Book Review: Evolve Your Brain

I recently finished listening to the audiobook titled “Evolve Your Brian: The Science of Changing Your Mind”.  For a number of years, I’ve been on a quest to learn as much as I can about how the brain functions –  particularly how it makes decisions under uncertainty.  This book is a bit lower level than most I’ve read recently – focusing more on the structure, chemistry, and biology of the brain’s components, rather than at the macro scale that I normally study. 

I’m conflicted about this book.  On one hand, the author covers aspects of brain function I’ve never heard before, such as how synapses actually work, how impulses propagate across a neuron, how neurons connect to one another, and so on.  On the other hand, the author makes some really amateurish logical leaps. 

The fundamental point of the book is that our brain is a complex organ driven by biochemical processes – and we have the ability to consciously change these biochemical processes, through changing our attitudes, meditation, and so on.  This part, by the way, is not controversial or revolutionary – it’s sound science, and is the underpinning of cognitive behavioral therapy.  The author explains a few case studies where people have apparently overcome significant disease, such as cancer, or trauma, such as a sever spinal injury, simply by having the proper positive perspective and attitude, and related states of mind.  To put a fine point on this, the author is saying that a number of people cured their advanced cancer by changing their minds.  In the author’s view, this makes sense, because we know that the mind can create changes in the body. 

Here is my problem: the author found a number of people who overcame cancer and other serious physical problems, including himself, through apparent mental conditioning and attitude.  This is the same problem one would have a hundred years ago talking to people who overcame illness through bloodletting: you only talk to the people that it worked for.  The ones that it didn’t work for aren’t around any more, or at least, aren’t in the set of people that you interviewed.  Said another way, there could be an equal number of people that had the very same positive attitude and mental discipline as those in the set of people interview by the author, but that didn’t get better.  This, by the way, is why random control trials are so important. Having said that, having a positive attitude certainly does not hurt, and very likely does lead to a better quality of life, even if it doesn’t (reliably) cure cancer.

Setting aside the “irrational exuberance” of the author to cure thyself through though, I found the book to be a worthwhile read.  I feel like I learned a lot about the underlying mechanics of the brain.

If you’re interested in the brain, I recommend adding this to your reading list.