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Insane Science: 5 New Books That Explain The Brain

Chris Silas Neal

When the sun finally comes out and the sweaters get tossed in the basement, we're all at least a little tempted to turn off our brains. Don't do it! Summer reading — in this case, summer reading about the science of the mind — can be a lot more fun than dodging volleyballs on a beach. Neuroscience isn't just about parts of the brain and hard-to-pronounce chemicals; the books listed here cover everything from religion to pornography, from die-hard optimists to remorseless sociopaths. Sure, there's a lot of knowledge to be mined in these volumes, but most importantly, they're all fast, fun reads. As subject matter, the brain, it turns out, makes for the ultimate page-turner and science (don't tell my high school bio teacher I said this) the epitome of cool.


The Compass Of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, And Gambling Feel So Good

By David J. Linden, hardcover, 240 pages, Viking, list price: $26.95

Unless you're at the kind of cookout where words like amygdala and dopamine get tossed around instead of Frisbees, you're probably not thinking too intently about what's going on in your "medial forebrain pleasure circuit." That might change if you read neuroscientist David J. Linden's The Compass of Pleasure, a hugely entertaining look at why we enjoy the things we enjoy. They're not all vices, either — your brain can be stimulated by sex and drugs, but it also derives pleasure from working out and, believe it or not, paying your taxes. There's hardcore biology here, but it's tempered with personal anecdotes, penetrating observations and quotes from the likes of comedian Mitch Hedberg and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. If you're science-phobic, don't worry: Linden is incredibly smart, but comes across as the funny, patient professor you wish you'd had in college.


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts To Gods To Politics And Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs And Reinforce Them As Truths

By Michael Shermer, hardcover, 400 pages, Times Books, list price: $28

"Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow." That's the argument professional skeptic Michael Shermer makes in The Believing Brain, a book that fuses neuroscience, sociology and the author's own biographical stories into a compelling and sometimes deeply personal read — even if you don't agree with him on everything. And you won't.

Shermer, a former evangelical Christian who became an agnostic in college, now dedicates his sprawling career to debunking what he sees as superstitions and failures of logic, from religion to alien abduction to Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. In this, his 17th book, he argues that supernatural beliefs are the product of our brains and that we arrive at those beliefs in spite of — not because of — scientific evidence. Shermer is a convincing voice, but he's not necessarily a hardliner — he points out that while the scientific method remains "the best tool ever" when it comes to deflating paranormal claims, "we must always remember that we could be wrong."

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry


By Jon Ronson, hardcover, 288 pages, Riverhead, list price: $25.95

When you think about relaxing summer reading, studies of psychopaths probably don't pop into your mind. (At least we hope not.) But that shouldn't stop you from picking up Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. The subject matter is, yes, disturbing, but Ronson's book is one of the funniest and most entertaining of the year. In its enjoyable pages, the British journalist and author of The Men Who Stare at Goats goes in search of one of the world's most enigmatic and frightening personality disorders. He talks to psychiatrists, a patient at a notorious English psychiatric hospital, an exiled terrorist and a disgraced CEO. (One theory suggests that psychopaths, who seem to lack a conscience, do inordinately well in business.) It's unsettling stuff, to be sure, but Ronson is a charmingly self-deprecating and remarkably charismatic author. The bad news? Scientists estimate that 1 percent of the population is psychopathic. The good news? A psychiatrist assures Ronson, if you're worried you might be a psychopath, you're almost certainly not one.

The Optimism Bias: A Tour Of The Irrationally Positive Brain


By Tali Sharot, hardcover, 272 pages, Pantheon, list price: $25.95

Even the most cheerful and upbeat among us might be tempted to bang our head against a wall if we are forced to hear "Don't Worry, Be Happy" one more time. But as Tali Sharot points out in her fascinating new book, The Optimism Bias, that stubbornly sunny attitude is not necessarily what optimism means. Even if you're a dedicated cynic, you might be surprised to learn that your brain is wearing rose-colored glasses, whether you like it or not.

Drawing from biology and psychology — as well as from such unlikely sources as the Los Angeles Lakers, Shirley Temple and Guinness stout — London-based scientist Sharot explains why the brains of most people are programmed to predict happy endings in all facets of our lives. Hope isn't just a campaign slogan, she argues; it's an instinct of self-preservation. What your irrepressibly chipper friends have been telling you is right: studies show that optimists tend to live longer and pessimists die younger. Optimism might just be your mind playing tricks on you, but it turns out there's a good reason for that.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What The World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire


By Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, hardcover, 416 pages, Dutton, list price: $26.95

If you want to know what people think about sex, just ask them. But If you want to know what people really think about sex, go to the Internet. That's where scientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam turned to research their explicit, engrossing and occasionally disturbing A Billion Wicked Thoughts, which seeks to explain how men and women experience sexual desire differently. (It may seem self-evident, but it's worth repeating the authors' warning: this is not a book for children.)

Crunching reams of Internet-browsing data, Ogas and Gaddam draw some surprising conclusions about what turns us on and what "squicks us out." Men's sexual brains, they argue, are more like Elmer Fudd and women's more like Miss Marple. As for our conventional wisdom about sex, it's largely untrue, they write. We all know that straight men prefer young, slender women; that women have no interest in pornography; and that only gay men are turned on by seeing other men's genitals. Right? Wrong. We don't always want what we think we do — and the proof, Ogas and Gaddam assert like a couple of well-meaning psych-major nerds with spyware, is in our X-rated browser histories.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.