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Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality Hardcover – February 22, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The contours of the human soul emerge from the scamperings of mutant rodents in this sprightly exposition of the biological roots of behavior. Science journalist Holmes (The Well-Dressed Ape) tours neurology and psychology labs the world over where genetically engineered mice, rats, and voles explore mazes; survive shocks, dunkings, and being hung upside down by their tails; get hooked on cocaine and have their brains probed for chemicals. Amid their ordeals, Holmes contends, they display rudimentary, pint-sized versions of human personality traits like anxiety, cheerfulness, altruism, self-discipline, and even artsiness. Holmes links their travails to deft explorations of the latest research into human psychology and makes insightful firsthand observations of specific personalities, from her own shy neuroticism to her husband's impulsive extroversion and scientists' quivering dread of animal rights "terrorists." The author's take is relentlessly mechanistic: personality, in her view, is largely the product of genes, governed by the involuntary action of hormones and neurotransmitters, and explained by potted speculations about evolutionary advantages that are interesting if not always convincing. Fortunately, her tart reductionism ("Spark, schmark!... Humans have no more sacred spark in our personality than squirrels do") is softened by sympathetic reportage and whimsical humor. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

In this lively guide to how the brain works, nonscientist Holmes explains how biology can provide significant clues about why people feel and act as they do. She starts by explaining how four decades ago, military psychologists came up with five main personality factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Accordingly, she organizes her book in five sections. Presumably because she is simply a curious regular person, not a scientist, Holmes lays out technical information in an engaging, understandable way. Have trouble remembering what the prefrontal cortex does? Holmes explains that it�s the �CEO� of the brain. Not sure why some people get attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? Holmes theorizes that ADHD helped hunters who needed to �hyperfocus.� One note: the book offers many short personality checklists. --Karen Springen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (February 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400068401
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068401
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #963,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author
Hannah Holmes is a cheeky science writer whose expertise lies in the conversion of molehills to mountains. Bending her curiosity on the overlooked and the unassuming, she discovers the enormous miracles that nature and science have wrought in every living thing - and in unliving things, as well. She has written extensively for the Discovery Channel Online and dozens of national magazines; and has authored four books: The Secret Life of Dust; Suburban Safari; The Well Dressed Ape; and most recently Quirk, a gleeful examination of the evolution of personality in mouse and humankind.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By MW on February 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Through her brainy, fascinating, accessible body of work, Hannah Holmes has changed the way I think--about my fellow humans, the planet we live on, the critters we kill and/or befriend, and my own human-animal self. Her voice is so warm and witty--and often hilarious--that you can almost forget how much you're learning. I highly recommend this new one, which explains human personality in terms of evolutionary biology and brain science. It might even help you be more patient with your neurotic cousin Jane, your obnoxious grandpa, or your super-organized little sister. Not to mention your own conscientious/anxious/extraverted/open/fraidycat/thrill-seeking [pick one] self. Who knew that science could get your pulse racing? QUIRK will make you feel smarter, better informed, and less alone. A++++
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By C. P. Anderson on September 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a great topic. It's basically the Five Factor personality model meets brain science meets evolutionary psychology. If you're not already familiar with all that ...

The Five Factor model (also called the Big 5, OCEAN, and CANOE) is a way to parse out each individual's personality. Different factors include open-mindedness, conscientiousness (AKA orderliness), extroversion, agreeableness (AKA accommodation), and neuroticism (i.e., as opposed to Emotional Stability). It's kind of like Myers-Briggs, if you're familiar with that. The good thing about the Five Factor model, though, is that a lot of research went into it. It's typically recognized as THE model for serious research.

Neuroscience means fMRI images and experimenting on mice to see which chemicals affect which parts of the brain to produce what behaviors, attitudes, and - finally - personality traits.

Evolutionary psychology posits that some of the ways we behave and think and feel were selected through evolution. For example, humans evolved in an environment of limited nutritional choices. That's why we crave sweets, fats, and salt. While that was effective hundred of thousands of years ago, when these things were scarce in the natural environment, it's very unhealthy and counter-productive today, when these things are cheap and available everywhere.

So, why three stars? It's less the topic (which I love) and more the style. I generally like books like this, books that take something pretty complex and boil them down a little and present them in an accessible way that the average reader can appreciate. Probably the prime example here is someone like a Malcolm Gladwell.

Holmes attempts something similar. For me, though, she goes a little overboard.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Holly on March 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am loving this book! Hannah's descriptive, conversational and narrative writing style keeps it funny and interesting while she breaks down and explains things like brain chemistry and scientific stuff which I might shy away from if presented in a 'dryer' manner. She breaks down personality into 5 basic factors: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness, each with it's own facets. Each facet 'chapter' starts with a simple 3 question quiz which gives you an idea where you fall in the scale and then goes on to explain how this trait works as part of personality and why it might be useful from an evolutionary perspective.

In one section she asks "Imagine you're on an airplane that crashes in the jungle (no injuries, of course.) Who do you want to hang out with? the Neurotics who stay near the familiar airplane licking salt out of the empty pretzel bags? Or the impulsives who venture forth, picking strange fruit and taking that first bite? Do you want to hitch your fate to the guy who has the discipline to start a fire by grinding one damp stick against a damp piece of wood? Or would you rather follow the one who seems to notice every creak, snuffle, and snort in the forest?"

Who knew a book about brain-science could be fun, funny, smart and really engaging all at the same time?
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By C. Watson on May 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Hannah Holmes' broad overview of the biology of personality makes for a quick and interesting read for the layperson. What you get here is a simple, somewhat fun, and dare I say it "quirky" glimpse into how brain structures and neurotransmitters such as Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Vasopressin function to affect who we are and how we act.

Not being a scientist myself, I can't vouch for the depth of her research, and I would certainly recommend double-checking statements she writes here with a more learned source before accepting them as solid facts, but at least she's honest about when she's speculating. In fact she even goes as far as to call herself out on some of the "coffee shop hyptotheses" she's drawing. Regardless, her conclusions do seem irrestitably logical and fairly grounded in research. You probably wouldn't want to use this book as a textbook for a masters degree in neuroscience, but as a layperson you could certainly do worse.

Stylistically she's a fun writer - short sentences and simple down-to-earth language make you feel more like you are chatting with a friend at the watercooler than learning about brain chemistry - and the book is nicely structured too, moving through a variety of common personality traits one by one and discussing what researchers are learning about each. She moves from the behavior of research rodents to the behavior of humans deftly but skeptically, and she follows each personality trait with a sensible speculation of how it may have evolved.

Overall, this book was a very worthwhile read. I zipped through it in a matter of a couple of days and felt somewhat enlightened about the actions of my friends and coworkers in the days that followed. If there's one valuable lesson to take from the book, it's perhaps that empathy for all types of personality traits - positive or negative - is warranted, because we're all at least in part slaves to the biology of our brains.
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