Guest Book Review: 'Head Trip' by Michael Warren

Our first guest blogger reviews Head Trip, a self-styled ‘field guide’ to the varying levels of mental awareness.

When we started this blog, we wanted to host guest posts as well as writing ourselves. We are now delighted to welcome our first guest writer, Kathrin, who has reviewed the fascinating book Head Trip. Neuroscience is a popular topic for popular science books, and what better place to review them than the Neuroscience blog? Thank you, Kathrin!

– Joy and Helene

 

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Hello everyone! My name is Kathrin – I’m the holiday substitute for particularly stressful times in the lab. I’m currently finishing my PhD in Neurophysics and as a guest writer will mainly talk about ‘neuropop’.

Head Trip

Head Trip, the book proclaims, is ‘A Fantastic Romp Through 24 Hours in the Life of Your Brain’. Along the way, it covers states of consciousness because these exist ‘in more widely varied and abundant forms than simple waking, sleeping and dreaming’. (p11) Warren takes us on a trip, visiting researchers and remote places to learn and experience different states of the mind.

Head Trip is a travelling journal as well as a popular science book, full of self-experiments and interesting nuggets of science. Warren is telling us about his experiences with ease and warmth, which makes transitions between science and exploration stories almost unnoticeable. Though it sounds a bit kitschy, I could almost envision meeting the people he describes myself. His writing is fluid and effortless, and the book contains a number of whimsical hand drawn illustrations featuring both scientific concepts and complimentary comics.

398px-Eschborn,_Travel_a_Head

Thematically the book is separated into two main parts, brain at night and brain during daytime. Both parts contain specific mental states and listing them makes for a quite impressive read, but bear with me: During the book the reader will encounter the Hypnagogic, the Watch and the Lucid Dream in the first part, supplemented with short “trip notes” of the Slow Wave and the REM dream, and the Trance, the SMR and the pure conscious event in the second part, together with trip notes for the hypnopompic, the daydream and the Zone.

All of those sound like exotic destinations at first, but looking at them more closely, most are merely the impressive scientific names for more common mental states we all experience in our daily lives; the Hypnagogic, for example, is falling asleep, but from a neuroscientific point of view, there is quite a lot to it: Specific changes in brainwave patterns and mild hallucinations pose ample space for interesting research. Head Trip focuses on the ordinary states of the brain and not pathology; even though not everyone might have experienced all those states of consciousness, this still makes Head Trip a unique neuropop book in focussing on normal brain activity.

Personally I find Warren at his best during the part on sleep as, for example, I had not encountered the Watch at all. The Watch is a deeply awake state in the middle of a restful night of sleep, which has been commonly described in literature before the advent of artificial lighting. Warren sets out to recreate this by living in a remote cottage relying only on natural daylight. His descriptions of sleep labs and the scientific equipment used are concise and easy to understand and the illustrations are used cleverly to highlight, for example, characteristic EEG patterns like the ones described here.

In the second part the book does not reach the high standard of the first half. The section on  ‘pure conscious event’ is one of the weaker parts of the book: it is rather descriptive and the inclusion of more research findings on meditation would have given the chapter a better scientific grounding. Throughout the book Warren often quotes historic or literary accounts of certain phenomena, demonstrating wide knowledge and comprehensive research, but to the discerning reader it is not always clear what is scientific consensus and what is not.

Summary

Head Trip is a light and entertaining book on mental states, making it an excellent holiday read.

Science Factor: 3 of 5
Popcorn Factor: 4 of 5
Library Factor: Borrow

Website for the book: http://www.headtrip.ca/
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2168851.Head_Trip

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