Professors used to teach that the human mind could never fully understand the human mind, because, as postulated, one cannot define an unknown by means of an unknown. Shaped to support and protect the brain, the skull, by its very design, prevented scientists from closely examining the world's most complex structure until after a person died. In recent decades, however, powerful technology has allowed us to see such wonders as thought taking place in the brain. In An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, Diane Ackerman escorts the reader inside the skull to the 100 billion nerve cells that's right, 100 billion that do the brain's heavy work. It is a fascinating trip.
In addition to telling us which part of the brain does what, Ackerman tackles subjects that most of us ponder from time to time. Who hasn't for a moment inexplicably groped for a word on the tip of the tongue or failed to remember a close friend's name or couldn't recall what we did last weekend and then wondered if these scary blanks are warnings of an early onset of Alzheimer's? Ackerman describes remarkable experiments on both animals and humans that have awesome implications for Earth's featherless bipeds. In one, the intelligence and memory of a mouse were boosted five-fold by enlivening certain molecules for 150 thousandths of a second. She also tells of tests to locate and map guilty thoughts in the human brain, suggesting the possibility that airline ticket-holders some day might be brain-scanned and raising the quandary of how to tell if a suspected traveler is a terrorist with destructive intent or merely a passenger who has fibbed to his spouse.
Ackerman, whose prodigious output of poetry and nonfiction works includes the best-selling A Natural History of the Senses, acknowledges that "nature holds more secrets than we can unpuzzle." One example: the author, who holds a doctorate from Cornell and is consistently brilliant and perceptive in her writing, flunked logic as a college freshman.
Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.