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Review of "The Playful Brain"

By Richard Restak and Scott Kim
Riverhead, 2010
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Aug 30th 2011
The Playful Brain

The Playful Brain is a book about the brain and puzzles.  The author, Dr. Richard Restak, is a neuroscientist and neuropsychiatrist.  The puzzles are by Dr. Scott Kim, a puzzle and computer game designer.  As explained in the book's "Introduction", the goal overall of Restak and Kim is to help readers maximize the use of their brain functions.  Towards that end, neuroscientific discourse is presented, accompanied by a multitude of puzzles.  The thematic foundation supporting the textual edifice is that puzzles can be designed to enhance particular brain functions.  The neuroscientific discourse is instructively informative; and the puzzles are quite challenging.  The text, and accompanying puzzles, however, are not immersed in a sea of fully referenced research materials.

Relative informality and lay reader friendliness characterize the book, stylistically.

On a chapter by chapter basis, the book is bifurcated, structurally:  characteristically, at a chapter start, there is discourse of a neuroscientific nature; puzzles, customarily, then follow.

Partially referenced research work is embedded extensively in the book's substance.

Some "Figure type" material enhances the text's intellectual richness.

The text is further adorned visually by some photographs.

An array of quoted fragments contribute additionally to the animation of the text.

The neuroscientific discussion commencing each chapter pertains to a particular brain function or skill.  In this substantive manner, the reader, over the book's course, is shown an intellectually stunning, panoramic view of:  working (Chapter 1) and long term (Chapter 2) memory, perceptual (Chapter 3) and motor (Chapter 7) skill learning, visual (Chapter 4) and spatial (Chapter 5) thinking, listening (Chapter 6), time (Chapter 8), thinking in words (Chapter 9), logic (Chapter 10), emotions and thinking (Chapter 11), mathematics (Chapter 12), illusions (Chapter 13), and creativity (Chapter 14).

The panorama, as revealed in the text, is very likely highly engaging of readers' interest, and quite edifying.  But notably, the neuroscience of substantive interest is presented at a relatively unadvanced level.

  Various components customarily embody the puzzles.  Puzzles are titled descriptively.  There is a pithy statement of what attempted solving of a particular puzzle may supposedly  accomplish (regarding  possible  enhancement of a particular brain function or skill).  Relatively succinct instructions for doing a puzzle are given; there may be annotated, accompanying comment.  In a structural section described as "REFLECTION", questions pertinent to a specific puzzle are characteristically posed; suggestions,  pertaining to a specific puzzle, may be given also in this part.

The views of Restak and Kim, with respect to the possible association between attempted solving of particular puzzles and possible resultant enhancement of particular brain functions or skills, may incite a critically questioning attitude.  Are there, for example, peer reviewed, scientific data germane to a scientifically disciplined evaluation of  this possible association?  What particular brain functions or skills are any such data particularly relevant to?  If extant data arguably support the conclusion that particular puzzles may potentially strengthen particular brain functions or skills, what is the mechanism?  Also, can possible brain enhancement associated with attempted puzzle solving be accurately measured scientifically?

In another critical vein, critics may inject that some readers, in real life terms, simply may not have the time and motivation to attempt to solve the myriad challenging puzzles presented in the book.

But clearly, this book is a wonderful contribution to the literature of puzzles and the brain.

Readers who attempt to solve the book's puzzles will very likely be quite challenged.

At a professional level, the very lengthy list of professionals who may be intrigued and enriched professionally by the  book includes:  neuroscientists, puzzle designers, neuropsychiatrists, psychiatrists, neurologists, neuropsychologists, experimental psychologists, psychologists, neurosurgeons, neuroanatomists, cognitive scientists, computer scientists, computer game designers, ambigram artists, artists, gerontologists, neurobiologists, evolutionary biologists, molecular biologists, biologists, neurophysiologists, physiologists, mathematicians, audiologists, acoustic scientists, filmmakers, writers, engineers, architects, and sculptors.


© 2011 Leo Uzych


Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.  Twitter @LeoUzych