Monday, October 31, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PIECES OF MIND – 21 Short Walks Around the Human Brain” by Michael C.Corballis (Auckland University Press, $29:99)

You are, I’m sure, familiar with the concept of the bedside book. You pick it up for five or ten minutes before lights out, to soothe your mind or maybe to let you go to sleep with that happy sense that you’ve learnt at least something useful in the day that is ending. Books of bite-sized essays are perfect for this purpose. So Michael Corballis’s Pieces of Mind fits the bill.

This short (100 pages) tome puts together 21 of the columns written for New Zealand Geographic by  Corballis, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

In no particular order, Corballis’s columns  consider some of the basic problems and functions of the brain playfully and with the minimum of jargon.

Does the physical size of the brain determine an animal’s intelligence? Of course not. You have to consider the ratio of brain to body mass, and also the type of brain it is. So the big brains of elephants and blue whales are not more intelligent than human brains and neither are the brains of mice (which are larger in proportion to body size than human brains). Dolphins, however, might give us a run for our money.

Has human bipedalism affected human intelligence? Of course it has. And while we share common ancestry with the chimps and great apes, it seems likely that our tree-dwelling ancestors were already bipedal before the chimps and great apes had evolved.

Corballis delights in considering such vexed questions as handedness (why are approximately 10% of human beings consistently left-handed?), explaining how it is demonstrable that Neanderthals form part of the human genome, and clarifying the phenomenon of prosopagnosia (loss of the ability to recognize faces). Essentially Darwinist in his outlook (however much that term may now be modified), he describes human beings as the “lop-sided apes” because of the hemispherical nature of our brains and the way functions are distributed between the hemispheres. His piece on laughter sees it as a sign of non-aggression common to all primates.

There are some fine demolitions in this little collection.

Corballis has fun with the nonsensical, and totally unscientific, idea that we use “only 10%” of our brain-power, much as this idiotic concept has frequently been used by boosters and motivational speakers. He also demolishes folklore about the rational “left brain” and the creative “right brain”, which is another cliché from life-skills seminars. (I wish he had gone further and shown how vacuous it is to ask men to “get in touch with their feminine side”.)

Some of his demolitions show that even in the world of sober academic psychology, there are fashions that have come and gone. When he deals with the phenomenon of memory, Corballis notes that psychologists now reject Freud’s idea that memories of great trauma are routinely suppressed by the brain. If anything, most people who suffer great trauma recall it vividly. Hence the discrediting of those therapists who, in Corballis’s words “created social mayhem” twenty and thirty years ago with their invention of the “recovered memory”, usually of childhood sexual abuse. As has repeatedly been shown, “recovered memories” tended to be suggestions planted in patients’ brains by the therapists themselves. Corballis doesn’t press the point, but this experience would also tend to discredit much of classic psycho-analysis.

Corballis has his own  pet theories – one being that human language developed first in hand gestures rather than in the power of speech. He can also take on, respectfully, some of his illustrious contemporaries. He disagrees politely with Steven Pinker about the place of music in human evolution and he at least queries Noam Chomsky’s assumption that there is a universal human “grammar”.  When he speaks of the nature of (quasi-musical) tonality in Asian languages, I couldn’t help wondering if this explained why so many New Zealand school orchestras are now dominated by Chinese and Korean kids. When he discusses synaesthesia – the phenomenon of responding to one sensory stimulus in terms of another – I wanted to introduce him to Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances”, which is almost a litany of synaesthesia.

I don’t want to talk up this little book too much. It is a collection of short magazine columns, after all, written to deadline and with strict space limitations.  There is the occasional dud. The piece about swearing is merely a collection of commonplaces that didn’t require Corballis’s expert knowledge.

On the whole, though, Corballis writes with the ease of somebody who is an expert in his field and who knows his readers need some help, but who doesn’t patronise them. He is clearly a materialist who does not see mind as separable from physical brain, and he takes the occasional passing swipe at religious belief, but he doesn’t go raving Dawkins on us.

So it adds up to a good bedside book, probably ruined by being read all together, one piece after another, but perfect for those last ten minutes of daily consciousness.

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