The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human
by V. S. Ramachandran. W. W. Norton,
2011 ($26.95)

While giving a lecture at a hospital in Chennai, India, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran met a young man with a strange problem.

“What brings you to our hospital?” asked Ramachandran, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego.

“I am a corpse—I can smell the stench of rotting flesh,” the young man replied.

“Are you saying you are dead?” Ramachandran pressed.

“Yes. I don't exist,” the man confirmed.

After performing an EEG—which measures and records the electrical activity of the brain—Ramachandran concluded the man must be suffering from Cotard syndrome or “walking corpse syndrome,” a rare neuropsychiatric disorder in which people hold the delusional belief that they are dead.

Cotard syndrome is one of many unusual mental afflictions Ramachandran discusses in his new book, The Tell-Tale Brain. He also looks at Capgras syndrome (when a person believes those around him have been replaced by imposters), apraxia (when a person cannot mimic simple gestures), and telephone syndrome (when a person is comatose but can somehow converse on the phone).

Gleaning insights from these rare and intriguing neurological disorders, Ramachandran reveals how the human brain has evolved unique functions that separate us from other primates. He proposes that around 150,000 years ago our brain started to change, allowing us to learn to perform new tasks. “All the same old parts were there,” he writes, “but they started working together in ways that were far more than the sum of their parts,” giving humans distinctive traits, such as language, empathy and morality.

Take mirror neurons, nerve cells that are activated when we perform an action or when we observe someone else performing an action. These neurons appear to help animals and humans imitate the behaviors they observe. Ramachandran theorizes that this sophisticated system of mirror neurons not only evolved to create awareness of others but also brought about self-awareness in humans. He fittingly dubbed these neurons “empathy neurons.” Based on this theory, he suggests that Cotard syndrome may result from damage to mirror neuron circuits, causing a person to lose that self-awareness.

Such bold leaps may make some scientists uneasy, but they are also what make Ramachandran so provocative and his book such an entertaining read. —Frank Bures


What Is Mental Illness?
by Richard J. McNally. Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 2011 ($27.95)

When a breakup is one-sided, the rejected party's behavior and mental state often change dramatically. A veil falls upon the world. Sleep becomes elusive. Food and sex are suddenly strangers to pleasure. Concentration dwindles to a rare resource. Intrusive memories and spiraling pessimism worm their way into every moment of consciousness.

These changes are an expected response to loss. Sometimes, however, they are also symptoms of major depression. In his new book, What Is Mental Illness?, experimental psychopathologist Richard J. McNally explores how to identify the line that separates an appropriate response to loss from a dysfunctional one. In other words, how do we distinguish mental distress from mental disorder? “There is a fuzzy boundary, but mental illness has properties that mental distress does not have,” McNally says.

Although McNally asks a direct and important question, he never gives a straightforward answer. Instead of clearly outlining exactly how mental illness and mental distress differ, he swims through eight chapters in which he tries to answer a series of new and daunting questions. For instance, the chapter “Are We Pathologizing Everyday Life?” asks whether we misdiagnose our reactions to stressful events, such as going through a breakup or getting a speeding ticket, as more grave than they actually are. And in the chapter “Is It in Our Genes?” McNally tries to parse out to what extent our biology dictates our mental health. When we arrive at the final chapter, “So What Is Mental Illness Anyway?” we can only conclude that the most succinct and accurate response is, “Well, it depends.”

In the end, that is actually McNally's main point. Understanding mental illness requires context, and when making a diagnosis, we cannot simply tick off criteria on a checklist. We need to consider the symptoms and the causes as well as our biology, genes and culture.

If you are looking for definitive answers to complex questions, this is not the book for you. If you want to delve into the complexities of mental illness, however, then join McNally in grappling with some of the toughest issues facing psychology today. —Ferris Jabr


Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books,
2010 ($26.95)

Protecting our ideas from others may mean they never see the light, according to Steven Johnson in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From. By sharing these thoughts, however, we can connect with our peers and contribute to powerful networks that “shape the flow of information and inspiration.” Take the invention of GPS. This handy navigation system was originally invented because scientists were trying to determine the precise location of the Russian satellite Sputnik at any moment as it traveled.

Johnson argues that although we tend to think that good ideas emerge from our mental prowess, our environment provides an equally crucial influence. If we isolate ourselves from the intellectual influence of others, good ideas rarely develop. Johnson illustrates this point by discussing research by psychologist Kevin Dunbar, who studied how scientists work in the laboratory. Dunbar set up cameras to watch and listen in and found that the most important ideas were not generated by individuals but by groups of scientists who exchanged information in lab meetings.

Johnson also tells us that eureka moments are rare. The best new ideas develop by gradually adding bits of complexity to older ideas. For instance, the Web has become increasingly complex since it was invented 20 years ago. From just a few thousand Web sites, the network has ballooned to more than 100 million sites with 25 billion pages of information.

Sometimes, however, ideas can be too advanced for their time. Charles Babbage, for instance, spent 30 years developing the Difference Engine, which 100 years later would become the basis for the modern computer. The problem, Johnson tells us, is that Babbage had envisioned a tremendously complex machine in the middle of the steam-powered age. He had no one to share and combine ideas with, which, according to Johnson, stalled the birth of his innovation.

Johnson successfully synthesizes the main point of this book when he likens ideas to neurons in the brain. A single neuron firing alone produces nothing. It is when thousands of neurons fire in sync that an idea is born. —David DiSalvo