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by Eliezer Sternberg
Pantheon, 2016
Review by Sachin Sarin on May 10th 2016


NeuroLogic: The Brain's Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior is a foray into the world of neuroscience directed towards the layperson. Dr. Eliezer J. Strenberg, a resident neurologist at Yale, allows his own curiosity to guide readers through an explanation of how the brain works using a series of different anecdotes, analogies and research studies. He argues that the brain's unconscious system processes a wide array of information in order to present a narrative to the individual's conscious system which results in his/her human experience. When information is missing, altered or processed inappropriately, the result is seemingly illogical behavior that can be best understood by exploring the brain's underlying reasoning, or NeuroLogic. Dr. Sternberg poses a different thought provoking question in each chapter and uses this as a starting point to explore how NeuroLogic functions and leads to peculiarities in behavior.

In Chapter 1 Dr. Sternberg asks "What do the Blind see when they Dream?: On Perception, Dreams and the Creation of the External World" and uses this question to start to explore the dynamics of human perception. He explains that perception is not just the result of what is around us but also how our brain processes that information. He argues that two main systems underlie our behavior: the unconscious and the conscious. The unconscious brain is constantly working to identify and predict patterns while concurrently assimilating our different perceptions, filling in the gaps as needed, into a single, meaningful interpretation. The conscious system experiences this interpretation and can reflect on it and when appropriate, question it.  He suggests that during sleep the unconscious system is in control and allows different parts of the brain to communicate unfettered by the questioning nature of the conscious system. It is only when we awake and our conscious system comes back online that we can appreciate the unusual nature of our dreams.

In Chapter 2, titled "Can Zombies Drive to Work?: On Habit, Self-Control, and the possibility of Human Automatism" Dr. Sternberg examines the complex motor behaviors that humans are able to complete seemingly unconsciously, like driving a car.  He argues that when the unconscious system is in control it is analogous to the brain being on autopilot and while the system is fast it may be prone to errors for example, if a novel situation were to arise.  He also explains certain sleep disorders (sleepwalking) that allow the unconscious to perform complex behaviors while the conscious system remains unaware and illustrates a harrowing example of this principle.

In Chapter 3, titled "Can your imagination make you a better athlete?: On Motor Control, Learning, and the power of Mental Stimulation" Dr. Sternberg explores the minds ability to rehearse and how this impacts performance. He uses studies to demonstrate that while we rehearse in our minds the same parts of our brain are at work as if we were actually performing the behaviour. This mental rehearsal can also improve performance.  He relates these ideas to the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain and how these neuronal structures relate to diverse topics like empathy, pornography and the autism spectrum.

In Chapter 4, titled "Can We Remember Things that Never Happened? On Memory, Emotion and the Egocentric Brain" Dr. Sternberg explores how memory works. He argues and provides evidence to support the idea that memories are encoded as different snapshots in our life. Our brain connects and organizes the snapshots into the narrative that becomes our conscious life. Organization is influenced by the emotional content and importance of the events. When memories are missing the brain will confabulate using it's own store of knowledge to maintain a cohesive narrative.

In Chapter 5, titled "Why do people believe in Alien Abductions? On Paranormal Experience, Narrative and the Development of Strange Beliefs" Dr. Sternberg suggests that disconnects between our unconscious and conscious systems can lead to the development of unusual beliefs. Sleep paralysis is one such example. During sleep paralysis the conscious system receives contradictory and conflicting information and as a result the unconscious system is left to create an explanation for the experience and for some individuals this leads to the belief that they were abducted by aliens. He asserts that some delusional beliefs like the Cotard and Capgras delusions are a result of disconnects between perception and emotion.  

In Chapter 6, titled "Why Do Schizophrenics Hear Voices? On Language, Hallucinations and the Self/Nonself Distinction" Dr. Sternberg argues that those with schizophrenia have a defect in recognizing self-generated thoughts and voices which leads to false information being passed around in the brain. The unconscious compiles the information and explains these voices and thoughts as being caused by an outside source and this often leads to unusual delusional beliefs.

In Chapter 7, titled "Can Someone Be Hypnotized to Commit Murder? On Attention, Influence, and the Power of Subconscious Suggestions"Dr. Sternberg explores how our behavior can be influenced by hypnosis, subliminal messaging and advertising.  He hypothesizes that hypnosis results from a supreme amount of concentration on imagination and as a result can influence behavior considerably more than subliminal messaging which does not utilize as many attentional resources.  

In Chapter 8, titled "Why can't Split Personalities Share Prescription Glasses?" Dr. Sterngberg explores the concept of the self as it relates to philosophy and the brain. He uses extreme emotional trauma to epitomize the lengths the brain will go to preserve one's sense of self and argues that dissociative identity disorder is a specific example of this phenomena. Specifically, he suggests that extreme emotional trauma leads the brain to segment off part of itself, much the way the body would segment off an abscess during an infection.

Overall, Neurologic is an illustrative, and engaging look at the neurosciences. Simple use of language and superb utilization of analogies and anecdotes provides readers, of any background, the ability to appreciate some of the complex workings of the human brain. Dr. Sternberg assimilates a wide breadth of literature to explain how the conscious and unconscious networks of the brain function. In doing so, he explores fascinating phenomena including, but not limited to, dreams, sleep disorders, phantom limb syndrome, confabulation, hallucinations, delusions, hypnosis and split personalities. For those already versed in the neurosciences some of the examples and principles described will feel familiar. However, as a psychiatry resident, who often has to explain these complex experiences to patients, I found the creative way in which complex behaviors were explained illuminating. Perhaps even the stigma affiliated with mental health disorders could improve if society as a whole had better understanding of NeuroLogic. Overall, the work provides for a thought-provoking exploration into the underpinnings of the human experience.  The audiobook is performed by Kaleo Griffith who provides a warm and entertaining read of an already compelling text.


© 2016 Sachin Sarin


Sachin Sarin, Psychiatry Resident, McMaster University