In this book, scientist Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald reports the latest on fMRI scanners and what they reveal to neuroscientists. The brain, once thought to be fixed and locked in after a certain age, is now known to be plastic and to regenerate. This neuroplasticity can give us great hope for people with injuries, addictions, memory problems, etc.
The journey begins with a British woman who was thought to be in a PVS (persistent vegetative state) but found to be conscious the entire time, but unable to communicate. The book highlights cases of various states, such as a young athlete who had everything a young man could want until after a tragic accident. He has since been left in LIS (locked-in syndrome). People have conceptions that such people would want to die, but most of them find something to live for and ways to communicate, even if just by blinking.
Moral dilemmas appear as we learn more about the brain. For example, one part of the brain rules morality and how we rationalize our moral decisions. Can we really hold accountable someone whose brain is different than the norm, thus leading to a crime? We are on the verge of being able to wipe out painful memories. Should we erase memories that ruin the lives of people with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)? Or would we abuse that as drug companies encourage us to expand the definition of PTSD to include bad relationships? (Think of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which this happened!) How could people learn from their pain, gaining empathy, if every painful memory were eradicated?
Another chapter informs us on where addiction takes place in the brain. People who have had this part damaged (the insula) have been able to stop smoking cigarettes effortlessly! The book discusses how crystal meth damages the brain; yet the brain is able, given time, to repair itself to a great extent.
The book is full of surprises about the brain. For example, in one person, whose corpus callosum has been totally severed, there is no connection harmonizing the left and right brains. One researcher asked such people if they believed in God. The right brain would say "yes" but the left brain (analytical part) would say "no." The scientist performing the experiment noted that one hemisphere of the brain is an atheist, while the other is a believer, and this finding should have shaken the theological community to the core. "If this person dies, what happens? Does one hemisphere go to heaven and the other go to hell?"
The author saves the best for last: The last chapter deals with the mystical parts of the brain (the temporal lobes; people with seizures have all kinds of mystical experiences); the brain on meditation; the sense of merging with the cosmos and there being no separate self. We are shown how the power of simply paying attention to the breath affects the brain, and virtually all religions have noticed that.
This book leaves you with hope and inspiration that, whether you are brain damaged or healthy, you have the ability and potential to do more and go further.
Susan Schenck, author of The Live Food Factor: The Comprehensive Guide to the Ultimate Diet for Body, Mind, Spirit & Planet
Beyond Broccoli, Creating a Biologically Balanced Diet When a Vegetarian Diet Doesn't Work
on February 10, 2010
I actually found this book randomly in the Kindle store while looking for books about Anne Boleyn, and decided to buy it on a whim due to a growing interest in neurology.
I'm glad I did.
This book taught me about the amazing possibilities and future of fMRI, but I also learned about just how important living in the present, as well as compassion and empathy, are to happiness.
As someone who suffers from extreme anxiety, i am deeply appreciative of the lessons I learned in this book. I have been walking down the crowded, stressful streets of San Francisco sending mental messages of "May you be free of suffering and all that causes it" towards strangers that usually scare me, and have found that love defeats all fear.
Thank you for writing this book and sharing your research with me. I can not express in words just how much it has helped free me from suffering, and may you be free of all suffering as well.
on November 26, 2010
This book describes in very readable terms, the basic findings of recent research of the mind using fMRI imaging. Have you ever known someone that suffers (or has suffered) from anxiety disorders, coma, traumatic brain injuries? You need to look at this book! I picked it up on a whim and am so glad I did! This book does not give the "answers" but it explores research regarding the minds of "normal" people, those with Alzheimers, the aging mind, convicted criminals, teenagers, victims of traumatic brain injuries, etc. Absolutely fascinating and very informative! You will never look at people (especially "annoying" or "scary" people) the same after you read this!
on March 24, 2011
Like most of the other Amazon reviewers, I enjoyed this book. The author has no training in neuroscience or psychology (she studied Physics, then Science, Technology and Society), but she has been in touch with numerous mind-brain specialists and has made good use of their expertise. The book focuses on results with the new brain-imaging technologies, and deals with a wide range of interesting topics. These include the problem of identifying whether there are remnants of consciousness in patients who appear unconscious, psychological treatments for violent tendencies or drug taking, brain mechanisms of happiness, therapeutic forgetting, and the neurophilosophy of ethics.
The one thing I didn't like was the author's frequent attempts to use neuroscientific data as an argument for Buddhist doctrines. This was particularly striking in the final chapter, which is devoted to persuading us that the self does not exist (a Buddhist claim). For example, she writes 'Perhaps the most convincing neurological evidence of the absence of a single self running the show is the "split-brain" phenomenon...'. To me, the loss of the unity of self in split-brain patients (those with a sectioned corpus callosum) is an argument that there was indeed a "single self running the show" before those brains were split. That is not to deny that we may suffer inner conflicts and our unity may be fissured, but I don't think modern psychology and neuroscience support the buddhist denial of the self's existence.
Despite this objection, I vote four stars for this readable, lively and up-to-date book, which is appropriate for the general reader.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a genuine interest in the latest research on the brain, that three pound tissue mass that controls our waking, sleeping, walking, talking, and thinking. From behavior and emotions to movement and memory, the brain is the master control center. While the book states that brain research is still in its baby stages, there's much more information available than there was even ten of fifteen years ago. Of particular interest was the material on supposedly brain dead people who are aware of their surroundings. Because of imaging techniques, doctors now know that even those who seem to be in a vegetative state can hear and understand conversations, even those chats that concern their own states of awareness. One patient later described his anxiety when hearing family members and doctors discuss his prognosis as though he didn't exist!
Also of interest to me were the sections on the brain's involvement in drug addiction and its serious medications in Alzheimer's Disease (AD). About the drug addiction section, I know have a better understanding of just why and how some drugs have such a grip on people. And as a person who had a grandmother with AD, I was both intrigued and scared by the latest in Alzheimer's research.
Although the book is technical, it's not so medically based and ponderous that a lay person with a degree of knowledge about the brain and biology couldn't understand it. In fact, I'd recommend it as "must-read" for anyone who has ever asked WHY? or HOW? When considering some of the basics of human behavior and mental processes.
on November 8, 2012
Well written, deep and societally relevant. This work is packed with neurology and it's implications toward personal and social systems. It raises many interesting and potentially dangerous questions. Pretty great for steeped and decently versed amateur nerds.
An important topic covered is Neuro-plasticity, or the ability of neurons to be changed as learning occurs. Evidence of this exists through Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which uses a magnetic field to align water molecules with / against the magnetic field of the brain and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) in which a radioisotope is adhered to a bio-active chemical that then migrates to active regions of the brain.
The `Pictures of the Mind' are obtained through the aforementioned means. The authors then cover a few pertinent social and judicial issues with the tests that have been devised using the neurological measuring devices.
Vegetative States - tests have been devised to show whether or not activity is occurring. At any given time there are between 25,000 and 35,000 `vegetative' persons in the US alone. Tests have been created that show whether or not a vegetative person can respond to stimuli occurring around them. If the neuro-imaging shows they can they are considered to suffer `Locked-In Syndrome' (LIS). If they are unresponsive the social issue of Doctor assisted suicide or mercy killing can then be raised.
Mindfulness / Meditation: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teach people to realize their lack of control upon the universe, people and certain situations. It is a letting go of control coupled with an astute awareness of one's bio-feedback while attempting to create Metta (unconditional love for oneself and others).
Mindfulness also attempts to get at the root of `happiness' (pleasure is fleeting). Leading a eudemonic lifestyle, one filled with purpose, growth and mastery greatly increases overall happiness. Interesting constructs of the brain at work include: the insula (integrates emotion and the physical feelings associated to the emotion), left prefrontal cortex (gauges positive states of mind), the dorsal striatum (activity relates to # of dopaminergic synapses, also related to gene: Taq1a1), and the amygdala (negative emotion center of the `old brain').
Addiction: 40-60% of susceptibility can be delegated to genetics. In 1956 addiction was considered a `disease', it greatly effects the judgment centers of the brain (prefrontal & orbito-frontal cortices) but interestingly if the insula is damaged an individual often finds addicting habits easy to break.
Pain: The rostra anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) is designed to moderate pain and focus attention.
The authors also discuss legal issues regarding fMRI and PET scans that will likely be used in courts and judicial proceedings as they become more bonafide. For instance, will we soon know what `crazy' looks like using radioisotopes? How can underdevelopment be legally punished? Is a neuro-image a violation of the 5th amendment against self-incrimination?
A few other items of interest to myself:
`The Dark Network' - the spaces on an fMRI that show zero activity when we're actively engaged and focused upon an external stimulus, but once we've returned to day-dreaming or pondering our past / future it lights up.
Amyeloid plaques and tangles generally form in the `dark network'. Here, in other words, is where Alzheimer's Disease gets it's progressive, degenerative start. As many as 4.5 million Americans suffer Alzheimer's in some form. The development of Pittsburgh Compound B (PiB), a dye that attaches to early forming plaques may offer a means to keep that number, at least, stable.
Memory erasure is possible. PKMzeta & Alpha-CaMKII when used to over-express the protein in rats during recall have been shown to eliminate memories. This raises quite the ethics / metaphysical question - would you want your memories removed? Even the bad ones that make you `you'? What if this were forced upon you, say a soldier with PTSD?
on January 27, 2013
Learning how the brain works is fascinating. The possibility that humans can study the organ that, as is presently understood, makes possible the "study" itself is enough to boggle the "mind," which is supposedly held in the brain. To glimpse a picture of the process of "the mind" holds the promise of mystery and wonder - how can one "see" what is immaterial (thoughts)? Because of technologies like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, scientists can now "glimpse" what the brain looks like when the "mind" is in action.
This book is not very long in pages, but is dense in content. The science discussed, hypotheses posed and the stunning progress being made toward an understanding of how the brain actually works holds those interested in such material as spellbound as a well-crafted novel. Those not as interested in such disciplines will not find this tome as intriguing, but will find the information they reap from reading it worth the time investment.
There are literally pictures of the brain, taken by fMRI and three -dimensional PET scans, in "motion" (taken as the subject is given various tasks) contained in this book. It is from these scans and images that the understanding of how the brain actually works is being deepened and theories around how to retrain the brain after it has been harmed by almost any injury. To date, the only injuries not shown to be responsive to the treatments thus far developed have been those suffered from oxygen deprivation. The progress brought by the treatments and knowledge gained have given hope to those once thought to be injured beyond repair. It has been shown, in these scans that some individuals who would have once been considered as being in a "sustained vegetative state" (well defined in medicine and clearly explained within the book) are actually aware of their surroundings and are now being treated toward recovery rather than "sustaining." This, were it the only benefit from this research, would be worth all the effort.
The book ends with suggestions of how the reader can use the information gleaned from the research. The majority of the book is written using a lot of medical nomenclature but the "how to" section ending the book is written in with a "non-professional" reader in mind. Much of what is suggested is found in other literature dealing with the same subject (My Stroke of Insight, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, The Brain That Changes Itself). Exercises such as: mindfulness, breathing, meditation, eating well, the benefits of exercise, challenging one's self regularly, develop an attitude of thankfulness and meaningful, healthy relationships all have shown to add to mental clarity, protect against dementia (including Alzheimer's Disease) and keep the us "young" regardless of age. All of these exercises can be done easily, with minimal effort and can offer tremendous profits to one's wellbeing.
on June 21, 2013
I really enjoyed the first part of this book. However, the second half fell into political discussion, and it was terribly distressing to learn that there is a group of "experts" making decisions about how violence is going to be treated in the legal system. Just what we don't need - more "experts" experimenting with society.
on June 27, 2014
I found this book very interesting and thought-provoking. I wondered when my mother was in a coma prior to her death in 1966 whether or not she knew I was there with her and if she could hear what I was saying. After reading this book, I now believe that she was aware of much of what was going on around her even while she was in a coma.
The neuro-imaging technology will probably be used to help us in ways we hadn't thought possible. The author points out that we must be careful, though, not to carry the possibilities too far and make serious ethical mistakes.
It was difficult for me to follow the pictures of the brain scans on my Kindle. I like being able to choose my font and my font size on my Kindle, and I like the idea of saving trees; but trying to skip back to the narrative about the pictures was not the best way for me to learn about the scans. For that part of the book, I would have preferred holding a book with paper pages in my hands.
I think I found only one typo in the book, and it was very minor.
Thank you, Beatles (yes, the singing group) for making the CT scanners possible through the donation from your recording company.
on February 25, 2012
When I picked up Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Who We Are it was because I was trying to change my life after getting out of a 20 year long emotionally crushing relationship. I literally had my whole identity shaped and decided by a person who left me emotionally broken after I decided taking care of this person was no longer a priority in my life. I did not in fact know who I was. This book was not what I expected, it was far better.
First, don' get scared off by scary words like Neuroscience and Neural plasticity. Ms. Boleyn-Fitzgerald does a great job of explaining even of the most complex terms in normal human English and she has a story teller like ability to explain the physical mechanics behind how the brain works.
Her way of building the the book starting at the very basic question of "What it means to have consciousness" is explained in a way that anyone , given enough time to think about things , can understand. She explores the physiology behind PTSD, the creation of emotions, how meditation works and explores controversial questions such as are we hardwired for religion and what does that mean.
Yes there is a lot of use of Buddhist ideas but part of it was due to the research that was being done. Later on it it merely serves as context for understanding how to train your mind for happiness. She makes sure the readers know this is not an exclusively Buddhist thing but rather yoga or mental walking for the brain.
How I viewed the world changed a lot after I read this book.. I recommend this book for anyone who went through a traumatic experience but I can , with an equal amount of enthusiasm for anyone who wants to understand "why" the feel the way they do and exert more control over the chemical reaction we call emotions.