Book Review: Your Brain Knows More Than You Think is an important & contentious book about pioneering brain research

A book like Your Brain Knows More Than You Think is one that challenges you to leave your assumptions at the door. Originally written by psychologist and neurobiologist Niels Birbaumer, and translated into English by David Shaw, it provides some compelling arguments and case studies from the research and practice undertaken by Birbaumer, and others in this ground-breaking and innovative field. It’s also one that is not without controversy, but that’s because in some cases the stakes can be quite high, especially in trying to achieve things that seem impossible.

One of the book’s most compelling chapters is about patients who are in a permanent ‘locked-in’ state. That is, they have been rendered completely paralysed and unable to move their muscles – including their eyelids. This could be as a result of Lou Gehrig’s disease, or a stroke. Birbaumer describes his research where they were able to achieve basic communication (“yes” and “no” answers) from such patients. They did this by using a brain-computer interface where they measured changes in blood flow, metabolic activity and other measures to various questions. These included ones like, “Is Paris the capital of Germany?” which can be answered relatively quickly in order to gain a baseline reading. This was then followed by some more challenging questions about the patient’s views on their quality of life. The results were unexpected in that these patients responded that they were happy despite their locked-in state, and the computer reportedly achieved an accuracy level of around 70-80%.

Some other chapters are more contentious in nature. For example, Birbaumer describes using brain training in order to teach violent criminals to unlearn their aggressive impulses. They were also taught to learn emotional responses like empathy, a trait that is missing in psychopaths (who are commonly found in prison populations). This is a dark domain when you consider that a good section of society believe that such criminals cannot change or reform their ways.

Birbaumer also touches on dementia, addiction and ADHD and how they can be treated using non-pharmaceutical methods. This book is quite interesting and informative, one that helps us learn more about neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to remould itself. One major criticism however, is that whilst Birbaumer makes a lot of assertions, the book does not have a particularly long bibliography. It also doesn’t provide any further resources for people wanting to learn more about memory, learning, brain training, etc. This is a wasted opportunity, because there will be people who’d like to know more, and also because you get the sense that it is only early days with respect to the progress that has been achieved thus far in this field.

Your Brain Knows More Than You Think is a good volume containing some significant studies involving the brain. It’s one where the revelations may not always be popular because it will challenge some people, and turn some pre-conceived ideas and notions on their heads. Despite this it is an important and educational read about our body’s most important organ, and the stuff that matters.

Your Brain Knows More Than You Think is now available through Scribe Publications.