t yet figured out why this is.
There are some bits that are particularly relevant to folks like me who have depression. There’s an area of the brain called the subgenual cingulate cortex that’s linked to sadness, and both increased activation and structural abnormalities of that area have been observed in people with depression. During neurosurgery to implant deep brain stimulation (DBS) electrodes, stimulation of the SCC produced rapid drastic changes in mood. DBS is by no means common as a treatment for depression, but it’s something I would consider. The author also addresses the serotonin hypothesis of depression, and how it’s become clear that this is very much an oversimplification.
In the chapter on the pleasure and reward system, the author addresses addiction: “Whatever your opinion on the origins of addiction, we know enough about the neuroscience of it to suggest that we should be treating it as a disorder and not as a fitting consequence of poor judgment.”
I found this book absolutely fascinating. Granted, I’m a geek and love science and brain stuff, but I think that this book would be really interesting even for people who aren’t über-geeks. The concepts are explained well, and I don’t think limited foreknowledge would make the book hard to follow. The author’s enthusiasm shines through in the writing style; this is definitely not a dry textbook. The example patients that are included are particularly intriguing. I thought this was a great book!
Your Brain, Explained is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.