Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans
Edited by Dan Gordon. Dana Press, 2008
This slim volume on the neuroscience of our national pastime, with different experts penning various chapters, offers an experience much like a good day at the ballpark: perhaps slow in a couple of spots but predictably satisfying in others and ultimately marked by improbable pleasures that come to define the whole experience.
Non-Cubs fans can safely leapfrog the title. Although the book opens and closes with Cubs-specific material—fan loyalty in chapter one, fan ecstasy and agony in chapter seven—even those chapters apply to other teams, too. The five chapters in between examine hitting, which is the hardest feat in all of sportsdom, as well as universals—both in and out of baseball—such as talent and expertise, superstitions and “curses,” neurological performance enhancement and handedness.
Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence
by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008
Humans have excessively huge brains. Relative to our body size, our brain is much larger than that of any of our evolutionary peers. How did it get to the top of the heap? What is it about this organ that allowed us to become the dominant species on earth? And what kind of mental abilities might brains even larger than ours confer? In Big Brain, neuroscientists Gary Lynch of the University of California, Irvine, and Richard Granger of Dartmouth College tackle questions such as these and give a riveting account of how the human brain evolved.
The book’s central hypothesis is the astonishing idea that most of the modern human brain is designed around the sense of smell. In ancient vertebrates the olfactory system stood out from those of the other senses, in which neurons from the sensory input regions—such as skin or eyes—were connected to point-to-point maps in the brain, mirroring locations of the outside world. In contrast, axons carrying olfactory signals delivered them to random regions of the cortex. This unusual architecture served as a template as brains grew larger. Cortical circuits of this “random access” kind now operate not only olfaction but also vision, touch, hearing and the rest of the mental abilities in the mammalian brain.
The authors argue that this architecture ultimately gave rise to abstract thought, mainly because it allowed different senses to be hooked together, such as “the smell of the chocolate-chip cookie and its shape; its taste; the sound when it breaks.” In big-brained creatures these association networks grew, and large brain paths evolved, connecting, for example, areas that process the sounds of words with areas that process the visual shapes of words.
If these association systems expanded beyond their extent in modern humans, they would likely enhance mental abilities even further, Lynch and Granger say. This was the case, they hypothesize, with a few hominids whose skulls were discovered in the South African Boskop region in the early 20th century. The find initially caused excitement because the skulls had large frontal bones, suggesting that they may have belonged to a separate species that had brains larger than those of humans. Lynch and Granger argue that these “Boskops” had fallen into obscurity by midcentury because they did not fit our preconceptions. The consensus among anthropologists, however, is that the skulls simply belonged to modern humans. But the picture the authors paint of a bigger-brained hominid is fascinating nonetheless.
The Frog Who Croaked Blue
by Jamie Ward. Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2008
Russian newspaper reporter Solomon Shereshevskii had gotten himself into trouble. It was the mid-1920s, and he had been assigned to cover an important speech in downtown Moscow but failed to take down a single word of it. His editor was not happy—until Shereshevskii recalled the entire speech word for word, a feat he could perform effortlessly because of the way his senses operated. Every time the reporter heard a word, it triggered certain images, flavors and smells in his mind. The speech was literally embedded in multisensory code.