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See Inside September / October 2011

MIND Reviews: Roundup: Quirks and Quibbles

Being depressed, on the other hand, can give people keener powers of perception and heightened abilities to assess complex or tumultuous situations. in fact, various studies have shown that being bipolar can make people more creative, resilient and in tune with their environment.

Ghaemi details “case studies” wherein he examines respected political figures—such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy—who lived with depression or mania, or both, and argues that these qualities enhanced their leadership skills. Conversely, he asserts that leaders considered mentally healthy do well during times of
peace and prosperity but falter during crises because they lack the practicality or creative thinking skills that leaders with mental disorders often exhibit. Ghaemi offers an anecdote in support of his point: the sane British prime minister Neville Chamberlain thought Adolf Hitler was someone who could be reasoned with, but Churchill saw from the beginning
that the strategy would never work.

On the surface, the theory may seem counterintuitive. But Ghaemi provides exhaustive research and makes a compelling case for his point, which is perhaps best summed up by an aphorism from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the
creatively maladjusted.” —Frank Bures

WEB WORLD

Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn
by Cathy N. Davidson.
Viking Adult, 2011 ($27.95)

Although the Internet has redefined how we access information, many schools and employers still expect their students and staff to behave just as they did 100 years ago, working rigid hours and performing assembly line–like tasks. But digital games, social
media and virtual environments are rewarding our brains differently, forging new ways to learn and do business.

In her new book Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson—a self-identified “student of the Internet”—uses infant language learning to argue that our attention is strongly guided by experience and culture. Eastern and Western babies, for example, differ vastly in the phonemes they recognize at an early age. They each learn to pay attention to distinct sounds, those that elicit a reaction or a reward from their caretakers.

Davidson argues that the Internet has likewise altered where we focus our attention. Boundaries once drawn by physical distance, language or expertise can now be bridged with a backlit screen and a few mouse clicks. Through a series of anecdotes, she asserts that the true trailblazers of this shifting landscape, from small-town teachers to key players
in giant corporations, are those melding skills needed online with those that serve both the classroom and the workplace. It is impossible to pay attention to everything at once, but by collaborating—sharing links on our favorite social media sites or working together in a multiplayer role-playing game—we learn how powerful the wisdom of the group can be.

Although the book provides glimpses of the brain’s inner workings, Now You See It is not for those readers seeking the latest insight into the neuroscience of learning or attention. In fact, most of Davidson’s explanations are oversimplied. But dismissing the book on those grounds alone would be shortsighted.

The book’s purpose and strength are in detailing the important lessons we can glean from the online world. Rather than focusing on how games such as World of Warcraft or the socialnetworking services of Twitter and Facebook change our brains, Davidson believes
we should foster these newfound skills, building curricula around interactive multiplayer games and training workers using virtual environments.

If Davidson is right, 21st-century society will move away from categorizing people based on standardized tests, which are crude measures of intelligence at best. Instead we will dene new metrics, ones that are better aligned with the skills needed to succeed in the shifting
global marketplace. And those who cannot embrace this multidisciplinary world will simply be left behind. —Brian Mossop

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