Author: Uta Frith, Chris Frith, Alex Frith and Daniel Locke (illustrator)
Publish Date: April 2022
Publisher: Scribner (imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1501194078
Author website: http://www.daniellocke.com/
by Christine Castigliano, HeartsQuest.com
This engaging family project answers some of life’s most probing questions, such as: Why can’t you tickle yourself? How do we come to trust others? Are two heads really better than one?
Uta & Chris Frith, a renowned wife-and-husband team of cognitive neuroscientists, pioneered major studies of brain disorders over their fifty-year careers. Created with their son, author Alex Frith and artist Daniel Locke, Two Heads: A Graphic Exploration of How Our Brains Work with Other Brains, models one of their proudest discoveries: the power of collaboration among people who think differently. The illustrations demystify complex concepts with humor and clarity, as this charming power couple (“the Friths” elsewhere in this review) interact with everyday objects and symbols.
The interplay of relatable personal and professional insights humanize the science. We feel the Frith’s excitement as they geek out over the discovery of a new truth. We can relate to the tedium of boring, repetitious experiments to isolate and prove that truth. And we see how it affects their marriage.
Although the depth and breadth of this 352-page book was sometimes exhausting, the insights were well worth the effort! My chapter summaries include bits that helped me with challenges I often experience as an artist and communicator, as well as serious issues that affect our society.
The Brain – Mind problem
After a brief tour of their home (cluttered) and primary pursuits (consciousness and cooperation), the Friths begin by exploring an age-old unsolved dilemma: What is the mind? How does it relate to the brain? “It’s generally agreed that our brains are physical things, and they somehow cause the experience of having what we call mind,” (Page 10).
From page 12
What your brain is, what it can do, what it is made of, and all that
This introduction offers scientific facts about the brain: conscious and unconscious functions, neurotransmitters, anatomy, electricity and neural pathways. I loved the metaphor of dancing bees in a hive mind, to show how neurons function individually and as a whole, to make decisions through a fascinating process of predictions and confirmation. To summarize, your brain is a prediction engine that makes assumptions and then tests them with your senses.
In Chapter 2, the Friths meet at Cambridge, where she studied obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and he researched amnesia, hallucinations and delusions.
From page 32
In Chapter 3, How brains know what they know, we dive into baby’s brains, facial recognition, curiosity, practice, learning by exploring the world alone and by imitating others. Copying others is more efficient. Fun Facts: What challenging group process lights up most of the brain? Answer: Musical improvisation. What do we all take for granted that reveals much about how we copy each other? Laughter.
Chapter 4: Teaching, learning, and social cognition
Humans tend to over-imitate, or to repeat every step we observe, because we want to fit in. We also tend to judge each other if we don’t follow the ‘rules.’
From page 76
Uta studied autism, discovered by Hans Asperger in Germany during World War II. Contrary to Nazi ideology, Asperger wrote about the high value of so-called misfits to society (Page 77). Later research experiments with children led to the understanding that people with autism don’t have access to what’s called Theory of Mind, e.g., knowing what other people are thinking.
A big personal “A-ha!” It’s possible I am on the neurodivergent spectrum. I suck at corporate politics, poker, chess, and writing subtext, perhaps because I take what people say and do quite literally. People on the spectrum are not selfish, and do not lack empathy or social skills. Rather, we have difficulty perceiving unconscious social cues. Thankfully, brains can and do change (neuroplasticity).
From page 86
Chapter 5: Empathy
The secret of good communication is to get whatever is in your head into someone else’s. Historically, the brain was studied by mapping neurons. The emerging science of empathy, our mirror system, had a breakthrough – by studying tickling! Today, the challenge is to identify how Mirror Neurons work on individuals and collectively.
From page 116
Chapter 6: How do brains know about ourselves?
Our brains appear to make decisions before our conscious minds notice, which was discovered through more research with tickling, and schizophrenia.
From page 120
Interlude: How hard is it to do science properly?
Suppose there are truths, and science is the best way to root out truths, but there are issues with the scientific method. For example, the ways chance and coincidence affect experiments and our desire for certain results. “What we believe has a significant effect on how we investigate the world,” (Page 151). There’s also cultural skewing in research.
From page 151
Another key insight, “Correlation is not Causation!” (Page 153), bears repeating, given the current political influence of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Chapter 7: Metacognition
What’s a neurologic difference between humans and most animals? Metacognition, or thinking about thinking. This becomes a question of confidence: how confident are we about what we know?
Chapter 8: Brains at Work
Our brains are designed to work with other brains. Up to now, that’s been difficult to study.
From page 193
Chapter 9: Are two heads really better than one?
How can scientists work together to prove it? One difficulty is the tradition of Science Silos (or disciplines).
From page 196 (Andreas Roepstorff, Danish anthropologist, speaking)
Data shows that two people working together DO get a job done more efficiently. How does collaboration work best? Among several key findings, the Friths reveal it’s a blend of trust, a match of abilities and confidence levels: like the bee dance in Chapter 1.
A diversity of approaches and methods offers the most effective collaborations.
From page 219
Chapter 10: When Cooperation breeds Confusion
Games are socially important tools of cooperation, but we often don’t have agreement about the ‘rules’ – or what’s important. Which can lead to stereotypes. Winning and losing also create issues.
Chapter 11: Free Will and Regret
The Friths explore more research with laughing, fake laughing, and psychopaths.
Chapter 12: In-groups and Out-groups
Humans prefer others who are like us (our in-group). However, this leads to lot of ‘isms:’ racism, sexism, ageism, etc. To gain the clear benefits of cooperation among diverse groups, we can learn to shift perspective.
From page 273
Cooperation depends on TRUST. Still, even among the same in-group, some will pretend to be brave yet are actually quite cowardly (e.g., the Cowardly Lion). This offers interesting character studies for graphic novel creators.
Examining issues among couples, the Friths offer a brain basis for why they stay married for so long, despite their differences.
From page 283
Chapter 13: Reputation Matters
Unpacking reputations helped me with a lifelong problem: a sense of not being trusted, that my knowledge, and perspective are not valued by others (often in my own family) who tend to think of me as a ‘crazy artist.’ As a divergent thinker, my heavily-researched intellectual syntheses are met with suspicion by more linear minds. It’s a challenge to bridge the gap, but I’m inspired to persist.
I enjoyed this meta-conversation about the Frith’s choice to make this comic:
From pages 284-285
Twitter and Gossip: Twitter may appear to be a fact-sharing machine, yet it’s actually more related to gossip, a very popular human experience, which greatly affects our reputations. “Signals we get from others…will sway our brains more than our own observations of that same person,” (Page 301).
Are we stronger together?
The Friths draw insightful parallels between configurations of neurons and configurations of humans. The visuals support the understanding that our brains are designed to connect, which makes us stronger. “Social Cognition … is arguably more important than the job of sensing and managing what our bodies are doing – if you’re talking about what gives life meaning,” (Page 306).
From page 307
Diversity is much more than racial or physical differences. It’s how we think. To recognize and utilize this diversity is powerful. “To progress human knowledge, we need to harness the mixtures of exploiters and explorers, of risk takers and data analysts, of introverts and extroverts, of big thinkers and curious readers,” (Page 309).
In a culture that’s so divided, our differences are truly vital. So, let’s get curious about each other’s perspectives, and hang in there!
Christine Castigliano is a writer, illustrator and filmmaker. She creates stories to illuminate the ways humans can evolve as our personal and planetary poo hits the propeller. A former Big Media creative director, Christine’s work includes Time Magazine, PBS, feature films and YA novels. “Meet your Monkeys: How to Make Friends with the Brutes and Beasts that Rule your Mind,” her upcoming graphic novel for young adults, blends neuroscience, mindfulness and self-compassion.