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Science Books

September 16, 2005

The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older
Elkhonon Goldberg (2005)
ISBN: 1592401104

Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and neuroscience researcher, attempts to explain wisdom, and in the process demonstrates that there is at least one benefit associated with getting older. As most people move into their later years it's common for them to become concerned with debilitating conditions that affect the mind, such as Alzheimer's and dementia. But in many ways, Goldberg's book is a reminder that we should also look forward to certain aspects of venerability. Veterans of life can take solace in the fact that through experience their ability for pattern recognition increases rather than declines. This ability translates into better problem solving capabilities, because they can set up mental scenarios far faster than someone much younger. In this respect being able to pick things up more quickly compensates for other mental faculties that may be lost, such as attention span and memory. Mature minds also tend to have greater specificity in areas that they have spent many years perfecting. Goldberg gives the example of a musician who develops a larger Heschl's gyrus, and therefore has a greater capacity for sound appreciation. Goldberg invests considerable time carefully explaining the latest research on the mechanisms of the brain to the reader, in addition to what can go wrong and how we can improve and exercise our minds. In one section, Goldberg contradicts previous research when he makes clear that new neurons are continually created throughout our lives. The subject of Goldberg's book and the manner in which he explains it makes The Wisdom Paradox a very engaging, accessible and informative read.

Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse
Richard Rapport (2005)
ISBN: 0393060195

In this enthralling account of a pivotal point in scientific history, we are treated to two dedicated and respected doctors engaging in the unlikely activity of kitchen table science. Richard Rapport, a neurosurgeon in Seattle and author of Physician: The Life of Paul Beeson, entrances us with this story of a Spaniard called Cajal and an Italian going by the name of Golgi who race one another to discover the structure of the brain cell and how these cells communicated between each other. The story goes that due to a lack of resources both doctors conducted most of their research on kitchen tables! While both parties received a Nobel Prize for their combined efforts, only one would be recognized for discovering how the cells communicated between what we now know as the synaptic gap. The alternative theory advocated by Golgi at the time was that neurons communicated via a seamless connected network. Rapport's account of the two men's endeavors plays out as much like a human drama as it does an enlightening science history book. Rapport paints both men as being fiercely competitive with one another, and Rapport's exceptional writing ability reveals the characters of the two men brilliantly. Of course Nerve Endings also contains more than enough scientific detail to satisfy even the most demanding of readers. Descriptions of how Cajal improved histology techniques, a staining method originally devised by Golgi, which eventually led to his revealing the axons and dendrites of the neuron is truly exhilarating. The obstacles that both men faced during their lifetimes would have been enough to give any lesser mortal frayed nerve endings. A great read!

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