Cover image for An alchemy of mind : the marvel and mystery of the brain
An alchemy of mind : the marvel and mystery of the brain
Ackerman, Diane.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Scribner, [2004]

Physical Description:
xii, 300 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Miracle waters (Evolution): The enchanted loom -- This island earth -- Why we ask why? -- The fibs of being -- Light breaks where no sun shines -- Sweet dreams of reason (The physical brain): The shape of thought -- Inner space -- Attention please -- A passion for patterns -- In the church of the pines -- Einstein's brain -- The mind's eye -- Pavilions of desire (Memory): What is a memory? -- Reflections in a gazing ball -- Remember what? -- Remember, I dream -- Hello, he lied -- Traumatic memories -- Smell, memory, and the erotic -- Never a dull moment (The self, and other fictions): Introducing the self -- The other self -- Personality -- Shall it be male of female? Say the cells -- Creating minds -- The world is breaking someone else's heart (Emotions): The emotional climate -- The pursuit of happiness -- The color of saying (Language): Memory's accomplice -- Metaphors be with you -- The color of saying -- Shakespeare on the brain -- The wilderness within (The world we share): Oasis -- Conscience and consciousness -- A kingdom of neighbors -- The beautiful captive.
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QP376 .A225 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QP376 .A225 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QP376 .A225 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QP376 .A225 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The most ambitious and enlightening work to date from the bestselling author ofA Natural History of the Senses, An Alchemy of Mindcombines an artist's eye with a scientist's erudition to illuminate, as never before, the magic and mysteries of the human mind.Long treasured by literary readers for her uncommon ability to bridge the gap between art and science, celebrated scholar-artist Diane Ackerman returns with the book she was born to write. Her dazzling new work,An Alchemy of Mind,offers an unprecedented exploration and celebration of the mental fantasia in which we spend our days -- and does for the human mind what the bestsellingA Natural History of the Sensesdid for the physical senses.Bringing a valuable female perspective to the topic, Diane Ackerman discusses the science of the brain as only she can: with gorgeous, immediate language and imagery that paint an unusually lucid and vibrant picture for the reader. And in addition to explaining memory, thought, emotion, dreams, and language acquisition, she reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience and addresses controversial subjects like the effects of trauma and male versus female brains. In prose that is not simply accessible but also beautiful and electric, Ackerman distills the hard, objective truths of science in order to yield vivid, heavily anecdotal explanations about a range of existential questions regarding consciousness, human thought, memory, and the nature of identity.

Author Notes

Diane Ackerman was born on October 7, 1948 in Waukegan, Illinois. She received a B.A. in English from Pennsylvania State University and her M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. in English from Cornell University. Poet, author, educator, adventurer, and naturalist, she tries to bridge science and art in her writing, exploring questions of who we are, where we come from, and how we fit into the fabric of the world.

She has written many books of poetry including The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral; Wife of Light; Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems; Origami Bridges: Poems of Psychoanalysis and Fire; and I Praise My Destroyer. Her nonfiction works include A Natural History of the Senses; A Natural History of Love; The Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Crocodilians, Penguins, and Whales; An Alchemy of Mind; and On Extended Wings. She also writes nature books for children including Animal Sense; Monk Seal Hideaway; and Bats: Shadows in the Night. She is coeditor of a Norton anthology, The Book of Love. Her essays about nature and human nature have appeared in Parade, National Geographic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker magazines. She hosted a five-hour PBS television series inspired by A Natural History of the Senses.

She received the Orion Book Award for The Zookeepers Wife. Her other awards include the Abbie Copps Poetry Prize, Black Warrior Poetry Prize, Pushcart Prize, Peter I. B. Lavan award, and the Wordsmith award. She has taught at a variety of universities, including Columbia and Cornell.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The human psyche fascinates revered naturalist and poet Ackerman as much as any other aspect of the grand carnival of life, hence this agile, involving, and uniquely far-ranging and insightful inquiry into how the brain becomes the mind. As always, Ackerman is positively scintillating, thanks to the intensity of her observations, the imaginativeness of her interpretations of both natural phenomena and science, the splendor of her distinctive prose, and her flair for making her discoveries personal, relevant, and resonant. Erudite and playful, Ackerman explores the differences between the right and left brains and the brains of men and women, and cogently explains the chemistry of the microscopic hubbub generated inside our heads as neurons speak an electrochemical lingo all their own. She explicates memory, ponders the jumble of genetics and circumstances that engender personalities, delineates the mechanics and impact of emotions, and reveals how profoundly malleable and adaptive the brain is. Most movingly, Ackerman marvels over our creativity, especially our facilities for language, story, and metaphor. She writes, One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life, the very gift Ackerman bestows upon her rapt and illuminated readers. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Ackerman's latest foray (after Cultivating Delight) is ostensibly about the "crowded chemistry lab" of the human brain, but fans of her writings on the natural world will find many familiar pleasures. All is not pastoral sweetness; every passage on genteel matters like tending her backyard roses has its rougher counterpart, for example, the recollection of a life-threatening accident during a Japanese bird-watching expedition. By grounding the scientific information firmly in her own experience of discovery, Ackerman invites readers to share in her learning and writing processes. The common thread she spies running through the tangible world of the evolving brain and the intangible world of emotion and memory is the "sleight of mind" that provides us with a self-identity through which we experience the world in a unified yet complexly fragmented way. It's no surprise that the section of the book dealing with language should concentrate so intently on metaphors; they cascade down every page like waterfalls. Ackerman's prose is equally sensuous on the literal plane, enabling her to turn an afternoon snack into a lesson on neurochemistry that swiftly dovetails with a discussion of the varying speeds of thought without ever risking distraction. Even brain buffs used to a more detached approach should be won over by her uniquely personal perspective. Agent, Virginia Barber. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Poet/naturalist Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) brings her poetic vision to various aspects of the human mind. The result is a series of brief yet colorful essays on such phenomena as imagination, memory, dreams, consciousness, and our sense of self, personality, language, emotion, happiness, and metaphor. Far from a traditional guide to brain anatomy and physiology, this book is rather a way of looking at our extraordinary human mind through the eyes of an artist. Ackerman skillfully blends data from current scientific research with her own considerable experiences as a pilot, a fearless birder, a synesthete, and so on. In her ability to dazzle us with the richness of her use of language, she occasionally sacrifices clarity; ambiguous pronoun references, for example, may confuse the reader. But in the best of her essays (e.g., the paean to Shakespeare's brain), Ackerman is eloquent. Recommended for Ackerman fans in public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/04.]-Laurie Bartolini, Illinois State Lib., Springfield (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 13: What Is a Memory? What sort of future is coming up from behind I don't really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight. -- Robert M. Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Like tiny islands on the horizon, they can vanish in rough seas. Even in calm weather, their coral gradually erodes, pickled by salt and heat. Yet they form the shoals of a life. Some offer safe lagoons and murmuring trees. Others crawl with pirates and reptiles. Together, they connect a self with the mainland and society. Plot their trail and a mercurial past becomes visible. Memories feel geological in their repose, solid and true, the bedrock of consciousness. They may include knowing that it's hard to lead a cow down steps, or how the indri-indri of Madagascar got its name, or the time you accidentally grabbed a strange man's hand in a crowd (thinking it was your friend's), or how you felt hitting a home run in Little League, or your first car (a used VW that rattled like an old dinette set), or a grisly murder you just read about that made you rethink capital punishment, or an unconscious detailed operating guide to the body that manages each cell's tiny factory. Memories inform our actions, keep us company, and give us our noisy, ever-chattering sense of self. Because we're moody giants, every day we subtly revise who we think we are. Part of the android's tragedy in the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner is that he possesses a long, self-defining chain of memories. Though ruthless and lacking empathy, and technically not a person, he can remember. Played by Rutger Hauer, he contains a self who witnessed marvels on Earth and Mars and fears losing his unique mental jazz in death. Without memories we wouldn't know who we are, how we once were, who we'd like to be in the memorable future. We are the sum of our memories. They provide a continuous private sense of one's self. Change your memory and you change your identity. Then shouldn't we try to bank good memories, ones that will define us as we wish to be? I'm surprised by how many people do just that. Even tour companies advertise: "Bring home wonderful memories." Here we are, a happy family taking a Disney cruise, documented on film. But memory isn't like a camcorder, computer, or storage bin. It's more restless, more creative, and it's not one of anything. Each memory is a plural event, an ensemble of synchronized neurons, some side by side, others relatively far apart. Everyone will always remember where they were on September 11, 2001, or when men first walked on the moon. Shared memories bind us to loved ones, neighbors, our contemporaries. The sort of memory I'm talking about now isn't essential for survival, and yet it pleases us, it enriches everyday life. So couples relive romantic memories, families watch home movies, and friends "catch up" with each other, as if they've lagged behind on a trail. Sifting memory for saliences to report, they reveal how vital pieces of their identity have changed. Aging, we tailor memories to fit our evolving silhouette, and as life's vocabulary changes, memories change to fathom the new order. Lose your memory, and you may drift in an alien world. Mind you, memories are kidnappable. Radio, television, and the print media purvey shared national memories that can usurp a personal past. All the why's can change. A world of artificial memory, as the British neuroscientist Steven Rose points out, "means that whereas all living species have a past, only humans have a history." And, at that, it tends to be the history of the well to do. Thanks to the compound eye of the media, millions of people are spoon-fed the same images, slogans, history, myths. What happens to individual memories then? Some rebels refuse that programming, or they prefer their own group's ideologies. But most people do adopt values and interpretations of events from the media, their neighbors, or a favorite tyrant. Official history changes with each era's values, which can sometimes be perverse, what Jung described as a large-scale psychic ailment. "An epoch," he said, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, "is like an individual; it has its own limitations of conscious outlook, and therefore requires a compensatory adjustment...that which everyone blindly craves and expects -- whether this attainment results in good or evil, the healing of an epoch or its destruction." Still, though no one is an island, most are peninsulas. Our lives wouldn't make sense without personal memories pinned like butterflies against the velvet backdrop of social history. Scientists sometimes talk about "flashbulb" memories so intense they instantly brand the mind. Photography provided something different: push-button memories that revolutionized our sense of self and family, which we often remember in eye-gulps, as snapshots. Walt Whitman, in his journals, jotted down the name of each of his lovers and sometimes what they did for a living, as though he might one day forget his moments of loving and being loved. But I think he would have preferred photographs of those dear ones to help recall the liquid mosaic of each face. Picture yourself younger, and what image forms? Most likely it's a static image, a snapshot someone took. Memories can pile up and become mind clutter; it's easier to store them in albums. We remember our poses. Each photograph is a magic lamp rubbed by the mind. When we're in the mood, we can savor a photograph while sensations burst free. Right now, for example, I'm holding a photograph of a pungent king penguin rookery in Antarctica, and I remember the noisy clamor like a combination of harmonica and oncoming train. I remember how inhaling glacial cold felt like pulling a scarf through my nostrils. I remember that, in such thin air, glare became a color. Whenever we look at a photo, we add nuances, and that inevitably edits it. It may pale. It may acquire a thick lacquer of emotion. The next sentence may sound a little bizarre because English grammar isn't congenial to time mirages, however: photographs tell us who we now think we once were. Photography, like most art, stores moments of heightened emotion and awareness like small pieces of neutron star. Years later, a memory's color-rodeo may have faded, or may remain vivid enough to make the pulse buck again. Each response adds another layer until the memory is encrusted with new feelings, below which the original event evaporates. Imagine a jeweled knife. First you change the handle, then you change the blade. Is it the same knife? We tend to think of memories as monuments we once forged and may find intact beneath the weedy growth of years. But, in a real sense, memories are tied to and describe the present. Formed in an idiosyncratic way when they happened, they're also true to the moment of recall, including how you feel, all you've experienced, and new values, passions, and vulnerability. One never steps into the same stream of consciousness twice. All the mischief and mayhem of a life influences how one restyles a memory. A memory is more atmospheric than accurate, more an evolving fiction than a sacred text. And thank heavens. If rude, shameful, or brutal memories can't be expunged, they can at least be diluted. So is nothing permanent and fixed in life? By definition life is a fickle noun, an event in progress. Still, we cling to philosophical railings, religious icons, pillars of belief. We forget on purpose that Earth is rolling at 1,000 miles an hour, and, at the same time, falling elliptically around our sun, while the sun is swinging through the Milky Way, and the Milky Way migrating along with countless other galaxies in a universe about 13.7 billion years old. An event is such a little piece of time and space, leaving only a mindglow behind like the tail of a shooting star. For lack of a better word, we call that scintillation memory . Copyright (c) 2004 by Diane Ackerman Excerpted from An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman, Diane Ackerman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Contents Miracle Waters(Evolution)
Chapter 1 The Enchanted Loom
Imagining the brain
Chapter 2 This Island Earth
Evolution; the world's tiniest reptile; our brain and other animals'
Chapter 3 Why We Ask "Why?"
What happens in the right brain vs. the left brain; why we're driven to tell stories
Chapter 4 The Fibs of Being
Consciousness; some definitions and theories
Chapter 5 Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines
The unconscious; how it collaborates with the conscious mind
Sweet Dreams of Reason(The Physical Brain)
Chapter 6 The Shape of Thought
Neurons, dendrites, axons; how all the parts speak to each other
Chapter 7 Inner Space
Synapses, the plasticity of the brain; how we influence brain development; medication and the brain
Chapter 8 Attention Please
How we unconsciously choose what to pay attention to; multitasking; absentmindedness
Chapter 9 A Passion for Patterns
How our brain quests for meaning in what it senses
Chapter 10 In the Church of the Pines
The spiritual brain
Chapter 11 Einstein's Brain
What happened to it? Was it different?
Chapter 12 The Mind's Eye
The brain's ability to imagine/see things that aren't in view at the time Pavilions of Desire(Memory)
Chapter 13 What Is a Memory?
The importance of memory to who we are; how memories are formed; how they're influenced
Chapter 14 Reflections in a Gazing Ball
How memories are recalled; association of pain and memory; unconscious memory
Chapter 15 Remember What?
What happens when we learn; words on the tip of the tongue; Alzheimer's and the aging brain; IQ; short-term vs. long-term memory; how memories affect the present
Chapter 16 Remember, I Dream
The role of dreams in memory
Chapter 17 "Hello," He Lied
True and false memories; subliminally influencing thought and memory
Chapter 18 Traumatic Memories
How they're stored and recalled; connections between emotions and memory
Chapter 19 Smell, Memory, and the Erotic
Proust; perfume; love.Never a Dull Torment(The Self, and Other Fictions)
Chapter 20 Introducing the Self
How we think of ourself; the multiple facets of a self
Chapter 21 The Other Self
Body and mind; immune system and brain; brain damage and loss of self
Chapter 22 Personality
Nature vs. nurture; genetics and experience; development as babies
Chapter 23 "Shall It Be Male or Female? Say the Cells
"Male and female brains; if they work differently; how they're shaped; how traits get passed on
Chapter 24 Creating Minds
Artistic minds, mathematical minds -- inherited, cultivated; how they differ; synesthesia
The World Is Breaking Someone Else's Heart(Emotions)
Chapter 25 The Emotional Climate
Anger, stress, adrenaline, how they affect and are relieved by the brain; our brain isn't made for the modern world; fear, painful thoughts
Chapter 26 The Pursuit of Happiness
Happiness as hereditary and achieved; the difference in the brain between natural and forced laughter; optimistic and pessimistic brains
The Color of Saying(Language)
Chapter 27 Memory's Accomplice
Language acquisition, use, and nonverbal thinking
Chapter 28 Metaphors Be with You
How words organize experience
Chapter 29 The Color of Saying
The origin of words; how we reveal ourselves through words; the brain finding relations among things
Chapter 30 Shakespeare on the Brain
How Shakespeare's brain was different
The Wilderness Within(The World We Share)
Chapter 31 Oasis
Evolution of life; how our brain came to be
Chapter 32 Conscience and Consciousness
Are we the only conscious an