The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind Paperback – 6 Feb 2004
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About the Author
Dr Richard Restak is a pre-eminent practising neurologist and neuropsychiatrist and the widely admired author of a number of books on the human brain.
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For me, the first four chapters were the most interesting because they deal directly with the implications of Brain Plasticity... (Chap 2, Genius and Superior Performance; Chap 3, Attention Deficit; and chap 4, The effect of images on the brain)
The remaining chapters go in different directions on the general theme of "what's new" with the brain via brain research techniques, drugs, new treatments, etc.
Here is my humble critique: Restak is good at introducing new ideas, but where he falls just a little short is in engaging the reader with real critical discussion. Along those lines, he gives examples and statistics without really explaining what the experiment measured, or what the numbers really mean. For example in p203, he gives a diagram of measured P3 latency, but he doesn't tell you what this is actually measuring...He does, however tell you what it should mean for the discussion. Although the reader has no reason to distrust his interpretation, it would be nice if he presented just a few more concrete details. There are sections in which one may feel he is editorial-izing much, and teaching us very little about the new brain. Still...it's a good read, hence 3 stars... think of it as a cool conversation over drinks - not concrete enough to expand your knowledge, but compelling enough to perhaps change some behavior.
If you like the book - you might also like "The Midnight Disease" by Alice Flaherty, another physician, also writing on the brain, but without the shortcomings (or perceived shortcomings) I'm pointing out here... Whereas Restak's main focus is how the brain can change through use - Flaherty's book focuses on the Temporal Lobe, and the compulsion to write...
I think both of these observations are non-sequiters, since many, if not most, people know many old, or older people that adapt very well to new things and pick up new information as easily as anyone else who puts in the effort to learn it. Also, I think it's fairly obvious that people considered to be geniuses in a particular field are simply those that have worked hardest to master all aspects of it, especially the gritty, tediuos details, not just the cool parts.
Besides these not so surprising results, much of the book provides insight into some of the most fascinating aspects of the brain. For example, the fact that parts of the brain used for two separate tasks, but located next to each other, will have some sort of bleed over. Like associating colors with numbers. I associate red with the number 3 and a light green with the number 4, and so on. This is due to the proximity of the parts of the brain that process numbers and colors.
Another cool thing was the naming of letters. He gave as an example an alphabet with only two letters, one shaped like a circle, the other shaped like a five pointed star. Which one do you think has the name 'ooh' and which was is named (I think) 'ecka'. Either way, the letter you would name 'ooh' is the the same letter that over 99% of the world, across cultures and languages, would name 'ooh'. This is because of the roundness of your mouth when you say 'ooh' and the hardness of the 'ck' in 'ecka' that would be associated with sharp edges.
He, also, gives an interesting, and, I thought, surprisingly objective discussion of using pharmacology in a 'cosmetic' way, i.e., using drugs to diminish perfectly normal feelings that you don't want to feel. He uses the example of a person taking a Prozac like drug so he can handle a funeral, instead of feeling real grief.
The most surprising subject in the book talks about restoring the senses. The most striking story in the book is about a man born blind, but, through technology has his sight restored. Surprisingly, this does not make him whole. Because he got his sight so late in life, he never developed an emotional attachment to his sight. So instead of improving his life, he fell into depression because he thought the world was so 'drab'. I never thought of anything like this. It makes me think that if a deaf person had his hearing restored, he wouldn't enjoy music because he never developed an emotional attachment to sound.
I can't imagine either scenerio. I enjoy music and sound, and colors and sight so much that I never thought restoring those senses might cause an emotional dissonance.
I recommend reading this book. There's very little jargon and almost no wasted paper. Every sentence provides more information, instead of just filling up a book.
The rest of the book is a summary of research that has been done, and where the research is going in the future. The subtitle should be "How the Modern Age is Researching Your Mind".
As a mom with ADD, and kids with ADD, I was under the impression this book addressed ADD more than it does. We have the genetic form, which is quite different from merely having a short attention span. In fact, people with ADD can hyperfocus on things that are interesting to them. This book doesn't make the distinction between a short attention span and and the overall brain malfunction of ADD.
I gave this book 3 stars because it does have some interesting information in it. I'm going to discuss his information on depression with my son's psychologist to see if the neurofeedback my son is doing can address the brain differences researchers have found. Mr. Restak doesn't even mention neurofeedback, although he talks extensively about how the brain can be changed at any age. In fact, he doesn't really give suggestions on how we can change our brains, if that is our goal, other than taking drugs. It would have been nice if he would have mentioned professionals that we can contact to make the changes he talks about.