Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and others on how learning about their brains changed the way they live.

A special issue on neuroscience and neuroculture.
April 25 2007 3:27 PM

Brain Lessons

Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and others on how learning about their brains changed the way they live.

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Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life.
One of the things I've learned about the brain is that anxiety and stress breed anxiety and stress. So, it makes sense that we should do things to reduce anxiety and stress in our daily lives, like the sorts of breathing exercises that are used in meditation. These are effective in part because they push the autonomic nervous system toward its parasympathetic side, slowing the driving force of the sympathetic system and reducing the arousal level of the body and the brain. Do I do these exercises? Not as often or as effectively as I probably should. But cardiologists probably don't always eat the right things or exercise as much as they should, either. It's one thing to know what to do, and another to do it. (If we could figure out that discordance, we'd really know something.)

Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.
I spend a lot of time in my job learning new things, and I spend a lot of my leisure time learning how to play new pieces on the piano or guitar. What I know about the brain has changed my life by teaching me that with learning, "slow and steady wins the race."  A few minutes of practice each day is better than several hours all at once, once a week, because of the neurochemical and neurodynamic processes involved in memory consolidation. I also know that practicing—whether it's a new Bill Evans solo or cracking a multivariate differential equation—is best done every day at the same time.

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David Linden, author of The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God.
The brain is not a generic problem-solving machine—rather, evolution has shaped it into a strange edifice that is very proficient in dealing with a particular subset of problems.  One area of social cognition where we humans really excel is knowing the precise direction of another's gaze. In practical terms, this means that if you're at a conference and you try to surreptitiously flick your eyes to a colleague's name badge (or her breasts), you'll get busted every time. This knowledge should prevent me from trying to get away with these behaviors, but it doesn't. Neurobiological insight just makes me feel like even more of an idiot afterward.

Earl Miller, associate director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.
I have learned that the brain has a very limited capacity to attend to multiple things. But at the same time, its ability to select what we attend can delude us into thinking that we're better at multitasking than we are. So, on the few occasions that I drive, I never answer the phone or e-mails, and I hope others around me do the same. 

Steven Pinker, author of the forthcoming The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature.
There isn't any aspect of my daily life that isn't affected by my interest in the mind. When I have to write down a number, I make it a point to say it to myself, to use the brain's echo chamber as an auxiliary memory. If while playing with my 2-year-old nephew I say, "I'll borrow your brother's dinosaur," and he replies, "And I'll borrow my dinosaur," it makes me ponder the semantics of the verb borrow—and which parts he has not yet learned. When I see a pretty face, I reflect on whether I am reacting to its signs of youth, health, femaleness, or a population composite (and whether the composite is increasingly multiracial). When I listen to music, I attend to the note-by-note transitions and how they help me segregate the instruments. And when I find myself taking umbrage at a critical remark, I try to distinguish actual unfairness from my own self-deception and self-serving biases. I can't say that this awareness makes me a wiser or better person, but it does add to the richness of everyday experience.

Oliver Sacks, author of the forthcoming Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
Research, particularly fMRI research in the last decade, has shown us that music is represented in, and stimulates, many different parts of the brain. More and more, I use music for myself: To get me going, to change my mood, to stimulate my imagination.  And I use it to help patients who have Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, aphasia, autism, and many other conditions. Music has great therapeutic power—and no side effects.

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