by Jay Ingram
W H Freeman & Co., 2000
Review by Vincent Scordo on Oct 16th 2001
Jay Ingram's recent compilation
of "strange tales from science",
The Barmaid's Brain, aims to give
the reader a practical understanding of not so ordinary, natural, phenomena;
in a sense, The Barmaid's Brain is a combination of "Bill Nye the Science
Guy" and the public television series, "NOVA". However, where "NOVA" deals
with standard scientific issues, Ingram attempts to give his reader a curious,
almost at times, quirky description of scientific goings-on like the mental
circuitry of waitresses or why moths are attracted to light.
In the title essay, "The Barmaid's Brain", Ingram highlights two types
of waitresses, namely, the German barmaid and the standard cocktail waitress.
More specifically, Ingram notes the German barmaid's ability to deliver
(with amazement and without spills!) large, multiple, glasses of beer while
maneuvering around numerous obstacles found in the typical European beer
hall. At the same time, Ingram cites the same barmaid's inability to score
well on a mental ability test; that is, the understanding of liquids in
containers. Why such a disparity in skill sets associated with the handling
of liquids? Well, the answer lies in evolutionary theory. You see while
the typical German barmaid scores low on psychological tests measuring
perception of liquids in containers, it has came at the evolutionary expense
of developing an uncanny ability (centered on speed and strength) to get
multiple liters of beer to thirsty patrons in an efficient and capable
So while certain mental abilities have worsened, in order to allow for
superior physical ability, in the typical German barmaid, the standard
cocktail waitress, as Ingram points out, seems to have developed superior
mental ability in terms of memory. For example, in an experiment designed
to test how accurately individuals can remember drink orders numbering
fifteen items, the standard waitress had an accuracy rate of 86 percent,
while the typical university student had an accuracy rate of only 68 percent.
In sum, then, as Ingram states, "under the pressure of serving in the beer
halls of Munich, barmaid's brains have lost some of their perceptual ability"
while the cocktail waitress is marveled at "by remembering what one hundred
and fifty people are drinking on New Year's Eve"!
Any compilation of scientific essays that target a general audience
and focus on explaining science in clear and example-laden prose should
be commended (as Ingram does); after all, science is difficult stuff and
most individuals aren't willing to spend countless hours reading primary
source articles in terse academic journals to understand the tenants of
evolutionary theory. However, at times, the same average, informed, reader
looks for deeper explanations of how the mind works or why insects exhibit
unique behavior and this is where The Barmaid's Brain, in certain
instances, fails. I, for example, would have liked if Ingram said a bit
more about the neurophysiology of barmaid and waitress' brains. Does, as
it were, the waitress' brain present increase activity in the hippocampus
(where memory and learning are believed to be stored)? And, along the same
lines, would fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans show
that the typical barmaid presents increase activity in the areas of brain
associated with motor skills (the cerebellum and basal ganglia)?
In sum, if you're looking to increase your knowledge of strange, scientific
phenomena quickly and without completing a Ph.D.., then
Brain is for you. Oh, by the way, moths fly in the direction of light
because they believe they're following the moon!
© 2001 Vincent Scordo
Vincent Scordo is a professional
Internet project manager and web designer with academic interests in contemporary
philosophy of mind and cognitive science. He received his BA in philosophy,
with minors in linguistics and psychology, from the University of New Hampshire.
This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001