The Neuroscience of You: How Every Brain Is Different and How to Understand Yours
Writing a book on neuroscience that is decipherable by the average reader is no easy task. Chantel Prat attempts to do so with a personal approach, using herself to illustrate various principles of neuroscience. Asserting that every brain is “differently engineered,” she tells us, “My first memory is of the exact moment I realized that riding my tricycle down the starts was a bad idea.” She says her brain operates at 12 Hz but doesn’t tell us why we need to know. Her daughter’s brain is different from hers. Yet, she is able to know her daughter—who is her best friend—completely.
The author’s focus on herself may be entertaining if reading about neuroscience for the first time, but for readers who are knowledgeable about neuroscience, the boundless—and boundaryless—oversharing is tedious. Near the end of the book, Prat says the reader should know her well enough by now to predict what she is about to say. A more fitting title would be The Neuroscience of Me.
Upon hearing the renowned scientist Steven Pinker say “all normal people have the same physical organs, and . . . we all surely have the same mental organs,” Prat says she thought, “What a bunch of bullshit!” She takes issue with Pinker’s view that “differences among people are of minor interest when we ask how the mind works.” Prat says, “My entire career is based on this area of ‘minor interest.’”
Her view is that we are our brain. Since every brain is different, the differences are our identity.
Though Prat agrees with other neuroscientists that our experiences play a major role in who we are, she insists this is because “every lived experience physically changes the brain.” When she turns to research to support this outlandish claim, she grossly distorted a research study of London taxi drivers. Until recently, they had to commit 25,000 city streets and thousands of places of interest to memory. Prat writes “The brains of London cabbies are different from non-cab-driving humans in ways that reflect their Herculean memory efforts. . . . The part of the brain . . . associated with spatial memory . . . is bigger than average in these taxi drivers.”
Actually, the research showed no increase in the size of spatial memory region, the anterior hippocampus, before or after memorizing the streets. The change, which came later when driving, was the opposite of what Prat asserted. The researchers stated, “The longer taxi drivers navigated in London . . . the more decreased the anterior gray matter volume.”
Prat writes, “If there is one thing I hope you’ll take away . . . it’s this: You are neither an actor in nor the passive observer of your reality. You are the creator of it. In fact, if one were to define your conscious awareness as the movie being projected inside your bubble, your brain would be the projector, the director, the production team, and the audience all in one. . . . We’re constantly faced with incomplete or ambiguous information . . . So we don’t walk around feeling confused . . . your brain simply fills in the blanks. . . . your brain builds a more concrete and complete story than it actually has the data to support. . . . as it produces your experience of reality.”
If ignorance is bliss, naive acceptance of what the brain produces can—until it causes disaster—reduce stress. But a goal-oriented person’s brain self-tests what it produces for accuracy. Psychologists call this reality-testing. Like a London cabbie en route to a destination, a goal-oriented person needs an accurate mental representation of physical reality. When Prat gets on a plane, does she believe the pilots have incomplete navigational information and avoid confusion by filling in the blanks? A brain that “simply fills in the blanks” is not a normal brain, but a pathological one.