I gave this book to my lab members shortly after it came out. A fascinating synthesis of ideas and examples that lead to a very powerful conclusion: h...moreI gave this book to my lab members shortly after it came out. A fascinating synthesis of ideas and examples that lead to a very powerful conclusion: highly complex phenomena can emerge from simple rules executed by multiple elements. A great read, and rich with implications for our lives and our world.(less)
This visionary book by Daniel Goleman is one of the most important in my collection. I see it as a seminal contribution to understanding the human con...moreThis visionary book by Daniel Goleman is one of the most important in my collection. I see it as a seminal contribution to understanding the human condition, and a roadmap of practical steps for living better, both within ourselves and with those around us.
Here I will focus on 3 topics from the book: 1) the evolution of brain mechanisms for emotional and rational behavior; 2) how these mechanisms can be hijacked in modern life, both accidentally and intentionally; and 3) the critical need for properly balancing emotion and rational thought in ourselves and our society. The latter challenge has given rise to extremely important research and training endeavors, and I believe these will become even more important in the foreseeable future. I see these endeavors as promising and significant career paths for those who pursue them.
For more information on the brain systems discussed below, McGill University has an excellent web site, with helpful graphics, background and discussion at three levels of complexity, starting with the basics. The links below are to this site.
Brain evolution To understand Goleman’s message, it is important to consider the human brain as an evolutionary sequence. We can think of it as a layer cake, assembled one layer at a time. The important point is that each layer in the sequence was originally the 'executive' in a functioning brain, with no obvious need for a higher layer. We can think about this sequence by considering a frog, a ‘primitive’ mammal such as a mouse, and a human.
The most obvious difference among these three brains is the relative amount of cerebral (neo)cortex. The frog has essentially none - just a small bulge called ‘cerebrum’. The major portion of this ‘reptilian brain’ closely resembles the brainstem in humans, where vital body functions such as heart rate and respiration are controlled, plus a cerebellum for fine motor control. The mouse has a relatively well-developed limbic system (discussed below) and a respectable neocortex. But the human brain is completely dominated by the massively overgrown neocortex, which must be intricately lobed and folded to fit within the skull.
So what does all that neocortex do in humans? Put simply, it thinks. It makes associations, provides context, and makes decisions to guide behavior in a complex world. Most other parts of the brain carry out simple sensory processing or stereotyped motor programs, or convey information from periphery to cortex or vice versa. Cortex takes crudely processed inputs (mostly from the thalamus) and identifies salient features (speech, faces, odors). By analyzing these features, it provides a rich context for making informed decisions and choosing appropriate actions.
Well, don’t frogs need a lot of cortex to process information and make adaptive decisions? Actually, they don’t. They have gotten along just fine without it for many millions of years. The tradeoff is that they can only perform a limited analysis of sensory inputs, and produce a limited and stereotyped array of behaviors. Mice, with a significant amount of cortex, can perform more sophisticated processing and behaviors, and can show some behavioral adaptation (learning).
Now here is the really important part. Humans did not lose or replace the amphibian or ‘primitive’ mammalian brain. Basically, they just added really elaborate processing layers (neocortex) on top of them. All of that cortical hardware has to work through lower centers that are, for the most part, quite similar to those found in other vertebrates.
A neurologist colleague elegantly summarized this concept for the medical students I was teaching, in a review session for our neuroanatomy lab exam. He pointed to a structure in the human brainstem that assists in fine-tuning motor control (inferior olive). He said, “this structure evolved to help a frog catch a fly by jumping accurately toward the target. We have to use it to do things like play piano and tap-dance. It takes a lot of cortical machinery to get that kind of performance from those cells.”
It isn’t quite that simple (of course), but the analogy is a very good one. And this key concept is at the core of Goleman’s magnificent book.
Good amygdala, bad amygdala With this evolutionary framework in place, we can consider the relative role of the limbic system (‘emotional brain’), which first emerged in early mammals. One of its key components, the amygdala, is a sort of emotional activation zone for the brain. One of its critical functions is to serve as an early-warning system for danger, such as approaching predators, and trigger very rapid fight-or-flight (sympathetic) responses. It gets direct, but crude visual and auditory inputs and processes them more quickly than neocortex. In effect, a portion of the amygdala sits and asks, ‘should I panic? should I panic?’, like an endless loop in software. These responses are, of course, extremely useful when there is real danger.
The difficulty is that, in the ‘civilized’ and complex world of humans, the amygdala can generate many false alarms. Even worse, in extreme situations it can take preemptive control of behavior, and trigger blind rage, panic, or other destructive responses. In those cases, the overgrown neocortex that underlies unique human behavior is left out of the loop. And this is where the trouble starts.
By analogy, neocortex is the executive who normally runs the company, but the workers can rebel and take over the production line. Examples from everyday life: I blew up; I don’t know what came over me; I just lost my head. Actually, your amygdala came over you and shut down your neocortex.
Truth or consequences Being emotionally intelligent, in Dan Goleman’s brilliant synthesis, means that you understand the destructive potential of emotions, and actively find ways to minimize or eliminate the destruction. To do this, you must put a neocortical wisdom about emotions at the front end of your own thought process – an executive in the chain of command. The job of this executive is to find constructive ways to channel and control both your emotions and those of others. This idea is consistent with the notions of mindful meditation and the best of religious thought. In other words, it is a prescription for a long-term, sustainable vision of human existence. To me, this is the most profound element of Dan Goleman’s vision.
Sounds pretty simple, right? So why is it so difficult for so many people? One big reason is that a great deal of money can be made by encouraging precisely the opposite response. Firing up the limbic system to spew out fear, outrage and hate is good for business. Movie and TV producers (and writers) may not know the difference between the limbic system and limbo, but they are experts at fueling emotional responses for profit.
In stark contrast, calm, rational appeals to the better angels of our nature face a steep, uphill climb. Fear and loathing are much easier to induce, and much more marketable. Those with emotional wisdom understand that, except in the most extreme cases, fire cannot be fought with fire. But they must also understand that it is easier to start a fire and fan the flames than to put it out.
Moving forward To me, a central challenge of our times is to find an adaptive balance between rational and emotional responses in our lives and culture. To do this, we must put the reasoning cortex in charge of our thoughts and decisions – guided but not overwhelmed by emotions. Fail to find this balance, and disaster will follow. This point is stressed by the following quote from the book:
“Each day’s news comes to us rife with reports of the disintegration of civility and safety, an onslaught of mean-spirited impulse running amok. But the news simply reflects back to us on a larger scale a creeping sense of emotions out of control in our own lives and in those of the people around us. No one is insulated from this erratic tide of outburst and regret; it reaches into all of our lives in one way or another.”
How can these stark realities be reconciled with the urgent need for rational policy decisions, in a world that hovers on the edge of economic and environmental disaster? Another quote:
“This book is a guide to making sense of the senselessness… I have been struck by two opposing trends, one portraying a growing calamity in our shared emotional life, the other offering some hopeful remedies.”
Only by building on those hopeful remedies can we take positive steps with a definite plan. This is big, important work, and visionary thinkers like Daniel Goleman are pointing the way to constructive steps that can be taken, both now and in the future.
(updated 8/25/10) Many medical schools, including the one where I teach, use this as the standard neuroscience-survey textbook for both medical and gra...more(updated 8/25/10) Many medical schools, including the one where I teach, use this as the standard neuroscience-survey textbook for both medical and graduate students. It is generally well-written, highly authoritative, and very well-illustrated. There are 3 or 4 other textbooks that are used by some schools for the same purpose; in general, the others are much longer and somewhat more challenging to read.
I would recommend this book as a very good introduction to the field of neuroscience, with coverage of everything from single neurons and synaptic transmission, to brain systems (sensory, motor, limbic/emotional, cognitive), to a smattering of neurology and psychiatric disease.
It will be most useful for those who need or wish to have a working knowledge of brain structure and function, and their relationship to behavior, cognition, and disease. It is not light reading by any means, but it is probably the best combination of concise and comprehensive coverage in this field.
(8/25/10 update) The book includes a password for the downloadable brain-tutoring program, Sylvius 4. This program can be very useful as an adjunct, visual aid to the book. We recommend it to medical and graduate students as another way to learn the material (we also provide a lot of visual aids through the proprietary Blackboard system). I tell students to look at every resource and decide what will work best for them – the goal is to get a sense of the 3-dimensional relationships of the brain structures. Many students (and instructors) use Sylvius 4 extensively, and it is certainly worth taking the time to check it out.
However, for most readers I would recommend the following visual aids for starters – these are more accessible in terms of content, and more user-friendly than Sylvius 4.
For a very useful, cool-graphics version of the human brain, I recommend the free iPhone/iPad app, 3D Brain, by the Dana Foundation and Cold Spring Harbor Lab. You can find it in the iTunes app store, or link to it from here:
Alternatively or in addition, I highly recommend the Cold Spring Harbor website on modern neuroscience, called Genes to Cognition. It includes an online version of 3D Brain, and a wealth of other information in a user-friendly format:
Previous reviews of this book have ranged from high praise to disdain. This diversity of opinion may reflect a broad spectrum of interests, and backgr...morePrevious reviews of this book have ranged from high praise to disdain. This diversity of opinion may reflect a broad spectrum of interests, and background in neuroscience, among the reviewers.
As a career neuroscientist, my view is that the authors have done an excellent job of portraying brain and cognitive function, with a subtle but rigorous depth that professionals can appreciate for their individual areas of interest. For more general readers, there is a clear focus throughout on everyday examples, and these should provide a sense of how brain research is relevant to everyday life.
I will quote and then comment on three examples from the book to show what I mean.
1) Question: “I’m losing my memory. Do I have Alzheimer’s disease?” Short Answer: “If you forget where you put your glasses, that’s normal aging. If you forget that you wear glasses, then you probably have dementia.”
This simple guideline provides a clear sense of what should be expected with age, and what should be a major concern. The section goes on to explain that dementia involves degeneration of specific brain regions (e.g. cortical frontal lobes), has a strong genetic component, and that exercise and pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen can provide significant protection from its onset. All of these statements are based on rigorous, up-to-date neuroscience/neurological research.
2) (from the book’s subtitle) “Forgetting your keys but remembering how to drive”
Question: “In the movie Memento, Leonard has brain damage that leaves him unable to remember what has happened to him just a few moments before”… “Yet he still remembers how to drive a car perfectly well. How can this be?”
Answer (excerpts): “Although we normally think of memory as a single phenomenon, it really has many components… Leonard’s trouble learning about new facts and events” (was caused by damage to) “the temporal lobes at the sides of the brain”… “A skill such as driving a car uses a number of brain regions but does not require the temporal lobe system.”
Elsewhere in the book, the authors list movies that portray neurological syndromes with accuracy (including Memento, A Beautiful Mind and Awakenings), and those that don’t (e.g. Total Recall and 50 First Dates). In the latter, Drew Barrymore “portrays a pattern of memory loss that never occurs in any known neurological condition”.
3) Question: “Do vaccines cause autism? Short Answer (paraphrased): Very unlikely – the primary ‘evidence’ suggesting a causal link came from sloppy studies that did not have adequate (or any) control groups.
On a recent family vacation I was asked this question by at least 5 individuals, while discussing the recent work that my lab has done on an autism model. The idea has been pushed hard by celebrity voices, and a parent whose child is diagnosed with autism will certainly look for answers in the events that preceded the diagnosis. But the authors very carefully explain the rules of evidence in studies that look for cause and effect in such cases. Correlation is not causation – we train all graduate students to understand this. In this instance, one key test would be to compare the number of autism diagnoses that occur just BEFORE vaccination (a legitimate control group) with the number just AFTER vaccination. Such tests provide clear indications that vaccines in current use (some containing trace amounts of a non-toxic form of mercury) are very likely not the culprit.
A careful and detailed discussion of these points can be found here:
The authors draw similar conclusions about the possible roles of environmental contaminants. But there is recent evidence, published since this book went to press (2008), that some environmental contaminants can and likely do increase the incidence of autism. Children living near coal-burning, mercury-emitting power plants are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with autism than those living farther away (a type of control comparison). Many more studies of this type will be needed to fully resolve this important controversy. Indeed, one core premise of the book is that new research findings can dramatically improve our understanding of both neurological syndromes and normal brain function.
The bottom line for all of these examples, and for the book, is that we need to base our ideas about brain function and brain disorders on hard-won facts from careful studies. To do that, we need to know the difference between hard evidence on the one hand, and emotion and ‘myth’ on the other. You can run from the truth, or think of facts as evidence when they really are coincidence, or even fiction. But doing so doesn’t solve the very real and tragic problem of severe disorders like autism. More likely, the confusion of fact and fiction will only make matters worse.
I had the good fortune to discuss Sandra Aamodt’s research with her at a Society for Neurosciences meeting some years ago. She told me that she was taking a job at Nature, one of the top 2 or 3 journals in the world for peer-reviewed, cutting edge science in many fields. Today, Dr. Aamodt is Editor-in-Chief of Nature Neuroscience, a highly prestigious spinoff from the parent journal. As such, she sees an enormous number of cutting-edge manuscripts that are submitted for the journal (most of them are rejected without review, or after peer-review, and published in lesser but still good journals). What this means is that Sandra Aamodt has a critical awareness of the latest and best neuroscience research, to an extent that even most professionals will never achieve.
The take-home message is that this book, co-written by Drs. Aamodt and Sam Wang, is not pop psychology designed to make a quick buck on a marketable idea. It is a precise, closely reasoned discussion of brain function, notwithstanding the studied simplicity of some passages. It is also a readable book that can potentially be enjoyed by a wide audience. Yes, you will need to think carefully to follow the trail – some won’t want to go there, and others already know the path and will prefer more challenging material.
If this is your first read on how the brain works, my advice is to start with any section that interests you from the table of contents. Keep in mind that what you are reading is an accurate portrayal of the state of the art, as current as you are likely to find in a popularized book on science. To me, that makes it a winner.
A very well-written discussion of fascinating and, in some instances, very rare neurological syndromes. Recommended for those who are interested in th...moreA very well-written discussion of fascinating and, in some instances, very rare neurological syndromes. Recommended for those who are interested in the varied and often devastating effects of brain pathology on the human experience and quality of life. Dr. Sacks’ abiding concern for the welfare of his patients, and the long-term emotional trauma that many of them suffer, comes through very clearly in his prose. The depth of his insights into the patients’ mental states is also quite remarkable. With that said, some of the writing is highly technical, and some readers may find that annoying.
My 3-star rating reflects disappointment in the generally ‘black-box’ treatment of brain structures implicated in these cases. I realize that most readers may not want that level of detail. But in these detailed case descriptions, there was an opportunity to help readers understand the intimate connection between brain systems and abnormal behavior. For me, it was a bit like a detailed description of the exotic flavors of a dish, with little or no description of the ingredients. (I should say that I have the original 1985 edition, and there may be more detailed coverage of brain mechanisms in later editions).
Interestingly, Dr. Sacks comments in a recent New Yorker article (thanks to Lars for the reference) that he also suffers from the ‘face-blindness’ (prosopagnosia) that is featured in the title case for this book. I learned from neurosurgeons that neurological signs are present in about 30% of all patients who see primary-care physicians. Thus, case descriptions like these may have a relevance to everyday life that is not often discussed. (less)
We recommend this book to medical students as supplementary material for our case-based studies in neuroanatomy lab. Many of the "teaching cases" pres...moreWe recommend this book to medical students as supplementary material for our case-based studies in neuroanatomy lab. Many of the "teaching cases" presented here (with questions/answers and discussion of each case) are similar to the ones that we cover in the lab and on our practical exam.
The book is well-written, and thorough but not overwhelming in its discussion of individual cases. Like our course, it covers many of the most common neurological syndromes. This approach is somewhat in contrast to books by Oliver Sacks (e.g. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat) and others, where more emphasis is placed on unusual or 'fascinating' symptoms that make for more interesting stories (and higher sales).
Both approaches are useful for understanding normal and abnormal brain functions. But for readers who need to understand their own syndrome, or that of a friend or relative, this is likely the more efficient way to get the needed information.(less)