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Books in brief

What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness

Current (2013)

Science writer Elizabeth Svoboda examines the super-altruism we call heroism, drawing on current research to unravel its biological and environmental roots. Bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, for instance, uses light-sensitive algal proteins to pinpoint the brain circuits that control nurturing impulses in mice. And psychologist Philip Zimbardo isolates efficient problem-solving in tight spots as central to heroic acts. Weaving in gripping case studies — such as Christoph von Toggenburg's lifelong fund-raising for the vulnerable — Svoboda concludes that heroes are made, not born.

How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement

MIT Press (2013)

Is the mind imprisoned in the brain? In this mix of neuroscience and philosophy, Lambros Malafouris suggests that mind and materiality are allied in ways that defy reductive world views. He argues that the act of making objects such as knapped tools in prehistory shaped neural processes; and furthermore, that this is a two-way street in which “human intelligence 'spreads out' beyond the skin into culture”. Engrossing, from his analysis of how the interplay of hands, neurons, clay, a moving wheel and social context result in a thrown pot, to the links between a blind man's stick and brain plasticity.

Future Bright: A Transforming Vision of Human Intelligence

Oxford University Press (2013)

Intelligence can be learned, argues educationalist Michael Martinez. Noting that tackling planetary crises hangs, in part, on the focused work of many agile minds, Martinez shows how such a revolution is possible. Beginning with the deep structure of cognitive ability, such as 'fluid' intelligence — the capacity to adapt to the unfamiliar — he paces the landscape of intellect. His journey reveals tools for change, including the rich variety of intelligence, from social to creative; the brain's extraordinary adaptability; and the cultivation of supportive behaviours such as the urge to excel.

The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science is Rewriting Their Story

Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse. Thames & Hudson (2013)

Recent findings in geology, genetics and archaeology have radically changed our understanding of Neanderthals. In the first complete chronological narrative of the species from emergence to extinction (perhaps 250,000 to 25,000 years ago), archaeologist Dimitra Papagianni and science historian Michael Morse have shaped a gem. Our big-brained relatives buried their dead, cared for the disabled, hunted creatively and ate grains, wild herbs and even dolphins. A beautifully synthesized portrait of a powerful people.

The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview

Prometheus (2013)

The popular perception of science hinges largely on medical and technological advances. Biomedical engineer Dennis Trumble calls for more: a widespread reconnection to science as a way of knowing ourselves and the world. Rationality and critical thinking, he asserts, are moral pathways. Quoting Charles Darwin's “there is grandeur in this view of life”, Trumble aims — without histrionics — to urge the religious towards science as a source of meaning.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 500, 275 (2013).

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