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.