Learning about my “Idiot Brain”

Those of you who’ve read this post will already know that we’ve got more than a passing interest in neuroscience. Our work with The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning in Washington, DC is coming to the end of its pilot phase now, and we’re looking forward to developing things and really kicking on in the next year. So, then, when it was recommended to me that I read Dean Burnett’s The Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To, I jumped at the chance.

My previous experience of what I will loosely term “popular science” books has been that they are either well-written but pretty insubstantial, or indigestible but worth the effort in the long run. Burnett’s book managed to do what Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother sought to achieve in his CV video; he went “past what is possible … beyond the impossible … into the realms of the possimpible“.


"The Idiot Brain" was one of the few that somehow managed to combine the best bits of each side.

“The Idiot Brain” was one of the few that somehow managed to combine the best bits of each side, and achieve the possimpible.


Those of you who’ve been avid readers of our blog up to now (all one of you – thanks, mum) will also know that I began my foray into the world of work as a proofreader. So I’m going to gloss over the grammatical errors and typos that irked me throughout [Ed.: Dr. Burnett, if you read this and ever need a proofreader, call me…!], and I can happily report that The Idiot Brain is both very digestible – cleverly written, with occasional witticisms thrown in to excellent effect – and of high quality. The content is, to me, both substantial and interesting, pleasingly!

The chapters flit from one topic to another, and while they don’t necessarily form a coherent read as a whole, each chapter builds steadily in entertainment value and usefulness. The book is intelligently-written, and it takes a humorously self-deprecating tone. Burnett takes us along the road with him as he teaches that, while the brain is the most wonderful and complex thing on the planet, it has its fundamental flaws and foibles. I think acknowledging this enables us to laugh at the brain when it malfunctions slightly and, more importantly, at ourselves. It’s okay to walk into a room and completely forget what you’d intended to do there, two seconds later, for example…


The rollercoaster journey I went on with the book...

The rollercoaster journey I went on with the book…


One negative of the book is the compulsion to read out random tidbits, roughly every 52 seconds, annoying office colleagues in the process. In fact, I even found myself lying on the sofa at home, with nobody remotely within earshot, and still crying out my displeasure at the fact that taller people are statistically smarter than those of us more vertically-challenged, looking for sympathy. (This is, by the way, a notion which is probably supported by the fact that I’ve spent a good ten minutes drawing two nonsensical graphs to illustrate this post…)

The Idiot Brain is by no means a detailed view into the world of neuroscience – and I, likewise, am by no means someone with any authority whatsoever on the subject… – but in a compelling and bite-sized way, it introduces concepts such as fluid and crystallised intelligence, and develops an argument that alcohol can actually improve your memory. Okay, the latter comes with a heavy disclaimer, but I’m accepting it!

There are some less neuroscientific insights too. I, as an assessment-geek-in-waiting, found it really interesting to learn that IQ is a standardised measure, for example. In plain English, and in Burnett’s terms, that means that if “a potent but bizarrely specific virus wiped out everyone in the world with an IQ of over 100”, the mean IQ of the world’s population would still, in fact, be 100. Makes a load of sense, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, in short, I’d recommend the book wholeheartedly to anyone who has an interest in neuroscience, or science more generally, and who is looking for an entertaining, light-hearted yet rational view on the stupidity of the brain.

find Dean Burnett on Twitter here – definitely worth a follow!

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