Wednesday 17 January 2018

Best brain science books, from Daniel Dennett to Oliver Sacks

Tom Chivers

Five of the best books about neuroscience, psychiatry and the brain, including Daniel Dennett, Oliver Sacks and Dan Gardner, as selected by Tom Chivers.

Consciousness Explained

Daniel Dennett, 1991

It's a presumptuous title, you might think. Consciousness? Surely the greatest mystery remaining to man, "explained"? Is this guy serious? Well: yes. Dennett doesn't claim to have all the answers, but he does paint a simple, non-mysterious picture for how the brain could work. Key to his claims is the idea that there is no single, central place where "consciousness" happens, where "we" live - no "Cartesian theatre", as he puts it, where a little homunculus watches events and makes decisions. Instead, the brain consists of a bundle of semi-autonomous, individually "stupid" components, each with a simple task.

Our consciousness, he says, instead of being a sort of "finishing line" where thoughts and experiences are presented one after the other, consists of what he calls "multiple drafts". Any given event gives us various sensory inputs; each input arrives at a different time, and immediately becomes available for use as the basis of action. As more data from the inputs come in, they are added to the information about that event.

The book is an academic work, and not intended solely for the lay reader - but Dennett writes clearly and carefully, although I still found myself re-reading a few sections. He demonstrates points simply, talking through various experiments that back up his argument, and stands satisfyingly firm on the point that consciousness can be understood scientifically, and is not inherently inexplicable as some philosophers claim. Thrillingly commonsensical, and leaves the reader feeling like a genius.

(Note: I was going to include his 2006 work Freedom Evolves as well, discussing free will, but in the end there wasn't room. It's as much of a must-read as Consciousness Explained and rather more up-to-date, so read them both if you have the time.)

Godel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid

Douglas Hofstadter, 1979

Hofstadter's "metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll" is a strange and strangely beautiful book, winding stories about the lives of the three titular geniuses together with Zeno-inspired dialogues between a dull-witted Achilles and a witty tortoise into a subtle and profound discussion of intelligence, language and thought, illustrated throughout with beautiful Escher artworks.

He goes deep into logic and formal systems, showing, piece by piece, how meaning - the connection between our words and the world - can be inherent even in simple logical languages. He demonstrates Godel's discovery that any language, mathematical or verbal, powerful enough to be of use in explaining the world, can never be complete, and will always contain unresolvable paradoxes like "this sentence is false". He looks at anthills, and how the individually simple ants can create a complex system that can learn and respond, and draws a parallel between that and how our own mind, made of individually simple neurons, can create complex thought. And, painstakingly, he paints a picture of human consciousness.

It's a very, very odd experience; by turns funny and baffling, and completely unlike any other book you will ever read. It is also far from easy, especially if you struggled in school with maths, because it does not pull its punches in examining formal logic. But if you can battle through it, it is rewarding, eye-opening, and profound.

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear

Dan Gardner, 2009

I wasn't sure whether to include this book: its subject is deeply entwined with matters of brain science and psychology, but it is both broader and narrower in scope than other books on this list, dealing with politics and the media, and staying solely on the topic of risk perception. He also has an explicit agenda of his own. But Gardner's book is so enlightening on so many aspects of modern life that it deserves to make the cut.

Our mind, he says, is built to work in a Stone Age environment. Our "gut" instincts on how seriously we should take a threat are based on simple metrics like how memorable it is, which correlates very badly to how much it actually affects our lives. So, September 11, a tragic and high-profile event, caused thousands of Americans to stop flying - and, indirectly, caused an extra 1,500 deaths in that country as people died in car crashes after avoiding domestic flights.

The various irrationalities that govern our risk perception are exposed. For example, it is shown that people are willing to spend more to insure their lives against "terrorist attacks" than against "all possible causes". Battling our "gut" is our "head" - our reasoned thinking, based on the information available to our conscious brain. But it is a tough battle, and one made harder by canny politicians and marketeers, who know the tricks that appeal to our gut instincts. When head and gut disagree, we start worrying too much about emotive but statistically trivial threats - terrorism, for instance, or child abduction - and ignoring serious ones, like smoking and driving.

It's straightforward and witty, and best of all - despite some of the subject matter - hugely optimistic. This is the best time in history to be a human being: we are safer and healthier than any people who have ever lived. We live in unjustified fear, says Gardner, in a clarion call to the world to stop worrying so much. A cheering read.

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker, 2007

An embarrassing admission: when I asked around for nominations for the best books about the brain, two suggestions were Steven Pinker books, neither of which I have read: How The Mind Works and The Blank Slate. His most recent book, The Stuff of Thought, which I have read, is brilliant, though, so I include it with the proviso that you should probably read the other two as well (as should I).

Pinker's title refers to language, the stuff in which we think and which shapes our thought. He reveals how we use innuendo or talking-around-the-subject to avoid the social dilemmas of everyday life, and how metaphors we use in speech dictate how we think about the world. We can only think directly, he says, about "concrete experiences: sights and sounds, objects and forces, and the habits of behavior and emotion in the culture we grow up in. All our other ideas are metaphorical allusions to these concrete scenarios."

So people are "bound together" in a political affiliation, and we cannot think of these affiliations without unconsciously calling to mind a literal tying or gluing together. Thinking, Pinker says, is "to grasp metaphor" - and the fact that we believe we can make sense of the world by using these multiple layers of metaphor is, itself, the "metaphor metaphor". He uses a lot of technical language (“content-locative”; “semantic reconstrual”), but leavens it with wit and anecdote, and has a thoroughly entertaining section about the grammar of swearing ("Just what does the 'f---' in 'f--- you' actually mean?").

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, And Other Clinical Tales

Oliver Sacks, 1985

How often do popular science books move you? Perhaps to tears? Sacks's now-classic work, describing case histories of his psychiatric patients, is one that might: although it will, just as often, make you laugh, or shake your head in wonder. The 24 studies are divided into four sections, labelled "Losses" (dealing with mental deficits), "Excesses" (the reverse), "Transports" - dealing with perception and nostalgia - and "The world of the simple", about people who we would now call learning-disabled.

We meet "Witty Ticcy Ray", a man almost crippled by the tics of Tourette's syndrome, who is rescued by a course of Haldol - but misses his old, wild self. So, with Sacks's blessing, he compromises: on weekdays, he takes his medication, and becomes "sober citizen, the calm deliberator." On weekends, he comes off the drugs, and reverts to "'witty ticcy Ray,' frenetic, frivolous, inspired", who plays jazz drums in a club. Another essay deals with a group of aphasiacs - people who through damage to their speech centres can no longer understand speech - who watch a televised speech by an unnamed politician (heavily hinted to be Ronald Reagan), and who are brought to hysterical laughter by the insincerity of his tone and body language. Genial Jimmie, the "Lost Mariner", a former Navy sailor whose Korsakoff's syndrome has prevented him from forming new memories since 1945, battles on uncomprehendingly in the late 1970s, a young man's brain trapped in an middle-aged body.

And, of course, the famous Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Dr P., a gifted musician in whom a brain tumour causes "visual agnosia", preventing him from recognising objects he sees. Shown a glove, and asked to describe it, he says: "A continuous surface infolded on itself. It appears to have five outpouchings, if this is the word. It could be a change purse for coins of five sizes." A flower is a "convoluted red form with a linear green attachment", but when he smells it, it is "An early rose. What a heavenly smell!" And, in a moment of desperate pathos, he reaches out and grabs his wife's head, trying to lift it off, in the mistaken belief that she was his hat. ("His wife looked as though she was used to such things".) Dr Sacks sees his paintings on a wall, moving as his disease progressed from realist clarity to abstract chaos - "a tragic pathological exhibit, which belonged to neurology, not art". Sacks's clear-eyed, beautiful book, though, belongs to both.

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