Three Brainy Books Reviewed

Three Brainy Books Reviewed

brainy-booksThere’s no better way to unwind after a hard day of thinking than to curl up with a relaxing book about neuroscience and cognition. Right?

Although the books reviewed here have been around for awhile, I chose them because they influenced my understanding of learning, instruction and intelligence in a powerful way. I wanted to share in case you haven’t read them yet.

The Art of Changing the Brain

art-of-changing-brainAuthor James E. Zull will prove to you that neurons physically change as people learn. Why should you care? Because the author, a science professor and dedicated educator, uses this knowledge to radically change the way he teaches. And he gets good results.

As a professor, Zull stopped using the lecture format. He learned that effective teaching starts with the learner’s knowledge rather than the expert’s. He also began using teaching methods that promoted understanding rather than memorization.

His principles are applicable to all types of learning design. The book’s premise is that knowledge resides in powerful neuronal networks and that instruction must build on these existing networks.

Furthermore, learning is based on the brain’s plasticity to add or lose synapses or to change the strength and pattern of its signaling. In essence, changing the brain involves “recognizing the existing neuronal networks in a learner and inventing ways for her to use them.”

The Art of Changing the Brain is filled with gems, such as:

  • Working memory is for completing tasks.
  • Concepts and broad principles should be developed from specific examples.
  • Prior knowledge is a gift to the teacher; it tells us where and how to start.

Using a wonderful mix of science and stories from the trenches, Zull walks the reader through his own evolution as a teacher. He brings the learning cycle to life, showing how it relates to various parts of the brain. Through this lens, you will explore how to promote learning through sensory experience, active participation, integration with previous knowledge, and reflection.

The Tell-Tale Brain

tell-tale-brainIn The Tell-Tale Brain, author V.S. Ramachandran, shows us what it means to be human from the perspective of neuroscience. The author, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD, highlights the inner workings of the brain by drawing conclusions from individuals with abnormal neurological conditions.

The central neuroscientific puzzle he seeks to solve, is what makes humans unique compared to the great apes, considering that every anatomic region of the human brain has an analog in the brain of the great apes. To do this, the author delves into the handful of brain regions that “have been so radically elaborated that at the functional (or cognitive) level, they actually can be considered novel and unique.”

Ramachandran explores mirror neurons, which automatically simulate the actions of others. Mirror neurons also allow us to read people’s intentions and to anticipate next actions. Through this, he hypothesizes, humans developed capabilities for social learning, imitation and the transmission of culture.

He also explains brain plasticity, based on his research with amputees who experienced “phantom limbs.” Contrary to the common view that plasticity is only available to babies and children, the author provides excellent proof that the malleability of the human brain lasts through a lifetime.

Other topics that The Tell-Tale Brain examines include: how visual information is neurologically processed, the link between perception and emotion, synesthesia, autism and the development of the integrated self, language development, aesthetics and transcendence. You may find yourself disagreeing with certain theories or taking offense at his occasional out-of-place comment, but this book does provide a fascinating look at the brain through compelling stories and science.

On Intelligence

on-intelligenceAlthough this book was published several years ago, there may be no better theoretical framework for how the brain generates intelligence.

Author Jeff Hawkins invented the Palm Pilot and then turned his intelligence to neuroscience. In this book, he teams up with science writer Sandra Blakeslee, and perhaps this is why the book is so accessible.

To reach his goal of creating intelligent machines, Hawkins has devoted 30 years to understanding the workings of the brain. He hopes to build machines that work on the principles of the newer brain, the neocortex. Fortunately, we can benefit from his research and theorizing.

On Intelligence uses concrete analogies to help the reader picture the brain. Telling us that the neocortex is as thick as a stack of six business cards and stretched out it’s around the size of a dinner napkin gives us a shared understanding from the start.

At the core of his approach to intelligence is a contrarian theory that comes from a paper published in 1978 by Vernon Mountcastle. The theory states that “the cortex uses the same computational tool to accomplish everything it does.” This stunning and simplistic idea means that there is a single algorithm at use in all parts of the neocortex, no matter its function. Ponder that for awhile. The theory goes on to say that the brain is affected by the type of input that flows into it, which causes functional specialization.

Using this as a basis, Hawkins explores how the brain passes information up and down a hierarchy that devotes more signals to feedback than to top-down processing. Ultimately, he builds a theory of intelligence that centers on prediction. “Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence.”

The book is well-written. The reader is brought along Hawkins’ scientific journey, making theoretical discoveries along the way. In the process, you may be persuaded that his theories are not only plausible, but probably correct.


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