Monday, December 10, 2012

The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind

On the reading table: This is the second "clearance book" by neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak M. D. I've read. I avoided reading his books earlier (I have five or six on tap) because since he's so prolific, and was featured on PBS, I feared he might be a super-shallow "book factory," but the two books I've read have proven to be rewarding and  thought-provoking. This thin tome promises to be a quick read, and it also features a recurring pet topic of mine, "neuroplasticity." Recommended.

The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind by Richard Restak 

Richard Restak explains, in layman's terms, how our brains are struggling to keep up with the world we've created. Computers, mobile phones, the Internet, violence on TV -- the modern world is causing the human brain to evolve in ways that may prove irrevocable. Offering scientific proof, the author shows how the world we live in has affected our ability to focus, concentrate and respond effectively to the multi-tasking demands of modern life. At the same time research on the brain has moved away from the old emphasis on disease and dysfunction to open up insights into every kind of mental activity. And, although this is not a self-help book, "The New Brain" shows how a lot of contemporary brain research has practical applications with consequences for our everyday lives.

From Publishers Weekly

Restak (Mozart's Brain), a neurologist and popular science writer on the brain, focuses on new technology for examining the physiology of the brain (such as MRI) and how it allows us to monitor and control a far wider range of activities than was formerly possible. Recent work holds the potential for, among other things, reducing the use of psychopharmacological drugs that have unpredictable side effects; substituting one sense (touch) for another (sight); and direct repair of brain and other neurological damage. Restak also demonstrates how the brain is modified the old-fashioned way, such as by practicing a skill. The negative aspects of recent work are invoked in more polemical than scientific prose, such as the specter of social control through "medicalization" of everything, and how the overstimulation of our brains by modern society is giving us all ADD. Hackles will rise the farthest over the author's proclamation that it is proven that TV violence affects our brains in ways that lead to violent behavior without even mentioning the word "censorship." A compact if sometimes oversimplified introduction to its subject, Restak's latest is best when it stays close to the data.

From Scientific American

Pity the poor neurologists of yesteryear, saddled as they were with their conviction that our brains are hardwired after childhood. Then celebrate today’s scientists, who are exploiting brain-imaging technologies to show that our brains are capable of profound and permanent alterations throughout our lives. Neurologist Richard Restak does just that in The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind, even as he argues that we are being negatively altered by the sound-bite, techno environment in which we live. Technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, Restak begins, can now demonstrate that as a musician practices for many hours, certain neural pathways are strengthened. He then moves to a profound implication, namely that all kinds of technological stimuli are forging brain circuits that may hurt us instead of helping us. For instance, he cites correlations between positron emission tomography scans of violent people and normal experimental subjects who are simply thinking about fighting, then asserts that repeated viewing of violence on television and in video games can set up brain circuits that make us more likely to initiate realworld fisticuffs. Unfortunately, such brain imaging may leave more questions than answers. As Restak himself points out, the technology does not provide "neurological explanations," just "important correlations." Yet he is whipped up enough to diagnose all of modern society with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, the probable result of brain changes we are initiating in our media-saturated world. He reminds us of the antidote, though: we are still in control of what we allow ourselves to see and hear. In the end, Restak fails to create a sense that scientists have revealed a new way of understanding the brain. And the images that inspire speculation in the book still await research that may finally reveal the mechanisms of such phenomena as memory and aggression. -- Chris Jozefowicz

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