The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable, by Suzana Herculano-Houzel

This book was recommended by a colleague who is both a biologist and a neuromorphic engineer, and I was hoping to get from it some insights on how to build a brain. If I hadn’t come to it with this expectation, I think I would have enjoyed it more… because that’s not what it is. It’s the story of how a science writer switched back to being a scientist and and was able to bring a fresh eye to an old subject. Her new perspective, plus years of work and dedication, have led us to a much better understanding of who we are and why.

This book is not about how our brain works, it’s about how our brain has evolved, and should be of interest to any scientifically-literate reader. Read More …

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V S Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V S Ramachandran and Sandra BlakesleeThis book has a bit of a split personality, both in terms of its structure and writing. How much this has to do with the fact that it has two authors I’m not entirely sure, but the effect was to undermine Ramachandran’s credibility in my mind. This the first of his books I have read, and may not have been a good place to start. However, it was weak enough in some ways that it makes me less likely to want to read more.

The first half is pretty much what I was expecting: a set of interesting anecdotes about the experiences of the patients of Ramachandran and others, and how these have illuminated our understanding of the workings of the brain. We hear stories about amputees with phantom limbs (and how the latter have been removed), people who believe that their parents are imposters, patients who cannot see anything on the left side of the world. These stories are told compellingly (presumably Blakeslee’s contribution), and the way they are connected to the science is generally convincing. Read More …

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil

The Singularity is Near by Ray KurzweilI should start by saying that I tried with this book. I really did. I tried 231/487 pages of text and 66/100 pages of notes worth. But I couldn’t finish it. Normally I would have written off a book that I disliked much earlier, but I persevered. I was actually pre-disposed to like it: not only had Kurzweil referenced one of my articles in an earlier book (which I actually never read, but was flattered by), but this tome came highly recommended by a friend of mine. Joe said he liked it because it allowed him to stretch his imagination. He found it fun to read the way he finds science fiction fun to read. I found the book unbearable for more-or-less the same reason. Read More …

Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and the World Together Again, by Andy Clark

Being There by Andy ClarkOf all the books I’ve ever read that related to artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science, neural networks, and the brain, I’m pretty sure this is my favorite. Usually, for me, these books are about filling in the blanks in terms of how other researchers see the world. I get frustrated because I feel that their assumptions are wrong, their view is too narrow, or they lack imagination. I need to know about their view, but it’s not one I share. Read More …

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

On Intelligence by Jeff HawkinsI have mixed feelings about what I consider to be ‘celebrity’ popular science books: being big in Silicon Valley and having something sensible to say about intelligent machines are two different things. In my view, however, Jeff Hawkins has paid his dues and deserves to be taken seriously. Though there is a lot wrong with On Intelligence, I believe Hawkins central theses—that much of what we call intelligence is based on the ability of our neocortex to make predictions, that the function of the neocortex is basic across sensing and actuation, and that this function can be understood in a relatively straightforward way—are all correct. If we’re smart, some of us in the machine intelligence and neuroscience communities will take up his challenge to work on filling out this new theory. Read More …

Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

Seeing Voices by Oliver SacksSeeing Voices, first published 1989, is an odd book. Partly it deals the history of the education, culture, politics, experience, and isolation of the deaf (not normally things that I would cover here). Partly it deals with the science of how sensory inputs and language are processed in the brain (at least, as it was understood at the time). Partly it is a mess of footnotes, many of which are more interesting than the main text (do yourself a favor and make sure you get an edition that has the footnotes on each page and not at the back!). This lack of integration makes the book a frustrating read at times, but I still found it worthwhile. Read More …