The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life
by Len Fisher. Basic Books, 2009 ($22.95)
Next time you get annoyed when you discover an army of ants marching through your kitchen pantry, think about this: these tiny insects could teach you how to make better decisions in your social, private and professional life. Sounds crazy? Not according to scientist and journalist Len Fisher. In his new book, The Perfect Swarm, he introduces us to the modern science of complexity—how intricate patterns grow out of simple rules. Research shows that such rules underlie the group behaviors of animals, such as bees and locusts, and Fisher explains how we can learn a thing or two from these basic laws.
At the heart of the book lies swarm intelligence, a phenomenon that results when large groups of individuals—be they robots or guppies—behave in the same way, and their collective actions (presumably unbeknownst to the individuals) become intelligent. Ant colonies provide a good example, Fisher says. In search of food, individual ants initially roam an area at random. Yet those animals that happen to be on the fastest route to a food source will return to the nest first. The pheromones they lay down on their trail then allow other ants to use that same route. By the time the remaining pioneers return to the nest, more animals will have already laid down more pheromones on the fastest route, which quickly becomes the predominant one.
When the delivery company UPS wanted to optimize its daily driving routes, it followed the ants’ lead, Fisher says, prompting drivers to learn from one another “in a way similar to ant colony routing.” Using this tactic, a simple pattern emerged—trips were fastest and least accident-prone when they contained as many right turns as possible. According to Fisher, following that rule led to three million gallons of fuel savings for the company in 2006 alone and would result in tremendous savings for every one of us.
Unfortunately, not all of Fisher’s examples are equally interesting, often amounting to little more than common sense. For example, simulations show that when crowds of people try to move through a narrow exit, the exit gets plugged. At other times, the advice Fisher distills from research findings seems impractical in real-life situations. But despite these shortcomings The Perfect Swarm is entertaining and makes an engaging read for anyone interested in learning about the rules that govern our complex lives. —Nicole Branan
KEY BRAIN PLAYERS
The Other Brain: From Dementia to Schizophrenia, How New Discoveries about the Brain Are Revolutionizing Medicine and Science
by R. Douglas Fields.
Simon & Schuster, 2009 ($27)
Few scientists can boast that they have held Albert Einstein’s brain in their hands, but Marian Diamond, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the lucky ones. In the 1980s she analyzed preserved pieces of Einstein’s cortex and compared them with the same brain regions in other adults. Einstein’s neurons were indistinguishable from those in other brains. The only thing extraordinary about his brain came as a shock: it was a veritable explosion of nonneuronal cells called glia, which scientists had never associated with intellect. Einstein had twice as many glia as is normal—an observation that suggests that they may have been responsible for his genius.
This anecdote is one of many relayed in R. Douglas Fields’s new book The Other Brain, whose title refers to the fact that glia—Latin for “glue,” because scientists had assumed the cells simply held neurons together and nourished them—have historically been an afterthought in scientists’ minds. Now Fields, a neuroscientist and senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health (and a member of Scientific American Mind’s board of advisers), is convinced that a glial revolution is under way. Thanks in part to his own research, glia are now being uncovered as critical players in brain development, learning, memory, aging and diseases, including schizophrenia, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.
According to Fields, glia are like a tortoise to the neuron’s hare: they do not communicate via flashy, linear electrical impulses like nerves do but incstead send messages slowly using chemicals that can diffuse broadly throughout the brain, allowing them to influence many regions in complex ways. Fields explains that glia actually control much of what neurons do and, furthermore, that neurons are involved in fewer brain processes than scientists initially thought. “The rapid ‘within an eyeblink’ functions of our nervous system are actually a narrow slice of cognition,” Fields writes. Slower processes— such as emotions, learning and aging—“operate over time scales where glia excel.”
Tackling 300-plus pages about glia may sound like a daunting task, but Fields makes the experience an adventure. The Other Brain reads almost like a mystery: readers start by thinking of glia as witnesses to the various happenings of the brain but then slowly come to realize, through Fields’s colorful anecdotes and descriptions, that they are actually the brain’s primary movers and shakers. Glia have been “hidden in the blind spot of preconceived ideas,” he writes. And now, as scientists learn more about them, “we are glimpsing a far greater universe of brain function than we had ever imagined.” —Melinda Wenner
The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves
by Siri Hustvedt.
Henry Holt, 2010 ($23)
Something strange happened to American novelist Siri Hustvedt when she was delivering a eulogy in honor of her late father a few years ago. As Hustvedt began to speak, wild spasms suddenly gripped her body, making her arms thrash and her knees knock. Bizarrely, even as she flailed uncontrollably, her voice remained calm and confident.
In the neurological memoir The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves, Hustvedt takes us on her personal journey as she tries to unravel reasons for her tremors (which mostly occur while speaking in public) and to explain the mysterious disconnect between her body and mind. Hustvedt’s deeply personal narrative reads at once like a detective novel, a medical history and a scientific critique. Through her own medical mystery, she keeps the reader engaged in the science by drawing connections to fascinating case stories from the medical literature.
Plagued by bouts of shaking, Hustvedt wonders if she could be suffering from repressed grief, performance anxiety or, worse, epilepsy. “Am I looking for a narrative, a confabulation,” she writes, “to interpret a debility that is no more and no less than synaptic wiring and firing?” Filled with apprehension, she decides to see a psychiatrist and a neurologist and to get her brain scanned.
As an intimate witness to Hustvedt’s joys and sorrows at this point, the reader may end up wishing that the shaking will mean something on a personal level; that it’s more than just a physiological hiccup. But in the end, the doctors have no clear answers for Hustvedt, just as she has none for her readers. We are left wondering about the relation between the mental and the physical, between brain science and modern psychology. With the ballooning availability of psychiatric medications to deal with neurological disorders, these connections and questions seem more important than ever. —Frederik Joelving