Sunday, February 22, 2009

Your Brain: The Missing Manual

I just finished Your Brain: The Missing Manual, a delightful book that presents a lot of technical but helpful information in a very accessible way.

As the title suggests, this is a user manual for the brain. It starts with a chapter on the physical structure, proceeds to routine maintenance (food, sleep) and moves to more advanced topics (e.g. memory, perception, sex). While it is true that you could get roughly the same raw content by reading neuroscience articles in Scientific American and the like, this work provides unique value by organizing and formatting the material into a user manual. Brains like manuals!

Typical of this book's efficient design is that it not only includes citations and weblinks to more information,but maintains a webpage of these links so that (A) you don't have to copy them out of the book and (B) they can can be kept current:

The work is honest about some of its concepts being frankly speculative; there's a lot about the brain that we haven't figured out yet, but we can still use unproven hypotheses to tinker with the behavior of our own brains. My favorite example of this is the concept of emotional "set point": the unproven idea that a brain may have a basic degree of happiness from which it temporarily varies according to circumstance, but generally returns to over time. Some people, the manual explains, may see being immobilized by kidney stones as an opportunity to catch up on crossword puzzles, while others see winning a multimillion dollar lottery as a sad burden. Rather than suffer distress and frustration when we keep returning to a set point, or continually seeking external explanations for our emotional states, we can more profitably try to acknowledge our emotional bias as something in our head and work from there on objectively useful behaviors.

Because it is so well organized, this work would be suitable for use not only by adults but by teens. If you can code or follow a shop manual, this is for you!

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