Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
by John Medina (his bio on the Brain Rules website)
Pear Press, 2008
Why is this here on a Pagan-related books blog? Simple: I believe that understanding how our brains work is one of the keys of magic and self-transformation. It’s hard to make something better, or to use its full potential, if we don’t know where to start, after all.
I’ve read a number of books covering similar topics, many of which have other things to recommend them, but this remains my favorite starting place for its clear writing, its consistency between content and presentation, and the fact that so many of these rules are things you can immediately and directly do something about.
This book has ideas that will help you design emotionally powerful and memorable rituals, learn to read Tarot more effectively, set up your life for optimal learning and ability to do what you want, and learn more about the world. If you choose to apply the rules in this book, that is. Don’t worry: most of them are “If you do more of this, X gets better”, rather than being prescriptive or unrealistic.
There are many things I love about this book, but perhaps the most important is that it follows its own guidelines. How many times have you read a book – about education, about science, about better living in some way – that manages to ignore all the best practices about how to do that thing?
In this book, Medina (a molecular biologist focused on the genes that make our brains what they are, among other things) presents twelve rules for better living, learning, and remembering. The book covers each rule in 20-30 pages, with plenty of memorable stories and examples.
Medina’s also rigorous about the evidence: while he doesn’t discuss study details in the book (to make sure it stayed readable) he includes them on his website. As he says in the introduction, he included only rules based on studies that were peer-reviewed and that could be replicated (and often, were replicated multiple times by different scientists).
But there’s more than the book. Following Rules #3, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10, Medina presents the information in multiple formats. The book comes with a DVD with short but informative videos illustrating each rule, along with dramatic presentations to reinforce the concepts. On the website, there’s an excellent video and audio presentation of the material, including some references and graphs, along with the video contained on the DVD. (However, neither the video nor the audio part of the presentation is close captioned, but explanatory text is shown with each slide/section of the presentation.)
I still recommend the book, as it gives many more explanatory examples, stories and other useful approaches, including ideas on what to do with these rules once you’ve made sense of them.
The twelve rules:
- Exercise: Exercise builds brain power.
- Survival: The human brain evolved too.
- Wiring: Every brain is wired differently.
- Attention: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
- Short-term memory: Repeat to remember.
- Long-term memory: Repeat to remember.
- Sleep: Sleep well, think well.
- Stress: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
- Sensory integration: Stimulate more of the senses.
- Vision: Vision trumps all other senses.
- Gender: Male and female brains are different. [see note]
- Exploration: We are powerful and natural explorers.
[note: He points out that he really didn't want to deal with that one - but the science is persuasive, and not what you might think. It's not that one is better or worse than the other, but that the genetic configuration does some fascinating things. Read the book to find out more - he only touches on it in the video segments.]
Things to be aware of: These are topics that are rapidly changing all the time – this is an area where, if you want to make a major change in your life, it’d be good to look at a range of other sources and recent information as well as this book.
Recommended for: anyone interested in getting their brain to work better.
by Robin McKinley
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010
The thing that occurs to me, about this book, is that it’s a very different take on a particular quote that’s also a favorite of mine. The quote is from Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a book that’s been in my top five personal favorite list since I read it more than 15 years ago.
In describing the Fae, one of the characters says: “They’re foreign. They’re like Linear A. They look as if they ought to mean something, but you can’t tell what it is.” And he’s talking about it in context of whether or not dying for something so non-human is what he wants. (I don’t think I’m spoiling too much here: the story is based on a 16th century ballad.)
In McKinley’s Pegasus, there’s a different answer. There’s been a different answer for a thousand years.
Continue reading Pegasus
The Devil Is A Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe
by J.C. Hallman (his website)
Random House, 2006
This is an interesting set-up for a book: Hallman, inspired by the writings of William James about religion (and in particular, James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience) sets off to explore eight groups on the edges of American religious practice.
- The Unarians (a UFO-based religious group, Hallman got interested in them following the non-appearance of a predicted arrival in 2001)
- The Christian Wrestling Federation, who put on Christian-based wrestling shows around the country.
- Druidry (specifically, the Nemeton Awenyddion Grove associated with the RDNA)
- The Church of Satan
- The American Atheists
- Covenant of the Goddess
- the New Skete communities (Eastern Orthodox monks, nuns, and lay religious)
Interwoven with the chapters on these eight groups are chapters about the life and thoughts of William James, putting his writing (especially that on religion and psychology in general) into the context of his life and other experiences.
Hallman does a good job of approaching these eight very different groups with a willingness to try and experience what’s going on and see why it’s appealing to the people in each group. (He talks some about this in the interview linked below.)
Given my reasonably solid knowledge of three of the groups he talks about, he’s also notably accurate and forthright with the information he’s given. (I will note that the Pagan material does suffer somewhat from being very heavily West Coast focused – it’s not so much that it’s inaccurate, just that it’s showing some facets more clearly than others.)
He was open with every group except the Scientologists about the fact that he was an author and journalist, and in general, each group was reasonably welcoming, informative, and thoughtful – you get a good sense of people as people, not just walk-ons in a larger story, as it were.
Note that he did much of the research and visiting between 2001 and 2004, so of course, specifics have changed about the groups as well.
Recommended for: an interesting read in comparative religions, and in the question of what makes a particular group or path of interest to a particular person.
Shark Trouble: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea
by Peter Benchley (his website)
Random House, 2002
If you recognise the name, that’s because Benchley’s first bestseller was Jaws. Following that book – based on a “what if” – Benchley, already a scuba diver, got an invitation to film a television segment about exploring actual interactions with sharks. From there, he’s gone on to become a passionate advocate for ocean life, and for having an accurate and helpful understanding of the risks and rewards, not a fantastical one.
This book begins with an overview of both how he got interested in the subject, and then sharks in general. The latter half of the book covers related topics – swimming safely in the ocean (tides, undertow, currents, and more), other sea creatures (both dangerous and not-so-much). Throughout, there are some amazing stories of his interactions with sharks and other ocean life, and many reminders of exactly how much we don’t know. (The story of the sting ray, and the story of searching for giant squid are two great examples.)
This is not the deepest or most complex general non-fiction book on sharks, or on ocean life, but it does cover a range of topics well, and gives a lot of food for thought about other places to explore.
What I like about this book:
- The combination of myth-busting, information, and practical advice.
- The anecdotes and experiences are great – they help highlight how important knowledge and awareness are in making decisions.
- The reminder of how much we still don’t know about the oceans.
Recommended for: Those interested in a straightforward starting point for learning more about sharks than the more hyped media stories, or learning more about the ocean in general.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson (his website)
Random House, 2010
One of my favorite non-fiction writers, Bryson has covered topics ranging from Australia to the challenges (and glories) of hiking the Appalachian Trail, to a short history of nearly everything (no, really: both science and scientific thought about how we got here.)
This book is, as you might guess by the title, closer to home. In it, Bryson gets curious about how the Victorian parsonage he and his family moved into (in England) got to be the way it is. By exploring each room and its history (in a general sense: the kitchen covers both cooking and food, for example), you get a wonderful view into how many of the things we take for granted got to be. Digressions into the challenges of creating buildings got me fascinated in the history of architecture, and there’s a lot of great information about topics I already knew something about (spices, for example).
Things I love about this book:
- I’m deeply fond of Bryson’s style – he’s funny and informative.
- It’s a particularly good exercise in awareness of daily life – the things we take for granted, or don’t know much about.
- There’s so much here that can feed future reading, exploration, and more.
Recommended for: Anyone looking to build a greater awareness about their daily life, habits, and surroundings, especially those interested in making more conscious choices. For those interested in either a household devotional practice (to Hestia, Vesta, etc.) or in kitchen witchery, there are a lot of interesting tidbits in here that may get you looking at some new ideas or approaches.
The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan spiritual tradtion
by Dianne Sylvan (her website)
This book is a wonderful and rich guide to developing a personal daily or regular practice. In it, Sylvan looks at everything from daily altar devotions to meditation to a wide variety of other tools you can use and consider. The end of the book includes invocations, ritual pieces, and other specifics you can use in developing your own practice.
[Note: I've known Sylvan online for years - since before she wrote this book, and I've loved talking with her in detail about many of the topics she includes here.]
Things I love about this book:
- Wide variety of ideas and suggestions.
- Particularly good suggestions on realistic ways to look at practices that integrate into your life and other commitments (small things that can allow you a moment of reflection at work, for example.)
- Building on events already going on in your life – whether that’s the rhythm of your day, or the cycles of the seasons.
Things to be aware of:
- Sylvan is coming at this from an eclectic perspective.
- You will want to look at adapting to your own personal preferences, view of deity, etc.
- As people do, her own practices have shifted and changed since she wrote the book – if you read her blog now, don’t assume that what she wrote then is precisely what she does now.
Recommended for: anyone interested in building a daily or regular ritual practice who is looking for options and ideas on what to include.
You can read portions of the book via Google Books to get a feel for it.
Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World
by Diana L. Paxson
(find out more about her at the Hrafnar site, and her Seidh site.)
Weiser Books, 2009
My current favorite for learning basic trance and meditation skills. While Thea Sabin’s Wicca for Beginners covers some of these topics, Diana Paxson goes into much greater depth.
The book begins with a discussion of what trance and changes in consciousness are, and what they can be used for, and a self-evaluation to help the reader figure out what they know, and what they’d like to learn (and why.) The book then moves into covering a variety of skills: entering a trance state, centering and grounding, relaxation techniques, navigating inner spaces, working with inner guides or spirits, and then goes more deeply into a range of more complex techniques. The end of the book includes ideas and help for people wanting to work through the book with others, and for those who might be teaching.
Unlike many books, which focus on visual learners and experiences, she spends extensive time talking about different kinds of learning styles and multiple intelligences, as well as giving examples of practices from different Pagan religions and approaches. She is also careful and thoughtful about giving safety, troubleshooting, and other tips that help create the most useful and productive experiences.
Things I love about this book:
- Can be adapted to a wide range of Pagan religious practices.
- Lots of sensory options for people who are not visual learners.
- Is a book that will grow with the reader: there’s rich material here to return to.
- Excellent troubleshooting advice, when something doesn’t go as planned.
- Wide variety of tools and approaches.
- She tested the material both with classes she taught, and then asked other people to teach and refine the suggestions using her material. This adds breadth and depth to the tools.
Things to be aware of:
- You will need some kind of other foundational book in your own path of choice in order to make the best use out of some suggestions. (For example, she mentions that one can cast a circle as a protective measure, but does not provide details on how.)
- Some of the practices she describes are definitely not for beginners – they have risks or likely problems if you don’t have a solid foundation. Follow her sequence, and don’t skip steps: only move on to the next set of skills once you’ve got experience with the previous ones.
- She focuses on particular pantheons: her own background is with the Norse pantheon, and she discusses adaptations for Celtic and Greek-focused practice. If you’re working with other deities or cosmologies, you’ll need to do further research and adaptation.
- Her practice is based on Norse and Northern European practice, but developed in a different direction in some areas than common Asatru practice.
You can read the introduction and first chapter online at one of her websites.
Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice
by Thea Sabin (her Facebook page)
This is my current favorite introductory text. With its strong focus on religious practice (rather than spells and magical work), clear explanations of central concepts and ethical principles, and lots of clear exercises, it makes a great starting place.
- What’s Wicca?
- Some basic Wiccan practices and ethics
- Fundamental Wiccan tools
- Trance, meditation and pathworking
- The Circle
- The four elements and the four quarters
- Getting to know the Wiccan Gods
- Tools, toys, and altars
- Wiccan holidays and the Wheel of the Year
- Putting it together
- So you’re curious about magic
- Where do I go from here?
- Bibliography and index.
What I like about it:
- focus on religious practice and on basic core skills.
- magic is covered only after other core topics have been thoroughly discussed.
- clear explanations and examples.
- exercises offer varied options and approaches, to help the reader figure out what works best for them.
- a great bibliography, and the last chapter also has solid guidance on where someone might look for more resources, training, or group experience.
Things to be aware of:
- She uses Wiccan fairly broadly as a term (though she’s careful to explain how she’s using it).
- The way she approaches the initial rituals is not the way I’d choose – they’re not wrong, just not the approach I’d prefer.
Recommended for: anyone looking for a solid introductory book on Wicca and Wiccan-based practice. This is an excellent starting place that covers topics clearly.