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Your Brain: The Missing Manual by Matthew MacDonald

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Introduction

This is a book about that wet mass of crumpled-up cell tissue called the brain, and why it’s responsible for everything from true love to getting you out of bed in the morning. It’s a book about how we think, how we feel, and why it’s so difficult to stay away from that second piece of triple-chocolate cheesecake. It’s a book that teaches you how to get a good nap, warns you never to trust a memory, and explains why—as successful as you may be—you’ll probably never be much happier than you are right now (see Chapter 6).

There are many excellent books that explore the brain’s anatomical inner workings. But in this book, biology takes a back seat to practical advice. In other words, you won’t just focus on how the brain works, but on how you can use it more effectively. After all, your brain is easily your most important possession (or arguably a strong second place after that slick iPhone or those hot new shoes). It deserves proper upkeep.

Learning how to use your brain means delving into its quirks—and as you’ll see in this book, the brain is full of quirks. Unwritten rules shape how the brain interprets a scene, reconstructs a memory, and solves a problem. Most of the time, these rules work to your advantage. After all, if it took you several minutes of conscious thought to separate a traffic sign from a sanitation truck, you’d have an unhappy time crossing the street. But other times your brain’s automatic assumptions can mask reality or encourage exactly the wrong reaction.

In this book, you’ll learn to work around some of your brain’s limitations. You’ll also learn to enjoy the quirks you can’t change (some of which make for great party tricks). Either way, by the time you’ve finished the last chapter, you’ll have an entirely new understanding of the cauliflower-shaped organ that rules your life.

About This Book

This book is intended to be a practical look at how to get the most out of your brain. What makes it different from the average self-help guide is the fact that it’s grounded in modern-day neuroscience.

This book has one advantage over most other books in the Missing Manuals series, which focus on computer software and cool gadgets: Unlike the headline-grabbing products of the high-tech world, your brain won’t become obsolete anytime soon. Despite its weaknesses (such as slow calculation speed), its limitations (the need to spend a third of the day deeply asleep), its arguable bugs (optical illusions and nightmares), and its missing features (an auditory lie detector, emotion override switch, memory downloader, and so on), you’re unlikely to find a way to significantly upgrade your brain in your lifetime. Microsoft will not release a patch. Apple will not supply a replacement. The only thing that will change is our understanding of what happens in the 100 billion neurons inside your cranium.

Learning how to use your brain often involves learning a bit more about its plumbing. For example, in this book you’ll learn about the electrical pulses and chemical messengers that govern your thoughts, drives, and emotions. In these cases, a dash of neuroscience can explain quite a few of the stranger details of day-to-day life. However, there are whole fields of brain science that you won’t touch, simply because they won’t help you fine-tune your noggin. For example, you won’t explore rare brain injuries or diseases that lead to puzzling symptoms, such as those popularized in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Summit Books, 1985) or V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain (William Morrow, 1998)—both of which make for fascinating follow-up reading. Instead, you’ll concentrate on tweaking and tuning your own mental hardware.

About the Outline

Your journey through the brain wends its way through 10 chapters:

  • A Lap Around the Brain (Chapter 1) starts you off with a tour of the brain’s biological machinery. You’ll learn how the brain works, how it’s evolved, and why.

  • Brain Food: Healthy Eating (Chapter 2) goes in search of a brain-friendly diet. Along the way, you’ll learn why your brain is an energy hog, how it uses cravings to get you snacking, and how you can fight inappropriate food urges.

  • Sleep: Taking Your Brain Offline (Chapter 3) explores the question “What happens during your nightly 8 hours of oblivion?” (And if you’ve already answered “chase vampires, drive through tunnels, and appear at formal occasions wearing surprisingly little amounts of clothing,” you’ll be happy to hear that this chapter also attempts to nail down the riddle of dreams.)

  • Perception (Chapter 4) leads you through the mirror-lined funhouse of perception. You’ll look at brain-bending optical illusions, and see how the brain uses ingrained assumptions to lead you astray—over and over again.

  • Memory (Chapter 5) explores the mysterious power of the brain to encode your skills and experiences. You’ll meet two men who can’t remember, and one who’s cursed with never forgetting.

  • Emotions (Chapter 6) enters the hot-headed world of feelings. You’ll see how the brain processes fear and pleasure, and how it ratchets down happiness to prevent you from getting too comfortable.

  • Reason (Chapter 7) explores how the brain reasons or, more frequently, how it avoids thinking with snap judgments and sloppy logic. You’ll learn how to defend yourself against an assortment of common fallacies, and how to use creative thinking to solve vexing problems.

  • Your Personality (Chapter 8) examines what makes you, well, you. You’ll learn how scientists measure personality using five core factors, and get ready to take a test that exposes your own inner nature.

  • The Battle of the Sexes (Chapter 9) goes where few dare set foot. You’ll see how hormones sculpt the brains of men and women, and you’ll consider how these chemical forces may (or may not) account for gender differences. Finally, you’ll watch the fireworks happening inside a brain that’s in love.

  • The Developing Brain (Chapter 10) ends the book by looking at the timeline of your brain, from the moment it first developed in the womb to the time it will finally shudder to a halt. Along the way, you’ll search for the cause of teenage moodiness.

Separating Truth from Speculation

Neuroscience evolves rapidly, and the insights in this book are based on its most recent discoveries. However, as with all scientific knowledge, there’s always the possibility that better, more comprehensive studies will overturn the concepts we use today or change the way we think about them. In fact, it’s a given.

When dealing with cutting-edge research, we’ve chosen not to bury you in footnotes. (Our basic feeling is that footnotes are only as good as the research on which they’re based, and it’s easy to cite a great deal of nonsense written by a great many people.) Instead, look to the language of this book to distinguish rock-solid truths from tantalizing speculations. When this book says “some scientists believe,” you’re about to meet a promising new idea that has some heavyweight neuroscientists behind it, but hasn’t convinced everyone. When this book says “one study found,” you’re looking at some provocative new evidence that’s on the cutting edge of brain research.

About MissingManuals.com

At the www.missingmanuals.com Web site, you’ll find articles, tips, and updates to this book. Click the “Missing CD” link, and then click this book’s title to see a neat chapter-by-chapter list of all the Web sites mentioned in these pages. You’ll also find a brief bibliography with the books and Web sites referenced in these pages, and a few suggestions for further reading.

You’re invited and encouraged to submit corrections and updates for this book. In an effort to keep it as up-to-date and accurate as possible, each time we print more copies we’ll make any confirmed corrections you’ve suggested. We’ll also note such changes on the Web site, so you can mark important corrections in your own copy, if you like. (Click the book’s name, and then click the “View/Submit Errata” link to see the changes.)

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your suggestions for new titles in the Missing Manual line. There’s a place for that on the Web site too, as well as a place to sign up for a free newsletter about the series.

While you’re online, you can also register this book at www.oreilly.com (you can jump directly to the registration page by going here: http://tinyurl.com/yo82k3). Registering means we can send you updates about this book, including any additions or Web-only offerings.

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