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Book Review: Your Brain on Food, by Gary Wenk

May 14, 2012

One of the the reasons I started this blog is to force myself to practice writing, with the hope that writing about science regularly will help me become a better science writer and science communicator. However, I think it’s also useful to read a lot of science writing, and think critically about what works and what doesn’t in the approaches that other authors take.

With that in mind, I’m going to try to post book reviews when I read general-audience science books. This week, I’ll kick things off with a review of Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings by Gary Wenk.

Your Brain on Food focuses on the major neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and how the substances that we take into our bodies affect those systems. I say “substances,” because the book really focuses on what most of us would call drugs rather than food – though Wenk argues in the first chapter that the line between “food” and “drug” is very hard to draw.

After a brief introduction in chapter one, Wenk organizes each subsequent chapter around a different neurotransmitter system. He begins by explaining what the neurotransmitter does in the body, and then talks about substances that enhance or inhibit its function. I felt like this structure worked pretty well, and it allowed him to talk about a wide range of neurotransmitter systems (from acetylcholine and serotonin to amino acids and peptides) in bite-sized, easily-digestible pieces.

I learned a lot of interesting facts from this book. For example, did you know that unripe bananas cause diarrhea because they contain serotonin, which provokes a response from your gut? Or that tobacco companies add ammonia to tobacco to raise the pH and increase absorption of nicotine in the mouth? Fascinating stuff! The book is probably worth reading for these sorts of tidbits alone.

But this book isn’t just about factoids. Wenk also does a great job of driving home some “big picture” ideas in neuroscience and drug chemistry. One of the ideas he returns to over and over is the idea that how easily a chemical dissolves in lipids (fat) determines how quickly it gets taken up in the brain.

He first mentions this idea in the section on amphetamines, where he describes how chemical changes to the structure of amphetamine (i.e. adding a greasy methyl group to make it into methamphetamine) can increase its potency. He then returns to this idea several times in later chapters when discussing other drugs; by the end of the book, even if you don’t remember any of the specific drugs he talks about, you will remember remember that making a drug more fat-soluble makes it more potent. Several other important “big ideas” get similar treatment.

So, all in all, I thought that the content of this book was well-organized and interesting, and I learned some really cool information from it.

From a science communication standpoint, however, there were a few things that really didn’t work for me. First, Wenk often slips into neuroscience jargon and science speak, which is a big hurdle for readers who aren’t used to reading this sort of text (hell, it was a bit of a hurdle for me, and I am used to reading scientific texts).

For example, in the second chapter, he writes that “nicotine affects cortical function in a complex, dose-dependent fashion.”  Why not just tell us that “nicotine’s effects on your brain depend on how much you take in”?  And words like “cofactor,” “labile,” “exogenous,” and “cytoplasm” show up liberally sprinkled throughout the book with little to no explanation.

Wenk also tends to define terms once, and then assume that his readers will remember them well enough that they don’t need reminders in the rest of the text. For me, this was most frustrating with the terms “agonist” and “antagonist,” which Wenk defined only once, in the first chapter. He then used them throughout the rest of the book without reminding us what they mean, which I think is especially problematic for these terms because they sound so similar. He also showed only one diagram of the brain, with just a few regions labeled, and assumed that was enough to help us understand all of his references to different parts of the brain in the remainder of the book.

Some of this might have been easier to follow had I been reading the book in print rather than on my Kindle, where it is difficult to flip back and reference earlier parts of the text. However, this is a book that I think most readers probably pick up because they are curious, not because they want a textbook. For a popular science book like this, I don’t think readers should need to flip back to earlier parts of the book at all.

So I suppose the upshot is that this book has a lot of interesting content, but Wenk sometimes loses sight of his audience and assumes more neuroscience background than his readers probably actually have. I found this a little frustrating. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if Wenk had managed this better.

Your Brain on Food by Gary Wenk
Grade: A- for content, B- for writing for a general audience

Amazon link: clicky!

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