Results tagged “popsci” from kwc blog

Book: Birth of the Mind

|

Birth of the Mind addresses the relationship between DNA and the development of the brain. Most of the ideas in the book are fairly simple and easy to understand:

  • It's both nature and nurture. We start with an initial structure that is highly adaptable. You can transplant a third eye onto a creature and it's brain will create the necessary processing structures for it.
  • Genes designate structure coarsely and relatively. One more more beacons draw certain types of cells towards them along channels. The stronger the beacon, the stronger the pull. If you move the beacon, you can change the location of where something develops.
  • The same genes get reused in different parts of the body like building blocks. Very few genes are unique to the brain. This is perhaps why there are so few genes in the human genome.

You won't get too much insight into how the brain works. Birth of the Mind is more akin to civil engineering than architecture, dealing with the materials of construction rather than the function of what is constructed. Birth of the Mind is deceptively short (< 200 pages), so you shouldn't have any problem pairing it with another pop-sci brain book to fill in some of the gaps in this book.

The brevity of Birth of the Mind sways my overall review of it. The writing is mostly clear but isn't clever, the analogies are rather bland (mostly computer programming analogies), the footnotes don't provide that much additional detail, and most of the writing is an exercise in aggregation rather than drawing a clear thread through a backdrop of works. But it's short. It's short enough that I see it as a good (re)introduction for future pop-sci neuroscience readings. The Amazon reviews are almost entirely glowing, so it would appear that a lot of the readership appreciated the material within.

Someone in the future will write a better version of this book, mostly because neuroscience/cognitive science is still making important discoveries on the nature of the mind and how it is formed. I'm awaiting an author to come along in Hofstadter-like fashion and pull together all the loose threads and unify our picture of the brain, from genes all the way up to consciousness. Having listened to how Hofstadter and Marcus both emphasized chunking/recursion, perhaps someone will be able to come along and draw analogies between the way we build our complex brain out of simple building blocks and the way we build complex concepts out of simple words. Maybe this book already exists and I just don' t know about it.

Book: Mind Wide Open

|

Mind Wide Open is a fun, light read by Steven Johnson. It's a pop-sci examination of the brain, with a focus on translating/rejecting Freudian ideas into a modern scientific framework. This Freud ambition limits the scope of the book: it is tourist equivalent of a quick day tour of New York by bus, a few stops, all brief.

The focus on Freud seems to come from a pop-sci similarity: Freud is one of the few psychologists whose ideas have entered into the popular lexicon and, by reinterpreting Freud's work, Johnson hopes to fulfill his goal of entering neuroscience concepts into the popular lexicon as well. Ambitious, especially in the book's final chapter which reads less like a conclusion and more like a Freud/Neuroscience manifesto (it is one Johnson's favorite chapters that he has written). If you hate Freud, don't distress. I hate Freud as well, but the most of the effort in connecting neuroscience to Freud is spent in the final chapter and only occasionally crops up elsewhere. Perhaps this is why the final chapter felt so out of place to me within the context of the book.

I prefer Emergence, Johnson's book on emergent behavior, to Mind Wide Open. Emergence was more the type of book where you want to grab a friend after reading a chapter and go, "did you know that __?" Perhaps this was an artifact of Johnson using himself as the subject of many of the experiments. Instead of focusing on the extraordinary cases of neuroscience like Oliver Sacks, we instead are confronted with the banal. We learn what Johnson learned about himself, but without being able to subject our self to the same tests the learning feels thirdhand. Much of the experiments have been better suited to a Discovery Channel special than a book, because video at least would better allow us to imagine ourselves in the experiment.

I have some limited notes in the extended. Due to the type of narrative, I found it difficult to take notes: much of the relevant details are scattered across many pages, so I eventually decided it was taking too much time.