No ‘Idiot Brain’ Is an Island

If you want the human brain explained to you, it's best to consult an amateur comedian.

“There’s a famous quote that says, ‘If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we should be so simple that we couldn’t.’ If you look into the science of the brain and how it relates to intelligence, there’s a strong element of truth in this aphorism. Our brains make us intelligent enough to recognize that we are intelligent, observant enough to realize this isn’t typical in the world, and curious enough to wonder why this is the case. But we don’t yet seem to be intelligent enough to grasp easily where our intelligence comes from and how it works. So we have to fall back on studies of the brain and psychology to get any idea of how the whole process comes about. Science itself exists thanks to our intelligence, and now we use science to figure out how our intelligence works? This is either very efficient or circular reasoning, I’m not smart enough to tell.”

— Dean Burnett, from Idiot Brain, pp. 112-113

“I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”

— Donald Trump, on the campaign trail in 2016

In case you couldn’t tell by now, author and neuroscientist Dean Burnett is attempting something very difficult in explaining the inner workings of the human brain to the layperson. It’s not surprising that someone is taking a crack at it. You could say that the quest to make hard science palatable for the average citizen started with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History in Time and is continuing to this very day with the rising popularity of authors like Malcolm Gladwell and podcasts like Radiolab. Burnett seems to be a good candidate for the popularization of the neurosciences since he 1. has studied extensively in the field and 2. has a moderate interest in performing stand up comedy. So, we’re all set on making brain science relatable to the average idiot, right? Not quite.

According to Burnett’s research, the human brain is constantly playing tricks on us or just isn’t up to certain tasks that we thought were rudimentary. In the first chapter, you learn that motion sickness comes from the brain’s inability to figure out that it’s in motion while your butt stays planted in your car/plane seat. In chapter two, you learn to distrust your own memory as it is constantly being distorted every time you access it. Chapter four is a real punch to the gut, as the reader learns that the more intelligent a person is, the less confident they come across in their area of expertise. Conversely, someone who is full of confidence but little else is more capable of earning human trust.

Constantly through all of this dressing down, Burnett keeps dropping hints of the upcoming chapter 7. Again and again, I spotted sentences that read along the lines of “there’s more on this in chapter 7” and “as we’ll see in chapter 7…” Turns out that chapter 7 is the crushing blow that no brain is an island. We constantly care how others perceive us, adapting to social norms seems to be a default setting for us, and the human brain is ultimately influenced by its own evolution. This may not be such a buzzkill to those of us who know that, deep down, we’re not that brilliant. But knowing that you’ll never be able to convincingly fake the mood of a facial expression or knowing that you’ll never be able to control the oxytocin pinging around your brain after a bad break-up is sure to trouble anybody. The name of this penultimate chapter? “Group hug!: How the brain is influenced by other people”. Some hug.

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As you may have guessed by this point, Burnett comes armed with a sense of humor. This helps move Idiot Brain along in two ways. First, as I mentioned before, it makes a hard science just a little bit more accessible. Burnett can’t help but refer to technical terms like amygdala and hippocampus along the way, but he does his best to keep the reader from drowning in deep pools.

Secondly, there is so much bad news about how our brains and most of our senses perform so poorly that the steady dose of jokes are most welcome. Holding a copy of Idiot Brain, you don’t have to look far for examples. “Remembering that the capital of France is Paris is a semantic memory, remembering the time you vomited off the Eiffel Tower is an episodic memory.” [page 45] “There’s no similar saying [‘Sticks and stones may break my bones…] to point out that ‘Knives and blades will slash you up but marshmallows are pretty harmless.’ Praise is very nice but, let’s be honest, criticism stings.” [page 105] “I hate car shopping. Trudging across vast showrooms, checking endless details, looking at so many vehicles you lose all interest and start wondering if you have space in your yard for a horse. Feigning awareness of cars so you do things like kick the tires. Why? Can the tip of your shoe analyze vulcanized rubber?” [page 231]

Burnett never becomes autobiographical in Idiot Brain. He’ll introduce anecdotal tidbits about his life from time to time in order to set the stage for a larger point, as in with his car shopping woes. Having just finished another book written by a psychologist where the author made everything brain related all about him, this book was a witty breath of fresh air. I laughed, I worried, I learned the difference between semantic memory and episodic memory. If it winds up becoming the A Brief History of Time of neuroscience, then that’s gravy.

RATING 8 / 10