IN THE ZONES
The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness
by Jeff Warren. Random House, 2007 ($24.95)
Jeff Warren spent several summers planting trees in northern Ontario, during which he frequently experienced something very odd. He would grab his shovel and start digging at 9 A.M., but when he would raise his head the sun would have moved to the other side of the sky and his watch would show 2 P.M.—and he would have no memory of the past five
hours. The phenomenon got him thinking about awareness, and he embarked on a
quest to find out as much as he could about the different versions of what we call consciousness.
He describes his wild journey in The Head Trip, in which he shows that there is a lot more to consciousness than simply being asleep or being awake. Warren introduces 12
distinct states of consciousness, ranging from well-known phenomena, such as the dreams of REM sleep, to more obscure experiences, such as the trance. He attempts to tie
the different states together by likening them to the wedges on a roulette wheel representing the brain, spinning under the power of our biological clocks, but the metaphor
seems arbitrary and does not add any insight to this otherwise stellar book.
Warren’s hilarious writing makes the nearly 400 jam-packed pages a fun and entertaining
read. He defi nes experiences such as “the Zone,” a state that refl ects the “absolute
integration of body and mind.” Athletes reach the Zone by repeating the same motions
until the brain, like the muscles, “performs fluidly.” Besides this alert and responsive “high,” there is also the “numb end of the Zone” that one can arrive at, for example, through hours of planting trees.
Using dozens of interviews with a wide range of scientists, Warren paints a picture of the current scientific understanding that underlies each state. But the real strength of The Head Trip is that Warren gives firsthand accounts of what it means to experience each variant of consciousness. He went to great lengths to understand how the mind changes throughout the day—by living in an isolated cabin for several weeks with no artifi cial light, for example, he arrived at a sleep pattern that some scientists say is the natural preindustrial rhythm. After going to bed at sundown, he would awaken to “the Watch,” a “pleasant meditative state” sandwiched between two bouts of sleep. The Head Trip opens the reader’s eyes to what it really means to wake, sleep and dream; it is “a trip into our own
wheeling heads.” —Nicole Branan
Wish List: The holiday season has arrived—and what better way to celebrate than with brainy gifts?
Winner of a Mensa Select seal, this party game inspires creative and comic wordplay with
a premise as simple as comparing “Apples to Apples.” Players exercise their Broca’s area as they find new ways to connect words and try to convince one another why, for example, describing a cactus as “intelligent” makes perfect sense. www.otb-games.com/showcase/apples.html
Give a brain you love an even more targeted workout with Nintendo’s “Brain Age<sup>2<sup>,” a surprisingly fun variation of the several video games, computer programs and Web sites recently unveiled in response to the ever growing body of research showing the importance of regular mental training. www.brainage.com
For the serious brain enthusiast, an anatomically correct brain model makes a great toy, educational tool or office decoration. Find models suitable for any age, budget and level of expertise at www.anatomysource.com
Human: The Definitive Visual Guide is a neuroscience primer, a showcase of the world’s cultures and an ode to humanity all rolled up into a beautiful coffee table book. Perfect for everyone who loves learning about people, from photography buffs to amateur sociologists. Edited by Robert Winston and Don E. Wilson. DK Adult, 2006 ($24.95)
SciAmMind columnist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s research comes to life in NOVA’s Secrets of the Mind, which focuses on his work with patients who have unusual abilities or defects in their sensory systems. This 2001 documentary remains intriguing and thoughtprovoking, even as it is quickly becoming a classic. www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/mind
DO UNTO OTHERS
The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule
by Donald W. Pfaff. Dana Press, 2007 ($20.95)
By now most people agree that altruism makes sense in evolutionary terms—a selfless act can allow close relatives to pass on the family genes or inspire those who have been helped to return the favor. But an evolutionary rationale is not a neurological explanation. What is going on in our head when we behave altruistically?
Donald W. Pfaff, a neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University, thinks he has the beginnings of the answer. In The Neuroscience of Fair Play he describes the brain pathways that he believes swing into action\ when humans decide to do something selfless.
Part of his explanation is that altruism arises from some of the same neural mechanisms that evolved to make us love and care for our children. As we developed into social animals, some of this nurturing neural circuitry may have been recruited to make us feel good about helping other people as well.
But Pfaff also puts forth a more unusual hypothesis—he thinks that altruism happens because on a neurological level we “blur” our own identity with that of another person.
Empathy and altruism arise, then, because helping others “feels” to our brain like helping ourselves.
This new theory is elegant in that it eliminates the need for complex altruism circuits in the brain. It only requires that existing neural circuits—the ones responsible for sense of self and recognition of others—somehow have to lose a little bit of information at the right time.
Pfaff outlines many possible mechanisms for this blurring of identity. For instance, he points to the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps us recognize and react to fearful
situations and that may also play some role in our recognition of others. Neurons in the amygdala are activated when rats see other rats receiving a painful electric shock.
This confluence makes the amygdala an attractive candidate for what Pfaff calls the “ethical switch,” which determines whether we behave with empathy.
Pfaff admits there is a lot about his ideas still unanswered. He has succeeded, however, in advancing a testable theory that he and other neuroscientists can start to untangle in the lab. If he is right, it could turn out that the Golden Rule isn’t merely a religious teaching. It could be encoded in the very circuitry of our brains. —Kurt Kleiner
BOY IN A SUIT
Today’s Man For local screenings, TV listings and DVD info, visit http://orchardpictures.com
Dressed in a new tan suit, Nicky Gottlieb haphazardly decorates his own 21st birthday cake with his fi ngers. “Physically I’m a man,” he explains in his sister Lizzie Gottlieb’s documentary, Today’s Man. “But mentally and emotionally, I’m a boy.” This boy can list every Easter date in the last century, calls Mr. Rogers his mentor and is socially limited by Asperger’s syndrome. Nicky and other adults affl icted with this high-functioning variant of autism have stumbled through life unable to read others’ feelings and body language, hampered by misdiagnoses and few resources. Only in recent years have professionals begun to recognize the syndrome.
In the film, Lizzie chronicles her brother’s few attempts to live as an adult—he gets fired on his first day in the mailroom at Chase bank and briefly moves into his own apartment, only to return home to his parents and a full schedule of television. Sitting in a sandbox with Lizzie’s two toddler sons, the grown siblings talk candidly about what will become of Nicky when his parents can no longer shave his beard and remind him to wash his hair. When Lizzie wonders what her role will be in this future, the unstated assumption is that someday she will be mothering three boys.
Hope—which is repeatedly crushed in this story—survives at last when Nicky attends a meeting for adults with Asperger’s and strikes up an awkward, endearing exchange with a young woman who also has the syndrome. She may not look like his favorite television star Heather Locklear, but she calls to Nicky’s mind a Mr. Rogers lesson he holds dear: “She doesn’t have to be fancy on the outside; she can be fancy on the inside.” —Corey Binns
STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE
Innovators in Neuroscience Podcast at www.neuroscene.com
Science rarely seems more quirky, controversial or exciting than when a passionate expert is telling the tale. The NeuroScene podcast series provides a forum for these experts to
discuss their ideas and opinions about cutting-edge topics in neuroscience, from the medical benefits of virtual reality to the problems with drug research for Alzheimer’s.
Tune in to relaxed chats between leading scientists and NeuroScene’s founder and host, Stephen Hernan. In candid discussions, guests clearly explain the machinery of the
mind in meaningful contexts such as medicine or health policy. Learn about the blood-brain barrier, for instance, and how its protective job as a largely impenetrable wall creates an obstacle for drugs that could treat brain ailments.
To successfully connect brain processes with daily life, Hernan usually stretches the single-topic podcasts to 20 or 30 minutes. But even if you are an impatient listener, the
conversation will likely touch on at least one issue of personal interest, making it worth your while to stick around. When enthusiastic scientists offer their insights on matters they
care about, it’s hard not to listen. —Peter Sergo