My brain is so cool
Welcome to the world of neuroscience self-help books

By Dan Engber

I WORKED ONE summer as a fact-checker on a high school biology textbook. Unfortunately, the chapter on the nervous system began with a statement I found difficult to verify: "The brain is the most complex thing in the world."

Neuroscience books written for adults put this idea in somewhat more concrete terms, but the sentiment remains the same. The brain, they say, contains 100 billion neurons (or 300 billion neurons, or only a billion, or sometimes 100 million – in any case, a big number), and these neurons make as many as a trillion connections to each other (or 100 trillion connections, or maybe a quadrillion). The connections can be strong or weak, temporary or long-lasting; they can shift, disappear, or emerge anew. The brain, in other words, is the most complex thing in the world.

I've heard this sentiment at least 100 billion times, and it always sounds like vanity. When techno-populist Steven Johnson writes in his latest book, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, that "the more you learn about the brain, the more you understand how exquisitely crafted it is ... in those unthinkably interconnected neurons," or when renowned neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio invokes "the sublimity of biology," in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain; indeed, when any work of popular neuroscience inevitably appeals to the stunning complexity of the human brain, it all amounts to the same thing: Hey, that's my brain they're talking about. And it's fucking amazing.

The U.S. government made everybody's favorite topic a national program when Congress designated the 1990s the "Decade of the Brain," and the ballyhooed publication of the human genome in 2001 only raised the stakes. It may be that our current fascination with neurological interconnectedness will one day seem as quaint as the futurists' obsession with speed. But our interest in the brain seems unlikely to flag. What could be more compelling than the study of ... us?

A survey of the most recent crop of neurological nonfiction demonstrates that our excitement about the brain is outstripped only by an overwhelming fear of biological determinism. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley's recent book The Mind and the Brain warns us of a "current paradigm that discounts moral responsibility," while Johnson considers whether "we're taking something magical and reducing it to a crude piece of machinery." The uncontroversial thesis of Gary Marcus's Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought is that nature and nurture aren't really in opposition, or as he puts it, "genes aren't dictators but providers of opportunity." Jean-Pierre Changeux's Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge makes a similar point, as does Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull's The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience, and Richard Restak's The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind. The degree to which all of these books are in accordance on this point – that behavior is influenced but not determined by genetics – and the fact that they were all published in the last year or so suggest nothing less than a coordinated effort to calm the public. Don't worry, these scientists and science writers tell us, we're not entirely controlled by our genes. There's even reasonable scientific evidence to support the notion of free will!

Schwartz and Begley, whose book is subtitled Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, summon Buddhist philosophy and quantum physics to justify a soothing defense of self-determination. On the basis of Schwartz's work treating sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder, the authors conclude that "the exercise of willful effort generates a physical force that has the power to change how the brain works." The success of his treatment program, which includes Four Steps and derives its efficacy from the Quantum Zeno Effect, teaches us that "by harnessing the power of Directed Mental Force we may yet live up to our taxonomic designation and truly become deserving of the name Homo sapiens."

By tying free will to the explosive idea that it's possible to change the structure and function of the mature brain (the notion of "adult neuroplasticity"), Schwartz and Begley tap into a publishing goldmine: the neurological self-help book. An early classic in the genre is Pierce J. Howard's small-press Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research (1994), a straightforward listing of neuroscience research findings and the practical life lessons to be drawn from them. Howard tells us that we must "not insist that creative personalities have perfect mood control," that "homosexuality is not a choice," and that we shouldn't "become a television addict without hobbies or interests," all footnoted with published research papers. Ten years later a new breed of neurological self-help books has emerged from mainstream publishers like Random House and Harper Collins. These make similar claims on the basis of more recent research, especially as it relates to neuroplasticity.

John J. Ratey's User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain explains how "activities actually expand the number and strength of neural connections devoted to a skill." Richard Restak's Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential assures readers that "moment-to-moment actions sculpt the brain's structure and function," and Schwartz and Begley go to great lengths to remind us that self-directed therapy can "literally reprogram your brain."

This is an exciting concept, until you realize how trite it is. In the 1990s new imaging technologies and a focus on plasticity led to many discoveries about how the brain can reorganize itself in adulthood. Training a monkey not to use its fingers, for example, will change the mapping of the "hand area" in that monkey's brain. It's a valuable insight and potentially useful for a wide array of interventions and therapies. But from the perspective of self-improvement, we hardly need evidence of shifting cortical maps to confirm what we already know: that skills improve with practice, and that it's possible to learn new things. The new breed of neurological self-help books tells us we can physically reorganize our brains, as if we needed this knowledge to have any hope in our lives. Once more we find ourselves being rescued from the scarecrow of biological determinism: self-improvement can really happen, and here's how.

There's something refreshing in the simple admonitions to be found in Mozart's Brain ("let the brain just be the brain") and The Dana Guide to Brain Health (staying fit and wearing a bicycle helmet are great ways to protect your mental capital). I'm also glad to know from multiple sources that physical exercise and healthy eating will make my brain more efficient and productive. But the prescriptions in Johnson's Mind Wide Open aren't so simple. He wants to educate us into being better people; he wants to give us facts about the brain "that transform as much as they inform," that "enhance introspection" and create "a new kind of self-awareness" that can "improve brain self-regulation" and "rewrite the language of selfhood." Couldn't we let the brain just be the brain?

Mind Wide Open takes the form of a journey from one lab to another, as Johnson chats with psychologists and neuroscientists, undergoing tests of his mental capacities along the way. The climax of this adventure comes when he finally slides into the brain scanner at Columbia University to see what happens in his writerly mind when his prose is read back to him. Do the splotchy pictures of his brain that result really give him a new kind of self-awareness? His high-spirited, credulous approach is certainly winsome, but the insight he draws (that he has "a well-orchestrated brain") sounds a little hollow. Earlier insights seem no more remarkable, as when Johnson learns why a near-death experience in a thunderstorm led him to be afraid of thunderstorms.

Can we, as readers, find the same enhanced introspection Johnson found after months of research and free rides in multimillion-dollar lab equipment? Mind Wide Open takes a lot of pot shots at Freud, claiming neuroscience leads to concrete self-awareness, while the talking cures of psychoanalysis amount to nothing. But in the end, the simplified models that emerge from Johnson's journey sound only slightly different from the Freudian pop psychology with which we're already so familiar. After all, according to Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel, "psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind that we have."

Like the other neurological self-help books, Mind Wide Open gives us what we already have. It relies on the same rhetoric of hope, astonishment, and awe to make its point. A stirring invocation of the brain's complexity yields to wonder at its powers for change. And of course, our brains remain comfortably at the center of the universe. Who's going to argue with that?

Dan Engber is a freelance writer and neuroscience graduate student who lives in San Francisco.

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
By Steven Johnson. Scribner, 274 pages, $25.

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
By Antonio Damasio. Harvest Books, 368 pages, $15 (paper).

The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force
By Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley. Regan Books, 432 pages, $14.95 (paper).

The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought
By Gary Marcus. Basic Books, 240 pages, $26.

The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge
By Jean-Pierre Changeux, translated by M. B. DeBevoise. Belknap Press, 336 pages, $45.

The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience
By Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull. Other Press, 352 pages, $21 (paper).

The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind
By Richard Restak, M.D. Rodale Books, 240 pages, $14.95 (paper).

The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research, 2nd edition
By Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D. Bard Press, 832 pages, $29.95 (paper).

A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain
By John J. Ratey, M.D. Vintage, 416 pages, $14.95 (paper).

Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential
By Richard Restak, M.D. Three Rivers Press, 224 pages, $12 (paper).

The Dana Guide to Brain Health
Edited by Floyd E. Bloom, M.D., M. Flint Beal, M.D., and David J. Kupfer, M.D. Free Press, 768 pages, $45.


April 28, 2004