Lisa Feldman Barrett and 7 ½ Lessons About the Brain

What more can be said about the brain? It’s one of the more complex and fascinating organs of the human body. The nervous system actively interacts with our inner workings and the environment, creating a sense of self that is constantly present in our daily life. Still, readers are always searching for more information about the brain and how does it affect our lives. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett understands this better than any other expert in her field, her new book, 7 ½ Lesson About the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), is a breathtaking tour into some of the mysteries and facts about the highly complex organ.

The Lessons of Lisa Feldman Barrett

A Brief Tour to Our Brain

The spirit of Feldman Barrett’s book is in the same model of short popular science books that can draw the curiosity of the public. Her book follows a rich line of effective and highly readable science books written by scientists, like the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson or the biologist, E.O. Wilson. Barrett’s book presents the evolution of the brain and then expands on some of the inner workings of it. Her 7 ½ lessons explore the ways in which the brain interacts with our context, our evolutionary baggage, and the capabilities that it has:

Once upon a time, you were a little stomach on a stick, floating in the sea. Little by little, you evolve. You grew sensory systems and learned that you were part of a bigger world. You grew bodily systems to navigate that world efficiently. And you grew a brain that ran a budget for your body. You learned to live in groups with all the other little brains-in-bodies. You crawled out of the water and onto land. And across the expanse of evolutionary time –with the innovation that comes from trial and error and the deaths of trillions of animals– you ended up with a human brain. A brain that can do so many impressive things but at the same time severely misunderstands itself.

One of the main strengths of Feldman Barrett’s book is how she dispels myths about the organ. For decades, the so-called “neuromyths” plagued the field of neuroscience. In part, this came from active enthusiasm from governments and the public to learn more about the brain. After the decade of the brain, the titles on “brain” and “neuroscience” exploded into the literary scene, with some scientists, like Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Michael S. Gazzaniga, V.S. Ramachandran, among others, gaining exposure as ambassadors of the brain. And yet, some of the information got lost between the translation of the scientific language to the general reader. Numerous myths burst into our language and were used to justify bad science or outdated ideas.

Feldman Barrett’s quest disperse a lot of what we think of the brain and demystifies it. As Alan Jasanoff explained in his book, The Biological Mind, our image of the brain is still “abstract, unfathomable, and remote.”  He further expands that, “[w]hen brains appear in magazines or animations, they are surreal, free-floating forms, often blue and iridescent.” For Jasanoff, the only way to get familiar with the brain is to “lose some of the exaggerated sense of wonder that distance us from the organ of our minds.”

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be astonished at the wonderful powers of the brain, but we should afront the realities of how it works and why does it work that way. As Feldman Barrett explains:

…Why did a brain like yours evolve? that question is not answerable because evolution does not act with purpose —there is no “why.” But we can say what is your brain’s most important job. It’s not rationality. Not emotion. Not imagination, or creativity, or empathy. Your brain’s most important job is to control your body —to manage allostasis— by predicting energy needs before they arise so you can efficiently make worthwhile movements and survive. Your brain continually invests your energy in the hopes of earning a good return, such as food, shelter, affection, or physical protection, so you can perform nature’s most vital task: passing our genes to the next generation.[emphasis is mine]

Deconstructing the brain

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain in this instance draws from evolutionary science, psychology, and neuroscience to show how does passing our genes creates the processes of our brains.

Lisa Feldman Barret tackles topics that create the “mystic veil” of the brain. She emphasizes that, when integrating the neurons of the cerebellum, the count of brain cells surpasses well over 128 billion neurons –instead of the common 86 billion number that is currently used. She deconstructs the myth of Paul McLean’s “Triune Brain” —a theory that presents the brain in three different layers (reptile brain, mammalian brain, and the neocortex or human brain) that evolved from our lizard ancestors, then our prehistoric mammals, until our “uniquely human” cortex to the present—, explaining that our brain “is not more evolved than a rat or lizard brain, just differently evolved.” She expands on this neuromyth:

…you don’t have an inner lizard or an emotional beast-brain. There is no such thing as a limbic system dedicated to emotions. And your misnamed neocortex is not a new part; many other vertebrates grow the same neurons that, in some animals, organize into a cerebral cortex if key stages run long enough. Anything you read or hear that proclaims the human neocortex, cerebral cortex, or prefrontal cortex to be the root of rationality, or says that the frontal lobe regulates so-called emotional brain areas to keep irrational behavior in check, is simply outdated or woefully incomplete. The triune brain idea and its epic battle between emotions, instinct, and rationality is a modern myth.  

Furthermore, she explains that your brain is not divided into systems or that people are “left-brain” or “right-brain.” For her, the brain is organized like airports, in which some cluster of neurons (brain cells) are organized as small airports that don’t have direct flights to international destinations, while brain hubs, “like airport hubs, make a complicated system efficient. They allow most neurons to participate globally even as they focus more locally. Hubs form the backbone communication throughout the brain.” (The brain hubs in this context are the equivalent of international exports in Miami, New York, or Panama.)

The Value of Dispelling Myths

Of course, Feldman Barrett explains that these are metaphors that do not stand for the totality of the whole complexity of the brain. Still, this clarification is important. Many habitual readers of the brain will find some parts of the book repetitive or unoriginal since many other scientists have done books around the same topics.

And yet, I find her short book more compelling and cautious in an epoch of distortions of the scientific data. Many scientists employ the same language that she uses but they tend to forget to clarify what is the purpose of using metaphors to explain complex neural processes.

Recently, neuroscience as a tool for education has had a following and some governments are getting their hands into the voyage known as “educational neuroscience.” But, as some studies show, this created great enthusiasm for the brain, but a poor understanding of it. This creates a vast problem in education because educational neuroscience wants to inform educational practices through the recent findings in neural science. As researcher Paul Howard-Jones has shown in the scientific journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, “We see new neuromyths on the horizon and old neuromyths arising in new forms, we see ‘boiled-down’ messages from neuroscience revealing themselves as inadequate, and we see confusions about the mind-brain relationship and neural plasticity in discussions about educational investment and learning disorders.”

It’s because of this, that the lessons shown by Feldman Barrett are needed, especially in the format she chose. Her book demonstrates that our brains work with other brains without ourselves being conscious about it; that they are an amazing predicting machine that helps us read, analyze, and resolve problems in quick gaps; moreover, they’re incredible at abstraction, giving us an edge over other organisms to assemble our surroundings. Seven and a Half Lesson About the Brain is an excellent and brief glance at how the brain works and why it matters in our society.

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A review of Lisa Feldman Barrett, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). 

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