The ScienceBlogs Book Club

Review by Scicurious, from Neurotopia
Originally published on: February 5, 2009 1:45 AM

CoverINSTANTEGGHEADMIND.JPGI am an unabashed lover of Scientific American. Well, ok, I’m also a grad student. So I can’t AFFORD Scientific American. But luckily, Scientific American has podcasts! There’s a regular weekly one that is around 40 minutes long, and then there are daily ones, called ’60-second science’. 60-second science represents the latest science tidbits as they come out, and, most endearing to Sci, they cover the good, the bad, and the weird. So I was very excited when I found out that Scientific American, specifically 60-second science, was putting out a BOOK! And when I found out that is was about BRAINS, and that I could review it, I got even happier.

And it’s got a forward by Steve Mursky, who does the main Scientific American podcast. That is a sexy, sexy guy.

So what IS the “Instant Egghead Guide to the Mind”? It’s basically what Sci would like to do with her life (and her blog) were she not so incredibly verbose (yes, I know that I can’t talk about anything without writing a freakin’ novel. I think we should all sit back, relax, and think of it as a charming personality quirk). Each two-page segment is devoted to a different aspect of the brain, everything from the different lobes to the concept of personality. Throughout about 240 pages of content, you end up with a very basic guide to the brain. I even learned some stuff I didn’t know!

This book is definitely well-recommended for those who aren’t in science, and just interested in finding out stuff about the brain. I think books like these are great avenues to get science and the latest in research out there, read, and understood by those who may not be deep in the field. The Egghead guide offers very brief summaries of each aspect of the brain, and then devotes a paragraph to the most recent research. Finally, each tiny segment ends with “cocktail party tidbits”, little bits of information that you will probably only use if you’re a really geek at a cocktail party, but which are still really interesting to know, and which help to pull the reader in.

Unfortunately, while the book can cover a lot of big ideas simply and well, some of them end up having to be a little too simplified just to fit on the page. Autism doesn’t get a lot of explanation, and most of drug abuse falls under “other drugs”. Depression and bipolar disorder even get put in a single two-page spread together. Given the large amount of press these issues get, as well as the complicated debates that surround them, maybe two pages just isn’t enough. And because they have to fit so much into so little, some of the explanations skim over some of the big assumptions in neuroscience, which means that you may not REALLY get what they’re talking about unless…you’re a neuroscientist.

Another problem is that this book will not age well. More advances are made in neuroscience every day, which would make it hard enough to keep up with, but the book also makes a lot of references to current issues (such as the war in Iraq, and the movie Doctor Dolittle) which may not have such strong associations a few years from now. And of course, the latest and greatest discoveries in neuroscience may be eclipsed as early as next month. But from the way it is presented, I have a feeling there may be more than one Guide to the Mind, which might update sections as new stuff comes out (and hopefully update the pop culture references as well).

This book did give me a lot of good ideas, including a suggestion for…another section in the book. One of the things people find fascinating about the brain is the stuff we can do to ourselves. With all the tidbits on brain function, why not include a section on “training your brain”? This would include things like advice to do Sudoku puzzles in the elderly, or turning the light on when you get up in the morning to stimulate wakefulness. Many people want to find out about the brain so they can play with what they have, and this would be another way to really get people hooked.

The book also had a good section of recommended reading in the back (including Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, one of the books that first got me in to neuroscience), as well as a list of commonly prescribed drugs, their chemical names, and what they are usually prescribed for.

All in all, I found this a cute little “guide to the mind”. It would make a great gift for a kid (or an adult) who is just becoming interested in neuroscience, making the science easily accessible and interesting. And I can’t wait to see what comes out of “60-second science” next. Can I get an “Instand Egghead Guide to the Psyche”? How about an “Instand Egghead Guide to the Body”?


Learn more about the book.

Scicurious’ Brain Book Rating:

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