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An enjoyable collection of essays about the brain written in a popular science style by a leading contributor to the field
on 9 February 2017
In the acknowledgements to this book, the author writes, "This book came about after the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad asked me, in 2008, to write a column in which I answered readers' questions." So from the outset any reader should understand that this is neither a textbook nor indeed a carefully planned popular science book; rather it is a collection of interesting thoughts by the author drawing upon his own as a neuroscience researcher on sex differences in the brain, Alzheimer's disease and depression. Having served for 27 years as director of the Netherlands Institute for Brain Research and also receiving the Academy medal for his "significant role in neuroscience", one can be fairly confident about the author's knowledge about his field. That said, some reviewers have picked up on the author's tendency to drift into commentary about social, economic and political affairs, which clearly are not his area of expertise. However, given the genesis of this book, it should hardly come as a surprise that the author would proffer his opinions on a wider sphere than his specialisation; it is fairly clear in the book where this takes place and a reader is at liberty to agree or disagree with those opinions.
Where the book scores in my opinion is that is flows easily over a range of topics which illustrate the central thesis that each of us is a product of our brains and that this process starts very early in our development within the womb. However, before anyone takes this to mean that we are caught in the old chestnut of nature vs. nurture, the author is not arguing simply for the former, but rather he highlights how the two interact in our development.
The book or really what reads on occasions like a collection of essays (for the reasons outlined above and hence some cases of understandable repetition) covers a wide range of topics, each of which gets on average 5 to 6 sections. The topics listed in the Contents pages provide some structure to the presentation of ideas and allow the reader to dip into specific topics which can be read in isolation or alternatively, the reader can simply work their way through from beginning to end of the book.
Having read and studied a reasonable amount of biology and psychology over the years, I agree that there is much in this book that can be found elsewhere and indeed there are topics that might have easily been included in a book of this title. However, this book is not written for the academic, although it can provide an interesting read for the student of these subjects earlier in their reading. Rather, it is a book aimed at a general audience, many of whom may not have come across all or some of the issues raised in this book, or if they have, they might have been presented them through a different lens; hence this book is a an enjoyable romp through an important range of topics with suggestions as to some of the wider social issues they raise in some cases. It also includes a number of anecdotal stories which might annoy some, but personally, I found helped to illuminate the topic under discussion.
If you are interested in 'getting a feel' for some of the insights which research in neuroscience, medicine, psychology and biology have developed in recent decades on the nature of our brains then I should recommend this book. As said by other reviewers, the book does not provide any bibliography, but anyone seriously interested in pursuing one or more topics presented in this book would have little difficulty in the age of the internet.