Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett is one of the most entertaining educational books I've read in a long time. With a background in stand-up comedy and neuroscience, Dean Burnett is able to take highly technical, academically rich content and make it easily understood. The author has a way of using colorful metaphors to illustrate his examples. “To our brains, daily life is like tightrope-walking over a vast pit full of furious honey badgers and broken glass; one wrong move and you'll end up as a gruesome mess in temporary but exquisite pain” (p. 28). Idiot Brain covers a wide variety of topics including regulation of the body by the brain, memory, fear, intelligence, sensory perception, personality, the influence of others on us and us on them, as well as mental diseases and disorders.
Idiot Brain is well researched and includes fifteen pages of references. The text is a rich discussion of biology (physiology) and psychology. Included are multiple examples of how the brain processes information and how memory works. Burnett uses current examples and cites recent studies. One example is when the author discusses the number of items the average person is able to recall: “refinements and reassessment of legitimate recall and experimental methods have since provided data to show actual capacity is more like four items” (p. 37).
One of the patterns within the book that I appreciated was how frequently Idiot Brain ties the working of the brain to evolution. Reading this book will make one more aware of the influence of evolution on how certain behaviors and ways of thinking have come about. It had not occurred to me that there were so many aspects of how the brain works that could be influenced by evolution. Something as simple as triggering memories when something is familiar is explained in the light of evolution: “in the harsh reality of the natural world, anything that's familiar is something that didn't kill you, so you can concentrate on newer things that might. It makes evolutionary sense for the brain to work this way” (p. 50).
When discussing the difference between “intelligent and unintelligent brains,” the author makes logical connections between current assumptions and logic: “One potential factor is something that seems completely wrong: intelligent brains apparently use less power” (p. 136). Intelligent brains have more efficient links and connections and, therefore, use less power. Idiot Brain is a book that I look forward to using with my students in the classroom. The way the book is written makes it accessible to high school students without minimizing academic language. It could easily be used when teaching how the brain regulates homeostasis, as well as behavior. Idiot Brain takes a realistic look at how the brain works and how we think without making it seem like one is reading a textbook. The text is down to earth, readable, and entertaining.