by Diane Ackerman; New York, Scribner, 2004, 320 pages, $25
Dr. Stotland is professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College, Chicago.
Diane Ackerman, the best-selling author of A Natural History of the Senses, tells us in An Alchemy of Mind, "I've always trekked through imaginary worlds, lived on my senses, and fiddled with words. Writing is my form of celebration and prayer, but it is also the way I organize and inquire about the world. Driven by an intense, nomadic curiosity, I may find myself in a state of rapture about a field and rapidly coming down with a book…. I also love playing with ideas, looking at something from as many sides as possible, lifting up an observation, and shaking it to see if a revelation might fall out."
This is not how we might expect the author of a book on the brain to explain her work, nor might we expect her to confess, or brag, that she had flunked her college course in logic. Her book is written in a poetic style, full of rich analogies and metaphors. The endmatter includes not only diagrams, notes, and references but also a table of alchemical symbols. The title is evocative, but the subtitle explains what the book is about. There are chapters on evolution, the physical brain, memory, the self and other fictions, emotions, language, and "the world we share." The chapters are divided into sections with poetic names, such as "Sweet Dreams of Reason," "The World is Breaking Someone Else's Heart," and "Never a Dull Torment." Each chapter begins with a literary quotation.
The author frequently refers to her own history, family, experiences, and style. At first, despite a sense of relief that this is not a dense, dry text, the poetics make for tough going, and the personal information seems gratuitous and self-involved. After all, Ackerman has a lot of scientific ground to cover.
However, her ability to reference materials from a wide variety of fields and bring them to bear upon each other is also refreshing and thought provoking. The images have lasting power. In another example, she illustrates the reason for the title. "Creative ideas are forged in an alchemy of mind, as the brain uses electrochemistry to confect ideas, and then more electrochemistry to think about those ideas, and so on in an endless hall of mirrors. This rarely happens in a tidy sequence. The brain can hold an idea in its stockroom for years, occasionally checking to see if it has changed at all, revising it a little, and then putting it back on the shelf, taking it down again when it seems to have evolved like a lemur from its original form." Chemistry, stockrooms, and lemurs don't usually find themselves in the same paragraph.
By the end, the book had reminded me of some neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, and neurophysiology and had insinuated itself into my thoughts. Not only did I find myself reflecting, but I reflected on what "reflecting" means and how it works. That's what this book is all about.