The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman

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Given that he serves as a professor at Stanford University, the department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, he certainly knows his facts.

Neurons fire and seeming random clustered pixels form to make words. Perhaps you’re sipping on coffee, eyes rolling as I attempt to predict your movements, the rim of the cup nevertheless brought to your lips. And then a miracle takes place. I know it; Eagleman devoted most of a chapter to how someone was able to perform the seemingly simplistic act of drinking, how the millions of decisions, which control your muscles, sense of balance and so on, all happen behind a veil of obliviousness. He sets out to explain the complexity of the actions we take for granted. These snippets of stories, such as how we walk or why we make friends with certain people, and half-formed scenes are underscored by in-depth, yet intelligible analysis- with accompanying surprising experiments to highlight the sheer beauty of the spongle-like muscle locked behind bone.

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This is an ingenious book because it tears away the shadow of mystery from a part of our lives. Why do we want to help others? Why do we connect with non-animate objects? Given that we’ve only recently evolved into a society which doesn’t hold the necessity of wild foraging as an imperative, it suddenly doesn’t seem like a completely unconsidered question. When our ancestors were lolling around, and the framework for our brains today were being carved out, it was about survival; holding the cave door open wouldn’t get you anywhere. So where did this altruism spring from (at least in some people… in others, sadly, it appears to be an evolutionary step which bypassed them).

Eagleman answers the questions about yourself you never even thought to ask, and delights you with answers that make you wish, if you could swallow medical school, you too could be a neuroscientist.

Or maybe that’s just me.

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Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

Moonwalker. Innovator. Alcoholic.

A brutally honest autobiography of Aldrin’s life, reflecting on not only the stellar parts of his career, but the parts which have shrouded him in despair and embarrassment.

Many Americans view Buzz Aldrin as a national icon; a hero. Part of Apollo 11, the space mission which cemented him in history as the second man to ever walk on the Moon, Aldrin certainly is extraordinary. But there are other sections of his life that define him, too. Like when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, an author of novels or when he spent most his days slumped beneath bedsheets, due to the overwhelming depression he suffered. Most people aren’t aware of this side, and Magnificent Desolation explains what precisely Aldrin went through following his Moon Landing; it turns out that the physical side effects were the least of his worries, and that he was psychologically underprepared for the fame that would ensue.

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This book, despite being co-written by Ken Abraham, was definitely written by Aldrin. The words had bitter edges on certain topics (like when discussing his failures in his post-astronaut military career, or when discussing conspiracy theorists) and at other times would appear as if he was desperately trying to seem complementary, as if through the publication of this book he was wary of any outstanding offences he could cause.

Also, occasionally Aldrin would start to build up an event as if it had massive significance in the grand scheme of his life, and as a reader I would wonder what this event would foreshadow. More often than not it turned out to be completely irrelevant and not tie into anything else in the book:

“One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refused to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield. In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got back to the hotel, my first call was to the attache at the embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have successful, because the photo never showed up”

It’s just utterly frustrating. If it turned out that the image had been leaked and had started to give Aldrin an awful reputation which affected his speaking career, then it would have been understandable. But nothing came of it- so why waste a paragraph mentioning  an irrelevant event that is not tied onto anything else in the book? This happened so many times throughout and frankly I found myself exasperated.

What I did enjoy though was when Aldrin started to discuss how in his later career he continued to develop ideas for space exploration. His words sounded so resolute and hopeful for the future- how by 2030 we should have people living on Mars, and his grand plans for a Mars Shuttle System. Above all I found that part fascinating, because it offered me an insight into the future of space. He spoke a lot about space tourism too; it seems like a plausible concept and he discusses it at length because he had devoted plenty of time to ensuring that it became as intrinsic to the American economy as ordinary tourism. We’re not quite there yet, but time can only tell!

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I would recommend this autobiography to those  who have an interest in space history and astronauts, as it does not only offer a valuable insight to Aldrin’s life, but also into the future of space in our society. It is not a necessarily a relaxing read as most of the information is presented quite factually and straightforwardly, but nevertheless I’m glad I gave it go!

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

The title is misleading. Having sold 19 million copies across the globe and accessible in 46 languages, suffice to say, the Secret isn’t quite so confidential anymore.

19 million is a large number. So what’s the attraction? Apparently, according to Rhonda Bryne, it’s in your thoughts. The actual Secret is the law of attraction, which basically means that the thoughts coming from You (she was very found precociously capitalising this pronoun) could control the Universe, as long as they’re on the right frequency. All you had to do, it seems, was twist your internal antenna and tell the Universe what you wanted. In fact, it clearly says: “You are the master of the Universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the Perfection of Life.” Bryne continues by telling us that apparently you, (yes “You”), have attracted everything in your life towards you. So, she continues that means that people who have cancer, were in a housefire or unwillingly part of a warfare were so because their thoughts had attracted them to that situation. It seems questionable.

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But there is technically some truth in The Secret, in the sense that it relates to the psychological concept: “Confirmation Bias”, and manipulates it slightly in order to make the book the best-seller that it is (along with the help of the promotional shout outs by Oprah Winfrey). So the Secret says think good thoughts, and good things will come your way: well, we are already subject to confirmation bias, whether we know it or not. As all scientific studies has shown, humans have incredibly short attention spans, so we have to select carefully what we pay attention to. An easy example of this is a broken friendship: you and this friend are getting along swimmingly until they do something shocking to break this bond. Enraged and surprised by this, you review your past few months together and suddenly realise how all along they’ve been scheming, and you’ve never recognised these blatant signs until now- because you’re actively looking for them.

In short, the Secret channels confirmation bias to such an extent that you are obsessively positive for a such a long time that eventually the bias must to work. It changes your perspective on life and encourages you to never doubt yourself and always take that plunge, because negativity will be your downfall. This kind of positive thinking, where you consistently tell yourself that you WILL get that job interview, or whatever else you aspire to, actually resolves in laziness. We become complacent because we have already ‘completed’ the task- which results in a lack of motivation and thus preparation, because what’s the point if you’ve already ‘achieved’ the end result? Therefore overall performance will be lower. And anyway, on a personal level I don’t think that it is such a good idea: think about all those crazy ideas we’ve had (what if you had worn that cat suit to the Christmas Party last year- what would Aunt May think of you now)? Precisely. I believe that second thoughts are useful after all.

But- and this is where the Secret attempts to justify itself, it has loyal supporters! William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are meant to have owed their successes to this Secret. There is only limited evidence though: random quotations dotted throughout the oddly square book which have only very weak relevance to the topic at hand. Here is an extract from the book:

“ ‘Is this a friendly Universe?’ … Albert Einstein posed this powerful question because he knew The Secret. He knew by asking the question it would force us to think and make a choice.”

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I am not sure that is entirely justifiable. Einstein actually offers us the meaning behind his quote, and it’s surprising that Bryne didn’t include it in her self-help book, (as it completely contradicts what she decided it meant). Einstein explains that “If we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe.” No concepts about thought-attraction here, I’m afraid, and no mention of the Secret he was allegedly so fond of.

So; the Secret. Take it, or leave it. It’s a strange concept, with psychological roots wrapped up in mushy quotes about our perfections and best-selling anecdotes that tell people exactly what they want to hear. The question is, have you read the book? Do you believe it to be true, or not- if you do, do you have any examples?

The Moth- Book of the Month November

You walk away from a conversation with friends. Shaking your head, marvelling at the bizarre cases of truth. How no one could possibly have made that up. Welcome to the Moth.

The Moth is a kind of event, where people stand up and recount true hilarious, heart-breaking or horrifying stories on the stage. And, standing alone on the stage, clutching only their memories and a mic in their hands, they all have a personal touch. The Moth as a novel is no different: it is merely a compilation of 50 of the best short stories that have been told. Originally, The Moth was created to mimic that feeling of story-telling around the campfire, as your words pour out of you whilst everyone else is leaning in, the flames’ shadows flickering on your face. There is a deep sense of satisfaction rooted in sharing stories; after all we’ve been doing it for most of our history, and just because we have superior technology doesn’t mean this art should fade away: that’s why it is called The Moth; it reflects the fact that humans are attracted to stories like moths to a light, and maybe it is our light; our escape from reality.

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And, although it’s in the written word, this has still been conveyed into the book. Each story has been copied from the speaker (because they’re all spoken on-stage, remember,) word for word. This is fantastic for us, readers, because it presents you with the genuine idiosyncrasies of their voices. You feel like they’re standing over their shoulder, whispering into your ear, and you truly get a framework for their character. People speak differently depending on their upbringing. You know that. So you will understand how frustrating it is when all the characters in a book sound the same; well, all I can say is that the Moth will provide relief in that respect.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys any form of a short story, because there is a wide variation in the topics covered, so you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Each one is a convenient length so that normally you can read it in one sitting, but usually I’m so enthralled by the previous tale I am driven to discover the next one, and see where it leads me! The best thing about The Moth is that there are so many topics covered. It isn’t simply about travelling, or love, or that funny thing Jeff said yesterday. There are magnificent stories, such as the one about the man who saved Mother Teresa’s life, or optimistic ones, like the woman testing out life with a new prosthetic limb, or harrowing stories about a scientist and his relationship with his monkey used in experiments. It evoked so many emotions with me- so if you’re looking for an uplifting read or a challenging one, then look no further.

 

Chris Hadfield- An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

We were all bombarded by the same question. It came up frequently throughout
childhood, and our answers would probably amuse us today. What do you want to do when you’re older? It started off mostly with cowboys, firemen and pirates, and then as we grew so did our knowledge; it moved onto doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. In my case, the answer was nearly always an author, but to start off with, among with the millions of other children, I fantasised about being an astronaut. Didn’t you, once? I thought yes! Let’s jump onto that rocket, clomp around on the Moon for a bit, fly home, and job done. What fun! I left that particular dream at that, thankfully.

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On the other hand, when Chris Hadfield was nine, he witnessed the Moon landing. It ignited a passion; overnight he wanted to be an astronaut, and it turned out this wasn’t a fleeting aspiration. This book is an insightful glimpse into how Hadfield went from dreaming about space, to achieving a job at NASA, to becoming Canada’s most celebrated astronaut and logging nearly 4,000 hours in space. Through charismatic wit and an
abundance of humour, Hadfield relays his incredible past, offering an unique insight into the profession of an astronaut, what life is truly like in space, and the importance having chilli sachets on a rocket. It is an unconventional autobiography though; it’s also littered with bubbles of wisdom that are ultimate life lessons. Hadfield has not achieved his various monumental feats through sheer luck; there were over 5,300 people applying to be an astronaut, and he was one of the 4 victorious applicants. No, he has simple formulas to success, which are easily accessible and are illustrated with unbelievable anecdotes from Hadfield’s own history. (Can you believe he once had to fight a live snake whilst piloting a plane?) Thankfully this isn’t a book which preaches about inner peace, or has complicated flow charts. Nor it is a dull account of the thermodynamics lessons that are essential to space training. Instead, this book is written with a flair, and what Hadfield has learnt during his 21 year career is surprisingly relatable to our grounded lives.

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A rare insight into one of the world’s most difficult careers, this is definitely a book to read. There are galaxies of things we as readers can learn from, whether it’s the power of negative thinking, how to be an effective leader, to the one question every astronaut always asks themselves in space. It’s honest and genuine; if anything, it’s reignited the nation’s dwindling interest in space.