Bill Bryson is a talented communicator who has written about travel, language and science and manages to insinuate humor to increase the reader’s pleasure and to inject emphasis which makes facts more meaningful and memorable. The Body is his latest book which would make a wonderful Christmas gift for any curious readers on your list. Instead of attempting a review, I will include two excerpts as examples.
“The great paradox of the brain is that everything you know about the world is provided to you by an organ that has itself never seen that world. The brain exists in silence and darkness, like a dungeoned prisoner. It has no pain receptors, literally no feelings. It has never felt warm sunshine or a soft breeze. To your brain, the world is just a stream of electrical pulses, like taps of Morse code. And out of this bare and neutral information it creates for you – quite literally creates – a vibrant, three-dimensional, sensually engaging universe. Your brain is you. Everything else is just plumbing and scaffolding.”
“Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years. A morsel of cortex one cubic millimeter in size – about the size of a grain of sand – could hold two thousand terabytes of information, enough to store all the movies ever made, trailers included, or about 1.2 billion copies of this book. Altogether, the human brain is estimated to hold something on the order of two hundred exabytes of information, roughly equal to “the entire digital content of today’s world,” according to Nature Neuroscience. If that is not the most extraordinary think in the universe, then we certainly have some wonders to find yet….”
“There is a huge amount we have left to learn and many things we may never learn. But equally some of the things we do know are at least as amazing as the things we don’t. Consider how we see – or, to put it slightly more accurately, how the brain tells us what we see.”
“Just look around you now. The eyes send a hundred billion signals to the brain every second. But that’s only part of the story. When you “see” something, only about 10 percent of the information comes from the optic nerve. Other parts of the brain have to deconstruct the signals – recognize faces, interpret movement, identify danger. In other words, the biggest part of seeing isn’t receiving images; it’s making sense of them.”
“For each visual input, it takes a tiny but perceptible amount of time – about two hundred milliseconds, one-fifth of a second – for the information to be processed and interpreted. One-fifth of a second is not a trivial span of time when a rapid response is required – to step back from an oncoming car, say, or to avoid a blow to the head. To help us deal better with this fractional lag, the brain does a truly extraordinary thing: it continuously forecasts what the world will be like a fifth of a second from now, and that is what it gives us as the present. That means that we never see the world as it is at this very instant, but rather as it will be a fraction of a moment in the future. We spend our whole lives, in other words, living in a world that doesn’t quite exist yet….”
All the richness of life is created inside your head. What you see is not what it is but what your brain tells you it is, and that’s not the same thing at all.What Bill Bryson does not say is that much of this function is learned though experimentation and experience disguised as play and we all learn a little differently.