Posted by nliakos on August 15, 2009
by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (Random House 2007)
This is a fascinating book. The authors, a mother and son science-writing team, endeavor (mostly successfully) to make some of the latest developments in neuroscience accessible to the lay reader. It is now well established that everything our bodies do, both inside (circulatory systems, &c) and outside (movement, language, &c) corresponds to “maps” in the various parts of our brains. Poke the map in the right place, and something happens; apply the proper stimulus (movement, touch, graphic image…) and neurons in the corresponding map can be observed to fire.
In the first chapter, the concepts of maps, body schema (your perception of your body), body image (your belief of how your body looks) and body mandala (the network of body maps in the brain) are introduced. The subsequent chapters each take up different aspects and research areas of these, such as how your body image may not correspond to reality (why you still feel fat when you’ve lost excess weight, for example), how mentally rehearsing movements and skills can be almost as effective as actually practicing them (think of athletes’ or musicians’ visualizations), and how what you wear or carry or wield literally becomes an extension of your body, as far as your brain is concerned.
Chapter 9, “Mirror, Mirror: or, Why Yawning is Contagious” was especially interesting to me. It deals with mirror neurons, special brain cells that represent not only one’s own actions but also those of others. These mirror neurons allow us to understand the body language of other people and thus to anticipate what they might do, because their actions are mirrored in templates in our own brains. A dysfunction in these cells is suspected in autism and may also be involved in the inability of people with nonverbal learning disorders to read body language.
Favorite quote: “When you watch dance, your brain dances.” (p. 170)
The webpage for this book is here. It includes excerpts, links to interviews, reviews, and more.
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Posted by nliakos on August 6, 2009
by Tom Friedman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2008
I loved both The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat, so I was looking forward to reading Friedman’s newest book. I found it harder to read than the other two, mainly because it is quite depressing, especially in the first part where he outlines the problems facing us: first and foremost, global warming (which Friedman would prefer to call “global climate disruption” because it sounds less cozy); and this is exacerbated by “petrodictatorships” nourished by our addiction to dirty fossil fuels which are driving global warming, a skyrocketing world population with increasing demands for decreasing energy and other natural resources, “energy poverty” for what we used to call “the third world”, and a skyrocketing loss of biodiversity. The “flat world” described in the previous book refers to the rise of the middle class around the globe, made possible by the internet; this is turn gives rise to the problem of “too many Americans,” which does not refer to the U. S. population but to the many millions, soon to be billions, who aspire to live our lifestyle. Who can blame them? But the Earth is simply not big enough, and we have no place else to go. Reading about this, as well as being reminded of the United States’ ostrich stance in the face of the threat (“We’ll deal with it when we get around to it”), depressed me. I look around my own neighborhood and observe how most of my neighbors turn on their airconditioners without even venturing outside to see if they need them.
But Friedman’s point is that instead of being depressed and pessimistic, we should be seizing the opportunity to do what America does best: innovate and lead by shining example. In Part III, “How We Move Forward,” he provides many examples of how we could do this, but notes that without the government to pass serious legislation and set serious policy, we cannot succeed. He was writing during the last years of the Bush administration; now we are in the first year of the Obama administration, but Obama’s government is hogtied by the economic crisis brought on by the previous administration’s addiction to tax cuts + expensive wars. It’s difficult to see how anything can be accomplished (as I write, healthcare reform is taking a beating) in this atmosphere of partisan politics and looking the other way. Americans want Obama to solve their problems without inconveniencing them. As Friedman points out, 100 (or however many) Easy Ways to Save the Earth won’t cut it without the policies, laws, and regulations that seem impossible to establish.
I hope President Obama has read this book, but even if he has, and even if he wants to do the right thing, I can’t help but think it will be too little, too late. It seems that no one has the power to make it happen.
Friedman’s site is here, with links to reviews and excerpts you can read and listen to.
The Wikipedia entry is incomplete but has many links to audio or video interviews.
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