Book Review: The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is much to praise for Dean Burnett’s book on the brain. It is wittily written – and a good giggle is always worth the price of a book. The pace of the writing is slow enough not to bedazzle but fast enough not to be bored by the information poured out by the author.

There are limits, however, to the praise.

This is certainly not an advanced book. Every decent GCSE Psychology student will know the research Burnett presents and quite a lot of it is out of date or been heavily criticised. The neurological side is solid but, even there, the author does disappoint occasionally. For instance, he refers to the oft-quoted comparison that the brain is like a computer and dismisses this because whereas a computer stores ‘memory’ in a specific place that can be reliably retrieved, the brain creates its neuronal links in a much more haphazard way. He’s right about the brain but, alas, wrong about computers. In fact, in this one area, the brain and computers really do share a common method as anyone who has had to defragment their hard drive will know. It’s a small point, but annoying.

A bigger gripe is that Burnett effectively lies. By this I mean that he proposes in the title and introduction to show that the brain is not this amazing machine but rather an idiotic one; but, after some initial attempts to make jokes at the brain’s expense, he ends up doing what all books on the brain do: marvels at it.

I appreciate that the ‘hook’ for this book was to take a different angle to intrigue potential readers, nevertheless, Burnett needed to work much harder to keep up the idea. Perhaps this was never going to work because, at the end of the day, the brain really is a remarkable piece of engineering by nature. It isn’t wrong to adore the handiwork.

In writing this review I’ve dodged back and forth between three and four stars and I’m still a little uncertain. On the one hand, the book is perfectly decent, good stuff, entertaining, a nice little introduction to neurological psychology. On the other, there’s plenty of other books out there which do the job a lot better, are more interesting, more informative and generally more useful.

If you’re thinking of this as your first reading material for taking a greater interest in the subject, don’t bother. If you have a passing interest and have no intention of going any further in studying, then this is a perfectly fine tome to have on your shelf.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.


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