- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006




By Richard Restak

Harmony, $23, 272 pages


I am at my computer, writing this book review, and the television has been on in the background. The midterm elections are only days away, and in the past hour, I have seen at least 20 political ads. I am in the Washington, D.C. area, but that does not matter. Certainly, my experience is shared by others throughout the country.

The ads have been strident, bombastic, accusatory and generally annoying. They have clogged the airways for weeks — even my children have begun complaining — and patients have brought them up in psychotherapy sessions. And as I endure these television ads, I wonder how is it that their producers believe I will be anything but turned off by this bombardment of overstated indictment and false promise (you see, I am no fool, or at least, that is what I would like to believe).

After reading Richard Restak’s book, “The Naked Brain,” I have learned that these campaign managers and ad producers are not so foolish after all. If neuroscience research has anything to say about it, they are doing exactly what they need to do to achieve their stated goals.

The advertisers know that repetition, emotionally intense presentation and content focusing on danger and worry will stick with their audiences like glue and will, whether those audiences like it or not, impact decision making at a subconscious level. These ads have been designed to engage us at a level of brain function that is largely hard-wired, imperceptible and impossible for us to consciously control, no matter what our political leanings may be.

In “The Naked Brain,” Dr. Restak takes us through many current findings and theory in neuroscience. In his introduction, he warns of a world where politicians, advertisers and others invested in the results of our decision making will have more control over that than any of us can or should comfortably accept. He elegantly takes the reader through a series of experiments, extrapolating their meanings, developing the idea that our brains, efficient tools that they are, both define us as individuals and undermine that individuality at the same time.

The author tells us that “most of the things we know exist outside of our conscious awareness.” He is talking about the cognitive unconscious, but not the one we are most familiar with, the one described by Sigmund Freud: that seething cauldron of dark desires, repressed memories and all things generally frowned upon in good society.

Dr. Restak is simply describing what neuroscientists are beginning to understand about how our brains do what they do, no small matter, since our brains do rather a lot. Essentially the unconscious simply represents those thoughts and behaviors that have been habituated, or made automatic, so that we do not have to waste energy thinking about them. They do not clog up the conscious mind, leaving it available for more novel or complex demands.

If much of what we think is unconscious, that means we don’t generally know what we are or are not thinking about in any single moment. We do know that we are not thinking about breathing, and that happens anyway. We also know we think a lot less about driving than we probably should. Few of us get through life without the experience of arriving home from work with no clear memory of how we got there.

But there are other things that happen unconsciously that may seem less obvious, or more disconcerting. Did you know that we automatically mimic the behavior, dialect or emotions expressed by the people with whom we have contact either intimately or superficially?

We can watch someone drink a cup of tea and the same areas of our brains will activate as if we ourselves were drinking that tea. We begin to mimic the dialect of people from other parts of the country merely by spending a few days with them. Husbands and wives who have been married for decades often look alike, largely because they have mimicked each others’ mannerisms for so long that they have developed similar facial expressions and wrinkle patterns.

We are both the vectors and recipients of social contagion, explains Dr. Restak, saying that, “perceiving an emotion activates the same brain circuits used to generate that emotion.” We, the author so clearly explains, are hardwired to “resonate with other brains,” a result of our essentially social nature.

Now, back to those political ads; those annoying, relentless, negative diatribes. Do they accomplish their intended goal? Do they affect our decision making? Dr. Restak explains that neuroscientists have shown that we respond more intensely to negative stimuli than to positive. That certainly explains why those ads concentrate on crime, war, sexual peccadilloes and other discouraging subjects. The more something is repeated, the more familiar it becomes, and the more likely it is that we believe its veracity. Ah, that explains the clogging of the airways.

And, finally, our memories are so plastic that they can be altered by the introduction of new information, and we can be completely unaware that we have new memories of old events. We will believe that is what we have known all along. Quite intimidating really.

“The Naked Brain” is a fascinating book, taking the reader through the myriad findings of neuroscientists, through brain imaging and the likely function of various brain structures and the effect of certain hormones on behavior. It is written in a manner that makes it accessible to novice and expert alike. It comes with a caution, though: Most of the interpretations of data should be taken with a grain of salt. The brain is a complex organ, and it is, at this juncture, only marginally understood.

Enjoy the book, and take to heart Dr. Restak’s ultimate message: We can transcend our automatic thoughts with effort and awareness. In that case, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to stay one step ahead of the advertisers, political or otherwise.

Nicola Sater Alipanah, M.D. is in private practice in Chevy Chase, Md.

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