Synopses & Reviews
Does the mind reflect or dictate what the body sees and feels? What is the language of emotion? Is memory a function of our imaginations? Are we all just out of our minds?
In this ambitious and enlightening work, Diane Ackerman combines an artist's eye with a scientist's erudition to illuminate the magic and mysteries of the human brain. With An Alchemy of Mind, she offers an unprecedented exploration of the mental fantasia in which we spend our days. In addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, Ackerman reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses such controversial subjects as the effects of trauma, nature versus nurture, and male versus female brains. In prose that is not simply accessible but also beautiful and electric, Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness and the nature of identity.
"Partly close observation, partly free association, Ackerman's paean turns the inside of our heads into...[something] gorgeous, tender, jewelled."
-- The New York Times Book Review
"[A] lovely...arresting...discourse on brain science."
-- Entertainment Weekly
"A love song to the brain...combines flights of lyricism and autobiographical reflection with a cooler, more cerebral amalgam of science, anthropology, psychology, history, and literature."
-- Francine Prose, More magazine
"Evocative and meaningful."
-- Carl Zimmer, The Washington Post
"Ackerman [is] our poetic chronicler of the natural world."
-- Chicago Tribune
From the bestselling author of "A Natural History of the Senses" "comes a playful, rewarding jaunt through the brain's chemical realities and emotional intangibles" ("Kirkus Reviews").
About the Author
Diane Ackerman is a naturalist and poet and the author of ten books of literary nonfiction, including A Natural History of the Senses, A Natural History of Love, and Cultivating Delight. Also the author of six volumes of poetry and several nonfiction children's books, she contributes to The New York Times, Discover, National Geographic, Parade, and many other publications. Ackerman lives in Ithaca, New York.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Enchanted Loom
Imagining the brain.
Chapter 2. This Island Earth
Evolution; the world's tiniest reptile; our brain and other animals'.
Chapter 3. Why We Ask "Why?"
What happens in the right brain vs. the left brain; why we're driven to tell stories.
Chapter 4. The Fibs of Being
Consciousness; some definitions and theories.
Chapter 5. Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines
The unconscious; how it collaborates with the conscious mind.
Sweet Dreams of Reason
(The Physical Brain)
Chapter 6. The Shape of Thought
Neurons, dendrites, axons; how all the parts speak to each other.
Chapter 7. Inner Space
Synapses, the plasticity of the brain; how we influence brain development; medication and the brain.
Chapter 8. Attention Please
How we unconsciously choose what to pay attention to; multitasking; absentmindedness.
Chapter 9. A Passion for Patterns
How our brain quests for meaning in what it senses.
Chapter 10. In the Church of the Pines
The spiritual brain.
Chapter 11. Einstein's Brain
What happened to it? Was it different?
Chapter 12. The Mind's Eye
The brain's ability to imagine/see things that aren't in view at the time.
Pavilions of Desire
Chapter 13. What Is a Memory?
The importance of memory to who we are; how memories are formed; how they're influenced.
Chapter 14. Reflections in a Gazing Ball
How memories are recalled; association of pain and memory; unconscious memory.
Chapter 15. Remember What?
What happens when we learn; words on the tip of the tongue; Alzheimer's and the aging brain; IQ; short-term vs. long-term memory; how memories affect the present.
Chapter 16. Remember, I Dream
The role of dreams in memory.
Chapter 17. "Hello," He Lied
True and false memories; subliminally influencing thought and memory.
Chapter 18. Traumatic Memories
How they're stored and recalled; connections between emotions and memory.
Chapter 19. Smell, Memory, and the Erotic
Proust; perfume; love.
Never a Dull Torment
(The Self, and Other Fictions)
Chapter 20. Introducing the Self
How we think of ourself; the multiple facets of a self.
Chapter 21. The Other Self
Body and mind; immune system and brain; brain damage and loss of self.
Chapter 22. Personality
Nature vs. nurture; genetics and experience; development as babies.
Chapter 23. "Shall It Be Male or Female? Say the Cells"
Male and female brains; if they work differently; how they're shaped; how traits get passed on.
Chapter 24. Creating Minds
Artistic minds, mathematical minds -- inherited, cultivated; how they differ; synesthesia.
The World Is Breaking Someone Else's Heart
Chapter 25. The Emotional Climate
Anger, stress, adrenaline, how they affect and are relieved by the brain; our brain isn't made for the modern world; fear, painful thoughts.
Chapter 26. The Pursuit of Happiness
Happiness as hereditary and achieved; the difference in the brain between natural and forced laughter; optimistic and pessimistic brains.
The Color of Saying
Chapter 27. Memory's Accomplice
Language acquisition, use, and nonverbal thinking.
Chapter 28. Metaphors Be with You
How words organize experience.
Chapter 29. The Color of Saying
The origin of words; how we reveal ourselves through words; the brain finding relations among things.
Chapter 30. Shakespeare on the Brain
How Shakespeare's brain was different.
The Wilderness Within
(The World We Share)
Chapter 31. Oasis
Evolution of life; how our brain came to be.
Chapter 32. Conscience and Consciousness
Are we the only conscious animals? Some theories about consciousness.
Chapter 33. A Kingdom of Neighbors
Chapter 34. The Beautiful Captive
Imaging the brain; brain research; celebration of the uniquely human brain.
Notes, Addenda, and Afterthoughts