Sunday, October 15, 2006

Book Review: An Alchemy Of Mind - The Marvel And Mystery Of The Brain by Diane Ackerman

    Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
    With his memories in a trunk
    Passed this way an hour ago…
    ---Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row"

When Albert Einstein died in 1955 of a ruptured aneurysm of the abdominal aorta, his brain was secreted away by Princeton pathologist Thomas Harvey, who cut it into 240 blocks for study. Nothing in the noggin’ immediately jumped out and sang “I am genius, hear me roar” and so Einstein’s brain -- after being plunked into two mason jars of formaldehyde -- was placed in a Costa Cider cardboard box collecting cobwebs and virtually forgotten about as it sat under a beer cooler in Harvey's office. (The adage about preferring a bottle in front of me over a frontal lobotomy seems somehow apropos here, but I don’t know how.)

[ADBLOCKHERE]Eventually, renewed interest among various scientists and neurologists meant Einstein’s gray matter mattered once more and so Harvey took it out of mothballs and passed it around rather casually at times to in-the-know know-it-alls all over. At one point it was tossed into the trunk of a Buick Skylark for a cross-country road trip - which might make for a good buddy movie ("Dude, Where's My Cortex?").

In fits and starts of theory and inquiry, notes Diane Ackerman in the scintillating and enticingly all-embracing An Alchemy Of Mind, the 240 poked-and-prodded blocks went on to endure some flawed studies and unexpected conclusions. Public interest was stirred for a while, notes Ackerman, "with many of us picturing his glia as a sort of golden mucilage, the pith of brilliance.”

But the path to Einstein's brilliance, it was ultimately determined, may have stemmed from a missing Sylvian fissure, a fold running through the parietal lobes. Without that division, the consequent ease of connection and communication between neurons corresponded to Einstein’s contention that his mental functions didn’t involve words; he thought in images and took a mathematical approach to problem-solving. With such a unique brain formation, Ackerman suggests, no wonder Einstein “symbolizes genius” -- though his affability gives it "a farouche human face surrounded by electric hair.”

From such a summing-up most stopping points are made. But Ackerman not only goes the extra meditative mile to concisely yet incisively ponder such potential imponderables as the consequences of anatomical mistakes, evolutionary flukes and even “the zeitgeist of the era” - she gives free rein to her non-academic imagination.

She muses about the incidentals that usually fall through the scholarly cracks. Between beers, for example, did the self-styled keeper and curator of the great scientist’s brain “sometimes peer into the jars and turn them gently like snow globes, talk to the brain, commune with it?” Did Harvey “entertain dreams of glory, of solving its mysteries?”

As may be indicated here, Ackerman has the gift of stylistic gab and poetic resonance with which to better precision-toss the substance of her insights. With such a word-perfect emphasis and almost playful sense of language, it is no wonder that Alchemy’s epigraph consists of an e.e. cummings poem that evokes the book's mingling of cold hard fact with the gradation and shade of allusion-rich expression.

    my mind is 
    a big hunk of irrevocable nothing which touch and
    taste and smell and hearing and sight keep hitting and
    chipping with sharp fatal tools
    in an agony of sensual chisels I perform squirms of
    chrome and execute strides of cobalt…
Alchemy's seven sections hit such topics as the evolution of the brain, its physical structure, memory, the self, emotions, language, and consciousness. Meanwhile, some of the more intriguing discussions in the book's 34 chapters chip away at absentmindedness and multitasking, Alzheimer’s and the aging brain, the role of dreams in memory, artistic and mathematical minds, the spiritual brain, animal minds, and “How Shakespeare’s mind was different.”

So, like slings and arrows or, to quote cummings again, “sharp fatal tools” and “sensual chisels,” Ackerman -- in the same way others use charts and graphs and tables -- benefits from the gentle nudging of determined and determining words to unravel the marvel and mystery of the brain.


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