September 29, 2019


The Story of You

by David Eagleman.
Pantheon Books, 2015 (218 pages)
[Book companion to 6-part PBS TV series.]



"Because brain science is a fast-moving field, it is rare to step back to view the lay of the land, to work out what our studies mean for our lives, to discuss in a plain and simple way what it means to be a biological creature. This book sets out to do that." (1)

"Brain science matters. The strange computational material in our skulls is the perceptual machinery by which we navigate the world, the stuff from which decisions arise, the material from which imagination is forged." (1)

"Our dreams and our waking lives emerge from its billions of zapping cells." (1)

"A better understanding of the brain sheds light on what we take to be real in our personal relationships and what we take to be necessary in our social policy: how we fight, why we love, what we accept as true, how we should educate, how we can craft better social policy, and how to design our bodies for the centuries to come." (1)

"In the brain's microscopically small circuitry is etched the history and future of our species." (1)


"Consciousness emerges when neurons are coordinating with one another in complex, subtle, mostly independent rhythms." (31)

"Scientists often debate the detailed definition of consciousness, but it's easy enough to pin down what we are talking about with the help of a simple comparison: when you are awake you have consciousness, and when you are in deep sleep you do not. That distinction gives us an inroad for a simple question: what is the difference in brain activity between those two mental states?" (30)

"One way to measure that is with electroencephalography (EEG), which captures a summary of billions of neurons firing by picking up weak electrical signals on the outside of the skull... EEG can offer immediate insights into the differences between the waking and sleeping states." (30-31)


When you are conscious: "Signals from the environment are translated into electrochemical signals carried by brain cells. It is the first step by which the brain taps into information from the world outside the body." (182)

"Tracing the dense tangle of billions of interconnected neurons requires specialized technology, as well as the world's sharpest blade. A technique called 'serial block-face scanning electron microscopy' generates high-resolution 3D models of complete neural pathways from tiny slices of brain tissue." (182)

"It is the first technique to yield 3D images of the brain at nanoscale resolution, which is one billionth of a meter." (182)

"Like a deli-slicer, a high-precision diamond blade mounted inside a scanning microscope cuts layer after layer from a tiny block of brain, producing a filmstrip in which each frame is an ultra-thin slice. Each sliver is scanned by an electron microscope ... The scans are than digitally layered on top of one another to create a high-resolution 3D model of the original block." (182)

"By tracing features from slice to slice, a model emerges of the tangle of neurons that criss-cross and intertwine." (182)

"Given that an average neuron can be between 4-100 billionths of a meter in length and have 10,000 different branches, it is a formidable task. The challenge of mapping a full human connectome is expected to take several decades." (182)


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