(Copyright © 2009)

 

Putting the pieces of a dismembered picture puzzle back in their original relationships to one another is an intriguing aspect of consciousness because people so love to do it. What is it about putting Humpty Dumpty together again that we find so inviting or even compelling?

 

The day after Thanksgiving, I clear off the table, open the sealed box, and dump out the pieces of a picture puzzle my partner has had lying, undone, around her house for twenty years. A seaside painting by Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924)—lots of impressionistic ladies in white dresses with parasols. Turning each piece face-up, I get started mid-morning and finish it (with help) just at midnight. Each parasol is a different tint of rose, which helps somewhat in grouping the pieces, but every edge is soft, so the tones blend subtly into one another. What amazes me is how intently I keep at it for 15 hours, working on one piece then another. Relying on a variety of clues to fit them in—shape, color, pattern, edges, texture, and so on. I start with the outside edge, then move on to the hard part of situating color masses. It gets easier in the end when there are fewer pieces left. The last twenty pieces are a joy to drop into place one after the other. That was it, a day in the life doing a picture puzzle. I think I may have worked on only one other during the past 20 years.

 

Is that what life is about, doing picture puzzles? I hope there’s more to it than that. Which gets me thinking. What is it, exactly, that’s involved in working on such puzzles? They are visual, obviously, so eye-hand coordination is involved. Not gross, not truly fine, somewhere in the middle. A kind of situational dexterity. There are no rules as there are in games. Each puzzler can chose her own tactics, and switch them at will. But to maintain such intense visual concentration hour-after-hour for so long a time, in my experience, is unusual. I sometimes get fidgety after doing the same thing for 20 minutes. How come with puzzles I can keep going so long? Not out of duty but pure engagement in the task. What holds my attention as if life itself depended on it?

 

One thing about doing picture puzzles, the goal is crystal clear. There may not be rules, but the object is to get every piece in its place so the image will emerge picture perfect. But I find completing the task anticlimactic. It’s the process that matters, the engagement, the doing of the puzzle, not its completion.

 

It’s a matter of fitting one piece, another, and another, without any sense of time or the stage of the process you’re in. Pure dog work, that’s what it is. Doggedly moving from one piece to another, one gap to another. Yet pleasurable dog work. That’s what is so captivating about puzzles, and so rewarding each and every time something fits. Picture puzzles cut gratification into microsteps, each as rewarding as the next, and the next. Maybe knitting is like that. It’s taking this perfect stitch, this, and then this—and it all adds up to something, a scarf or a sweater.

 

Piece work, literally. Is that a survival skill? One foot in front of the other. One shingle in place, then the next. One raspberry picked, then on and on until your basket if full. Life lived not one day at a time but one instant after another. Slogging onward. But it doesn’t seem like slogging. Each step is a challenge in itself. Which earns you the right to undertake the next. How does that work? I think there must be something about consciousness itself that is assembled that way, involving one neuron firing at a time until the job is done. 

 

When you work on a picture puzzle, where is that activity taking place in the brain? Certainly the retinas are involved, the visual nuclei or relay stations, the visual processing areas (of which there are many) in the cortex, the motor planning and actuating areas, the cerebellum to tidy up the process. But a picture puzzle is a kind of map, and I’ll bet the hippocampus deep in the temporal lobes of your brain and mine is involved. Through studies with rats, it has been known for almost 40 years that the hippocampus maintains a cognitive representation of the territory where the individual is situated, and when doing a puzzle, that’s exactly where you are—inside that puzzle, examining every detail. Not only are you in the puzzle, the hippocampus maintains nerve excitation as long as you’re there, neural activity lasting until this section is done, then this, then the whole. Two months after doing the Prendergast puzzle, I can still remember working on specific sections of it. I was building the map of my current situation one piece at a time. And the hippocampus has the know-how enabling me to do that.

 

The hippocampal map of our personal space is so finely divided that individual nerve cells correspond to where we are within the larger field, different cells being activated as we move about—or focus on different areas within the puzzle. Our brains, it seems, are made for doing picture puzzles. Or more accurately, picture puzzles are popular because they are designed to make use of mental capabilities that fit us to the situations we put ourselves into—which including puzzling situations.

 

On Christmas day, I take out another puzzle depicting a whorl of dolphins among a school of small fish. I had given it to my partner years before, and decide it is time to face the challenge of piecing together fragments of all those fish and all those dolphins in their blue-green sea. It is a killer puzzle, not because the fish are getting eaten, but because all the fish look very similar and the bits of dolphin flesh, ditto. Yet there are clues to where a given piece might fit into the overall scene represented in the cognitive map assembled by my hippocampus. I suspect that each of the over 500 pieces has a cell in my brain to itself. I say that because I work piece by piece, characterizing each one in relation to the overall pattern provided by the picture on the lid of the puzzle box. I know each piece has a specific placement in the field, and I use a variety of clues to suggest just where it might fit in. Illumination comes from above, so I can often tell the orientation of a piece by studying highlights and shadows. Which tell me whether the small fish are swimming to the left or right, and at what angle. Most of the fish on the left side are swimming down and to the left, most on the right are heading down and right. The quality of the light differs top to bottom, which lets me make a rough guess about placement in the various strata of the puzzle. I do the top and bottom edges first, then work on particular dolphins and nearby fish. Again, I start after breakfast, and finish at midnight, fully engaged the whole time. Never bored, never restless, just working away, away, away. That’s the kind of work my hippocampus seems suited for. Puzzling, I decide, is very much like knitting, where the map of the sweater is inside you, and you know exactly where every knit and purl fits into the overall design. Doing picture puzzles, I decide, is like massaging the inner workings of my brain. Maybe knitters feel the same way.

  

 

“Human consciousness is the way it is because of the way our brain is,” writes Joseph LeDoux at the end of The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996, page 302). Eric R. Kandel expands on that theme in his chapter on the Biological Basis of Individuality in Principles of Neural Science (McGraw-Hill, 2000, page 1277): “Everything the brain produces, from the most private thoughts to the most public acts, should be understood as a biological process.” Even working on picture puzzles, even knitting.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

The human mind comes to us in a plain wrapper without a users’ manual or even a Help button. Well-meaning others try to show us how it works, yet it takes a lifetime of experiential trial and error to figure out how to use even its most basic routines effectively. And on our deathbeds, many of us will regret we didn’t do more with it when we had the chance.

 

Which need not be the case any longer. Brain science is a booming industry, with research reports issued daily. Even 25 years ago, I had access to a journal on brain research that was issued every week in a volume half-an-inch thick. Which meant that knowledge about consciousness and the mind was beginning to spread among scientists trained to speak the specialized language of neuroscience. Popular books followed in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Now the presses hardly stop rolling between books about the mind written in (more or less) everyday English.

 

Terminology about the brain can be daunting at first encounter, but after the reader becomes familiar with the brainstem, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, motor areas, primary sensory processing areas, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, neurons, and neurotransmitters, along with other parts of the brain—that is after you get acquainted with the workings of your own mind—you find it is fascinating stuff and begin to catch on.

 

My blog is intended as a bridge between the technical literature and those who take using their minds seriously because they want to improve the richness of their experience and enjoyment of their own mental processes. To make headway in such endeavors, it is always best to touch base with the professionals responsible for our current understanding of mind and brain.

 

Visiting books on the mind and its brain is like taking a trip to a foreign land: you’ve got to learn new routes and place names, and pick up enough phrases to get by. If you want to do it thoroughly, it’s like learning a new language. If you just want the two-week tour, you can get along with a lesser commitment.

 

So here are a few suggestions about books you might want to read or delve into. They range from popular treatments to technical reference books, with a middle level of serious books about aspects of neuroscience, including, especially, consciousness. To different degrees, all are challenging, but that is always the price we must pay if we want to improve our understanding of ourselves and our world.

 

Caveat: This is by no means a complete list. These are books I have read, marked up, and am personally acquainted with. I welcome suggestions of other books to add to these few.

 

 

Popular Books About Mind and Brain

 

Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. University of California Press, 1999, 224 pages. Carter, a medical journalist, has produced a smart, coffee-table book about the mind, with, as you’d expect, glossy illustrations. The book is written from the popular angle of what people are likely to be interested in (an approach that sells books) rather than what scientists have to say about mind and brain. This is a good conversation piece, the kind of book I enjoy leafing through back to front.

 

Doidge, Norman, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Viking, 2007, 427 pages. Doidge deals with the practical application of neuroscience to the lives of people with real problems. His book puts you on the forefront of human understanding right away, as seen through the eyes of selected beneficiaries of modern research. If you want to test the waters, this might be a good place to start.

 

Jourdain, Robert, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. Harper Collins, 1997, 377 pages. (Added to list March 6, 2009.) Where Daniel Levitin (see below) draws examples from jazz and popular music, Robert Jourdain works more within a classical frame of reference. A science writer, he is also a composer himself, and plays piano. Living in the two worlds of science and music, he is highly skilled and motivated in building bridges between the two. This book takes as much concentration as playing the violin; the understanding it provides is well worth the trouble. I am no musician but found this book fascinating because of the insights it provides on both ends of the bridge.

 

Lehrer, Jonah, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 242 pages. This book deals not so much with the brain as with discovery, which is about bringing new information into consciousness. Lehrer contrasts the methods of artists and scientists, showing through specific examples how artists opened up new territory, and scientists subsequently fleshed out the details.

 

Levitin, Daniel, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume/Penguin, 2006, 322 pages. (Added to list Jan. 31, 2009.) I am neither a musician nor a scientist, but I love this book because of the insights it provides into one of humanity’s most compelling—and revealing—passions. You will learn a great deal about music, why you like it, and about the role it plays in your innermost being. Christof Koch (below) informs us about the visual brain; Daniel Levitin does something similar for the auditory brain (as does Robert Jourdain, see above).

 

Luria, A. R., The Mind of a Mnemonist. Translated from the Russian by Lynn Solataroff. Foreword by Jerome S. Bruner. Harvard University Press, 1968, 160 pages. This is the tale of a memory artist who could recall vast quantities of information with ease, and retain it for the rest of his life. Which might not appear to be a problem until you realize how cluttered his mind became because he had scant ability to generalize that information in the form of concepts requiring less storage space. Luria is one of the pioneers of research into the mind.

 

Ramachandran, V.S., and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Harper, Perennial, HarperCollins, 1998, 328 pages. This book of adventures is as exciting as those of Mr. Holmes. Not about crime, it is about disclosing the hidden and often surprising organization of the brain. This is as entertaining as learning can get.

 

 

Introductory Books About Mind and Brain

 

Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt, A Harvest Book, 1999, 385 pages. This book explains in eloquent terms how consciousness extends the reach of the unconscious autonomic nervous system into the varied and unprecedented predicaments hominids got themselves into as they evolved into humans. It provides great insight into the workings of the mind.

 

Koch, Christof, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Foreword by Francis Crick. Roberts and Company, 2004, 429 pages. Koch’s true quest is for visual consciousness, because that is the sensory modality he is most familiar with. If he hadn’t limited his topic, the book would have been three times as long. As it is, it’s a wonderful book, showing not only how the visual mind works (which we are all interested in), but how scientists have figured that out.

 

Konner, Melvin, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. Henry Holt, A Holt Paperback, 2002, 540 pages. This book has more information per page than most books you will read, all presented with a poetic flair. If you are versed in genetics, physiology, neuroscience, and philosophy, the words will flow into your mind. If you are not a polymath, you’re in for rough sledding through beautiful terrain.

 

LeDoux, Joseph, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon and Schuster Paperback, 1996, 384 pages. LeDoux writes clearly about research into the brain without getting overly-technical. He truly wants to find out what is going on during the experience of emotions, and uses a variety of avenues to reach that understanding. He focuses on fear and anxiety because that has been his research specialty. He has a way of making the reader feel she is on the leading edge of getting to know the emotional centers of the brain and how they work.

 

LeDoux, Joseph, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Viking, 2002, 406 pages. The wiring of the brain is just a metaphor; LeDoux takes the reader beyond art to an actual understanding of how neural connections are made, what they accomplish, and why they are significant to you and me. On the way, you learn a great deal about how thoughts can make things happen through the agency of consciousness.

 

 

Technical Reference Books on Neuroscience

 

Gazzaniga, Michael S., Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neurosciences. The MIT Press, 2000, 1419 pages. Here displayed in full view is the broad array of modern research on the brain written by those in the know—the researchers themselves. This book is more for scientists than laypersons. But because everything is laid out in detail in one place, this is my favorite among the books listed here. A great book for browsing, I regard it as an explore-it-yourself book on any aspect of consciousness.

 

Kandel, Eric R., James H. Schwartz, and Thomas M. Jessell, Editors, Principles of Neural Science. McGraw-Hill, 2000, 1414 pages. College texts have come a long way since I was in school. This book excels in its organization, clear illustrations, and concise text. If I could redo my education, this is where I would start. This tome is more about the underpinnings of consciousness and behavior than about consciousness itself. In effect, it provides a prologue to the understanding of consciousness. It leads up to and ends on this note: “We are optimistic that future cognitive neural scientists will identify the neurons involved and characterize the mechanisms by which consciousness is produced.”

 

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