Richard Restak - The New Brain

The New Brain was somewhat disappointing to me. It reads more like a series of unconnected, popular media articles than a work of popular science, let alone a well constructed scientific thesis. There are interesting tidbits, here and there, but many of Restak's suppositions should be taken with a big grain of salt.

Perhaps Restak's most annoying trend is to fall into the causation fallacy trap. He frequently draws possibly incorrect causal inferences from an order of events or statistics. Basically he states that because A preceded B or because people who do A also tend to do B, A must have caused B when there are a host of other reasons why B may have occurred after A (or even in spite of A). For instance, he claims that the more a person watches TV the more likely they are to commit violent crimes, and, hence, watching TV causes people to commit crimes. But maybe people who commit crimes are unemployed and bored and hence they have more time to watch TV? Or maybe kids who watch more TV don't have parents at home often and hence it is the lack of parenting that contributes to later criminal activity? There could be numerous other reasons. I have a hard time believing that someone who watches PBS for an hour a day is going to be more likely to commit a crime than a mentally disturbed homeless person who doesn't even have a TV.

Another example can be found in Chapter 5. Restak asks the very common and very good question of nature vs. nurture. "Are the brains of skilled musicians different as a result of their years of intense training, or did those differences exist prior to their taking up music?" One page later he concludes that the talents of "highly skilled musicians aren't inherited but result from many years of practice and performance." What is the basis for this conclusion you ask? People who received musical training saw "an increase in activation in the auditory cortex." Wouldn't a more reasonable conclusion be that nurture plays a role? Saying that musical abilities aren't inherited based on one case of improvement where training takes place is beyond a stretch, to say the least.

The New Brain is filled with anecdotes, appeals to authority, and basically poor, or misused, science. Restak tosses anyone into the pages that has Dr. in front of their name and never seems to cite opposing views or studies that may call into question the results of Dr. so-and-so's work or just offer different interpretations. Restak could be 100% correct. I don't know. But a critical reader won't be convinced, let alone satisfied with the cursory treatment.

Some of the issues are very important and quite fascinating. They include: mental approaches to becoming "experts" instead of remaining capable in given tasks ("the expert must consciously counteract the tendency to prematurely automate the... experience" p. 19), storing information in long-term--as opposed to short-term--memory, ADD (in which I disagree with him on multi-tasking; it decreases effectiveness--not efficiency), post-traumatic stress disorder, brain fingerprinting, drugs for the brain, and many other topics--far too many topics. It's a Headline News presentation which may appeal to some but will be a turn off for those looking for a more scientific and thorough presentation.

from the publisher:
Restak reports from the frontiers of modern brain science and asks the relevant questions such as, is Attention Deficit Disorder the brain syndrome of the future? Is it a "normal" response to the modern world's demand to attend to several things at once? What happens in our brains when the image replaces language as the primary means of communication? How does exposure to violent imagery affect our brains? Are we all capable of "genius" and training our brains to perform at a superior level?

The New Brain is the story of technology and biology converging to influence the evolution of the human brain. Dramatic advances are now possible, as well as the potential for misuse and abuse.