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                        e n e r g i z i n g    t r a n s f o r m a t i o n    t  h r o u g h    i n q u i r y ,   i n s i g h t ,   a n d   i n t e g r a t i o n


                   January 2006 Book Review and Quotes Archive


                                                                        An Alchemy of Mind
                                                          By Diane Ackerman
                                                        Published By Scribner
                                                          ISBN: 0-7432-4672-1

Diane Ackerman has the poet's gift of mounting ideas like diamonds into settings of metaphor that amplify

the brilliance of their dance with light.  An Alchemy of Mind could be a dry, academic non-fiction review of

historic and contemporary views of the brain, memory, and theories of self fleshed out by the perspectives

of neuro-scientists, philosophers, and artists. It could be, but it is not.

In Ackerman's lyrical, sensuous language, this book reveals brain function and anatomy in tones lovers

might use to recall an especially cherished tryst. Lovers (or others for that matter) might well give a try just to
reading it aloud. It would be an endearing, perhaps evocative and occasionally erotic experience just to hear

her pairings of clinical detail embedded in earthy adjectives and provocative prose. An Alchemy of Mind has
all the fun of her Natural History of the Senses, this time, with the brain (and mind, if there is a distinction)

as her focus.

If only my college text on psychophysiology had been as descriptively come hither as her opening sentence:

"Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory,

that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere,

that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes

into a gym bag."

She lays down maps of form and function so the explorer can negotiate a spatial understanding of the lobes.

And, builds a star map of the billions of synaptic connections that tell each other of their excitation. She also
broaches speculations of mind and self. Are they simply emergent properties of the brain's three or so pounds

of complexity or, do they possess qualities still unaccountable by its neural processing?

"A self is deciduous, it leafs out as one grows, changes with one's seasons, yet somehow stays briskly the same.

The brain composes a self-portrait from a confetti of facts and sensations, and as pieces are added or removed

the likeness changes, though the sense of unity remains, thanks to well-furnished illusions. We need illusions to

feel true."

Her last section titled: The Wilderness Within, brings together her readings and musings on the state of

consciousness research. It reads like a conversational round table of major contributors to the literature with
herself as moderator. A question here, a context there, her own process of inquiry and ideational association

parallels the information of her sources to demonstrate the wonder of the brain.


Review by Tom Tower



                                             January 2006 Weekly Quotes    



"The brain composes a self-portrait from a confetti of facts and sensations, and as pieces are added or removed

the likeness changes, though the sense of unity remains, thanks to well-furnished illusions. We need illusion to feel

Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind

"The streaming of consciousness is yet another sleight of mind. Afloat somewhere between done and undone, we

ride a fluid present from moment to moment. Life feels continuous, immediate, ever unfolding. In truth, we're always

late to the party. There's a time lag of half a second between perceiving something and becoming conscious of it.

I don't just mean the sort of reflex that makes a hand recoil from a stove before the mind says too hot! No, all our

conscious acts are afterthoughts." 
Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind

"Consciousness is the great poem of matter. But consciousness isn't really a response to the world, it's more of an

opinion about it. As miscellaneous as our brain is, with many separate domains, we feel continuous, one mind, 

one life. How is that possible if the brain's a congress of specialists? The brain is a gifted illusionist."
Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind

"Sometimes as the fog of sleep lifts, the mind becomes aware of its traffic. Like commuters on an express way,

messages speed across the corpus callosum, a thick bridge of 200-250 million nerve fibers spanning the brain's

two hemispheres. More will follow in a continuous stream of hubbub going in both directions. The brain is a duet

of specialists which produces a single experience that's part enterprise, part communion, but all process, all motion."
Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of Mind


"Metaphor is one of the brain's favorite ways of understanding the this and that of our surroundings, and reminds

us that we discover the world by engaging it and seeing what happens next. The art of the brain is to find what

seemingly unrelated things may have in common, and be able to apply that insight to something else it urgently

needs to unpuzzle. It thrives on analogy. To some, being aware of that process is exhilarating, to others it's scary,

depending on one's need to believe in absolute truth, and deny the extent to which the brain uses metaphor, often

imperceptibly, relying on what we do know to illuminate what we don't."
Diane Ackerman, An Alchemy of the Mind





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