Summer Reading List: Brain Books

As someone who recently finished the latest Dan Brown book, I understand the entertainment value of a fluff read–particularly when on vacation. But as the Fourth approaches and many of you look forward to beach getaways or some down-time in the back yard, consider reading one of the brain-related books recently published by our Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) members. You’ll certainly learn something and your friends are sure to be impressed.

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Summer Reading List: Brain Books

Last year I wrote a summer reading list blog, highlighting brain books recently published by members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. Since then, our members have published a number of new books on topics ranging from addiction to free will to neurogastronomy. When you get around to finishing the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (it’s everywhere!), here are some great books to keep in mind (descriptions are taken directly from the publishers’ websites).

The Addicted Brain: Why We Abuse Drugs, Alcohol, and Nicotine, by Michael Kuhar, FT Science Press.
“Addiction destroys lives. In The Addicted Brain, a leading neuroscientist explains how and why this happens–and presents advances in treatment and prevention. Using breathtaking brain imagery and other research, Michael Kuhar, Ph.D., shows the powerful, long-term brain changes that drugs can cause, revealing why it can be so difficult for addicts to escape their grip.”

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Brainwave: Welcome to Connectome

Last night, New York City’s Rubin Museum (a new Brain Awareness Week partner!) drew a full house for its Brainwave programWelcome to Connectome.” Dateline NBC's Jane Pauley and MIT Computational Neuroscience Professor Sebastian Seung, Ph.D., treated the audience to a discussion about the daunting task of mapping the brain and how this effort can lead to a better understanding of the biological basis of identity.

The connectome, according to Seung, is “the complete map of all the neural connections in your brain.” Each connectome is unique, he said, shaped by genes and over time by experience. Scientists hope that mapping these connections will lead to a better understanding of the origins of behavior and mental disorders, resulting in earlier treatments (see Dana’s recent article “Beyond the Connectome”).

With more than 100 billion neurons making connections in the human brain, you can imagine what a large undertaking this project is. Mapping involves tracing paths of the wiring and synapses in the brain, said Seung, and because of the density, it is done one cubic millimeter at a time.

Seung and his colleagues invite members of the public to help expedite the color-mapping process, by participating on their website eyewire.org, designed by Seung’s students at MIT. In a recent MIT News article, Seung explained the process, “The person can click the mouse and say ‘color here,’ and the computer starts coloring again, and keeps going, and then stops again when it’s uncertain. So you’re guiding the computer.” This is a far better use of your computer time than playing solitaire!

While citizen scientists are aiding his research, Seung hopes that they will take away something in return. He believes access to eyewire will help “empower people to learn about the brain.” Not to mention the program has a funky, slightly hypnotic element to it, for those of you drawn to that sort of thing.

All in all, it’s clear that scientists in the connectomics field really have their work cut out for them, but with enthusiastic researchers like Seung, it’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities. As neuropsychologist Susan Bookheimer said in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “[t]he study of connectivity is as hot as hot can get.”

To learn more about the connectome, watch Seung’s 2010 TED Talk. Seung also has a new book, “Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.” He participated in an author talk at Harvard earlier this week, which is available in video online.

–Ann L. Whitman

Can Brain Science Decipher Love?

Any day now, the stores will be awash in red decorations in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The day is more a clever marketing ploy than a holiday, but nevertheless, when faced with images of red hearts everywhere, people may well start to ponder the status of their relationships (or how to find a relationship) and the general notion of love.

What is love? Is it an intense attraction? A diamond necklace? The feeling parents have for their children? We know it when we feel it, but can we explain it? In her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, released earlier this week, science writer and frequent Dana Foundation contributor Kayt Sukel looks into the neuroscience behind our decisions of the heart.

Dirty Minds Cover

This is not a dry science textbook we’re talking about; with sections like “Hot Monkey Loving,” and “Sexy as a Boar’s Saliva,” you’ll be entertained as you learn about the inner workings of the brain. Written in a conversational tone, the language is easy to follow, and some personal anecdotes add humor and colorful imagery.

In the chapter “Neurobiology of Attraction,” Sukel weighs in on the debate surrounding the existence of human pheromones and how smell can contribute to attraction (something discussed in the 2009 Dana briefing paper, “The Chemistry of Love”). Despite what you may see in some perfume advertisements, scientists have yet to identify a single human chemical as a pheromone.

But certain mammals, such as the boar, are equipped with pheromones to attract mates, says Sukel. The male boar produces androstenone in its saliva, which is replicated in the spray, BOARMATE, used by farms to get female boars “in the mood.” In a funny moment in the book, Sukel describes a spur-of-the-moment experiment, in which she sprays her docile cat Boo Boo with BOARMATE to see if it promotes sexual behavior. It does not—after a few wide-eyed sniffs, the cat bolts.

What’s somewhat unbelievable is that some people actually use BOARMATE as a tool to attract the opposite sex. Even more incredible is that they discuss it openly on the Internet (I’m sorry, but if that was my secret weapon, I think I’d keep it to myself).

When all is said and done, smell can factor into human attraction, but don’t buy into gimmicks. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center tells Sukel,

We know there is some unconscious processing of human body odor. And there is some evidence to suggest body odor can help us identify individuals we know or perhaps attract us to others. But there is simply no good, reliable, experimental evidence to support the claim that some pheromone spray you buy on the Internet is going to help make you more attractive to others.

Boo Boo agrees.

If you’d like to learn more about Dirty Minds, several reviews of the book are available online and a trailer is posted on YouTube.

-Ann L. Whitman

Moonwalking with Einstein Book Review

One day, journalist Joshua Foer was searching for the world’s smartest person. The next, he was imagining Pope Benedict XVI getting kicked in the groin, 7'7" basketball star Manute Bol performing lewd sexual acts, and a variety of other celebrities and friends engaging in equally bizarre behavior.

Foer was, of course, training his memory. He chronicles his story of journalist-turned-memory competitor in his excellent book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.

As a mid-20s freelance journalist working on a story about intelligence, Foer found himself covering the 2005 United States Memory Championship, a competition he hadn’t even realized existed until he began research for his article. The next year, the guy who claimed his own memory was “average at best” moved from the audience to the stage, competing against the best “mental athletes” in the country.

Under the tutelage of British memory master Ed Cooke (the United States lags behind several other countries, including England, when it comes to memory competition), Foer makes unbelievable progress. He is able to memorize the order of multiple decks of cards in just a few minutes, long strings of random numbers, and, for more everyday use, details about people he has just met. Mwe

Foer does a great job of navigating the reader through the various memory techniques he and other top competitors use, most of which stem from the idea of a “memory palace.” Humans are far better at remembering visual images than, say, the number 523. Foer’s approach involved translating these numbers—or playing cards, or items on a shopping list—into distinct images and placing them within his memory palace, a real place he could visit in his mind.

Using the shopping list example, you could associate a stick of butter with Marilyn Monroe bathing in a tub of butter; for eggs, you could visualize a man in a chicken costume laying eggs. If your memory palace for this particular exercise is your childhood home, you would mentally place each of the items within a room in the house. When you arrive at the actual grocery store, you can simply take a mental walk through your memory palace, recalling Monroe in the tub at your front door and the chicken in your parents’ bedroom. It sounds crazy, but it works.

Foer skillfully weaves the history of memorization techniques with his own training, engaging—and perhaps inspiring—readers along the way. The value of all this training, though, is questionable. Even as Foer is able to compete at the country’s highest level, we learn at the end of the book he can’t always remember when he put his car keys. Why spend your time memorizing dozens of addresses and phone numbers when you can store them on your phone and access them at any time with little effort?

If nothing else, utilizing these techniques would certainly win you some bar bets. I’ve got a long way to go to reach even that level: I finished Moonwalking with Einstein a few weeks ago and in order to write this review, I had to flip through its pages to refresh my memory.

–Andrew Kahn

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