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An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain Hardcover – May 25, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0743246729 ISBN-10: 0743246721 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (May 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743246721
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743246729
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #876,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Ackerman's latest foray (after Cultivating Delight) is ostensibly about the "crowded chemistry lab" of the human brain, but fans of her writings on the natural world will find many familiar pleasures. All is not pastoral sweetness; every passage on genteel matters like tending her backyard roses has its rougher counterpart, for example, the recollection of a life-threatening accident during a Japanese bird-watching expedition. By grounding the scientific information firmly in her own experience of discovery, Ackerman invites readers to share in her learning and writing processes. The common thread she spies running through the tangible world of the evolving brain and the intangible world of emotion and memory is the "sleight of mind" that provides us with a self-identity through which we experience the world in a unified yet complexly fragmented way. It's no surprise that the section of the book dealing with language should concentrate so intently on metaphors; they cascade down every page like waterfalls. Ackerman's prose is equally sensuous on the literal plane, enabling her to turn an afternoon snack into a lesson on neurochemistry that swiftly dovetails with a discussion of the varying speeds of thought without ever risking distraction. Even brain buffs used to a more detached approach should be won over by her uniquely personal perspective.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Alchemy, Ackerman explains, seeks to turn metal into gold; so does the human mind, albeit more successfully than alchemy, create a “self.” Known as the modern-day poet of the natural world, Ackerman explores nature and human nature from her highly original and literary perspective. Some critics complain that she journeys through well-trodden neuroscience research. Yet there’s no doubt that she spins a highly imaginative and sensory book on the brain’s vast capabilities. That she writes more as a poet than a scientist is perhaps her greatest contribution; still, she often succumbs to pretty but weak metaphors that “give a reader precisely the wrong idea about how nature works” (Washington Post). Yet overall, Alchemy is a lucid, fascinating synthesis of the brain and all it creates.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


More About the Author

Diane Ackerman is the author of two dozen highly-acclaimed works of poetry and nonfiction, including the bestsellers "The Zookeeper's Wife" and "A Natural History of the Senses," and the Pulitzer Prize Finalist, "One Hundred Names for Love."

In her most recent book, "The Human Age: the World Shaped by Us," she confronts the unprecedented fact that the human race is now the single dominant force of change on the whole planet. Humans have "subdued 75 percent of the land surface, concocted a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels, strung lights all across the darkness." Ackerman takes us on an exciting journey to understand this bewildering new reality, introducing us to many of the inspiring people and ideas now creating, and perhaps saving, our future

A note from the author: "I find that writing each book becomes a mystery trip, one filled with mental (and sometimes physical) adventures. The world revealing itself, human nature revealing itself, is seductive and startling, and that's always been fascinating enough to send words down my spine. Please join me on my travels. I'd enjoy the company."

Contact me or follow my posts here: www.dianeackerman.com, @dianesackerman, www.facebook.com/dianeackerman.author



Customer Reviews

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Very few people have the golden ink with which Diane Ackerman is gifted.
Suvro Ghosh
I'm sure the author would agree that this is a very feminine book, meant to be more poetic than scientific.
ROBERT REESE
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about neuroscience or psychology.
Robert G Yokoyama

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Since 1990, when she published "A Natural History of the Senses," Diane Ackerman has continued to explore how intimate human experience defies rational explanation. "A Natural History of Love" appeared in 1994. Next came "Deep Play" (1999), an account of human creativity and our need for transcendence, and "Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden" (2001), about the way gardening elevates our souls. What fascinates Ackerman in these books is the pervasive mystery of nature, despite the increasing depth of our scientific knowledge.
Her approach is to select a topic that is in its essence ineffable, then gather information about it from the worlds of science and evolutionary theory,literature, myth, popular culture and personal experience, and lavish her findings with elaborately worked, poetic prose. Her intention is to say the unsayable. Here, for instance, is Ackerman defining memory in her newest book, " An Alchemy of Mind," which considers the human brain and consciousness from her customarily impressionistic mix of perspectives: "An event is such a little piece of time and space, leaving only a mind glow behind like the tail of a shooting star. For lack of a better word, we call that scintillation memory."
She is a grand, erudite synthesizer, positioning herself at the place where knowledge ends and reporting back to us in the language of lyric. "I believe consciousness is brazenly physical," she tells her readers, "a raucous mirage the brain creates to help us survive. But I also sense the universe is magical, greater than the sum of its parts." This is not the way things sound in neuroscience journals or philosophy of mind papers.
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149 of 166 people found the following review helpful By Paul Pomeroy on May 31, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of my favorite moments in the movie "Contact" is when Jodie Foster's character, overwhelmed by the expanse of multi-colored galaxies she is seeing, says "I had no idea it would be this beautiful, they should have sent a poet" (or words to that effect). I understand this sentiment. I understand that the expressions of science often cast nets over things with so fine a mesh that the aesthetics of human experience cannot pass through. Einstein's "E = mc2" seems far too cold to describe the warmth of the afternoon sun in spring; far too small to express the terrible (awe-full) power of a nuclear explosion.

I began reading Diane Ackerman's "An Alchemy of Mind : The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain" with some vague expectation that what I would find there was a synergy of poetic and scientific descriptions -- perhaps the only synthesis capable of preserving the marvel while unlocking some of the mystery of the human mind. Ackerman wastes no time in establishing her ability to use words. She begins, "Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone..." (page 3). She is abundantly and wonderfully skilled at creating magical combinations from common words and her book is full of deceptively simple observations (such as the playful but profound "The brain is a five-star generalizer." -- page 54) that manage to convey far more than first impressions might indicate.

But she also wastes little time before indicating that her understanding of science is at best inexperienced. She makes references to theories that are not at all widely accepted (from ESP to Julian Jaynes' "...
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Robert G Yokoyama VINE VOICE on June 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I enjoyed reading this book very much. Diane Ackerman takes a complex subject like the human brain and makes it easy to understand. Ackerman begins each chapter with thought prokoking quotes by famous writers, thinkers, and popular movies. My favorite quote in the book is by author Pearl Buck. It is about how people have a need to express themselves creatively. My other favorite quote is from Franz Kafka that says that being happy changes your entire outlook on life.
I loved the way Ackerman explains how the brain works in simple language. I learned that neurons grow new dendritic connections every time a person learns something new or expands on connections that already exists. Neurons communicate with each other by using axons.
There is an interesting chapter in this book that explains the differences between the way men and women think. Women solve problems using both sides of the brain. Men use only the side that specializes in that problem. Men lose more brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes affecting feeling and thinking as they age. Women lose more brain cells in the hippocampus affecting memory as they get older. Ackerman makes an interesting observation that women worry about losing emotional attachments. This is in contrast to men who worry about losing face.
I also learned that human beings share the same motives, feelings and instincts with animals. We all share and seek a need for protection, hunger, status seeking, social contact, sexual desire, and acceptance. I also learned that tool use isn't just limited to monkeys and humans. Crows have the ability to bend wire into a hook to retrieve food in a bucket.
One of the most interesting sections of this book is the one about memory. I learned that the brain does four things to remember.
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