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The New Brain    by Richard Restak order for
New Brain
by Richard Restak
Order:  USA  Can
Rodale, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

There is much to feed our little gray cells in The New Brain. Dr. Richard Restak addresses fascinating topics, that range from the physical changes that modern lifestyles impose on our brains, to possibilities for taking advantage of brain plasticity throughout life, as well as both current research and future directions for brain enhancement through technology.

Dr. Restak tells us that we are living in an age where the rhythm of life is faster, a time 'of increasing demands on our attention and focus', so that characteristics previously considered dysfunctional, such as 'hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and easy distractibility, are now almost the norm.' We experience a multilevel reality in time and space, through technology such as cell phones and television, but are unable to fully focus on any activity. The author goes into detail of the cost multitasking imposes on brain function, and describes experiments that show significant reductions in efficiency (a scary notion when applied to even hands-free cell phone use in cars). On the other hand, listening to music can enhance efficiency of certain activities like surgery, since they 'activate different parts of the brain'; it's all a matter of 'cerebral geography'.

Other research addresses the degree to which we are assaulted with images (often alarming), the process creating new circuits in our brains. Apparently the emotional impact of disturbing images affects us all, but can be especially destructive to some individuals, including children. The author quotes research after 9/11 that indicates that 'watching the events live on TV produced levels of distress that in some cases equaled that of people who were either present at the sites or where in telephone contact with someone in the buildings or on the planes.' Sounds like we need to turn off the TV more often. The author tells us that he is 'convinced that constant exposure to visual depictions of suffering, conflict, and violence creates dysfunctional circuits within areas of the brain that mediate emotion.' That makes sense to me, having observed relatives in N. Ireland develop, over the years, emotional calluses to violent TV news reports.

Other topics include 'Brain Fingerprinting' which succeeds because electrical activity in brain memory centers changes when something familiar is seen; the possibility of new treatments for depression based on individualized DNA chips; rehabilitation of a damaged brain through a 'Restrain-Retrain' approach; brain activity measurements that show a reversal of brain deficits underlying dyslexia after intensive remedial reading instruction; sensory substitution that can give the blind a form of sight (research on tongue-based sensory reception is very interesting); and a computer chip being researched to combat Alzheimer's. But the author also warns of limits on exploitation of brain plasticity, based on emotional difficulties experienced with use of sensory substitution devices. And he raises the topic of Neuroethics, 'concerned with the moral and ethical issues arising from new, brain-related scientific findings'. For example, what do we do when advances allow us to predict violent behavior in humans, making Minority Report no longer SF?

It's exciting stuff, and we can anticipate impressive developments in our lifetimes. I only wish that so many of these experiments were not done on animals, and worry, as with all technical advances, that ethical considerations are unlikely to keep pace.

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