I confess I was sceptical about this one, despite the PhD author. A student lent this to me, though, and in addition to generally trying to keep an open mind, I like to take an interest in what students are reading. So while I probably wouldn’t have picked up The Superhuman Mind on my own, I gave it a try—and it was all right. The rhetoric was not as hyperbolic as I feared, and the scientific aspects were pretty fascinating. It doesn’t have the same kind of intense hook or narrative that some books have—the writing is easy to follow but not overly engaging—but the subject matter is pretty cool.
Neuroscience fascinates me, as does philosophy of mind. What makes us who we are? Berit Brogaard and her coauthor, Kristian Marlow, discuss various examples of how the brain can exceed its seemingly “ordinary” capacities to engage in “superhuman” tasks. Brogaard draws on her research on savants, synesthetes, and other people who have abnormal or extraordinary abilities caused by brain function. Her central thesis is that these abilities are not just granted through accident (of birth or circumstance) but can be replicated or learned by almost anyone, provided we have a good enough understanding of how they come about.
Frankly, we need more books like this. Once upon a time I watched a movie called Lucy. It was, quite simply, one of the worst movies I have ever watched. The plot was an utter trainwreck of uninspired scenes stitched together somewhat haphazardly, with garbage science tossed around with the impunity of someone who watched The Core and thought, “Hmm, this is too scientifically accurate.” They take the “we only use 10% of our brain” myth—a myth I loathe with the fire of three hundred suns—and crank it up to 11. It’s so ridiculous it should be silly and fun, but it takes itself so seriously and artsy that it falls incredibly flat.
But I digress.
The 10% myth isn’t the only brain myth that needs to die. Whenever people hear I teach both mathematics and English, they react with surprise, and many of them make a comment along the lines of, “Oh, you use both sides of your brain!” Yeah, because everyone else just goes through life using half a brain. Well, OK, maybe it seems that way! If they bring up the left brain/right brain thing, though, I have to say, “Well, actually, the left brain is also typically the dominant hemisphere for language as well.”
My point is that our understanding of brain function has advanced considerably in the past fifty years, but our education on the brain has not. The general public still has a very vague idea of how our brains work. This ignorance, combined with the proliferation of various myths, is not just inconvenient but can also be dangerous: it leads to stigma around mental health and traumatic brain injury; it reinforces stereotypes of gender (and even race!); and it leads to people basing important decisions on mistaken or pseudo-scientific information.
The Superhuman Mind goes a long way towards informing its reader about the wonders of the human brain, laying out what we know and how we know it, along with what we don’t know or need to find out next. It sheds light on the savant abilities of people with autism, traumatic brain injury, and other brain function that differs from the “norm.” Brogaard explains how these abilities work—at least as far as we know right now—and how people might acquire them without sacrificing chunks of grey and white matter.
Neuroplasticity is a fascinating idea, and a complex one, and I’m not going to try to explain it here. I like, however, that Brogaard explores how practice influences the brain. It’s not just the practice is building up memories—it’s rewiring our neural connections, training the brain to dedicate specific pathways to certain tasks. This is adjacent to the bigger discussion around nature and nurture: some people seem born with savant abilities, and others acquire them suddenly in similarly “natural” experiences; yet, Brogaard contends, it is entirely possible to learn these abilities like one might learn to play piano.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I really hate the way it is being marketed by cover and copy decisions. My copy has the subtitle “Free the Genius in Your Brain” (only slightly different from “How to Unleash Your Inner Genius”), and the back quotes extensively from the book’s own foreword, talking about the “superbrain.” All in all it just comes across like this is supposed to be one of those gimmicky The Secret–like books that will give you powers over matter and the universe itself. It isn’t. It’s hard science at its best, albeit told through some scattered and disorganized narratives about individual patients and larger studies.
The Superhuman Mind is informative and interesting. It talks about the brain, and neuroscience, in an unconventional but still utterly rational, thoughtful way. I liked those aspects. At times it doesn’t deliver what I generally want from a non-fiction read, in terms of style and feel, but those seem like minor and very personal quibbles. If, like me, you wonder how we tick beneath these skulls of ours, you might like giving this a shot.