Brain: The Complete Mind by Michael S. Sweeney

Aiming to be a comprehensive introduction to the “three pounds of flesh (that) create an entire universe inside your head,” this three-pound book manages the admirable feat of balancing heavy-duty science with the lightness of a popular magazine (well, a stack of them).

“It is humbling to consider the brain and all that it does in every moment of our lives,” writes Michael S. Sweeney in the opening chapter, “The Amazing Brain”. “In this corrugated mass of flesh, a staggeringly complex symphony of electrochemical reactions plays out every second of every day. Much of it does so without need of any conscious conductor to direct the ongoing melody.” As a journalism professor (rather than a neuroscientist, for example), Sweeney brings considerable skills as an information-synthesizer, conveying complicated (and easily made dry) material in clear and often engaging language.

Over the course of nine chapters, Brain seems to touch on pretty much every topic in the realm of neuroscience, from the physical make-up of the brain and nervous system, to the mechanics of growing and aging brains, to the processes and theories of consciousness, feelings, learning, memory, and a heck of a lot more. “Neuroscientists are feverishly pursuing the so far elusive goal of an overarching explanation of how the brain works,” writes renowned neurologist Richard Restak in his foreword to Brain.

Throughout this book, there’s a sense of striving to maintain that “feverish” excitement. It’s even palpable in the clever layout, detailed in a two-page spread on “How to use this book”. Who can resist a brain book that requires its own reading instructions?

Sweeney also does a good job of balancing disagreements, taking great care to point out where opinions clash, and voicing the opposing points of view. He remains so steadfastly neutral (Ray Kurzweil or Jarod Lanier, he ain’t), that at times a bit of Carl Sagan’s style of impassioned populist prose would have been welcome.

But Brain‘s strengths also lie in its generality. In the deluge of brain books, Sweeney’s stands out as valuable and essential basic training for navigating the deluge of popular science books about the brain, as well as the apparent trend towards all things neuro in popular culture.

A recent essay in n+1 magazine describes “the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel,” one that the article’s author Maro Roth dubs the “neurological novel.” He cites examples such as “Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism),” and proposes that “today an aspiring novelist might seek his subject matter in a neglected corner or along some new frontier of neurology.”

Roth sees the literary trend as part of “a cultural (and, in psychology proper, a disciplinary) shift away from environmental and relational theories of personality back to the study of brains themselves, as the source of who we are,” and he calls this trend a “new reductionism.”

The provocative piece has its detractors, including Jonah Lehrer, who responded in the blog Frontal Cortex that “there is nothing new or trendy about novelists borrowing the language and theories of contemporary science, or even indulging in reductionism and determinism when it suits their aesthetic principles.” Whether or not Roth is right about the neuro-novel, his article (and even Lehrer’s rebuttal) seems to reinforce the notion of neurological subjects growing in ubiquity in popular culture.

While it’s probably a platitude to state that the brain and its mysteries have always held popular fascination, it seems as if there’s been a steady increase over the past 30 years, possibly with the development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques. That technological advance made it possible for humans could see and study the workings of a brain (and experiment on it) without having to cut anyone open.

From smart drugs to Memento, from cyber-punk images of jacking into the Web in the ’80s, to a TV show like Dollhouse exploring mind and identity issues (among other things), popular culture seems to be drawing from the realm of neuroscience with more frequency than in the past. Perhaps the general audience has become more versed in neurological terms and ideas, along with the junk science that accompanies trends like this.

The deeper history of neuroscience and popular culture is a subject for a different book (and sites like Mind Hands, or the International Cognition and Culture Institute, among many, many others), but with the apparent rise in neuro-stuff, it might be useful to examine Brain for what it doesn’t do, as well as what it does, compared to other books in the genre.

For example, the book doesn’t delve into the “strange tales” of human behaviour, as Oliver Sacks described his classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, although there are a few of them here (the story of Phineas Gage seems to be a mandatory component of any book about the brain).

Neither does Brain focus solely on tips for improving mental activity, a la Mind Hacks – -a book that seemed to be in every self-respecting geek’s gear bag (along with a Hipster PDA) in the last half of the last decade–even though there are several health suggestions interspersed throughout. And the excess of brain scan images included makes Brain reminiscent of Rita Carter’s excellent Mapping the Mind, but that’s another subject (brain-imaging) that Brain weaves throughout its chapters, but doesn’t delve into as deeply as Carter’s book does.

This is a longer way of saying that Brain is a general interest book. The combination of clever, magazine-style presentation, the lush, glossy visuals, and overall physical heft makes Brain scream “coffee table” (mmmm, screaming brain). However, it’s written at a level that approaches university textbook quality (on par with, say, a first-year “Intro to the Brain” course).

This raises a question as to the book’s intended audience. It’s probably too general and simply too large to become a geeky gear bag essential, or to appeal to fans of Oliver Sacks-ian neuro-weirdness, the “recreational neuroscience” crowd (as Steven Johnson wrote in his introduction to Mind Hacks).

But that isn’t meant to disparage the book’s overall quality. It’s densely-packed with information, logically organized and well-written. Reading it feels akin to having a huge stack of science magazines, which maybe shouldn’t seem so odd considering that Brain is published by National Geographic.

This is Sweeney’s eighth book for National Geographic, having already tackled a wide variety of subjects, such as an encyclopedia of wartime journalism, a study of censorship during WWII, a tour of Utah’s Logan Valley, an all-purpose survival guide, and the scorching memoir of one of Sudan’s “lost boys,” which he co-wrote. His expertise as an explainer of complicated subjects stands out in Brain. It also gives the book a somewhat impersonal tone, and sheer amount of information to be conveyed can make the excitement to learn run dry at times. Brain is a book to be dipped into, rather than devoured (mmmm, brains).

However, with the spread of neuro-knowledge across popular culture, this book seems like a bit of a throwback to the cool science books of old: handsomely illustrated, with heady amounts of information written at smart-magazine level, and broken up with fascinating and brief sidebars to keep the mind-fatigue at bay.

RATING 7 / 10