Lew's AUTHOR BLOG

* Lew’s Review … Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 14, 2012

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I am taking a one week course at Oxford (July 2012) … The Brain and the Senses. This is one of the books to read in advance.

It is a fascinating journey through what is currently known (2010) about the way the brain receives information from the outside world, and how this information is categorized, stored and retrieved. There are many examples at an individual level to illustrate some of the experimental results. The graphics are brilliant.

The book is necessarily stronger on the receipt of information than it is on storage and retrieval. I have many margin notes asking the same question about memory, especially about how a memory is retrieved or, as the book argues, re-constructed. How is it done? How? How? This is the stuff of future research and understanding.

I think much of what we think we know on this subject is still in the nature of conjecture, based on research utilizing brain scans to show what part of the brain lights up when various stimuli and tasks are presented. The research field is new and rapidly evolving. In one of my previous lives, as CEO of a biomedical research institute, I learned a little about the objectives and practice of cutting-edge scientific research: everything we think we know is only tentative … everything will eventually be disproved or at least significantly enhanced by new and better research … sometimes proving something is not true is as important as an experiment which confirms your hypothesis … better to have a working hypothesis than no hypothesis at all.

Funny, but my friend who has studied and taught history for over 50 years tells me the same is true of what we think we know of historical events and patterns. What really happened? It depends very much on what facts you are looking at and how those facts were assembled. Are they really facts? It should be humbling to understand the degree of uncertainty about our past as well as our future. Let alone the present, whatever that is.

Two fascinating thoughts (chosen from many possibilities) are particularly related to my experience as a novelist and my current novel-in-progress …

… the process of retrieving memory of things which have actually happened is essentially the same as the process of imagining the future (and thus evaluating prospects and plans) or the process of inventing people and events which never existed (i.e., creating fiction).

… the killing of Jews by the Nazis required a distinct transformation in the behavior of individuals performing such acts which allowed them to carry out horrific acts of violence without being assailed by normal feelings of fear and disgust … afterward, they fell into a state that precluded normal reflection and self-awareness and thus prevented them from acknowledging the awfulness of what they had done (and would do again tomorrow).

In her concluding paragraph, Rita Carter says, “the findings outlined in this book give only the sketchiest impression of the landscape of the mind … yet I believe (it) is already clear (that) there is no ghost in this place (the mind) …what we are discovering is a biological system of awe-inspiring complexity … the world within our heads is more marvelous than anything we can dream up.”

These are the kinds of thoughts stimulated by “Mapping the Mind.” I recommend the book even if your scientific understanding is limited. It will make you think outside your normal box. It will make you more aware of what incredible potentials lie within all of us.

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4 Responses to “* Lew’s Review … Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter”

  1. Anne Trieber said

    As a special education teacher, and a sociologist, I have always pondered how the brain recalls information. I’ve spent my entire career educating myself about how to effectively teach students to make connections with what they know, and new information. The brain is indeed extremely complex. Memory of an experience can be different for two individuals that have experienced the same thing. I would love to read this book. Perhaps I can find enlightenment before I retire. I would love to leave a legacy.
    Anne Trieber

    • Lew Weinstein said

      “Mapping the Mind” has many insights which you will enjoy. The field of brain study and memory is still in its infancy. I am also reading a book by Eric Kandel called “In Search of Memory” which traces his Nobel award winning career as well as the discoveries of other scientists. Although he describes the experiments that have led to the current knowledge of how the brain works, it is (mostly) written in a style that is quite readable. The two books are complementary. I share your fascination about the brain. It is utterly awesome.

  2. Renee said

    It seems to make more sense that memories are reconstructed rather than stored as whole events (like a video library) – that would account for faulty recall (beyond storing it incorrectly in the first place because you experience the world through your senses which are limited, and the brain can interpret things wrong to help you make “sense” of things) – and I wonder if false memories could be a by-product of reconstruction as well. I have several “memories” in childhood events and incidents that my mother claims either did not happen, or did not happen the way I seem to remember them.

    I might have to pick this one up – I like knowing just how little I know about my brain. ;-)

    • Lew Weinstein said

      Memories are reinforced by subsequent thinking about them, which apparently means additional linkages are made in the brain. Memories are also affected by what other people say, or TV reports, and can become distorted. Which is why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. No two people see and remember exactly the same thing, since they each start out with different brain patterns and each receive sensory stimulus in their own particular way. So both your memory and your mother’s can be correct – whatever that means.

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