Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better by R. Douglas Fields

Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the BetterElectric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better by R. Douglas Fields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whew. What a book. I was a science/math geek in high school (that would be 40+ years ago) but I didn’t take the Advanced Placement Anatomy & Physiology class offered because I wasn’t into the squishy (or soft) sciences. I’m an engineer now, and still not, but…I’ve expanded my interests to polymath levels over the past 25 or so years. I’ve read a bit, and listened to Great Courses lectures, on the brain and neurology, memory and “disorders”, but interesting maybe only to me, none have delved more than a scratch into the electric waves of the brain. So I requested and was granted this advance review copy from the publisher BenBella Books through Edelweiss.

Be warned in advance…there is a lot of anatomy and physiology – of the brain – in here. I can’t speak for those in the field, but it seems to me to be sufficiently medically detailed to satisfy those in the profession. And for those of us who are not, if you can get past the technical elements of the many cortexes, axons, neurons, and more, there is much here to likely enlighten you. Fields writes well, if overly academic…perhaps he had little choice. Considerable history of the field, backstories, successes and failures, modern advancements. Here are a subset of my takeaways…

Dr. Hans Berger was the first to record a human EEG, but his science was affected (infected?) by ethical issues. And he mixed in a belief in telepathy and psychic energy. In a monograph relating an incident where he was thrown from a horse in the path of a horse-drawn cannon that stopped just in time, his sister “far away, had at the same moment a sudden strong feeling that Berger was in danger” and he wrote, “It was a case of spontaneous telepathy in which at a time of mortal danger, and as I contemplated certain death, I transmitted my thoughts, while my sister, whose was particularly close to me, acted as the receiver.” … okay, sure.

Berger wrote fourteen identically titled papers on his research between 1929 and 1938. Fields notes

It is also difficult to reference any of Berger’s specific findings, as the citations for these fourteen papers differ only by the year of publication. Cloaking his findings in this way hid them from the larger scientific community and diminished their impact.

This prompted my recall of Martin Gardner’s characteristics of a crank (see Fads and Fallacies in the name of Science). Not strictly a Gardner crank, but secretive enough to edge in.

Fields showed a limitation I’m not sure many would catch. Recounting the experiment of Stanley Miller in the 1950s in which Miller replicated what he thought the atmosphere was like 3.5 billion years ago, sealing it in a globe of purified water and bombarding it with electric sparks simulating lightning, and found amino acids in the result.

Simple cells might then assemble into primitive organisms – all initiated by a spark – and through eons of evolution the tree of life would expand and ultimately yield Homo sapiens, …

The limitation/trap? That would be “ultimately”. The reality is…so far. Homo sapiens tends to think evolution stops with himself.

I got a kick out of Fields, who at one point said, “I’m leaving out a lot of fascinating neurobiology here to stay on point.” He put a lot of fascinating neurobiology in!

Researchers have found brain wave evidence to support Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow theories.

A good researcher, and I’ll say, journalist, Fields submitted himself to a comprehensive brain wave scan that took more than a month to analyze. Brain Science International scientist Jay “Gunkleman says he performs his EEG analysis without first reading the patient’s medical history or the initial complaint that motivated them to have their brainwaves recorded and analyzed.” My note was simply “Good. Unbiased.” Fields’s analysis revealed a variant with his alpha waves present in 10% of the population. Fields said something there that I consider probably the most important in this long, dense book: “Just because something differs from the norm, it does not necessarily mean it is bad.” So true. What are called “disorders” are just differences. Of course, they can manifest as disorderly, but …

When testing neurofeedback to see if his alphas could be modified, Fields interacted with neurofeedback practitioners Jessica Eure and Robin Bernhard

“What am I supposed to be trying to do?” I ask.
“You don’t need to …” Robin halts her reply to my question and turning to Jessica, she says under her breath, “Did you see what he said to me?”
Rephrasing my question, I ask, “How do I interpret that screen?”
“You see, that’s what I knew would happen,” Robin says in a tone conveying good-natured, restrained frustration, Jessica giggles knowingly. “You thinker,” she scolds, “So the cool thing is that your amygdala knows exactly what is going on already. The conscious mind is really way too stupid to do anything to affect it.” She and Robin chuckle, They’ve already cracked into my brain with their machine. They knew I would take a left-brained, analytical approach to neurofeedback, and that tack would not be of much help.

Apart from the “left-brained” bit, I suspect I’d be the same way. I am that way with most things.

Fields opens his chapter Consciousness, Riding on Brainwaves, with

Consciousness has long mystified philosophers and scientists. What is conscious awareness? Do animals have it? Consciousness touches on the most fundamental question in philosophy, psychology, and biology, of how the brain creates the mind.

Good. No dualism there.

Here’s an example of something that sounds like Dan Ackroyd wrote (no disrespect intended…just that those are busy words!)

In 1949, Giuseooe Moruzzi and Horace Winchell Magoun found that electrical stimulation of the midbrain reticular formation instantly desynchronized the slowly oscillating EEG and aroused sleeping animals.

On the purpose of dreams: “One of the reasons that we sleep is to dream, and one of the reasons we dream is to remember and forget.” And on remembering and forgetting, this was something I did not yet know:

Many labs conducting research in the last few decades, including mine, have identified the detailed cellular and molecular mechanisms of memory consolidation. The key distinction between short-term and long-term memory is that genes must be turned on and new proteins made for long-term memory but not for short-term memory.

I thought this was a refresh of a good point:

Science is a luxury that can only be practiced in societies after all the basic needs of life have been obtained, because scientific research requires substantial funding and public support. For this reason, science does not proceed at the pace of scientific innovation; it proceeds at a pace, and in the specific directions, that is funded by the public or business. Research can be stalled or halted by regulations.

Evidence when a draconian medieval administration bent on being anti-science forbids research – forbids their agencies from even talking about it – into the most pressing world concern of today, anthropogenic climate change.

Fields makes an important clarification on the medical technology of cranial implants translating waves and electrical impulses into prosthetic movements:

As you well appreciate by now, no matter what you may read in sensational articles, neuroscientists do not yet understand how thoughts, emotions, and intentions are coded in the pattern of neural impulses zipping through neural circuits and sweeping through brain tissue as oscillating brainwaves. The neural code is still a mystery, but computers using advanced machine learning can begin to recognize patterns of electrical activity that are associated with a specific sensory or motor function, and use that insight as a reliable signal to trigger prosthetic devices to perform useful functions. This is a complex process, far from being able to decode neural impulses as one would read computer code.

I thought it interesting that brainwave study revealed abilities to learn new languages seems to be inversely proportional to reading ability. Don’t take offense. Dr. Chantal Prat “claims to be able to [“spot accurately which students will learn a new language rapidly”] by simply recording the brainwaves of a person as they sit quietly at rest.” Prat analyzed the author and determined that Fields “should not move to Europe.” She said “You are probably an excellent reader. Our brain is optimized, and when you get better at one thing it comes at a cost to something else.” A Cambridge study that came out as Fields was researching this part of his book reported that “monolingual people are superior to bilingual people at metacognition, which is described as ‘thinking about thinking,’ and that they excel at correcting their performance when making errors.” – I am so monolingual!

New terminology to me was “fluid intelligence” – “facility of thinking abstractly and rapidly, accurately identifying patterns and quickly reasoning to solve problems” – and “crystallized intelligence” – ability to use acquired knowledge and reasoning to recognize patterns and find correct solutions to problems.

Looking at the wave patterns associated with creative activities, Field wisely cautions “[o]nce again, correlation is not causation, and the surge in alpha waves during a creative flash could be the result, not the cause, of creative thinking.”

Here’s a good one that needs to be trumpeted:

Dyslexia is commonly referred to as a dysfunction. While it is certainly a serious disability in the modern world, I would not consider it a dysfunction, because reading is not a normal brain function.

Fields observes that reading “is something that human beings never did until very recently in our history.” Fields compares difficulty learning to read to learning to play the piano – not being able to learn either is not a disorder! Well, pass the biscuits and praise the cook! I’m going to pass that on to friends with kids with dyslexia. I think it is very important to de-label the labels.

Bottom line, unless you are in the field, or a serious amateur enthusiast, this book might take a bit of time to digest, but it will be enlightening. Recommended.

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Guns of Liberty by Jamie Mauchline

Guns of LibertyGuns of Liberty by Jamie Mauchline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this from Book Sirens.

I find the older I get, the less forgiving I am of fantasies that take a long time, if they ever do, to provide the context and framework of the universes in which the fantasies take place. That’s one reason I still have not finished Neuromancer…(that and sometimes neologisms annoy me.) Despite the breakneck pace of this debut novel, the pretty much nonstop action needed quite a bit of description, but Mauchline doesn’t really provide that framework and context of that universe. Hints are teased and spread over that action. Just what is an Inquisitor in this world? What is the religion, and the dynamic of the Liberty Empire? Oh, some things are clear – flintlocks (and revolvers), cannons, airships, and…radio? Airships captained like a Hornblower novel or a Sabatini novel, with excellent sailing details that are nonetheless a wee distorted because …well, no ocean. Mauchline has a grasp of what it takes to man a cannon, and the damage balls can do, but the (anti)hero ship gets repaired rather quickly.

I don’t think the characters develop enough, nor that world. Nor the backstory, but… it is still quite engaging and I understand there will be at least another book. I look forward to more background next time, and appreciate the opportunity to read a review copy of this one.

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Things I learned from The Teaching Company in 2019

Several years ago I stopped listening to NPR decided to use my commute time to learn things I was interested in and The Teaching Company Great Courses are excellent for that. For 2019, I focused primarily on one subject: music, but I started it with something a little harder…

91fKSlqL7hLThe course Native Peoples of North America was an expansive coverage by Professor Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D. from before European invasion through modern day. I had to take breaks through January and part of February because it is not a happy topic. England, France, Spain, and the eventual United States were brutally treacherous in their dealings with the First People.

Yes, there were triumphs, but over the course of the last 500+ years, there was far more heartbreaking tragedy, genocide, forced relocation, marginalization, massacres, wars, lying treaty-breaking on the part of the United States.

After that sobering lecture series, I turned to a series of ten Great Masters, Their Lives and Music. Dr, Robert Greenberg was my teacher for the remainder of the year and into 202. He’s from New Jersey, and brings personality, liveliness, and an incredible breadth of musical knowledge to The Teaching Company. From the comments I’ve seen on a few sites, some people can’t take him; I think he’s great. So, not in the order I listened to them, because I can’t remember! Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Robert and Clara Schumann. Each of the covers below links to the Great Course.

751-Haydn 752-Mozart 759-Schumanns757-Brahms 755_Beethoven 758-Liszt753-Tchaikovsky 756-Mahler1 754-Stravinsky760-Shostakovich

Each series is eight 45 minute lectures and Greenberg talks about the music of the time, the history of the time, and the impact the various selected Masters had on the repertoire.

Haydn is the father of classical music – and make no mistake, “classical” is a period of concert music, not the colloquial attribution! He is largely responsible for the classical era symphony form. And he was quite prolific. But then, having worked for the same royal family for 29 years, churning out new pieces every week, he sort of had to be. His string quartets are the gold standard. Mozart is Mozart, and peerless, a life cut short. He was also quite ribald. Prodigy of prodigies, he definitely made good on his potential. Beethoven, well, he stands alone between the Classical and Romantic periods. Innovative, fortunate that the piano had developed in order to handle his hammering drive, his style is distinctive. I learned how Robert Schumann could compose musical portraits of people, novel to me and quite enlightening; Clara was a virtuoso on her own merit and lived long after Robert’s insanity from syphilis killed him, also too young. Brahms was an enigma, having destroyed so much of his own work to retain privacy, but he is one of the three Bs, and beloved by pianists today. Liszt is famous as a performer, and he was the first to elevate solo piano to the artform it could be. Mahler, superb conductor and composer, his works were of a highly expressionist nature. Of the great Russians, I knew the least about Shostakovich, thus learned the most. A Soviet patriot, and closet dissident, he survived multiple purges and his symphonies told dual stories – one that would pacify Stalin, and another that would portray the heroism of the rebellious arts. Tchaikovsky’s personal life was colorful and brought about his tragic death (so much of that in these great masters!) and he rose above his peers and Greenberg selects some gems that are rarely heard. I suppose most are familiar with Stravinsky’s Firebird, but wow, the man was probably the most diverse of all those surveyed, if not the most ever. Experimental and for me at times difficult to listen to and appreciate. I’ll come back to all of these again because I learned more about music the rest of the year and a second pass will undoubtedly teach me more.

book-coverAfter 80 lectures on ten Great Masters, I decided to stick with Dr. Greenberg and continued with How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (as it turned out, I stuck with him the rest of the year and into 2020!)

Magnificent comprehensive coverage of music history, forms and their development, terminology, composers, history beyond music, I learned a tremendous amount about the structures and compositions of symphonies, sonatas, quartets and quintets, concerti (and the correct pluralization of such!). The social influences of the times, the political influences, religious and financial influences; composers not covered in the Great Masters series and many that were – there is crossover but I don’t mind reinforcement. If you pick only one Great Course on music, pick this one. You’ll be rewarded many times over. And there is a companion book in case you want to enhance the experience, titled How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart. You’re welcome.

7210-The-SymphonySo, narrowing the focus of great music, I moved next to Greenberg’s The Symphony. From its 17th century beginnings to the full emergence of the symphony in its complete form under Haydn and Mozart, to Beethoven, Schubert and Berlioz blowing it up all over, Greenberg digs deep and broad, as much as he can in 24 lectures.

He then takes the listener on a journey through different national influences, France, Russia, Vienna, Scandinavia, America… Amazing stuff.

730-Symphonies-of-BeethovenIt seemed only logical to narrow thew focus even further with Greenberg’s Symphonies of Beethoven. Ah… more time to focus on the intricacies of a single composer! And yet… not enough time.

I really appreciate Greenberg’s breakdown of the different elements, themes, vernacular, ties to different parts. And I appreciate that I have a deeper appreciation when listening to the symphonies of not just Beethoven, but of every other composer on my music player.

7320-The-23-Greatest-Solo-Piano-WorksI couldn’t explain why all these were chosen over others, but Greenberg does…and I still have a hard time understanding why, but I did learn more about compositions, style, technique, piano history, influences, and more; The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works.

Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Mussorgsky (I really need to dig into Pictures at an Exhibition – I know and have listened to the work, but am unfamiliar with the pictures it exhibits), and many more.

I ended the year barely starting How to Listen to and Understand Great Opera, continuing with it now, and after that? I have the operas of Verdi, Bach and the High Baroque (excited about that one…he’s not played much in last year’s survey except in the How to Understand series), Mozart’s chamber music, Great Masterworks, a series on the concerto, 30 greatest orchestral works, 20th century music, music as a mirror of history, even one on the fundamentals of music, which after all of that might just mean that much more!

Always learning…and so much to learn about just music! Someday I’ll get back to religion, history, culture, literature and all that other good stuff, but for now, I’m enjoying the hell out of learning music!

Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium by Carl Sagan

Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the MillenniumBillions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium by Carl Sagan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This falls into the Books I Should Have Read Already category, although it could also be in the Small Stacks of Found Books one because I did find it at a used bookstore while looking for something else.

Sagan covered a lot, in his very accessible way, and a reader might get an impression that he ran out of time, which of course, he did. I’ll not summarize here but I will share a few notes I made and observations I flagged… I do want to point out that even good thinkers like Sagan make mistakes; he attributed something to Hitler that Hitler never said. That it was passed around the ether before this book is still no excuse. Because of that, I had to check the Rudolf Hess quote that preceded it, which was more or less the English translation for what Hess did say in 1934.

On language and communication

Ethnocentrism – the idea that our little group, no matter which one it is, is better than any other – and xenophobia – a “shoot first, ask questions later” fear of strangers -are deeply built into us. They are by no means peculiarly human; all our monkey and ape cousins behave similarly, as do many other mammals. These attitudes are at east aided and abetted by the short distance over which speech is possible.

Some humans, and human mimics, have a hard time with that simple fact that we are genetically still rather primitive. Aggression and fear of others is sadly normal.

On the environment

The worse the catastrophe is, the harder it is to keep our balance. We want so badly to either ignore it utterly or to devote all our resources to circumventing it.

Hard truth boiled down to a simple dichotomy. And on the predictions of climate change, for the ignorant “ideologically driven radio talk-show hosts [and wrongwing politicians and media] who insist that the greenhouse effect is a ‘hoax.’”To roughly quote Richard Dawkins, it’s science b*itches! He notes “Considering hw contentious the scientific community is, it is notable that not a single paper is offered claiming that depletion of the ozone layer or global warming are snares and delusions or that global warming is considerably less than the estimated 1 to 4 C for a doubling in the carbon dioxide abundance.” Well, no legitimate scientific peer-reviewed paper – there is a host of cottage industry trolls masquerading as scientists that have cropped up since Sagan’s death spewing gibberish that is eaten up by the wrongwing.

I’d forgotten that the first truly horrendous president of my adulthood, Reagan, had the solar-thermal converter take off the White House roof. Sagan observes “It was somehow ideologically offensive.” Idiot (not Sagan, of course.) And now the administration of 2017 is bent on rolling back all environmental progress of the last 100 years. Ideological offense has something to do with it, as does lining the pockets of the billionaire cronies.

An uncomfortable truth, Sagan, after noting the annexations and occupations of the Soviet Union, turned to the United States

Excluding World Wars and expeditions to suppress piracy or the slave trade, the United States has made [as of 1996] armed invasions and interventions in other countries on more than 130 separate occasions, including China (on 18 separate occasions), Mexico (13), Nicaragua and Panama (9 each), Honduras (7), Columbia and Turkey (6 each), the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Japan (5 each), Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, the Kingdom of Hawaii, and Samoa (4 each), Uruguay and Fiji (3 each), Guatemala, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, and Sumatra (2 each), Grenada, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Chile, Morocco, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Syria, Iraq, Peru, Formosa, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Add Iraq again, Afghanistan, Syria again, Somalia, and I don’t know how many more. Those data came from records of the House Armed Services Committee. We’re not clean and never have been.

He talks about abortion and opens “The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground, You’d think the fight was over.” … well, actually… far from. He’d likely not be surprised, and still somehow remain optimistic.

Ann wrote a heart-tugging epilogue that if you aren’t moved after reading, well, you’re not human.

I should have read this long ago – I had an unread copy that was lost to a fire. Life’s too short to keep making that mistake. I do believe I’ll revisit Demon Haunted World this year…we’ll see.

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