Bite-sized chunks of brain science don't quite satisfy
New Scientist, 8 April 2014
30-Second Brain: The 50 most mind-blowing ideas in neuroscience is an admirably wide-ranging book, but simplified explanations leave you wanting more
THE brain is a hungry organ: it makes up just 2 per cent of your body weight, but devours 20 per cent of your energy intake. With this in mind, is it possible to think yourself thin?
This is one of the questions posed in 30-Second Brain, edited by neuroscientist Anil Seth from the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. Although each explanation takes just 30 seconds to read, such is the breadth of information that this book could be good exercise for anyone wanting to burn serious calories with their brain.
The whistle-stop tour covers 50 pivotal themes in the development of our knowledge of the brain. These range from its anatomical structure – down to nerve cells and the neurotransmitters that convey messages between them, through the theories and techniques that underpin our current understanding of the brain. Then we move on to juicier aspects to do with the brain in action: perception, for instance, and that elusive state, consciousness.
It's a lot to tackle. Can a reductionist approach to such a complex subject ever do it justice? The book has the same format as others in Icon's 30-Second series, covering each topic in 300 words. Then there are the even more concise "3-second" summaries for a really quick hit, and "3-minute" sections that ask wider questions.
The contributors – all scientists or science writers – certainly do an admirable job of covering this complex subject in easily digestible chunks. To sum up metacognition in a few hundred words is no mean feat.
However, the format soon becomes tiresome and repetitive. The subtitle remains the same on each page, for instance, which feels like a waste of space that could have been used to add a layer of information or intrigue. The graphics are far from "mind-bending", as promised on the back cover. And drastically distilling the content leaves little in the way of wonder about the incredible organ that makes us human, and individual. The result is a kind of textbook lite.
For those who want a well-written overview of a fast-developing topic, the book will provide food for thought. But for many readers of this magazine, these bite-sized morsels may feel unsatisfying.