An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

3.92 avg rating
( 981 ratings by Goodreads )
 
9780743246743: An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Zookeeper's Wife, an ambitious and enlightening work that combines an artist's eye with a scientist's erudition to illuminate, as never before, the magic and mysteries of the human mind.

Long treasured by literary readers for her uncommon ability to bridge the gap between art and science, celebrated scholar-artist Diane Ackerman returns with the book she was born to write. Her dazzling new work, An Alchemy of Mind, offers an unprecedented exploration and celebration of the mental fantasia in which we spend our days—and does for the human mind what the bestselling A Natural History of the Senses did for the physical senses.

Bringing a valuable female perspective to the topic, Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can: with gorgeous, immediate language and imagery that paint an unusually lucid and vibrant picture for the reader. And in addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. In prose that is not simply accessible but also beautiful and electric, Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of identity.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Diane Ackerman is a naturalist and poet and the author of ten books of literary nonfiction, including A Natural History of the Senses, A Natural History of Love, and Cultivating Delight. Also the author of six volumes of poetry and several nonfiction children's books, she contributes to The New York Times, Discover, National Geographic, Parade, and many other publications. Ackerman lives in Ithaca, New York.

From The Washington Post:

On the one hand, there is the mind: a web of faculties aware of itself and the universe, capable of learning a new piano sonata or recalling a spring snowstorm 40 years ago. On the other hand, the brain: a three-pound blob. For thousands of years, few people saw a connection between the two. In 1652, the English philosopher Henry More flatly stated that the brain "shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or a bowl of curds." Today, of course, it's clear that the brain is far more than goop. Electricity and neurotransmitters shuttle among its billions of neurons, producing our passions, reasoning and consciousness. Yet most of us still have trouble feeling a link between the details of the brain -- its oligodendrites, its nodes of Ranvier, its alpha-2A noradrenergic receptors -- and our own existence.

In recent years this chasm has attracted a corps of bridge-builders. They have packed shelves with books that try to link neuroscience to every aspect of our lives. The latest addition is An Alchemy of Mind, by Diane Ackerman. In some ways Ackerman's book is not much different from the rest. She surveys the same well-traveled territories, with chapters on topics such as consciousness, language and the mental differences between the sexes. If you keep up with brain research news in The Washington Post, there won't be many scientific surprises for you here. But Ackerman is unusual in that she writes not as a scientist or a science journalist. Instead, she's a poet (albeit a poet with a remarkable appetite for journals with names like Cerebrum). And it's as a poet that she shows her greatest strengths in writing on the brain, as well as her greatest weaknesses.

Ackerman knows that poetry and fiction are full of profound insights into the workings of the mind. She knows how to pluck a passage out of Proust, Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf to illustrate a point. In some cases she chooses instead to lyrically recall an experience of her own (such as her personal experience with the blending of sensation known as synesthesia). But she also knows that literature can illuminate that mind in a different way. The mark of a great author is the ability to bootstrap language to higher levels of meaning with the help of symbols, metaphors and figures of speech. And the brain, at its most basic level of information-processing, depends on a similar sort of poetic bootstrapping. It doesn't passively reproduce the sensations that enter its neurons as into a pinhole camera. Instead, it grabs a limited number of details and then builds around them an elaborate hypothesis about the world. "We are all unwitting poets," Ackerman says.

Ackerman spends much of An Alchemy of Mind turning her metaphor-making neurons back on themselves to find captivating ways to describe how the brain works. Heaven knows neuroscience could use an infusion of poetry. When scientists (and science writers) try to describe the brain to the public, they are too easily satisfied with feeble metaphors. Receptors are locks, for example, and neurotransmitters are keys. Yet keys and locks are rigid, as Ackerman points out, while receptors and neurotransmitters are yielding and floppy. Someone needs to find a new metaphor, and she offers some that are both evocative and meaningful, as when she refers to short-term memory as a "mental scratch pad." But too often she offers mud instead of light.

"Most children don't remember much before the age of two or three," she informs us, "because the cortex develops slowly and the brain hasn't activated its thinking cap yet." Thinking cap? What exactly does that mean? You can scour an entire neurology textbook and still not be able to answer that question. Describing how music is encoded in memory, Ackerman writes about neurons producing proteins "which then return to the synapse where the music was being processed and glue that music to the site." A miniature jukebox now dangles from a nerve, making us none the wiser.

A bad metaphor can do more than just befuddle. It can give a reader precisely the wrong idea about how nature works. Those who hope to learn the basics about the brain in An Alchemy of Mind will sometimes be misled by pretty-sounding language. Ackerman informs us, for example, that our ancestors were faced with the paradox of getting a big human brain out of a mother's narrow birth canal. "The solution we found was to give birth earlier," she declares, as if our ancestors convened a meeting where they voted to redesign their genome. Still, Ackerman deserves credit for taking on what is an important mission -- a mission that is, at least for the moment, doomed to failure.

She's right when she says that "no image English offers -- say, of dominoes, ricochets, echoes, or ripples -- can capture how in the brain everything affects everything else all at once, or how our everythingness always lingers in mind as we engage the everythingness of everyone else." Despite the shortcomings of our ideas and our language, we must keep searching for new ways to express the workings of the brain. It is in those images, more and more, that we see ourselves.

Reviewed by Carl Zimmer

Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

Top Search Results from the AbeBooks Marketplace

1.

ACKERMAN
Published by Simon and Schuster
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller:
INDOO
(Avenel, NJ, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Simon and Schuster. Book Condition: New. Brand New. Bookseller Inventory # 0743246748

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 8.37
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 3.50
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

2.

Ackerman, Diane
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Paperbackshop-US
(Wood Dale, IL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description 2005. PAP. Book Condition: New. New Book. Shipped from US within 10 to 14 business days. Established seller since 2000. Bookseller Inventory # KB-9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 8.76
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 3.99
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

3.

Diane Ackerman
Published by Scribner Book Company, United States (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
The Book Depository US
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Scribner Book Company, United States, 2005. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the New York Times bestselling author of The Zookeeper s Wife, an ambitious and enlightening work that combines an artist s eye with a scientist s erudition to illuminate, as never before, the magic and mysteries of the human mind. Long treasured by literary readers for her uncommon ability to bridge the gap between art and science, celebrated scholar-artist Diane Ackerman returns with the book she was born to write. Her dazzling new work, An Alchemy of Mind, offers an unprecedented exploration and celebration of the mental fantasia in which we spend our days--and does for the human mind what the bestselling A Natural History of the Senses did for the physical senses. Bringing a valuable female perspective to the topic, Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can: with gorgeous, immediate language and imagery that paint an unusually lucid and vibrant picture for the reader. And in addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. In prose that is not simply accessible but also beautiful and electric, Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of identity. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 14.10
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

4.

Diane Ackerman
Published by Scribner Book Company, United States (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
The Book Depository
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Scribner Book Company, United States, 2005. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the New York Times bestselling author of The Zookeeper s Wife, an ambitious and enlightening work that combines an artist s eye with a scientist s erudition to illuminate, as never before, the magic and mysteries of the human mind. Long treasured by literary readers for her uncommon ability to bridge the gap between art and science, celebrated scholar-artist Diane Ackerman returns with the book she was born to write. Her dazzling new work, An Alchemy of Mind, offers an unprecedented exploration and celebration of the mental fantasia in which we spend our days--and does for the human mind what the bestselling A Natural History of the Senses did for the physical senses. Bringing a valuable female perspective to the topic, Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can: with gorgeous, immediate language and imagery that paint an unusually lucid and vibrant picture for the reader. And in addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. In prose that is not simply accessible but also beautiful and electric, Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of identity. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 14.56
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

5.

Diane Ackerman
Published by Scribner Book Company, United States (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Paperback Quantity Available: 10
Seller:
Book Depository hard to find
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Scribner Book Company, United States, 2005. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. From the New York Times bestselling author of The Zookeeper s Wife, an ambitious and enlightening work that combines an artist s eye with a scientist s erudition to illuminate, as never before, the magic and mysteries of the human mind. Long treasured by literary readers for her uncommon ability to bridge the gap between art and science, celebrated scholar-artist Diane Ackerman returns with the book she was born to write. Her dazzling new work, An Alchemy of Mind, offers an unprecedented exploration and celebration of the mental fantasia in which we spend our days--and does for the human mind what the bestselling A Natural History of the Senses did for the physical senses. Bringing a valuable female perspective to the topic, Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can: with gorgeous, immediate language and imagery that paint an unusually lucid and vibrant picture for the reader. And in addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. In prose that is not simply accessible but also beautiful and electric, Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of identity. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 15.24
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

6.

Ackerman, Diane
Published by Scribner
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New PAPERBACK Quantity Available: > 20
Seller:
Mediaoutlet12345
(Springfield, VA, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Scribner. PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0743246748 *BRAND NEW* Ships Same Day or Next!. Bookseller Inventory # NATARAJB1FI768951

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 11.45
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 3.99
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

7.

Diane Ackerman
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Grand Eagle Retail
(Wilmington, DE, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. Does the mind reflect or dictate what the body sees and feels? What is the language of emotion? Is memory a function of our imaginations? Are we all just out of our minds?In this ambitious.Shipping may be from multiple locations in the US or from the UK, depending on stock availability. 300 pages. 0.299. Bookseller Inventory # 9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 17.13
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

8.

Diane Ackerman
Published by Scribner Macmillan (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Softcover Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Rating
[?]

Book Description Scribner Macmillan, 2005. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # TH9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 15.40
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 3.51
From Germany to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

9.

Diane Ackerman
Published by SIMON & SCHUSTER TRADE (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New Trade Paperback Quantity Available: 3
Seller:
Powell's Books
(Portland, OR, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description SIMON & SCHUSTER TRADE, 2005. Trade Paperback. Book Condition: New. TRADE PAPERBACK Legendary independent bookstore online since 1994. Reliable customer service and no-hassle return policy. General. Book: NEW, New. Bookseller Inventory # 01978074324674322. Bookseller Inventory # 01978074324674322

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 16.00
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 4.49
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

10.

Diane Ackerman
Published by Scribner Book Company 2005-10-04, Old Tappan, NJ (2005)
ISBN 10: 0743246748 ISBN 13: 9780743246743
New paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller:
Blackwell's
(Oxford, OX, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Scribner Book Company 2005-10-04, Old Tappan, NJ, 2005. paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # 9780743246743

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
US$ 14.00
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: US$ 7.95
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

There are more copies of this book

View all search results for this book