In Seven and a half Lessons about the Brain, renowned neuroscientist Lisa Feldman demystifies the brain. As the title states, through 7 and a half lessons, or short essays, she crafts a narrative explaining amongst other things, how our brains evolved, how they work (on their own and with other brains around them) and how they create the reality we perceive.
The brain is such a complex topic, and the beauty of this book is how Lisa Feldman has successfully managed to get across years of research and studies in a book that is easy to read and absorb, and one that doesn’t take a neuroscientist to understand. The essays can be read in any order, although she recommends following the journey from half through to seven.
The book is filled with many wonderful insights and was surprisingly, a light read. To give you an idea of what you can expect to find inside, and in keeping with the theme of the book, I’m sharing seven thoughts, quotes, ideas and lessons that got me tagging.
#1 (easily my favourite)
You can think about energy efficiency like a budget. A financial budget tracks money as it’s earned and spent. A budget for your body similarly tracks resources like water, salt, and glucose as you gain and lose them. Each action that spends resources, such as swimming or running, is like a withdrawal from your account. Actions that replenish your resources, such as eating and sleeping, are like deposits.
A brain doesn’t store memories like files in a computer – it reconstructs them on demand with electricity and swirling chemicals. We call this process remembering but it’s really assembling.
Metaphors are wonderful for explaining complex topics in simple, familiar terms. A metaphor’s simplicity, however, can become its greatest failing if people treat the metaphor as an explanation.
It’s important to understand that the human brain doesn’t seem to distinguish between different sources of chronic stress. If your body budget is already depleted by the circumstances of life – like physical illness, financial hardship, hormone surges, or simply not sleeping or exercising enough – your brain becomes more vulnerable to stress of all kinds… when your body budget is continually burdened, momentary stressors pile up, even the kinds that you’d normally bounce back from quickly. It’s like children jumping on a bed. The bed might withstand ten kids bouncing at the same time, but the eleventh one snaps the bed frame.
When you were a baby, you learned to recognize people around you. Your infant brain was tuned and pruned to detect fine differences in their faces so you could tell them apart. But there’s a catch – people tend to live around others of the same ethnicity, so babies are often not exposed to a wide array of facial features. This means that baby’s brain does not tune itself to detect those different features. Scientists think this is one reason why it can be harder for you to remember the faces of people of an ethnicity different from your own or to tell one face from another.
Neuroscientists like to say that your day-to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain. It’s not the kind of hallucination that sends you to the hospital. It’s an everyday kind of hallucination that creates all your experiences and guides all your actions. It’s the normal way that your brain gives meaning to your sense data, and you’re almost always unaware that it’s happening.
Think of the last time you were thirsty and drank a glass of water. Within seconds after draining the last drops, you probably felt less thirsty. This event might seem ordinary, but water actually takes about twenty minutes to reach your bloodstream. Water can’t possibly quench your thirst in a few seconds. So what relieved your thirst? Prediction. As your brain plans and executes the actions that allow you to drink and swallow, it simultaneously anticipates the sensory consequences of gulping water, causing you to feel less thirsty long before the water has any direct effect on your blood.
And well because it’s called seven and a half lessons about the brain, I’ll leave you with half a lesson that although profound on it’s own, was part of a pretty great lesson on changing behaviour. You’re just going to have to pick up the book to find it.
“Sometimes we’re responsible for things not because they’re our fault, but because we’re the only ones who can change them.”
Seven and a Half Lesson About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barret is available here
This book was published by Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan. Neither the publisher nor the Author reviewed or approved this article prior to publishing. Opinions are our own.
Feige is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to code things, design things, and all things beauty.