The Brain, The Story of You


David Eagleman


Canongate Books Ltd






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I saw the BBC TV series before reading the book so was aware of the material enabling neuroscience to become accessible to a wider audience. For anyone wanting to learn more about their brain and, almost more importantly, to become curious and find out more, this is a great book. Steeped in up to date research, the book offers an insight into the day to day world of our brains, with memorable analogies and metaphors used throughout.

Eagleman invites us to "strap in for a whistle-stop tour of the cosmos" with his book and delivers on his promise of learning something new in an easy to read format. The book is full of incredible and fascinating facts that the evolving world of neuroscience is now revealing. Facts like the act of drinking coffee is the result of trillions of electrical impulses and it would take scores of the world's current best supercomputing machines to match this power. And the fact that it is possible to easily implant false new memories in the brain. In emphasising uniqueness of each individual human brain, he describes brains as snowflakes and as the trillions of synaptic connections form and re-form, the distinctive pattern means no one like you - or me - has ever existed before, nor will do again. His book then unpacks this individual reality in a series of fascinating chapters, full of examples, stories and thought provoking questions.

In talking about experiencing our reality he shows that our senses must be synchronised to make sense out of anything. What is really interesting is that all our senses are processed by the brain at different speeds - and on top of that there are time differences within a particular sense - for instance it takes longer for signals to reach the brain from a toe than the nose. He explains that none of these timing differences is obvious to our perception, we collect up all the signals so that everything seems synchronised - and the strange consequence of this is that we live in the past! He calls this the unbridgeable gap between an event happening and our conscious experience of it.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter around decisions, where the brain is "always crushing ambiguity into choices", making thousands of decisions every day, dictating our experience of the world. We assume that humans are always rational decision makers, absorbing and processing information to yield the best response, but of course there is so much more at play. Eagleman shared a 2011 study of court judges investigating the influences on decisions to grant parole to prisoners. Sometimes the judges were more capable of good decisions and at other times their "neural parliament" will come out with a choice they may later regret. The outcome depends on many changing factors about the state of the body that change all the time. In this study it was found that a basic biological need - hunger - influenced the decisions of the judges, a professional body who universally strive for freedom from bias and exude neutrality. Just after a food break, a prisoner's chance of parole rose to 65%, whereas one seen toward the end of a session had only 20% chance of a favourable outcome.

Right up front in the book, Eagleman postulates that the reason we don't talk continuously about our brains is that we are so trapped inside our reality that it is difficult to realise we are trapped inside anything! The book shines a light on our assumptions of this reality as he attempts to bridge the gap between published academic research and the lives we all lead as "brain owners". I think he has done a splendid job and would highly recommend this book. An easy and fascinating read.