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.
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 ($31.95)
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.
Shereshevskii—whose memory later made him famous as a stage performer—had synesthesia, a condition in which one or more of the senses are inextricably linked. The variations are endless: music has color, words have flavor or numbers appear embedded in a three-dimensional map. People with synesthesia “experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways,” writes author Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex, an expert on the condition, which is thought to affect as many as one in 25 people (many of whom do not realize their perception is unusual).
The Frog Who Croaked Blue reads like a fascinating novella-length essay. Ward is clearly enthralled by the topic, and he has no trouble finding interesting issues to address. He explores synesthesia’s potential causes (most people are born with it, but it can also be triggered by psychoactive drugs such as LSD), how and why the brain mixes the senses, and whether the condition might confer intellectual and even evolutionary benefits, such as a better memory. Between scientific discussions, he interweaves fascinating personal narratives from synesthetes around the world.
The most interesting part of the book, however, has little to do with synesthesia per se. Ward maintains that although smelling colors and hearing shapes may be exceptional, our senses are more closely intertwined than we probably realize. Certain neurons in the brain appear to be multisensory in that they can transmit auditory, visual and tactile information; when two types of stimuli are presented at the same time (when a circle appears on a computer screen at the same time that a beep sounds, for instance), these neurons respond more than twice as strongly to the combination than they do to either event alone.
Although synesthesia might seem alien to those who do not have it—Ward himself admits that he cannot fathom its more bizarre experiences—the bottom line, he says, is that we are all endowed with richly intermingling senses. “Whatever synesthesia tells us, it tells us that our own way of sensing the world is precious,” he writes.
My Three Shrinks
Listen at www.mythreeshrinks.com
You’re dining out when you notice that the rowdy crowd at the next table is having a most unusual conversation—debating the merits of a new antidepressant and chattering about the controversial diagnosis of e-mail-induced obsessive-compulsive disorder. You realize you are overhearing psychiatrists talk about some juicy stuff, and that’s exactly the appeal of the podcast My Three Shrinks. Every couple of weeks the shrinks—Roy, a general- hospital psychiatrist, Dinah, who sees outpatients, and the doctor known only as “ClinkShrink,” who spends her days with troubled inmates—arm themselves with mics, a few bottles of wine and plenty of polemic, and you get to listen in.
A typical recent episode focused on benzodiazepines, a class of depressants used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Roy kicked things off by comparing a prescription of three milligrams of Xanax (alprazolam) a day to a prescription of three beers a day. He explained that both alcohol and Xanax increase the effects of GABA, a chemical messenger in the brain that tells neurons to slow down or stop firing. Dinah and ClinkShrink agreed but argued that three milligrams is equivalent to many more beers than that.
Although the shrinks occasionally fall into shrill bickering or irrelevant tangents, their spirited conversations never fail to untangle the ethics and issues of psychiatric practice—so go ahead and eavesdrop sometime.
In Hollywood scientific accuracy is rarely a priority, but, as with everything, there are exceptions. If psychiatrists could give out Oscars for a day, these films would make the short list for providing authentic glimpses into the mind.
What is it like to have a mental illness? The 1993 drama Clean, Shaven (DSM III Films) tells the story of a schizophrenic named Peter Winter who searches for his adopted-away daughter after leaving a mental institution. Heralded by psychiatrists as the best ever on-screen portrayal of schizophrenia—better even than Universal’s A Beautiful Mind (2001)—the film uses special effects to mimic Winter’s hallucinations, showing the audience how he experiences the world. Another day-in-the-life must-see is 1945’s Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (Paramount), one of the first films to explore the dark side of substance abuse; previous movies had typically made fun of it.
On the more upbeat side, 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite (Access Films) is a comedy about a geeky teenager who becomes immensely popular despite his social awkwardness. Though never mentioned outright, experts say that Napoleon probably has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Finally, few movies portray therapy accurately, but the 1980 film Ordinary People (Paramount) is a gem—some psychologists say it should be used as a teaching tool. Judd Hirsch plays a psychotherapist who helps a suicidal boy deal with the death of his brother and his dysfunctional family.