This was one of my “books of shame” that I started a few years ago but never finished. This is quite unusual for such a category of book, because I know I cannot have lost interest in it; it’s just too fascinating.
As suggested by the title, this is all about how the brain works. What is fascinating about it in particular are the anecdotes showing what happens when things in the brain go wrong. It is well-known to be amongst the complicated creations in the universe. The author opens up with a look at how we develop, before talking about how we perceive things. As is the case throughout the book, much of what we know (which the author admits is still very limited) comes about from examining the “extremities” of human existence. If you were looking for a discussion on anything other human brains, this isn’t the book for you. There is some discussion over our evolutionary roots, but this is minimal.
Moving on, Ratey controversially posits that ‘attention’ and ‘consciousness’ are simply different levels of the same basic phenomenon. This is based on attempts to distinguish the two and the failures of those attempts, with a particularly grey area in between them. He goes on to cover various functions of the brain such as movement, memory, emotion and language. All of this is told in a very straightforward manner, although Ratey doesn’t shy away from the more neurological language which may put off some readers.
Throughout the book, Ratey is keen to stress that there is rarely one area of the brain that is responsible for one thing. Instead, the brain is built of multiple overlapping and interconnected networks which, when the neurons are stimulated in certain patterns, produce effects we can recognise and label.
In his chapter on The Social Brain, which is certainly interesting for me, as a particularly non-social person (some might say antisocial), he touches on altruism, though not in anywhere near as much depth as Richard Dawkins does in The Selfish Gene.
At 380 pages, the book does seem a little longer than it needs to be and towards the end I was just wanting to get it over and done with, as Ratey started to cover ground already well-trodden earlier in the book. The last couple of chapters started ringing a few alarm bells. For example I’m not sure if most embryologists would concur with the statement, “The day an infant is conceived it begins to perceive the natural world, and also becomes aware of its own internal states…” He later goes on to talk about a “Home Brain Gym” which is a concept familiar to readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science.