September 24, 2015
(++++) THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON LIFE
Brain Games: The Mind-Blowing Science of Your Amazing Brain. By Jennifer Swanson. National Geographic Kids. $12.99.
As a book that combines basic physiological science with the highly visual orientation and continual interactivity that seem to be de rigueur for today’s books for young readers, it would be hard to beat Brain Games. Jennifer Swanson neatly mixes easy-to-try but less-than-easy-to-explain material – then explains things, if not always easily, then with clarity and style. “What exactly is happening?” is the repeated question here, leading into explanations of why we perceive and interpret things the way we do – that is, why the brain, the body’s control center, creates particular perceptions under particular conditions.
Thus, Swanson asks readers to stare at a picture of yellow and red flowers and determine which seem to be coming out of the page, as if in 3-D. Of course, neither flower type is really three-dimensional, but one seems to be. What exactly is happening? “Our eyes can’t see in 3-D. They only see in 2-D, or width and height. Your brain adds the depth.” And this leads to brief discussions of binocular vision, eye location in animals, how 3-D glasses work, and more. Swanson makes no attempt at completeness, which would scarcely be possible in a short (112-page) book dealing with a large subject, although some omitted elements would have been fun to include – for example, a picture and explanation of Old World chameleons, whose eyes rotate and focus independently, in the section on eye placement.
The chameleon is not here, but what is here connects with the intended young readership with clarity and in a genuinely interesting way. Brain Games tells kids what causes déjà vu (“something in the new place or action triggers an old memory”); how to improve their mood (“if you make yourself smile, in a few seconds you will start to feel happy”); how many muscles are needed to swing a baseball bat (“more than 15 different muscle actions”); why shaking your head back and forth makes you feel dizzy (“sometimes the information from the eyes, inner ear, or cerebellum gets mixed up”); and a great deal more. The use of the word “cerebellum” is noteworthy: Brain Games includes proper scientific names for brain sections and other body parts, although it does not dwell on jargon – and Swanson is careful to give the correct pronunciations of unfamiliar terms (usually: “cerebellum” is given as “sair-uh-bell-um,” as if no syllable is accented, when it should be “sair-uh-BELL-um”).
What is especially attractive in Brain Games is the way Swanson mixes the mundane activities of everyday life with information that sheds light on some unusual aspects of the human body. For example, she discusses the huge number of adjustments the brain must make every second in order to make it possible to swim, ice skate or play the violin. This leads to a discussion of the way the brain takes shortcuts through information stored in the unconscious mind; and this in turn gives Swanson an opening to explain how parts of the brain work together: “Both unconscious and conscious actions travel through the motor cortex, but the unconscious actions are planned in the parietal lobe.” And before the scientific elements become overdone, Swanson explains in this section – adjacent to a brief discussion of how pain “can stop us dead in our tracks” – that “there are no pain receptors in the brain, so your brain can feel no pain.” Intriguing facts like this are well-sprinkled throughout Brain Games, helping give the book an interest level akin to that of a “fascinating trivia” tome as well as that of an introductory science/anatomy work.
Brain Games could sometimes use a little tweaking to be even more effective. The section on the conscious and unconscious mind, for example, refers to Freud’s comparison of the mind to an iceberg, with the conscious mind being the visible part and the unconscious being, as it were, under water and therefore not perceivable by us (at least when we are awake). However, Swanson never says forthrightly that the below-water portion of an iceberg is about nine times as big as the visible part. Understanding that the unconscious is far larger and broader than the conscious mind is important to knowing how we function in everyday life and is a major reason Freud chose the metaphor – but while Swanson does refer to “the large iceberg underneath the water,” the scale of the relationship between visible and invisible, or conscious and unconscious, is never stated clearly.
Most flaws in Brain Games, however, are minor, and do not detract from Swanson’s skill in presenting scientifically accurate information in an attractive and simple way, but for the most part not too simplistically. And the book’s title makes sense despite the overall seriousness of the presentation, because there really are “brain games” included: Swanson calls them “Brain Breaks,” and they include optical illusions, pictures that can be seen different ways depending on how you look at them, anagrams, and word puzzles such as deciphering the meaning of “i right i” (“right between the eyes”). Interspersed with discussions about competitiveness, stress, emotions, decision-making, multitasking and much more, these “think about it” activities help young readers exercise their brains while learning about them – resulting in a first-rate combination of facts and fun.