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An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain Paperback – 1 Sep 2005

3.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product details

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner Book Company; Reprint edition (Sept. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743246748
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743246743
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2 x 21.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 638,927 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Evocative and meaningful."

-- Carl Zimmer, "The Washington Post"

"Evocative and meaningful."

-- Carl Zimmer, "The Washington Post"

"Ackerman [is] our poetic chronicler of the natural world."
-- "Chicago Tribune"

"[A] lovely...arresting...discourse on brain science."
-- "Entertainment Weekly"

"Partly close observation, partly free association, Ackerman's paean turns the inside of our heads into...[something] gorgeous, tender, jewelled."
-- "The New York Times Book Review"

"A love song to the brain...combines flights of lyricism and autobiographical reflection with a cooler, more cerebral amalgam of science, anthropology, psychology, history, and literature."
-- Francine Prose, "More" magazine

"Evocative and meaningful."
-- Carl Zimmer, "The Washington Post"

About the Author

Poet, essayist, and naturalist, Diane Ackerman is the author of many highly acclaimed works of nonfiction, including A Natural History of the Senses -- a book beloved by readers all over the worldand the volumes Deep Play, A Slender Thread, The Rarest of the Rare, A Natural History of Love, The Moon by Whale Light, and a memoir on flying, On Extended Wings.

Her poetry has been collected into six volumes, among them Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems and, most recently, Praise My Destroyer.

Ms. Ackerman has received many prizes and awards, including the John Burroughs Nature Award and the Lavan Poetry Prize. A Visiting Professor at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, she was the National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor at the University of Richmond. Ms. Ackerman also has the unusual distinction of having had a molecule named after her -- dianeackerone. She lives in upstate New York.

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Format: Paperback
The mind is a difficult place to explore without a guidebook. With dozens of excellent books by competent researchers now available, is it wise to take up one by a poet? Ackerman is masterful in her use of imagery and metaphor. She is able to convey both research and personal experience in ways that make both seem readily familiar. With many years' experience and a wealth of contacts to draw upon, she leads us almost trippingly into the great mystery of consciousness. Will we reach the end of the journey enlightened, confused or hungry for more information? Will we be dazzled by the science or simply enthralled by the illusions?

Ackerman's writing skills are immeasurably captivating. She has an almost uncanny ability to synopsise or compress a complex quantity of information into a limited space. In this book, she opens with a brief review of consciousness theories, followed by a tour of the brain's physical domain. She demonstrates how her own mind is working as a sample readers may use in understanding their own consciousness. She explains how the brain works along many paths, using varying paces of internal communications. Whatever we feel about ourselves "inside", she notes, there is no single, consistent identity that we can focus on for any duration. There are simply too many influences, both external and internal, affecting how the brain is operating at any given moment. And for "brain", Ackerman reminds us, read "mind". She's under no delusion that the two may be separated.

As Ackerman trips happily over the many treacherous questions besetting those in cognitive sciences, she introduces little asides to keep you entertained. We learn of "Oscar", an alligator who wanted to mate with a French horn player.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars 37 reviews
160 of 177 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Disappointment 1 Jun. 2004
By Paul Pomeroy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of my favorite moments in the movie "Contact" is when Jodie Foster's character, overwhelmed by the expanse of multi-colored galaxies she is seeing, says "I had no idea it would be this beautiful, they should have sent a poet" (or words to that effect). I understand this sentiment. I understand that the expressions of science often cast nets over things with so fine a mesh that the aesthetics of human experience cannot pass through. Einstein's "E = mc2" seems far too cold to describe the warmth of the afternoon sun in spring; far too small to express the terrible (awe-full) power of a nuclear explosion.

I began reading Diane Ackerman's "An Alchemy of Mind : The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain" with some vague expectation that what I would find there was a synergy of poetic and scientific descriptions -- perhaps the only synthesis capable of preserving the marvel while unlocking some of the mystery of the human mind. Ackerman wastes no time in establishing her ability to use words. She begins, "Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone..." (page 3). She is abundantly and wonderfully skilled at creating magical combinations from common words and her book is full of deceptively simple observations (such as the playful but profound "The brain is a five-star generalizer." -- page 54) that manage to convey far more than first impressions might indicate.

But she also wastes little time before indicating that her understanding of science is at best inexperienced. She makes references to theories that are not at all widely accepted (from ESP to Julian Jaynes' "... Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind") without ever discussing them and therefore giving them an implied stamp of acceptability. Worse, she seems to misunderstand evolution (or at least fails to discourage her readers from believing that it is purposeful and sometimes calculating) and confuses descriptions of the phenomenological experience of mind with (as being equivalent to) explanations for how the mind works. (It is interesting and to some degree telling that in the index for the book one finds an entry for Pirsig but not Pinker, Crick but not Dennett, ...)

Ackerman's scientific abilities are made all the more questionable by the nature of her occasional careless statement. On page 38 she attempts to make the immense time span of "32 million years" more easily appreciated by saying it's equivalent to 44,000 consecutive lifetimes (highly unlikely unless the average lifetime is over 720 years). "Common sense," she write on page 10, "tells us that if life exists elsewhere in the universe, it will be far more technologically advanced than we" (a statement that is far closer to nonsense than common sense). The real problem with all of these problems is that they make everything she wants to tell you questionable. How do you maintain (or regain) trust in what Ackerman presents? Why should you read any of it if you have to continuously be checking the veracity of her statements?

There is one possible reason: because Ackerman has a beautiful way with words. But for that to remain a good reason you need to keep in mind that "An Alchemy of Mind" is not really a science book or, ultimately, even a valuable collection of essays about the human mind. It is really better described as a collection of poetic essays about how Diane Ackerman experiences and thinks about her own mind (and how some books she's read influence that experience). Read with that in mind, there are some real diamonds to be discovered between the covers of this book.
35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brain Candy 28 Jun. 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Since 1990, when she published "A Natural History of the Senses," Diane Ackerman has continued to explore how intimate human experience defies rational explanation. "A Natural History of Love" appeared in 1994. Next came "Deep Play" (1999), an account of human creativity and our need for transcendence, and "Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden" (2001), about the way gardening elevates our souls. What fascinates Ackerman in these books is the pervasive mystery of nature, despite the increasing depth of our scientific knowledge.
Her approach is to select a topic that is in its essence ineffable, then gather information about it from the worlds of science and evolutionary theory,literature, myth, popular culture and personal experience, and lavish her findings with elaborately worked, poetic prose. Her intention is to say the unsayable. Here, for instance, is Ackerman defining memory in her newest book, " An Alchemy of Mind," which considers the human brain and consciousness from her customarily impressionistic mix of perspectives: "An event is such a little piece of time and space, leaving only a mind glow behind like the tail of a shooting star. For lack of a better word, we call that scintillation memory."
She is a grand, erudite synthesizer, positioning herself at the place where knowledge ends and reporting back to us in the language of lyric. "I believe consciousness is brazenly physical," she tells her readers, "a raucous mirage the brain creates to help us survive. But I also sense the universe is magical, greater than the sum of its parts." This is not the way things sound in neuroscience journals or philosophy of mind papers.
With "An Alchemy of Mind," which might as well have been called "A Natural History of the Mind," Ackerman delights in finding metaphors that simultaneously describe and demonstrate what she is saying. Explaining our compulsion to make subjective order from objective chaos, for instance, she speaks in terms of cartography: "The brain is still terra incognita on the map of mortality, still the fabled world where riches and monsters lurk. But we've begun mapping its shores and learning about its ecology."
As always, Ackerman has done her homework. Her book offers a useful, evocative picture of what is known about the brain's landscape and environment. It presents current research in cognitive science, neuroscience and technology to show how the brain evolved and is structured. It discusses memory and emotion, the formulation of self, the development and operation of language, the differences between human and animal brain function.
Ackerman loves the clarity of fact. But she adores the quixotic, the paradoxical: "Language is so hard only children can master it," she tells us.
Any page reveals a gem of expressive clarity.Early in the book, examining how the brain adapts as we learn new information, Ackerman says, "We arrive in this world clothed in the loose fabric of a self, which then tailors itself to the world it finds."Later, talking about emotions,she says, "Our ideas may behave, but our emotions are still Pleistocene, and they snarl for attention, they nip at passing ankles." To this, in a brilliant throwaway line, she adds, "Emotions often provide a dark italics to our lives." These are memorable translations of scientific premises.
"An Alchemy of Mind" is a bravura performance in the field of popular science writing. At a time when books about the brain, mind and consciousness compete for readers' attention,Ackerman has presented a helpful survey of the field leavened by yeasty writing and provocative insights.
--Floyd Skloot, Newsday
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a fascinating book 9 Jun. 2004
By Robert G Yokoyama - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed reading this book very much. Diane Ackerman takes a complex subject like the human brain and makes it easy to understand. Ackerman begins each chapter with thought prokoking quotes by famous writers, thinkers, and popular movies. My favorite quote in the book is by author Pearl Buck. It is about how people have a need to express themselves creatively. My other favorite quote is from Franz Kafka that says that being happy changes your entire outlook on life.
I loved the way Ackerman explains how the brain works in simple language. I learned that neurons grow new dendritic connections every time a person learns something new or expands on connections that already exists. Neurons communicate with each other by using axons.
There is an interesting chapter in this book that explains the differences between the way men and women think. Women solve problems using both sides of the brain. Men use only the side that specializes in that problem. Men lose more brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes affecting feeling and thinking as they age. Women lose more brain cells in the hippocampus affecting memory as they get older. Ackerman makes an interesting observation that women worry about losing emotional attachments. This is in contrast to men who worry about losing face.
I also learned that human beings share the same motives, feelings and instincts with animals. We all share and seek a need for protection, hunger, status seeking, social contact, sexual desire, and acceptance. I also learned that tool use isn't just limited to monkeys and humans. Crows have the ability to bend wire into a hook to retrieve food in a bucket.
One of the most interesting sections of this book is the one about memory. I learned that the brain does four things to remember. It recognizes patterns, interprets them, records their source, and retrieves them. Ackerman defines the different types of memory which I found helpful. Working memory holds crates of information for immediate use, but it can only do one thing at a time. Episodic memories are those that are linked to a certain feeling. Memory suffers when we are under stress or if we are bored. Challenge, exercise, and novelty of new things improve our memory. I really liked the way Ackerman connects the subject of memory and language. Language gives us a verbal memory that allows us to learn and remember without physically experience something. Words serve as memory aids for some people too.
An Alchemy of Mind is a very informative and entertaining book. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about neuroscience or psychology.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A captivating read, but not very scientific 5 Mar. 2005
By Lindsay Chambers - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book is less of an investigation of the science of brain chemistry than it is a collection of the author's self-indulgent musings about the aspects of the brain that she finds fascinating. I didn't really learn anything new about the brain's inner workings; however, I still enjoyed the book because of Diane Ackerman's writing style. In the chapter "Creating Minds," she describes herself as a "synesthete" (while somehow managing to implicitly compare herself with Vladimir Nabokov). I definitely agree with this self-assessment (well, not the Nabokov part). Ackerman's writing is colorful, to say the least. This book is richly layered with description and an overall sense of wonder. I wasn't surprised to learn that books of poetry are among her other published works. I gave An Alchemy of Mind four stars because it really is such a pleasant read. Still, I would have preferred to learn much more about the science of brain functions and much less about the time Ackerman broke her ribs while mountain-climbing on a remote island in Japan. She devotes the better part of eight pages to recounting this story, and to be honest, I can't even remember what the point of it was, other than to illustrate the fact that her life has been much more eventful than those of most of her readers. This is also not the only chapter in the book where Ackerman uses an event from her own life to supposedly make a point about the brain (while simultaneously pointing out how cool she is). I understand that good writers draw from their own life experiences to enrich their work, but it did start to get tedious after a while. If this were her autobiography, I could understand her dwelling on these things. In a book that is purportedly about science, however, they were just long digressions that made me impatient to get back to the topic at hand.

Despite all this, I really did enjoy this book, and I recommend it to those who want to read a creative work by a writer who lends poetic flair to even the most mundane topics. (...)
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book to stimulate the imagination, but some errors and other problems 12 Sept. 2006
By Patrick D. Goonan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In AN ALCHEMY OF MIND, Diane Ackerman takes on the mystery of the brain and she is successful in captivating the imagination and provoking the right kind of questions about its mysteries.

The other reviewers are correct to point out that there are some errors and bad science. However, there is also much good science and the book accomplishes its goal of sparking us to appreciate our brains in a different way.

Diane Ackerman has an excellent command of words and a very lyrical style that engages the emotions. Her explanations and examples are clear and poignant.

While this might not be the best book for understanding the brain at the deepest levels, it is certainly a worthwhile read for the average person. It is a relatively light read and it will certainly prompt more curiosity.

Despite some errors and bad science, I recommend this book for its ability to deepen understanding of this very difficult to approach topic. While it is not perfect, there is much excellent and accurate content. Think of it as a novel about the brain, which is mostly accurate, but there is some poetic license in play. If you are a hard core scientist or scientific type, there are other books which you would enjoy much more.

Another book about the brain that I recently read was the FEMALE BRAIN. I highly recommend this to anyone, but it's a deeper exploration and although it's fairly light, it's not as light or readable as this. It also contains a lot of information on males despite the title.
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