Some writers take the traditional route to becoming a published author (e.g. Ayisha Malik, from this Festival). Others take a more indirect route, such as Dean Burnett, who after graduating spent two years embalming corpses before venturing into stand-up comedy. “If the audience didn’t laugh,” he notes, “at least they were breathing.” After that he became a science blogger for The Guardian before finally writing that book that, like a lot of writers, he insisted that he’d never thought of writing.
The Idiot Brain is meant as an antidote to traditional science writing about the brain, which treats its beauty and complexity with a reverence that it doesn’t always deserve. The brain is capable of doing some quite odd and ridiculous things. More to the point, although the human brain has evolved at an astonishing rate over the last couple of million years, it has been outstripped by the progress of society and technology. Which has left the poor brain quite incapable of dealing with some of the situations it faces. For example, motion sickness (which is the bane of many of us living on an island) occurs because sea or air travel causes mixed messages to be sent from our eyes and inner ears, which the brain thinks may be a hallucination caused by poisoning, and then deals with by vomiting.
Fascinating stuff, yeah? Plenty more of that, with an equal amount of good jokes, from Burnett, although perhaps his brain works a bit faster than his mouth because sometimes I found he raced through his explanations. Or perhaps my idiot brain works a little more slowly than necessary!
Actually, according to Burnett, that last self-deprecating comment may be evidence of my higher intelligence. Yes, that must be it. Because intelligent people are more self-appraising, whereas people with lower intelligence tend to have more confidence because they don’t appraise their own actions. On the other hand, they can end up being the US President.
If your brain is hungry, then Burnett will feed it to bursting with nutritious facts such as why we dream, how hibernating animals will wake up to sleep (huh?), and why we become addicted to things we know are bad for us. One last favourite fact which appealed to the film fan in me: when we are at the cinema, we believe the character on screen’s voice is coming from their mouth. Actually, our ears know that the voice is coming from the speakers in the cinema, but your brain gives the eyes power of veto over the ears, and deludes you into seeing and hearing something that’s not happening. The beautiful idiot.