The Brain Train 

This month, we're all reading about brains.

Our take on this month's best-sellers at East Bay independent bookstores, including Analog Books, Bay Books, Black Oak, Cody's, Diesel, and Pegasus.

Brains on the brain. That's what readers seem to have this month, as a passel of neuroscience books are now East Bay best-sellers. Wall Street Journal columnist Sharon Begley went to India to attend an international conference on neuroplasticity being held in the Dalai Lama's home, as revealed in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (Ballantine, $24.95). Once there, she — hang on. A conference on what, held where? Neuroplasticity is currently the hippest field in science, in which researchers are proving what most laypeople already presume: that repeated thoughts and behaviors can literally change the brain's physical structure, growing new cells here and etching new pathways there. The Dalai Lama is so fascinated with it that he made it the focus of the 2004 "Mind and Life" conference, a series of living-room dialogues with top researchers, aimed at creating a fusion between Buddhism and science. Begley lays out the latest experiments and shows that constant meditation alters Buddhist monks' brain structure. But don't look here for tips on plasticizing your own brain. Despite the title, it's no how-to book. If neuroscience is still your bag but you're looking for something a little less hippy-dippy, Eric R. Kandel's In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (Norton, $17.95) should do nicely. Kandel is one of the field's pioneers, receiving a Nobel Prize in 2000 for proving that memory — which had been regarded previously as fleeting, insubstantial, and not really a subject that could be investigated with a microscope — has a physical basis, and that each new thought and new memory actually alters your neurons at a molecular level. Born in Austria, Kandel was at first a fan of Freud, and wanted to find in the brain the exact locations of such psychoanalytical standbys as the "ego" and "id." While that search proved futile, it set him on a course that would merge the heretofore-unrelated disciplines of psychology and biology. Sean B. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Norton, $15.95) delves even farther back to the source of our minds and bodies, exploring the other trendy branch of science these days: evolutionary developmental biology, which he insists on calling by its stilted nickname "evo devo." The book's title is taken from the last paragraph of Darwin's Origin of Species, which is appropriate as Darwin himself is the founder of, ahem, evo devo. What Darwin first noticed is that the embryonic stages of an animal's growth eerily paralleled its species' evolutionary development. Yet it was not until the last few decades that science applied the newly perfected tools of genetics to embryology, opening a whole new window to evolution. Turns out we can trace the connections between species by observing how their genetic codes guide the development from egg to adult. Carroll gives concrete examples, including (appropriate for this month's theme) the development of the hominid skull and brain, and how a tiny genetic shift led to the human mind. Daniel Tammet's brain continues to baffle even the most dedicated neuroscientists. His memoir, Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant (Free Press, $24), probes one of those scarily talented yet socially dysfunctional misfits — made famous by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man — who can calculate numbers faster than a computer and learn a new language in a week, yet who can't interact with other human beings. If you've seen Tammet on TV, you know that he doesn't appear to be autistic at all; he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a sort of "high-functioning" autism, but even his Asperger's seems to be a mild case, as he is shown chatting with people quite normally. One theory is that a severe childhood epileptic fit altered his brain chemistry, but in any event, no one knows how Tammet acquired his bizarre skills, which none of his family members share.


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