Bite-sized Brain Science: The 30-Second Brain, reviewed

How does the brain produce thought?

Where is memory encoded in the brain?

How do we reconstruct images in our brain?

These are some brain questions that fascinate my neighbor Rob, who has studied engineering and now works in photonics. He has no background in neuroscience, but wants to learn about it. Sure, he has the Internet, but it's really a jungle out there. I think a compact book is always a better map to begin exploring uncharted territory, so I suggested him to check out the 30-Second Brain. Although brief on content, it is a book with a wide and riveting helicopter view of neuroscience.

Books that reach out to explain brain research to the lay public are always welcome, mainly because it is a difficult subject to tackle. The 30-Second Brain addresses 50 ideas of modern neuroscience, each in 3 formats: 3s, 30s, and 3 minutes. But can one really talk about complex brain science in that kind of time? Most neuroscientists would say ‘no’. Clearly, this book is not for the detail-oriented. There are a great many textbooks and popular books for detail. Instead, this is a promising book for the casual reader, a great first book for the keen learner, and perhaps a quick afternoon read for the neuroscientist.

The 30-Second Brain is part of the 30-Second book series, edited by neuroscientist Anil Seth from the University of Sussex. It offers a broad collection of topics from brain research, beginning with neurons and glia and moving on to how these basic units connect and communicate with each other at synapses. The book builds up momentum, discussing how the neuronal ensemble sets the stage for intricate brain functions such as learning, memory, cognition and sleep. It touches upon the nuts and bolts of brain mapping with neuropsychology, functional imaging and magnetic brain stimulation; and transitions to juicier bits like consciousness, perception, synesthesia, mirror neurons, and brain disorders as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

The book also offers little walks through neuroscience history through mini biographies of scientists like Ramón y Cajal, Oliver Sacks and Roger Sperry. In addition, every topic mentions 2-3 scientists who revolutionized the field, which can act as a guide to explore further. Interspersed glossaries also make the book a handy collection of keywords when on the hunt for more in-depth material online.

A few words of warning: some catchy illustrations and prose create an uneasy sense of kowtowing to the reader. Also, the book format can get dull, as it allows little room for narrative. The bite-sized explanations may leave you wanting more, especially since the book spends only a page even for well-researched topics like brain development, neural connectivity, and vision neuroscience.

Largely, this book offers some fun stuff to chew on and can be a quick hook to latch onto the fast-evolving world of neuroscience. The light flavor can make it a great gift for the curious ones around you that never tire of asking you their brainy questions!

The 30-Second Brain is available online through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.



Devika Garg

Devika Garg is a brain scientist-turned science writer. She has a PhD in Neuroscience from the National University of Singapore, and she made the long journey West to join her husband at Stanford. She is passionate about communicating exciting science to non-scientists. Devika also loves singing, cooking, meditating or simply exploring the lovely California outdoors, all while musing over the magnificence of science.