Bookmarks Issue: 

The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

A-AlchemyMindAckerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses and Cultivating Delight, examines the "crowded chemistry lab" of the human brain through a poet’s prism. Although she draws on cognitive science and neuroscience, Ackerman explores the interaction of imagination, memory, personality, and emotion by weaving together personal anecdotes, literature, myth, popular culture, and art. At the core of her inquiries lies the existential question of identity: how does the alchemy of mind—the rather untidy brain and less tangible world of memory—create unique self-identities? Ackerman concludes that the brain, influenced both by genetic legacy and cultural experience, creates "an experience, not an entity," an "essence, not just a substance."
Scribner. 320 pages. $25. ISBN: 0743246721

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"After an introduction as compelling as any science fiction or thriller, she takes descriptions of the brain’s physical properties beyond the trendy conversational right-brain and left-brain characteristics. … This is certainly not a book to borrow from the library but one to buy and keep or give, or both." Jane Manaster

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"An Alchemy of Mind, her brief but lush meditation on the brain, melds scientific research and personal reminiscence with an avalanche of metaphors as she tackles this facet of what she calls her ‘favorite fascinations,’ nature and human nature. … [Ackerman possesses] rare imaginative fertility ..." Anne Bartlett

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"She is a grand, erudite synthesizer, positioning herself at the place where knowledge ends and reporting back to us in the language of lyric. … At a time when books about the brain, mind, and consciousness compete for readers’ attention, Ackerman has presented a helpful survey of the field leavened by yeasty writing and provocative insights." Floyd Skloot

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"A single paragraph in her essay on patterns incorporates church bells, Rodin sculpture, typographical mistakes on a menu in Jamaica, birdcalls, Macbeth’s weird sisters, fairy tales, our fascination with trilogies and Eleanor Roosevelt’s profile. But every apparent non sequitur dovetails to a neat point, and the result is dazzling." Adam Woog

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Beginning with her first page’s list of preferences for cute socks, kisses, and drinking Japanese tea in a rose garden, I got the distinct impression this book is aimed at the formidable book-buying market of upper- middle-class urban women, preferably those in Manhattan: the ladies who read. … Though I found her tone distracting, I responded to her personal stories, and especially to the generosity of her thinking." William S. Kowinski

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"If you keep up with brain research news in The Washington Post, there won’t be many scientific surprises for you here. … [But] it’s as a poet that she shows her greatest strengths in writing on the brain, as well as her greatest weaknesses." Carl Zimmer

Critical Summary

Alchemy, Ackerman explains, seeks to turn metal into gold; so does the human mind, albeit more successfully than alchemy, create a "self." Known as the modern-day poet of the natural world, Ackerman explores nature and human nature from her highly original and literary perspective. Some critics complain that she journeys through well-trodden neuroscience research. Yet there’s no doubt that she spins a highly imaginative and sensory book on the brain’s vast capabilities. That she writes more as a poet than a scientist is perhaps her greatest contribution; still, she often succumbs to pretty but weak metaphors that "give a reader precisely the wrong idea about how nature works" (Washington Post). Yet overall, Alchemy is a lucid, fascinating synthesis of the brain and all it creates.

Supplemental Reading

AS-MindWideOpenMind Wide Open Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life | Steven Johnson (2004): 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004. Another primer on the current state of brain research, without the poetic approach.