(Finalist, 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards, Science Category)
You’ve probably seen it before: a human brain dramatically lit from the side, the camera circling it like a helicopter shot of Stonehenge, and a modulated baritone voice exalting the brain’s elegant design in reverent tones.
To which this book says: Pure nonsense. In a work at once deeply learned and wonderfully accessible, the neuroscientist David Linden counters the widespread assumption that the brain is a paragon of design–and in its place gives us a compelling explanation of how the brain’s serendipitous evolution has resulted in nothing short of our humanity. A guide to the strange and often illogical world of neural function, The Accidental Mind shows how the brain is not an optimized, general-purpose problem-solving machine, but rather a weird agglomeration of ad-hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolutionary history. Moreover, Linden tells us how the constraints of evolved brain design have ultimately led to almost every transcendent human foible: our long childhoods, our extensive memory capacity, our search for love and long-term relationships, our need to create compelling narrative, and, ultimately, the universal cultural impulse to create both religious and scientific explanations. With forays into evolutionary biology, this analysis of mental function answers some of our most common questions about how we’ve come to be who we are.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Brain Explained
1. The Inelegant Design of the Brain
2. Building a Brain with Yesterday’s Parts
3. Some Assembly Required
4. Sensation and Emotion
5. Learning, Memory, and Human Individuality
6. Love and Sex
7. Sleeping and Dreaming
8. The Religious Impulse
9. The Unintelligent Design of the Brain
Epilogue: That Middle Thing
Further Reading and Resources
[A] lively mix of solid science and fascinating case histories… The book’s greatest strength is Linden’s knack for demystifying biology and neuroscience with vivid similes (he calls the brain, weighing two percent of total body weight and using 20 percent of its energy, the Hummer H2 of the body). Though packed with textbook-ready data, the book grips readers like a masterful teacher; those with little science experience may be surprised to find themselves interested in–and even chuckling over–the migration of neurons along radial glia, and anxious to find out what happens next.
— Publishers Weekly
More than another salvo in the battle over whether biological structures are the products of supernatural design or biological evolution (though Linden has no doubt it’s the latter), research on our brain’s primitive foundation is cracking such puzzles as why we cannot tickle ourselves, why we are driven to spin narratives even in our dreams and why reptilian traits persist in our gray matter.
— Sharon Begley, Newsweek
Linden tells his story well, in an engaging style, with plenty of erudition and a refreshing honesty about how much remains unknown. The book should easily hold the attention of readers with little background in biology and no prior knowledge of brains. It would make an excellent present for curious non-scientists and a good book for undergraduates who are just entering into the brain’s magic menagerie. Even readers trained in neuroscience are likely to enjoy the many tidbits of rarely taught information–on love, sex, gender, sleep and dreams–that spice up Linden’s main argument. The Accidental Mind stands out for being highly readable and clearly educational. No doubt, the human brain evolved along a constrained path and is, in some respects, designed imperfectly. Linden will send that message home … We still know too little about the brain’s inner workings to judge how well it does its job. What we do know, and what The Accidental Mind helps us to realize, is that the human brain is not designed as many have imagined.
— Georg Striedter, Nature
The majority of this book is an enjoyable neurosciences primer for the general reader. Evolutionary and psychological perspectives provide occasional insights about the mind, but mostly the subject here is the organ capable of conjuring it into existence. Linden makes clear that the physical substrate of our mental phenomena–the squidgy and haphazard mass of our brain–is a gloriously evolved muddle.
— Druin Burch, Times Literary Supplement
Many popular neuroscience books emphasize the brain’s complexity using terms of purpose: this region is for emotion, that one for vision, and so forth, each interacting in a perfectly designed whole. This ambitious, engaging, and often irreverent book by Linden adopts a quite different perspective, instead emphasizing the evolutionary origins of the human brain…The book…end[s] with a well-argued discussion of the tension between neuroscience and intelligent design. The emphasis on evolution is laudable…making this book an important counterpoint to breathless paeans to brain design.
— S. A. Huettel, Choice
This is a terrific book that accomplishes its aim of presenting a biological view of how the brain works, and does so in a charming, fetching style.
— Joshua R. Sanes, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University
This is the first scientific book I’ve read with “attitude.” David Linden is something of a Howard Stern shock jock and there’s a lot of heavy breathing in this overview of brain function and the linkage between psychological and brain processes. Linden is clearly a thoughtful scientist and this comes through in his excellent choice of facts and theories to present. This is a very intelligent book.
— John Lisman, Professor of Biology, Brandeis University