Four Books That Profoundly Influenced Me, Despite Not Having Read Them

The pervasive power of the written word

Mark Humphries
The Spike

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Credit: Pixabay

Nebulous is a good word to use here. If asked what books most influenced my own, The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds, I could reel off some titles, could catalogue for you a litany of books from which I can draw a direct line to my own, a lineage of immediate forebears. Sure, they shaped my thoughts, guided my hand. Some were even pleasurable to read. But they were the proximate causes.

The ultimate causes of what pushed me down the road of writing a book about how the brain actually works are elsewhere. Their influence is nebulous, not explicitly evident in the words of my book, nor the references in its endnotes. In truth, my work was most influenced by books I did not read.

(1) On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin

My book is about brains. There are a lot of books about brains. Darwin’s book is, famously, not about brains. It is about the theory of evolution by natural selection. That I have not read it nor is it about brains has not prevented Origins from deeply influencing the way I think about the world and the way I write about it.

Origins’ earliest influence on me was through my science writers of choice in my teenage years, especially the constant reading and re-reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays and books on evolution. He quotes Origins so often I felt like I’d read most of it by time I was 18. It’s to the clarity and brilliance of Gould’s science writing that I aspired as I began writing about science myself for you, the reader.

But Origins’ ultimate influence on me, via the work of Gould, Dawkins and many others, is in giving me the mindset that I bring to work everyday as a neuroscientist. Dobzhansky’s famous maxim “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is a crucial lens through which to understand the brain: why is that there? And why is it the way it is? Such questions occupy much of my book: why do neurons send spikes to each other? Why do they do so rarely? Why do neurons send spikes when there is no information coming from the outside world?

Actually, I attempted Origins a few years back, and seem to remember stalling around the seemingly interminable section on pigeon breeding. Like all my attempts at reading the Victorian literary canon, I also struggled to cope with the endless commas. I can though heartily recommend Steven Jones’ Almost Like a Whale, his modern update of On The Origin of Species. And little beats Dawkin’s The Blind Watchmaker as a guide to the modern view of how evolution works.

Whatever you read, the essential argument is the same: natural selection is the foundation of our understanding of how the world — and our brains — came to be.

(2) Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

It took me a long time to pick up a book that would uncontroversially be called literature. Devouring science fiction, science, and history books was my youth. Literature seemed intimidating, too proper, and too sedate for my knowledge-hungry mind. Literature even looked scary, when publishers put them out in their identikit designed covers, with “classic” emblazoned on the front. Browsing a second-hand book fair as an undergraduate, my eyes fell on just such a paperback, Conrad’s Nostromo, about which I knew nothing. Apart from the fact it was the name of the cargo ship in Alien.

But I had heard of Conrad, through my other dalliance — films. I was comfortably more film literate than literate literate. I’d even watched Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin by choice, on my own, just to see the classic Odessa steps sequence, wanting to know how it matched up to Brian de Palma’s tribute in The Untouchables. So I knew that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had underpinned the chaotic whirl of Apocalypse Now.

That fact alone was enough for me to reach for that battered copy of Nostromo, and part with the pittance it cost me. And it blew me away. The sprawling plot, and the rich, dense prose; the baroque punctuation: colons keeping sentences alive long after they should have died quietly: flowing majestically when by rights they should have been struggling for breath.

From that breakthrough flowed all the writers I went on to discover, and so flowed what ability I have to write. Which is just as well, for when I did finally read Heart of Darkness a few years back I was inevitably disappointed, finding it curiously slow, full of longueurs, despite its brevity. No matter: its job was done long ago.

(3) Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo

Possibly my favourite film. First watched, mouth agape, in a school art lesson at the age of 14, thanks to a broad-minded art teacher who’d been persuaded by a friend of mine to experience some Japanese anime and stick on this videotape for a lesson. It drew me into cyberpunk, and its recurring themes of enhanced humans, enhanced brains, and AI. Opened the door to the books of Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson and more. Little wonder then, looking back, that I was drawn to studying Cognitive Science for my degree, a mess of neuroscience and psychology and AI and philosophy of mind, or that I wound up as a computational neuroscientist, using code to understand the brain.

Or that I ended up writing a book about how the brain computes, about the gulf between what we know about how the brain works and how the neural networks of AI currently work, and about the gap between our knowledge of neurons and what it means to be human.

Only later did I learn that the film was based on the epic manga saga of the same name. And it suddenly became clear to me: how these characters were so well realised, how the animation was so beautifully drawn — and why the film made no sense as it compressed into two hours six years worth of manga comics. Later again I was finally the proud owner of the six Dark Horse volumes of the complete Akira saga, so much richer than the film. And comprehensible. But they didn’t have that pounding soundtrack, or the streaked red blur of tail lights as Kaneda’s bike tore across the screen.

(4) The Organization of Behavior, by Donald O Hebb

What, you’ve not read it? You’re in good company. I’m pretty sure almost all neuroscientists and psychologists have never read Hebb’s tome, despite having plenty of time to do so since it was published in 1949. But its influence is everywhere. For Hebb introduced two of the key ideas of neuroscience in his book, ideas that permeate my work, my book, and the work of countless others.

It was he who first clearly articulated the idea that neurons who fire together, wire together. That if neuron A is consistently active at the same time as neuron B, then the strength of any connection between them should be strengthened. For the mere fact that they fire together implies they are doing an important job of processing something — whether that be looking at stuff, or hearing, or deciding, or moving, or the receipt of reward. So it makes sense that they should be more strongly connected, for then it makes it easier to process or remember the stuff in the future.

Not content with that, in his second key idea he pointed out an inevitable consequence: if lots of pairs of neurons did this fire-and-wire strengthening of the connections between them, and those pairs overlapped, so neuron A connects to B, and B in turn connects to neuron C, then the result would be a group of neurons that will always tend to fire together — an assembly of neurons. An assembly of neurons whose collective activity represented or computed the same thing.

These ideas are central to modern neuroscience: we are immersed in the search for the specific rules of how the connections between neurons strengthen, and how that underpins the brain’s development and learning. And as for groups of neurons carrying information in their collective firing, my book’s central theme is just that: of how our spectacular tools of modern neuroscience, recording from hundreds or thousands of single neurons at the same time, have shown beyond doubt that groups of neurons sending messages together is how the brain computes.

Perhaps one day I will read Hebb’s book, and discover therein a third key idea, previously forgotten, that will make my fortune. Until then, you can see how I’m getting on with coming up with my own ideas about the brain by reading my dispatches from the frontlines of neuroscience on my Medium publication The Spike.

p.s. if you’re interested, I do have some recommendations of books about brains, books that I have both read and learnt something from: see this list.

Twitter: @markdhumphries

The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds is published by Princeton University Press, and available now from your favourite bookseller in paperback, hardback, e-book, and audiobook.

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Mark Humphries
The Spike

Theorist & neuroscientist. Writing at the intersection of neurons, data science, and AI. Author of “The Spike: An Epic Journey Through the Brain in 2.1 Seconds”