An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

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Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can. In addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of...
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An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

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Overview

Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can. In addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of identify.
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Editorial Reviews

Marina Warner
The brain is the protagonist of the story [Ackerman] tells, full of moods and vagaries, plots and dangers, mischief and virtue; it has associates and relations among species from crystals to crocodiles; its past is murky and yet colorful, and its activities are all-absorbing. The author revels in some of them, in list-making, pattern-building, word association and grappling with sense.
— The New York Times
Carl Zimmer
Ackerman knows that poetry and fiction are full of profound insights into the workings of the mind. She knows how to pluck a passage out of Proust, Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf to illustrate a point. In some cases she chooses instead to lyrically recall an experience of her own (such as her personal experience with the blending of sensation known as synesthesia).
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Ackerman's latest foray (after Cultivating Delight) is ostensibly about the "crowded chemistry lab" of the human brain, but fans of her writings on the natural world will find many familiar pleasures. All is not pastoral sweetness; every passage on genteel matters like tending her backyard roses has its rougher counterpart, for example, the recollection of a life-threatening accident during a Japanese bird-watching expedition. By grounding the scientific information firmly in her own experience of discovery, Ackerman invites readers to share in her learning and writing processes. The common thread she spies running through the tangible world of the evolving brain and the intangible world of emotion and memory is the "sleight of mind" that provides us with a self-identity through which we experience the world in a unified yet complexly fragmented way. It's no surprise that the section of the book dealing with language should concentrate so intently on metaphors; they cascade down every page like waterfalls. Ackerman's prose is equally sensuous on the literal plane, enabling her to turn an afternoon snack into a lesson on neurochemistry that swiftly dovetails with a discussion of the varying speeds of thought without ever risking distraction. Even brain buffs used to a more detached approach should be won over by her uniquely personal perspective. Agent, Virginia Barber. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Poet/naturalist Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) brings her poetic vision to various aspects of the human mind. The result is a series of brief yet colorful essays on such phenomena as imagination, memory, dreams, consciousness, and our sense of self, personality, language, emotion, happiness, and metaphor. Far from a traditional guide to brain anatomy and physiology, this book is rather a way of looking at our extraordinary human mind through the eyes of an artist. Ackerman skillfully blends data from current scientific research with her own considerable experiences as a pilot, a fearless birder, a synesthete, and so on. In her ability to dazzle us with the richness of her use of language, she occasionally sacrifices clarity; ambiguous pronoun references, for example, may confuse the reader. But in the best of her essays (e.g., the paean to Shakespeare's brain), Ackerman is eloquent. Recommended for Ackerman fans in public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/04.]-Laurie Bartolini, Illinois State Lib., Springfield Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A search for how the brain works, and where it ends and the mind begins. It must be tough for Ackerman (Cultivating Delight, 2001, etc.) to get through the day, enraptured as she is by the buzzing synethesia of sight, sound, and smell around her all the time. Fortunately, she writes quite well about the sheer wonder of being and manages to pose a few meaningful questions about it along the way. She tackles a fairly massive subject, the brain, but she manages to break the quest down into some basic categories of inquiry. "Why We Ask ‘Why'?" and " ‘Hello,' He Lied" are typical chapter headings in a work divided between sections discussing evolution, the physical brain, memory, the self ("and other fictions"), emotions, language, and the world we share. As she wrangles with the subject of memory, how it's gained, lost, and used, Ackerman folds some particularly interesting research into her narratives, especially when she gets into the area of shared or false memories and the fact that people are more likely to remember things they have talked about. Although she comes down pretty squarely in the middle on the nature/nurture divide, the author does cite some intriguing studies about how predetermined our lives are; one looked at a group of nuns and discovered that you could pretty well predict which of them would develop Alzheimer's later in life simply by studying their writing styles. Ackerman has a tendency to wander, dazed and marveling, through the gardens of her own reckoning, and this is at once her greatest strength and besetting weakness. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and most readers will quickly be engaged by her fascination with the brain, "that mouse-gray parliament of cells,"but occasionally her reveries can seem like extended diary entries, or plain old wheel-spinning. A playful, rewarding jaunt through the brain's chemical realities and emotional intangibles. Agent: Virginia Barber/William Morris
From the Publisher
"Ackerman [is] our poetic chronicler of the natural world."
Chicago Tribune

"[A] lovely...arresting...discourse on brain science."
Entertainment Weekly

"Partly close observation, partly free association, Ackerman's paean turns the inside of our heads into...[something] gorgeous, tender, jewelled."
The New York Times Book Review

"A love song to the brain...combines flights of lyricism and autobiographical reflection with a cooler, more cerebral amalgam of science, anthropology, psychology, history, and literature."
— Francine Prose, More magazine

"Evocative and meaningful."
— Carl Zimmer, The Washington Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743246729
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/8/2004
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman is a naturalist and poet and the author of ten books of literary nonfiction, including A Natural History of the Senses, A Natural History of Love, and Cultivating Delight. Also the author of six volumes of poetry and several nonfiction children's books, she contributes to The New York Times, Discover, National Geographic, Parade, and many other publications. Ackerman lives in Ithaca, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 13: What Is a Memory?

What sort of future is coming up from behind I don't really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.

-- Robert M. Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Like tiny islands on the horizon, they can vanish in rough seas. Even in calm weather, their coral gradually erodes, pickled by salt and heat. Yet they form the shoals of a life. Some offer safe lagoons and murmuring trees. Others crawl with pirates and reptiles. Together, they connect a self with the mainland and society. Plot their trail and a mercurial past becomes visible.

Memories feel geological in their repose, solid and true, the bedrock of consciousness. They may include knowing that it's hard to lead a cow down steps, or how the indri-indri of Madagascar got its name, or the time you accidentally grabbed a strange man's hand in a crowd (thinking it was your friend's), or how you felt hitting a home run in Little League, or your first car (a used VW that rattled like an old dinette set), or a grisly murder you just read about that made you rethink capital punishment, or an unconscious detailed operating guide to the body that manages each cell's tiny factory.

Memories inform our actions, keep us company, and give us our noisy, ever-chattering sense of self. Because we're moody giants, every day we subtly revise who we think we are. Part of the android's tragedy in the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner is that he possesses a long, self-defining chain of memories. Though ruthless and lacking empathy, and technically not a person, he can remember. Played by Rutger Hauer, he contains a self who witnessed marvels on Earth and Mars and fears losing his unique mental jazz in death.

Without memories we wouldn't know who we are, how we once were, who we'd like to be in the memorable future. We are the sum of our memories. They provide a continuous private sense of one's self. Change your memory and you change your identity. Then shouldn't we try to bank good memories, ones that will define us as we wish to be? I'm surprised by how many people do just that. Even tour companies advertise: "Bring home wonderful memories." Here we are, a happy family taking a Disney cruise, documented on film. But memory isn't like a camcorder, computer, or storage bin. It's more restless, more creative, and it's not one of anything. Each memory is a plural event, an ensemble of synchronized neurons, some side by side, others relatively far apart.

Everyone will always remember where they were on September 11, 2001, or when men first walked on the moon. Shared memories bind us to loved ones, neighbors, our contemporaries. The sort of memory I'm talking about now isn't essential for survival, and yet it pleases us, it enriches everyday life. So couples relive romantic memories, families watch home movies, and friends "catch up" with each other, as if they've lagged behind on a trail. Sifting memory for saliences to report, they reveal how vital pieces of their identity have changed. Aging, we tailor memories to fit our evolving silhouette, and as life's vocabulary changes, memories change to fathom the new order. Lose your memory, and you may drift in an alien world.

Mind you, memories are kidnappable. Radio, television, and the print media purvey shared national memories that can usurp a personal past. All the why's can change. A world of artificial memory, as the British neuroscientist Steven Rose points out, "means that whereas all living species have a past, only humans have a history." And, at that, it tends to be the history of the well to do. Thanks to the compound eye of the media, millions of people are spoon-fed the same images, slogans, history, myths. What happens to individual memories then? Some rebels refuse that programming, or they prefer their own group's ideologies. But most people do adopt values and interpretations of events from the media, their neighbors, or a favorite tyrant. Official history changes with each era's values, which can sometimes be perverse, what Jung described as a large-scale psychic ailment. "An epoch," he said, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, "is like an individual; it has its own limitations of conscious outlook, and therefore requires a compensatory adjustment...that which everyone blindly craves and expects -- whether this attainment results in good or evil, the healing of an epoch or its destruction." Still, though no one is an island, most are peninsulas. Our lives wouldn't make sense without personal memories pinned like butterflies against the velvet backdrop of social history.

Scientists sometimes talk about "flashbulb" memories so intense they instantly brand the mind. Photography provided something different: push-button memories that revolutionized our sense of self and family, which we often remember in eye-gulps, as snapshots. Walt Whitman, in his journals, jotted down the name of each of his lovers and sometimes what they did for a living, as though he might one day forget his moments of loving and being loved. But I think he would have preferred photographs of those dear ones to help recall the liquid mosaic of each face.

Picture yourself younger, and what image forms? Most likely it's a static image, a snapshot someone took. Memories can pile up and become mind clutter; it's easier to store them in albums. We remember our poses. Each photograph is a magic lamp rubbed by the mind. When we're in the mood, we can savor a photograph while sensations burst free. Right now, for example, I'm holding a photograph of a pungent king penguin rookery in Antarctica, and I remember the noisy clamor like a combination of harmonica and oncoming train. I remember how inhaling glacial cold felt like pulling a scarf through my nostrils. I remember that, in such thin air, glare became a color.

Whenever we look at a photo, we add nuances, and that inevitably edits it. It may pale. It may acquire a thick lacquer of emotion. The next sentence may sound a little bizarre because English grammar isn't congenial to time mirages, however: photographs tell us who we now think we once were. Photography, like most art, stores moments of heightened emotion and awareness like small pieces of neutron star. Years later, a memory's color-rodeo may have faded, or may remain vivid enough to make the pulse buck again. Each response adds another layer until the memory is encrusted with new feelings, below which the original event evaporates. Imagine a jeweled knife. First you change the handle, then you change the blade. Is it the same knife?

We tend to think of memories as monuments we once forged and may find intact beneath the weedy growth of years. But, in a real sense, memories are tied to and describe the present. Formed in an idiosyncratic way when they happened, they're also true to the moment of recall, including how you feel, all you've experienced, and new values, passions, and vulnerability. One never steps into the same stream of consciousness twice. All the mischief and mayhem of a life influences how one restyles a memory.

A memory is more atmospheric than accurate, more an evolving fiction than a sacred text. And thank heavens. If rude, shameful, or brutal memories can't be expunged, they can at least be diluted. So is nothing permanent and fixed in life? By definition life is a fickle noun, an event in progress. Still, we cling to philosophical railings, religious icons, pillars of belief. We forget on purpose that Earth is rolling at 1,000 miles an hour, and, at the same time, falling elliptically around our sun, while the sun is swinging through the Milky Way, and the Milky Way migrating along with countless other galaxies in a universe about 13.7 billion years old. An event is such a little piece of time and space, leaving only a mindglow behind like the tail of a shooting star. For lack of a better word, we call that scintillation memory.

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Table of Contents

Ch 1 The enchanted loom : imagining the brain 3
Ch 2 This island earth : evolution; the world's tiniest reptile; our brain and other animals' 7
Ch 3 Why ask "why?" : what happens in the right brain vs. the left brain; why we're driven to tell stories 12
Ch 4 The fibs of being : consciousness; some definitions and theories 19
Ch 5 Light breaks where no sun shines : the unconscious; how it collaborates with the conscious mind 28
Ch 6 The shape of thought : neurons, dendrites, axons; how all the parts speak to each other 37
Ch 7 Inner space : synapses, the plasticity of the brain; how we influence brain development; medication and the brain 41
Ch 8 Attention please : how we unconsciously choose what to pay attention to; multitasking; absentmindedness 47
Ch 9 A passion for patterns : how our brain quests for meaning in what it senses 54
Ch 10 In the church of pines : the spiritual brain 60
Ch 11 Einstein's brain : what happened to it? was it different? 63
Ch 12 The mind's eye : the brain's ability to imagine/see things that aren't in view at the time 66
Ch 13 What is a memory? : the importance of memory to who we are; how memories are formed; how they're influenced 75
Ch 14 Reflections in a gazing ball : how memories are recalled; association of pain and memory; unconscious memory 79
Ch 15 Remember what? : what happens when we learn; words on the tip of the tongue; Alzheimer's and the aging brain; IQ; short-term vs. long-term memory; how memories affect the present 84
Ch 16 Remember, I dream : the role of dreams in memory 97
Ch 17 "Hello," he lied : true and false memories; subliminally influencing thought and memory 100
Ch 18 Traumatic memories : how they're stored and recalled; connections between emotions and memory 105
Ch 19 Smell, memory, and the erotic : Proust; perfume; love 111
Ch 20 Introducing the self : how we think of ourself; the multiple facets of a self 121
Ch 21 The other self : body and mind; immune system and brain; brain damage and loss of self 127
Ch 22 Personality : nature vs. nurture; genetics and experience; development as babies 131
Ch 23 "Shall it be male or female? say the cells : male and female brains; if they work differently; how they're shaped; how traits get passed on 151
Ch 24 Creating minds : artistic minds, mathematical minds - inherited, cultivated; how they differ; synthesia 159
Ch 25 The emotional climate : anger, stress, adrenaline, how they affect and are relieved by the brain; our brain isn't made for the modern world; fear, painful thoughts 173
Ch 26 The pursuit of happiness : happiness as hereditary and achieved; the difference in the brain between natural and forced laughter; optimistic and pessimistic brains 188
Ch 27 Memory's accomplice : language acquisition, use, and nonverbal thinking 201
Ch 28 Metaphors be with you : how words organize experience 210
Ch 29 The color of saying : the origin of words; how we reveal ourselves through words; the brain finding relations among things 218
Ch 30 Shakespeare on the brain : how Shakespeare's brain was different 221
Ch 31 Oasis : evolution of life; how our brain came to be 231
Ch 32 Conscious and consciousness : are we the only conscious animals? some theories about consciousness 235
Ch 33 A kingdom of neighbors : animal minds 241
Ch 34 The beautiful captive : imagining the brain; brain research; celebration of the uniquely human brain 250
Alchemical symbols 259
Notes, addenda, and afterthoughts 261
Selected bibliography 281
Acknowledgments 287
Index 289
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2007

    A reviewer

    I loved this book. The poetic descriptions along side the information for me was fascinating.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2006

    Deserving of Contemplation

    I found this foray into the inner workings of the human mind to be both lyrical and technical in style. Though it had moments of pretentiousness, it was an intriguing read on the whole.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 9, 2008

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