Cracking Open the Brain’s Black Box

Eliezer Sternberg
Eliezer Sternberg

Pop quiz: How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?

If you answered “two,” go back and re-read the question. The correct answer is “none.” Noah, not Moses, built the ark.

In his book “NeuroLogic: The Brain’s Hidden Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior,” Eliezer Sternberg ’09 explains why you probably got the answer wrong. The unconscious part of your brain operates on automatic pilot, striving to read a sentence as quickly as possible, using deeply ingrained habits that come with lifelong literacy. But efficiency in this case trumps accuracy. It takes the activation of the neurons in the conscious part of the brain to slow you down for a closer look.

“NeuroLogic” is Sternberg’s third book in six years, all of them about the brain. Currently a neurology resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital, he wrote his first book, “Are You a Machine,” while in high school in Buffalo, New York. In medical school at Tufts, he wrote his second, “My Brain Made Me Do It,” about the impact of neurology’s increasingly mechanistic view of human behavior on free will and moral responsibility. (“I wrote it in small bits of time, an hour here, an hour there,” he says.)

Now, “NeuroLogic” aims at “cracking open the black box of the brain and peering at its inner workings,” Sternberg writes in the introduction. Using examples from patients and research studies, he answers such questions as why people believe in alien abductions, why yawning is contagious and whether someone can be hypnotized to commit murder.

His work falls squarely within the tradition set by the late British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who used science and medicine to illuminate our common humanity. Sternberg says he wants to translate medicine’s technical jargon into everyday language anyone can understand. “While fascinating, current research is incomprehensible even to doctors outside a particular field,” he says. “There’s so much golden information on the brain that’s not being disseminated.”

As a kid, Sternberg relentlessly asked his parents, “But why?” At Brandeis, he majored in philosophy and neuroscience, and learned “the discipline of asking good questions and making very logical arguments,” he says.

“NeuroLogic” is chock-full of examples of how the brain leads and misleads us. Take the case of Peter, a gynecologist injured in a car crash in Poland. When he came out of a coma, Peter was unable to recognize his own reflection. “That monster is staring at me,” he’d say. His memory shot, he began telling stories about his past that were clearly untrue but that he believed with complete conviction.

Peter, Sternberg writes, had developed confabulation. His unconscious brain was stringing together whatever stored memories he had to produce a coherent narrative. An MRI of Peter’s brain showed damage to the frontotemporal region, which is critical to generating a sense of identity.

Sternberg hasn’t decided on a topic for his next book, though he’s sure it will be about the brain. “It’s so poorly understood, which is exciting to me,” he says. “There’s so much more you can say.”