Book Buzz: Secrets of the Mind
"The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size." That wonderful quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes hangs on a wall above my desk. It expresses a lot, I think, about the wonders of learning and the mysteries of creative thought.
Science is still fuzzy on exactly what changes in the human mind as we learn, and why some people seem to be so much more adept at manipulating the information -- thinking creatively -- than others. Malcolm Gladwell's books Blink and Outliers are fascinating examinations of how the mind works, both on a subconscious and conscious level. In the latter, Gladwell makes a case that luck and hard work are often far more important than you'd think to the success of high achievers such as Bill Gates and the Beatles.
While that may be true, it doesn't fully explain the special way of seeing things that made Picasso Picasso, or the cerebral capabilities that lifted Mozart and Einstein to greatness. Researchers continue to tease out these secrets of the brain, as these five recent books reveal:
1. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. Following his earlier bestseller, How We Decide, Lehrer reached No. 1 on The New York Times' list with this exploration of creativity, which was excerpted in The Wall Street Journal. The late tech wizard Steve Jobs is one subject of Lehrer's analysis; so is the fact that the color blue seems to enhance creative output. The book is an "entertaining, Gladwellesque plunge" into an evolving scientific frontier, says reviewer Michael Mechanic in Mother Jones. Old methods come into question. The author challenges, for example, the wisdom of brainstorming meetings. Meanwhile, Lehrer suggests that failure and frustration are necessary to the creative process, as the Huffington Post notes with a video illustrating Lehrer's concepts. Reviewer Michael S. Roth of The Washington Post finds it interesting that Bob Dylan achieved songwriting success only when he gave up on trying to write a great song, allowing a sort of "ghost" to inhabit him and produce the lyrics. "We can learn to pay attention to our daydreams," Roth says.
2. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary F. Marcus. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Science held for decades that new memory circuits form far more easily in the young, and that it's relatively difficult for adults to pick up additional languages or complex skills. At 39, Marcus, a cognitive psychologist, tests the theory by immersing himself in learning to play the guitar. "Guitar Zero makes some delightful counterintuitive points," says a review in The Wall Street Journal by Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. "Kids are not quicker learners; but they are more persistent," says Doidge, who notes that Marcus applied childlike obsessiveness to his ambition. The author received guitar lessons from neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, who wrote the earlier book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Marcus "does not become the next Jimi Hendrix," Doidge says, but eventually he plays well enough to perform on stage. The book goes far beyond the simple point that practice makes perfect, says Nick Owchar of the Los Angeles Times. The author looks at how the brain becomes rewired and how learning produces "feelings of control and novelty" that are, Owchar writes, "crucial to our psyches. Rock on."
3. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow. Humans exert a lot less control over their own lives than they like to think, says Mlodinow, who explored the powerful influence of chance events in his earlier book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. This time, in a similarly lean, accessible volume spiced with wit, he looks at how our conscious thoughts are shaped by perceptions and biases hidden from our awareness. Technology "has revolutionized the field of neuroscience, allowing researchers real-time looks at brain activity during all sorts of experiments," points out Marc Mohan, a reviewer for Portland's The Oregonian, who notes that Mlodinow cites some fascinating studies. One topic Mlodinow explores is "the propensity of people to marry people with the same name," Mohan notes. Reviewer Jesse Singal, writing at The Daily Beast, says Mlodinow makes a compelling case that, although we delude ourselves into believing we think and act logically, "our rational brains aren't really calling the shots."
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. If Subliminal is not exhaustive enough for you, delve even deeper in this book by a psychologist who shared a 2002 Nobel Prize for his work in decision-making theory. "Through anecdote, biography, and keen, plain-spoken insight, Kahneman presents an unsettling account of human judgment's common fallibilities that is both captivating and convincing," says reviewer Stephanie Kovalchik in the statistics magazine Significance. As Gladwell did in Blink, Kahneman examines the fast, intuitive part of the mind that often excels at sensing danger and making decisions in the blink of an eye. However, he gives more weight than Gladwell to the slower, more developed intellect. "For enthusiasts who have taken up Blink as a defense of their sixth sense," Kovalchik says, "Kahneman's book can be summed up with a single sobering rejoinder: don't think so fast." Reviewer Christopher Shea of The Washington Post likes the examples of psychology at work -- juries, for example, awarding higher payouts when damages are capped at $1 million, as if a "gravitational force" were pulling them toward the limit. "Human irrationality is Kahneman's great theme," writes Jim Holt in The New York Times. "It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound . . . consistently entertaining and frequently touching. By the time I got to the end . . . my skeptical frown had long since given way to a grin of intellectual satisfaction."
5. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric R. Kandel. Here's another Nobel Prize winner: Kandel, a neuropsychiatrist, shared the award in 2000 for his studies of memory, chronicled in his 2006 memoir, In Search of Memory. His focus in this book is on how we perceive art, and how beauty affects the mind -- a new field of study known as neuroaesthetics. "Through brain imaging and other studies, scholars . . . have explored the cognitive responses to, say, color contrasts or ambiguities of line or perspective in works by Titian, Michelangelo, Cubists, and have examined how the brain's pleasure centers respond to appealing landscapes," says reviewer Alexander C. Kafka in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Kandel, an art lover who was born in Austria, concentrates on the Austrian Expressionists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, as well as writer Arthur Schnitzler and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In doing so, he has written "two extraordinary books in one," says reviewer Robert Epstein of Scientific American. The first is about the five geniuses; the second "reviews the recent explosion of research in brain science, bringing us up-to-date on what is currently understood about the neural correlates of vision, memory and creativity." All in all, says Epstein, "it is an amazing ride . . . that's astonishing in both depth and breadth." Jonah Lehrer, author of the book Imagine listed above, interviews Kandel in this Wired Science blog post.
Keep reading: Book Buzz: A Swedish Crime Fiction Revolution
Previous Post: 10 Tips: Use Pinterest to Get a Job
Next Post: Get Your (Online) Game On