You may call me a slow reader; after all I took about three months for writing my last book review. But I am satisfied with my reading speed. In my opinion, it is highly improper not to give non-fiction books the effort and careful reading they demand and deserve. Non-fiction books, especially science books, are not meant for speed reading, and active involvement of the reader is essential to derive maximum benefit from the work. Following this argument, I am completely satisfied at having taken two full months in going through the book Your Brain, Explained: What Neuroscience Reveals About Your Brain and its Quirks by Marc Dingman. The title of the book speaks for itself and honestly speaking, I expected nothing less than 6 months of drudgery and mental torture while undertaking this seemingly Himalayan task. The book itself is not lengthy, being 256 pages long; however, it was the subject which scared me to death. But all my apprehensions turned out to be baseless fears of an empty mind. The book is educational in nature and far easier to follow than I had anticipated. The language of the book is neither too dull nor too exciting; it is simply modest and polite, and very easy to understand.
OK. Without wasting any more time, let us go straight to the discussion. I will try my best not to spoil your experience by giving too many details; instead, I would restrict myself with giving the essential features of the work, and its good and weak points. The first thing that I liked about this book is its plan which is reflected all too well in the Contents. The discussion of a single ‘subject’ brain is divided into different chapters, with each chapter focused on a particular emotion/concept/activity. Thus, we start with fear, followed by memory, sleep, language, sadness, movement, vision, pleasure, pain, and finally attention.
Each chapter is further divided into small, manageable sections, with each section devoted to a particular aspect of the topic. Marc always begins his discussion by citing a real-life example of any person who had had particular experiences. He draws your attention to the interesting and important aspects of the case at hand. Then he explains the case in terms of latest research findings. In this way, he starts with very easy to understand case study, makes you comfortable with the issue at hand, and then slowly builds up the story and introduces the various complexities of the subject to you. But as soon as he finds that the discussion is getting too serious and involved, he ends the discussion. By that time you are already familiar with the basic problem and the science behind it. If you are interested, you can explore more on that subject on internet, or refer to books on that subject — the writer has given full references at the end of the book.
The structure of the brain and the exact location of any particular region is indicated by proper diagrams. However, after few chapters, the information load becomes difficult to handle and you need to look back at previous pages to compare the present discussion to that presented earlier. This is easy in a paperback, but might be troublesome in Kindle. So I advise the reader to make use of bookmarks extensively. But the best approach would be to read the book with a notebook and pen in your hand. Keep making notes of the various diagrams and discussions. This would definitely enrich your experience.
One suggestion to the writer and publisher:- adding one complete diagram with labels indicating various regions of the brain would help. Though individual regions are introduced one by one in the book — and it is indeed justified so as not to overwhelm the reader — after some time the information content becomes too large to remember, so that the reader has to keep flipping back the pages. In the same way, regions like amygdala and hypothalamus are introduced and explained adequately, and quite understandably the terms are simply used later throughout the book. However, if the reader is going through the book very slowly, which is quite common for science, popular science and non-fiction books, they may have difficulty recalling what the particular region was about. In this case also, the readers would require to go back to the page where it was introduced. In Kindle format, I do not see any way out. However, in paperback format, a summary diagram can be provided. One way to do this is to devote two pages after the Contents and before the first chapter. A diagram of the brain with different regions labelled can be presented on the right hand side page and a complete list of the various regions, and the various roles they play can be given on the left page. This would make it much easier for the reader to go through the book.
At some places, the book indeed becomes too difficult to follow e.g., the last few pages of the first two chapters (fear and memory). In few other instances, the discussion becomes too long than is perhaps required, leading to the reader losing thread of the discussion e.g., the discussion on serotonin and dopamine. In fact, occasionally the writer himself acknowledges the involved and complicated nature of the subject. I understand that the subject itself is quite complicated and the writer has indeed done a good job of simplifying to a great extent. That the description is still very difficult shows the complexity of the subject and not the inadequacy of the writer. Still, the writer could have used analogies to explain the complicated theories. In fact, he does utilize such means occasionally. For example, to illustrate the different stages of sleep in the discussion Measuring sleep with the EEG, he gives examples of people in an auditorium engaged in conversation and of chanting by Gregorian monks. I agree that giving analogy for each and every concept is impractical, but for the more complex concepts, this method could have been further used. Note that most of these concepts and the terms noted in preceding paragraph must be trivial and elementary for researchers working in the field of neuroscience. However, for the people who are not familiar with this field, following such discussion and remembering the names could be an uphill task. And anyhow, neuroscientists would not read this book, as most probably they do not need it. Instead, laypersons would be more interested in this work, more so for the growing interest in the field among the community. And it is these readers that the book should strive to address.
My opinion? Ratings by different critics would differ. As I said, this book is a mixed bag, with certain sections very easy to follow and some very difficult. However, one thing is certain — after you have finished reading this book, you would be better informed and feel glad at having learned something new and useful. You would wonder how could you take this most important part of your body for granted. No, this book doesn’t teach you everything on this subject, but it will certainly give you a solid, reliable and intelligent foundation. After that, all those newspaper and TV reports on neuroscience research would start making sense to you.
But yes, you the reader will also have to put in some effort. You cannot simply lie back and hope that all the knowledge would seep into your mind like vitamin D from sunlight. You cannot, and it means absolutely cannot, read this book while going to sleep. It is not very difficult to follow; however, you need to stay alert, active and attentive. The advantages are not just academic in nature; in fact, certain sections e.g., usage of electronic devices, effects of exercise and caffeine, understanding depression and addiction could be immediately used to modify your lifestyle.
I would recommend this book to my colleagues and friends, and specially to the students in my group.
Title: Your Brain, Explained: What Neuroscience Reveals About Your Brain and its Quirks
Author: Marc Dingman
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Print Book Length: 256 pages
Price (Paperback): $22.95
Price (Kindle): $12.25
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