BOOK REVIEW: A million things to ask a neuroscientist

30th Jan 2023

Brenda WalkerWe're delighted to share with you this book review by BNA Associate Member Brenda Walker (right), who writes about, 'A Million Things to Ask A Neuroscientist: The Brain made easy, the "debut book from British neuroscientist Dr Mike Tranter", which, "brings together decades of research into the strange and wonderful ways your brain works."

This 220 page paperback, also available on kindle or with hard cover, provides an interesting and enjoyable introduction to Neuroscience for those with a smattering of knowledge but with a desire to learn more about the brain, the general locations of its more important areas, and how it works and controls us. To find questions, the author states that he approached people worldwide and was amazed at the response from those who expressed curiosity for the unknown and an excitement at the possibility of finding answers. He also addresses those considering a role in the scientific world that are either starting out or planning a change of career, by offering suggestions for further studies in a variety of related fields. An excellent glossary is provided along with a detailed reference section linked to each chapter, and amusing, yet supportive, illustrations are scattered throughout.

The writing style is very accessible, sounding more like a personal lecture to an intimate group than a question and answer seminar. Tranter states that he intends to avoid too much detail at the start so as not to scare off the reader and he certainly succeeds. For instance, at the start of the book, any scientific vocabulary is italicized and explained with modern day imagery such as: A neuron ‘stores DNA and dishes out instructions’; an axon is ‘the railway the train of signals travel along’ and the synapse ‘the medieval drawbridge where the railway stops and messages are thrown over the gap.’

It may sound a little too simple for the experienced scientist, but the preceding prose,  together with the detailed, labelled illustration that follows, balances the above with the following subtext:

The dendrites of the neuron will form connections with others.  These connections will result in a synapse where the neurotransmitters are released.  The axons can also be coated in myelin to make signals travel more efficiently.

Some readers may be disappointed at the scarcity of scientific illustrations in the text, yet Tranter still manages to provide in-depth, complex information, while fulfilling his intention to disseminate sophisticated research to a wider audience. His style is as entertaining as it is empowering.

Of course there are not enough pages to house a million questions, but eighteen of them are in the first chapter and take up half the book.  The first to be answered is ‘why the brain is in our head and not somewhere else’ which leads to explaining the development from its primitive function to the brain we have today.

Looking at the present, Tranter continues with a whole range of topics. There are questions on drugs (highlighting cannabis); social psychology; MRIs and other scans; language; bilingualism; memory; addiction to things; sleep; dreams; brain freeze; cell regeneration; encoding memories; genius; multitasking; depression; meditation; sex differences; and finally, consciousness. The fascinating, fully researched answers are portrayed with catching enthusiasm and many amusing asides. It is unfortunate that Anil Seth’s Being You was published in the same year as A Million things to ask a Neuroscientist, for Seth’s new science of consciousness and self, together with the debates that sprang from his publication, could have added even more interesting material. However, Tranter frequently acknowledges the necessity to keep on exploring new ideas. ‘We know so much, yet so little.’

The next chapter is humorously entitled ‘The X Files of Neuroscience’. Here we are introduced to some of the brain’s ‘exciting and curious phenomena’ and what happens when the brain does not work as it should. Now, it is the author who raises the questions: ‘Have you ever.....?  Many of the answers relate to stories which reveal how some important scientific discoveries emerged. The text is again backed up occasionally by fuller, more academic footnotes.

The future of Neuroscience is summarised with a quotation from the World War 11 cryptanalyst and mathematician, Alan Turing of Bletchley Park fame:

‘We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.’

Tranter then explores the future of neuroscience and its increasing relationship with technology, health and disease, including gene editing and the possibility of creating a super-human. Tranter guides the reader through some of the current ‘cutting-edge’ research; research, that opens up even more questions. Ethics aside, science fiction has already shown the dangers of new inventions in the wrong hands and now with our ever developing technology and research with organoids, stem cells and artificial intelligence, much science fiction has already become a reality and the future holds many questions and obvious concerns for the human race.

Curious readers staring ‘down the Science Rabbit Hole’, interested in learning more, but not yet scientists, are given a special place in the fourth chapter.  For those who feel they do not possess the sort of skills science demands, suggestions are given for entry into other relevant science impacted careers.  ‘Don’t worry!’ Tranter states in his usual enthusiastic and supportive manner and goes on to suggest various courses, summer internships, networking events and many more. He sees administration and communication skills as an advantage for roles in any of the following areas: pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, business analysts, sales, medical devices, scientific writing, museum roles, displays and exhibitions, law firms, educational drama, or television. The list seems unending and very inspiring.

 In conclusion, he encourages those, who have the curiosity, enthusiasm and relevant interests, to let their skills lead them into a career where they can expand their ‘knowledge and joy of science’. The final pages of this book are written by Jodi Barnard, née Parslow, a well-known and respected woman scientist who relates her struggle to succeed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics); once a male dominated area.  She also shares her views on the need for female mentors, and also female role models in senior positions and the difficulties faced when there are dual responsibilities - a senior post plus the role of Carer, for adult or child.

Tranter writes a personal Afterward in which he thanks those who have accompanied him on his journey through the ‘amazing brain’ and offers to keep in touch with any reader via social media who has further questions regarding the content of his publication.

So, if you want a book to first devour and then dip into, ‘The brain made easy’ may suit you. Mike Tranter, PhD, who first trained in Pharmacology and whose curiosity then led him on a path to  a doctorate in Neuroscience, has such enthusiasm for his subject that the reader cannot help but enjoy joining him on this journey of exploration into that ‘pink mushy thing inside our head’. However, the reader should always recall his comment at the end of the PREFACE:  Science never sleeps!

Brenda Walker, January 2023

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