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Book Review - The Barmaid's Brain
The Barmaid's Brain
by Jay Ingram
W H Freeman & Co., 2000
Review by Vincent Scordo
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 manner.

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 The Barmaids 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