Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

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From the author of How Emotions Are Made, a captivating collection of short essays about your brain, in the tradition of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.
Have you ever wondered why you have a brain? Let renowned neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett demystify that big gray blob between your ears. In seven short essays (plus a bite-sized story about how brains evolved), this slim, entertaining, and accessible collection reveals mind-expanding lessons from the front lines of neuroscience research. You'll learn where brains came from, how they're structured (and why it matters), and how yours works in tandem with other brains to create everything you experience. Along the way, you'll also learn to dismiss popular myths such as the idea of a "lizard brain" and the alleged battle between thoughts and emotions, or even between nature and nurture, to determine your behavior.
Sure to intrigue casual readers and scientific veterans alike, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain is full of surprises, humor, and important implications for human nature–a gift of a book that you will want to savor again and again.

From the Publisher

A conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

Q: Why do I have a brain?

A: Brain’s didn’t evolve so you can think, feel or see. They evolved to control bodies. Everything your brain does – think, feel, see, hear, etc. — it does in the service of controlling your body. This is your brain’s most important job. Understanding this illuminates mysteries like: How are your mind and body linked? How does chronic stress seep under the skin and make you sick? Why are physical illnesses like heart disease and Parkinson’s disease so similar to mental illnesses like depression? And why there is a growing epidemic of depression and anxiety around the world?

Q: How does your brain work?

A: During much of the last century, scientists thought your brain worked sort of like a muscle – the world stimulates it, and it reacts. The stimulation would come from the outside world in the form of sights, sounds, smells, and other sense data. But scientists have learned that brain’s billions of neurons are continuously in conversation, guessing what might happen next and preparing your body in advance to deal with it. It’s issuing predictions that launch what you do and see and feel, but it happens so quickly that you feel like you’re reacting!

Here’s one way to think about it: From the moment you are born until the moment that you die, your brain is locked inside a dark, silent box called your skull. It continuously receives scraps of data from the outside world, like waves of light (from your eyes), chemicals (through your nose and on your tongue), and changes in air pressure (in your ears). Your brain has to use these scraps of information to figure out how to keep your body alive and well Is that CRASH outside caused by a racoon in your trash can, someone dropping a box on the ground, or a car bumping into another car outside your home? Is that tightness in your chest a sore muscle from lifting something heavy, a feeling of anxiety, or a sign that you might be having heart trouble? In every moment, it must figure out what caused the current barrage of sense data and what to do about it, using your memories of past experiences. So your brain isn’t reactive, it’s predictive.

Q: I’ve heard that the human brain has an ancient area, called the “lizard brain,” that can hijack the rational part of the brain (the neocortex) and cause me to say & do things that are ill-advised. Is this true?

A: No. The only animal that has a lizard brain is a lizard. The so-called lizard brain in humans is a folk tale that was popularized in the 1970s, though its roots stretch back to Plato in Ancient Greece. Scientists in the early and mid-1900s examined a bunch of animal brains and determined that the human brain had parts that other mammal and reptile brains don’t, crafting the narrative of a layered brain. Supposedly, the brain’s core contains reptilian parts that give us instincts, wrapped in newer mammalian parts that give us emotions, wrapped in human parts that give us rationality. This story, called the triune brain, says the human brain evolved in layers like a birthday cake, where the topmost layer, the icing, handles rationality.

Since the 1970s, however, scientists have been able to compare brain cells by their genetic markers, and it turns out that mice, rats, dogs, cats, horses, and every other mammalian species studied so far (and possibly the brains of fish, lizards, and birds, too ) follow the same manufacturing plan. Basically, you have the same brain plan as a bloodsucking lamprey.

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