A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
I love how Sacks, through his small clinical vignettes, exposes the complex, narrative powers of the brain. Written with a clinician's eye, but a poet's heart, I also love how he is able to show how these patients with all sorts of neurological deficits, disabilities, and divergences are able to adapt and even thrive despite their neurological damage. For the most part, they are able to find "a new health, a new freedom" through music, inner narratives, etc. They are able to achieve a "Great Health," a peace and a paradoxical wellness THROUGH their illness.
A solid survey of behavioral economics literature related to the premise that the wide range of choices we have (what to read, how to read it, what rating to give it, where to post our review) actually ends up making us unhappier (tyranny of small decisions). Schwartz's summary is similar to a lot of those pop-economic books that seem to pop up regularly and sell quite well because they both tell us something we kinda already suspected, but also gently surprise us with counter-intuitive ideas at the same time. We are surprised, we are also a little validated: just little bit of supply with a very light touch demand.
This book belongs snug on the bookshelf next to: anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, Nudge, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), etc. All interesting, all worth the time (as long as the time is < 5 hrs), but none of them are brilliant. They are all Gladwell-like in their reductionism (this is why they all sell so well to the business community and are pimped heavily by Forbes to TED). I am both attracted and repelled by the form. They seem to span the fissure between academic and pop, between economics and self-help. I read them and I end up feeling like I know a bit more about myself, and NOW I'm just disappointed in that bastard for a couple more rational reasons.
I have to admit at the beginning that I have a significantly pro-skeptic bias. I love skeptics, so it is hard for me not to like the book. An interesting book that belongs on my shelf between my books on psychology and science (The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) and my books on agnosticism, skepticism, neo-atheism and the evolution of religion (The Evolution of God, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, The God Delusion). Anyway, 'Believing Brain' was worth my time and was a nice homage to science, and the scientific method.
The descriptions of his patients are heart-rending, but powerful in the compassion he brings to his work. I think his scientific ideas -- that relatively mild traumas (like your mom being stressed out) during pregnancy and infancy will give you an addictive personality -- are half-baked at best and basically amount to saying that all of us are prone to addictive or compulsive behaviors. I also found his assertion that addiction did not exist before the Renaissance to be pretty odd. It was disappointing to have someone who is trying to advocate for harm reduction, a policy that is both compassionate and evidence-based, making so fast and loose with the evidence.