Book Review: The Three-Pound Enigma

Shannon Moffett, author of The Three Pound Enigma [book website; Amazon], was kind enough to send us a copy of her book to review. To be honest, when I first took a look at the book, I was pretty sure that — while it might be a great, general-neuroscience-interest book for the public — it would certainly not appeal or be informative for the specialist in our Neurodudes audience. Now, after reading her wonderful book, I realize how wrong I was.

Full review is after the jump.

Moffett is a medical student who became interested in neuroscience through a neuroanatomy course she took at Stanford. For most people, an interest in neuroscience might spur further reading, contemplation of graduate school, etc. But Moffett decided to talk to several people (neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, and neuro patients) firsthand to satisfy her own neuroscience curiousities. This particular approach has its own strengths and weaknesses: namely, that the book necessarily follows Moffett’s path and her own interests. It is not particularly comprehensive about any one area (nor does that appear to be her intention) but it does a good job of chronicling her intellectual journey with the depth necessary to make it worth the effort of any reader, beginning or advanced. Importantly, it is not a content-poor survey of what’s new and cool in neuroscience. There seems to be a flood of this type of book recently and I am happy to say that Enigma is not to be counted amongst those works.

What makes the book worthwhile is that Moffett has had real, sincere conversations with people in the book and those conversations provide extra insight to the papers and experiments she explains. Her verbal snapshots are fascinating: How a fast-talking neurosurgeon’s day unfolds, undergoing a sleep research study on dreaming as a patient, conversing with different personalities of a dissociative identity disorder patient, and several others.

One of the most fascinating portions of the book details the time Moffett spent with Francis Crick and Christof Koch (in the few months right before Crick’s death). The casual dialogues between Crick and Koch as they hypothesize how the brain assembles information into conscious thought provide a unique viewpoint for Moffett’s nice presentation of their consciousness framework. In this section, she recounts an amusing conversation where Crick is harshly critical of his wife’s naive understanding of electricity and prods the readers to consider if perhaps Crick’s ideas on consciousness — an unabashedly difficult thing to study — might one day be regarded as similarly naive.

Moffett’s strength lies in her ability to not simply present the research as it is but to enhance understanding of the research through her dialogues with those involved in creating it. Anyone who has seen a good talk knows how much more valuable it can be than simply reading the paper, especially at providing context and insight into the researcher’s path of discovery. The same is true with Enigma . Perhaps it was the title more than anything else which shaped my initial, disdainful impression of the book as only one of the many popular, “gee-whiz-isn’t-the-brain-neat” group of recent books. But it is a well-researched work full of insightful conversations and I recommend it highly.

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