Our title is borrowed from one that John O’Hara chose for a collection of his short ﬁction, because telling a story is a way, older than written language, to know ourselves. Quite possibly, the newest way is brain research. One of the striking things about that research, however, is that methods and tools almost futuristic—gene manipulation, Echo Planar Imaging, stem cell transplantation—are being used to probe some of humanity’s oldest questions: What is memory? Why do we get depressed? How is consciousness possible in a material world? How can we control pain? From whence comes our sense of transcendence or awe? The mission is still “ourselves to know.”
More than 12 years ago, Nobel laureate James D. Watson, Ph.D., and then Dana Foundation chairman David Mahoney gathered 30 eminent neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York to debate the progress and promise of brain research. In 1992, the Decade of the Brain was just two years old, and most of the scientists felt that far more could be done to communicate their excitement about brain research to the public. By the time they left the meeting, they had vowed to create an alliance that would work to change the landscape of public knowledge, hope, and support for neuroscience.
Starting with those founding members, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives has grown to more than 200 neuroscientists, including 10 Nobel laureates. All are leaders from the gamut of neuroscience disciplines— neurology and psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and neurophilosophy. Each has taken the pledge to become involved in communicating advances in brain research. Today, that commitment is carried out in many ways, including an annual Brain Awareness Week that is now international.
For communicating ideas in depth, few other commitments can match writing a book. Cerebrum discovered that during just four years (January 1, 2000, to December 31, 2003), Dana Alliance scientists published 30 books on the brain for the general reader. That is, roughly one in 10 Alliance scientists published a brain book for lay readers during those years, and a few published more than one.
Not one of these books is too technical for the lay reader, although some deal with inherently challenging ideas, such as a new theory of the neural basis of consciousness, and some address particular needs, such as living with Parkinson’s disease. Most of these books report and interpret the author’s own research, but all of them are understandable by the general reader.
The editors of Cerebrum set out to describe brieﬂy what these books are about, who wrote them, and what subjects the reader can expect to encounter—but also to capture the spirit of each book and comment on its level of presentation. It is a special pleasure to note the attention to good writing in most of these books. Virtually every author achieves an admirable clarity, and explanation of technical material is the rule; but many authors far exceed those important standards, creating prose that is a delight.
Book descriptions below are alphabetical by author. When an author published more than one book on the brain for general readers during the three-year period, all are described in a single write-up. When multiple authors or editors are listed, the Dana Alliance members are indicated by ■ .
Here are some of the most profound and revealing recent reports on what can be our era’s most searching and fruitful bid to understand ourselves.
Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide to Physical and Emotional Health and Longevity
Guy M. McKhann, M.D.■, and Marilyn Albert, Ph.D.■
John Wiley & Sons, Inc./Dana Press, 2002. 304pp. $24.95
John Wiley & Sons, Inc./Dana Press, 2003. 304pp. $15.95 Paper
So now, along with worrying as we get older about how to cope with exercise, nutrition, sleep, sexual function, drinking, and new diseases, we have to read about taking care of our brain, too? Good news: it is all here, because, as the authors state in the introduction and then demonstrate at convincing length: “If there is one thing that determines how fully we live at any older age, it is how well our brains work.” They ought to know. Guy M. McKhann and Marilyn Albert, physicians at Johns Hopkins University, are well-known brain scientists whose professional lives are devoted to patients in the second half of life. Keep Your Brain Young is a guide to what you can expect in every area of life that involves the brain (and there are few areas that do not) as you move past 50: memory, nutrition, sleep, depression, alcohol, pain, sexual function, vision and other senses, and the serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease that may afﬂict the brain in older age. Readers seeking information on these subjects are usually in a quandary. Brain science is learning so much, so rapidly, about every one of these areas, that one wants to know the latest thinking, the value of the latest recommendations, and what lies ahead. But, while reading the latest reports on herbal treatments for better sleep, one may ruefully think: that’s new and exciting, but what can I do about getting up frequently at night to urinate? The great virtue of Keep Your Brain Young is that it moves easily and continually from the (sometimes homely) wisdom of the seasoned physician to the restless scanning of new possibilities characteristic of the active scientiﬁc investigator. This is the book to pack for a journey that can be as ﬁlled with beauty and grace as with new problems and challenges.