MIND Reviews: June/July 2008

Reviews and recommendations from the June/July 2008 issue of Scientific American MIND


Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans
Edited by Dan Gordon. Dana Press, 2008 ($19.95)

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.

The discussions on hitting, handedness and neurological enhancement deliver the richest and most baseball-specific material. For instance, in half a second a hitter must
see, evaluate, decide and swing. Yet in a technical sense, the required reaction-time-plusswing-time actually takes longer than half a second. The hitting chapter does not solve this paradox but dives deliciously deep into it. Meanwhile we learn that lefties hit better than righties do because lefties process distant visual information better and their hands are more evenly gifted. In regards to neurological enhancement—using various steroids, stimulants, sedatives and hormones—bioethicist Bennett Foddy contributes one of the most original and provocative considerations I have yet read. He even includes that cheap, ubiquitous and reliable modulator of neurotransmitters and mood, the ballpark beer.

This is good science writing, deepening our appreciation of the game without cheapening the science. Your Brain on Cubs—sure to fi re up the cognitive-pleasure centers of any baseball or brain enthusiast—gives a nice brain buzz itself.


Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence
by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008 ($26.95)

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.

This article was originally published with the title "Read, Watch, Listen."

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