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Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

The subtitle of this book is ‘A Neuroscientist and his dog decode the canine brain’.  Gregory Berns – the neuroscientist in question – has done years of MRI work to help understand how the human brain works, but as a dog lover, he wanted to learn how a dog’s brain works.  After first determining that such a thing could even be done, he and his team at Emory University came up with methods of doing MRI scans on a canine brain.  He leads the reader through the initial idea, right through the various difficulties they had to overcome (for example, from being given the go-ahead to do the experiment in the first place, or  training dogs how to lie absolutely still in the MRI scanner.

The two dogs who participate in the experiment are Callie, Berns’ own adopted mix-breed, and McKenzie, the Border Collie owned by a friend of a friend. Berns describes the scientific aspects of the experiment, including how an MRI works and is used, and while the narrative sometimes necessarily becomes quite technical, it was explained simply enough for someone like me – with not the best grasp of scientific concepts – and didn’t lose me or bore me along the way.

Stories about Berns’ family life and his two dogs – as well as Callie, they have a Golden Retriever named Lyra – keep the story bouncing along, and underline the fact that while he is a scientist, he is also a dog lover, with the greatest respect for their happiness and well-being.  For that reason, he was determined that the experiment should not be detrimental to the dogs in any way, and that they should be allowed to not participate if that was what they chose.

It’s a fascinating study, and the telling of it is engaging and, for the most part, upbeat.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this particular branch of science, but also for any dog lovers.  Very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This book examines whether there really are – as is so often claimed – innate and immutable differences between males and females, in the way that they feel, think and empathise with others.  The author is of the belief that sex differences (which is the term generally used throughout the book) are learned, not innate (or as my old psychology tutor would say, nurtured not natural), and discusses the evidence to support her belief, as well as examining in detail experiments which would suggest the contrary.  The book also takes a special interest in how the belief that men and women brains work differently, leads to sexism in the home, workplace and society in general.

The book is divided into three parts – (1) measured differences between the sexes and how best to explain them (2) an ascorbic take-down of many experiments which suggest that sex differences are formed within the brain and are not learned, and (3) how sex/gender differences are learned in early childhood, despite some parents’ best efforts to give ‘gender neutral’ parenting.

I enjoyed the book a lot – it is quite science-y, but Fine does a great job of breaking everything down so that it is understandable and relatable in real terms (which is just as well for me, as I – perhaps unwittingly reinforcing the stereotypes which she talks about! – sometimes find very technical scientific terms hard to wrap my head around).

Fine is also a witty, wry and sarcastic writer, and her strong opinions certainly come through in her writing.  My favourite section was where she pointed out the flaws in some studies which concluded that sex differences are innate, and (basically) we should all just accept them, and not worry about it.  Some of the methodology was very shoddy – for example, it is hardly fair to draw a comparison between males and females in one test, when only females were examined for it!  I also thought it fascinating how, although by and large, people try not to push males and females into one bracket or another, we still end up unconsciously doing it.  (Example: if you go onto any maternity ward, you will instantly know from the colours of the cards and presents, whether that mother has had a boy or a girl.  Girls will almost certainly be exposed to more pink colours during childhood, and boys more blue.  Is it therefore that much of a shock when at a slightly older age, girls gravitate towards pink and boys towards blue?)

This was definitely a book which required concentration, and for the first part I could not read more than about 20 pages a day, to make sure I was taking it in.  But by the end, I was racing through it, because it was just such a fascinating read.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the differences between male and female brains, in sexism in today’s society, and/or the issue of feminism.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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