Brain Works, comments

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

I got three books for Christmas. The first one up is Brain Works, the companion book to the National Geographic TV series. I haven’t seen the series, so I’m treating the book as stand-alone. It’s written by Michael S. Sweeney, who has authored other books for Nat. Geo., and is a professor at Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism. Overall, the writing is pretty clear and easy to follow, although there is an inordinate amount of medical jargon when it comes time to talk about various regions of the brain and the functions they perform, which kind of gets in the way of the message that Sweeney is trying to deliver (i.e. – how those functions mess you up in terms of optical illusions or cognitive misfires).

The book is about 220 pages long, and broken up into 3 major sections – Seeing, Thinking and Being – plus there’s a foreword by David Copperfield. The foreword is kind of irrelevant, in that Copperfield tries to frame this work in terms of how the brain tricks itself for illusions and misdirection as it relates to stage magic. But, actually, Sweeney uses things like optical illusions, psychological experiments and quotes from experts in various fields to explain what we currently know, and don’t know about how the brain is designed, and what it does. There’s very little that directly ties to direction and exclusive focusicity. That is, as a magician, I’m not going to use Brain Works as a guide book for how to trick audiences better. It may help understand WHY humans can be tricked, but it’s not going to tell me how to do that more efficiently.

Seeing talks about the parts of the eye, how it responds to light, how signals get sent to the brain along the optic nerve, and what happens when the signals get distributed in the brain for analysis, interpretation and response. There are 8 sub-chapters, each of which includes at least one illusion (with trick paintings from Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Bev Doolittle), talks about the part of the brain involved in the illusion, and supplies supporting example medical case studies.

Thinking has 7 sub-chapters, and it goes through the current theories of how our brains evolved, and how what we think we remember can change with time and repeated recollection of an event. There’s one case study on false memories (one psychologist had a nanny who faked an attempted kidnapping when the guy was very young and manufactured a story about the attack. The psychologist still has memories of the event, even though the nanny later confessed to making it all up.)

Being gets into the roles the brain plays in conscious, subconscious and unconscious thought. The current theories hold that subconscious reactions affect your decisions and emotions a lot more than had previously been believed, and that expectations can drastically impact how you approach those decisions. There’s also a fair amount of writing on artificial intelligence, and speculation on how machine AI will never match or surpass the human brain.

My opinion is that this book is great for anyone that has seen the TV series, and wants to explore some of the experiments in more detail. It’s also fine for the casual reader that is interested in brain function. But, it is superficial, meant more as an overview than as a doctorate-level textbook, and as such left me feeling disappointed. I would have liked a lot more examples of optical, auditory and sensory illusions, and more psychological experiments. In fact, a full book of “things you can try” would have been more fun, and the medical quotes and case studies should have been left for the appendix.

Two comments, though. Sweeney discusses computers as tools, and states that tools are designed to perform certain tasks, and as such computers are good at number crunching and sorting through vast amounts of data quickly, things that humans are poor at, but that computers can’t become intelligent. That computers are bad at facial recognition and understanding poetry. Duh. Digital computers based on binary instruction sets were designed for number crunching, so yeah, that’s what they’re going to be good at. If you want facial recognition, or cognitive functions, start over and build a new machine specifically for those tasks. Don’t design a hammer for pounding nails into concrete, repurpose it as a paint brush, and then claim that hammers will never replace paint brushes in the house painting industry. Can humans make machines smarter than us? I think so. If that’s what the original design specs call for when you create an all new machine. If you want machine AI, design the tools to be machine AI’s upfront; don’t pull a number cruncher from off the shelf and then complain that all it’s good for is number crunching.

Second comment: In the section on Being, there’s a sub-chapter regarding pain. The “take away” is that you can trick the brain into thinking that pain is not that bad through a combination of expectation, and ending on a high note. That is, if you tell a patient that they can control how and for how long a certain procedure will last, they’re more likely to tolerate it than if you make all the decisions for them and they’re just in the room as a passive subject. And, in one example, male patients being give colonoscopies were divided into two groups. In one, the scope was removed right after the work was completed. In the other, the scope was left in place for another 20 seconds before being removed. The second group reported that they were more likely to get exams in the future because the procedure wasn’t all that bad. The reason? The scope had stopped moving for a while and it didn’t hurt as much after it was pulled out. Meaning that prolonging the time the scope was in place actually made the overall experience feel better because it ended on a less painful note, very clearly tying pain and pleasure together. What’s strange, though, is the discussion is accompanied by two pictures of an attractive, undressed woman. In the first picture she’s screaming in pain, and in the second she’s apparently enjoying something fairly intimate. But, there’s no text box saying why these pictures were chosen. The reader is left to guess if this is a suggestion about how to conclude a rough date.

Anyway, more optical illusions. That’s all I’m saying.


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