I’ve read a lot of books about the ways that the mind works, about whether there’s a “self” and what it is if there is one, and about the uses we can make of our new knowledge about the dynamic workings of the human brain.
Some of these books are too technical to engage the general reader, while many of them are too superficial, too au courant pop, to care about.
Jennifer Ouellette’s Me, Myself ,and Why is neither of these. It’s the rare popular book on the emerging science of the brain (and the mind that the brain creates) that engages the reader both as a story and as information.
This dual appeal isn’t easy to achieve. I’ve been critical of cherry-picking writers like Malcolm Gladwell, and I’ve flung away books with titles like Neuro–Sell and Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, books that were written to cash in on a trend.
Ouellette succeeds where others fail because her book effectively presents the latest research in the context of the author’s personal history. Who better than an adopted science writer to examine questions about self and identity?
The book’s structure is straightforward. Each chapter focuses on a different area of research, but the explanations are always tied to Ouellette’s personal quest. She has her DNA sequenced. She undergoes MRI’s and other medical tests. She interviews the scientists and the philosophers, the researchers and the thinkers who are most engaged in the study of the brain and mind.
The result of this dual track approach is a book that is personal enough to be always engaging and scholarly enough to be always informative. If you know little about the subject, Ouellette’s personal narrative can draw you painlessly into the topic. And if you know quite a lot already, that same narrative gives the book a freshness that keeps it interesting.
Ouellette grounds her book in her own journey of self-discovery. As an adoptee, she has a keen curiosity about who she is, in particular about how much of her identity is due to the genetic heritage she owes to her unknown biological parents.
To search for this identity, Ouellette explores everything from gene sequencing to LSD. Along the way, she places her own experiences firmly into the context of some of the latest and best research into the brain. It’s this combination of a sound technical footing and an engrossing personal story that gives Me, Myself, and Why its place as one of the best popular science books that I’ve read recently.
While some writers skim the most sensational bits of the research in order to spin their largely superficial and unjustified “theories,” and while other writers use a bit of brain research to support their pre-existing political, religious, or economic inclinations, Ouellette creates a more naturally unified blend.
It’s a good tactic, and its result is a very good book.