UW News

August 12, 2022

New faculty books: How your brain works, cycling around the world and more

Four books lined up on a table

Recent and upcoming books from UW faculty include those from the Jackson School of International Studies, the Department of Psychology and the Runstad Department of Real Estate.


Four recent books from University of Washington professors cover a variety of topics including neuroscience, Chinese filial piety and the history of Irvine, California. UW News talked with the authors to learn more about their recent publications.


Chantel Prat introduces you to your brain 

In her new book, UW psychology professor Chantel Prat wants to make one thing clear right away: There’s no such thing as a “normal” brain.

Chantel Prat

The Neuroscience of You,” published this month by Dutton, is the distillation of years of research by Prat into how our brains work – and a guide for the everyday person into why we think and act the way we do. Every human brain is designed differently, and it’s those differences, Prat explains, that render a traditional definition of “normal” not only irrelevant, but also inaccurate.

“I wanted to talk about differences in a different way, debunking the idea of normal as an ideal set point instead of normal as a multidimensional and variable space,” Prat said. “You can’t even define ‘normal’ without understanding the ways people vary. And within that space, ‘different’ doesn’t have to be better or worse. There’s a reason we’ve got multiple design choices when brains are engineered. Different types of brains excel in some subset of the variety of environments we put them in.”

The book is organized into two parts: brain designs and brain functions. And within those parts are chapters devoted to the brain’s two hemispheres and chemistry, for example, as well as sections that dive into how our brains adapt to environments; focus on the different types of information they’re bombarded with; and affect how we communicate with other people. That interpersonal connection piece is important, Prat notes in the book, because two people might get along swimmingly – or not so much – due in part to how their brains are designed.

“The challenge is that our most instinctive way of understanding others is through ‘mirroring’—a process by which our brains activate the programs we would be using if we were engaging in that same behavior. But if the brain of the person you’re trying to understand doesn’t work like yours, the inferences you make about why they’re behaving a particular way are more likely to be wrong,” Prat said.

Prat draws heavily on decades of research – her own, and that of others, including UW colleagues such as Andrea Stocco (her spouse), Patricia Kuhl and Jonathan Kanter in psychology; and Rajesh Rao in computer science and engineering. She also peppers personal anecdotes throughout the text and footnotes and provides a series of quizzes and puzzles to help readers gain insight into their own brains. Prat invites readers to dive deeper by visiting her website and participating in her ongoing research through the very sorts of puzzles she offers in the book.

Prat said she wanted to write a book that was more accurate than the typical “one size fits all” book about neuroscience and accessible to a general audience.

For more information, contact Prat at csprat@uw.edu.


Around the world for clean air

Paula Holmes-Eber was diagnosed with asthma when she was 2 years old, but she’s likely had the condition since birth. She spent her childhood in and out of the hospital. Barely able to get out of bed, she fantasized about traveling the world one day.

Holmes-Eber is now an affiliate professor in the Jackson School of International Studies. More than a decade ago, she bicycled a complete circle around the world with her family to raise awareness and funds for clean air and asthma. Holmes-Eber and her husband, Lorenz Eber, documented the 480-day journey in “Breathtaking: How One Family Cycled Around the World for Clean Air and Asthma.”

Headshot of woman

Paula Holmes-Eber

“Breathtaking” follows the Ebers and their two daughters, who were homeschooled by their parents, as they travel 9,332 miles on bikes. The family raised $65,000 for World Bike for Breath, a non-profit organization focused on inspiring people to travel by bicycle and promoting clean air. They are the only family on record to complete a full circumnavigation of the world by bicycle.

The journey took the Ebers across four continents – Europe, Asia, Australia and North America – and through 24 countries. Holmes-Eber said Mongolia was a highlight of the trip. A traditionally nomadic people, Mongolians have often been forced by outside countries to remain sedentary. But that’s no longer the case.

“The downtown core of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, is maybe 10 blocks of buildings,” Holmes-Eber said. “As soon as you get out of that central core, the entire city is ringed with tents. People live throughout the country, still wandering with their animals. We got to stay in the tents with some Mongolian families. I was just so impressed that they kept their culture and their way of life intact and protected it.”

Still, Holmes-Eber said more work needs to be done. People worldwide are living with the levels of pollution and air quality, despite an increase in disease.

“The numbers of people with asthma have increased,” she said. “In fact, all sorts of lung diseases are going up. I thought this book could push that issue, raise awareness and connect people to the reality that we’re accepting.”

The book was published in June by Falcon.

For more information, contact Holmes-Eber at pholmese@uw.edu.


From country to campus to community: The birth of the city of Irvine

The Southern California suburb of Irvine is home to more than 300,000 people, dozens of corporate headquarters and a University of California campus that has a 21-acre park in the middle.

A little more than 60 years ago, the siting of that campus was the spark for a development that would transform what was then farmland into the sprawling city it is today.

H. Pike Oliver, affiliate instructor of real estate at UW, and co-author Michael Stockstill explain that history in their new book, “Transforming the Irvine Ranch: Joan Irvine, William Pereira, Ray Watson and The Big Plan.” What began as the 110,000-acre property assembled by James Irvine from Spanish and Mexican land grants in the 19th century grew to be the site of a UC campus and a master-planned community in the 1960s.

H. Pike Oliver

“Large-scale development on the Irvine Ranch commenced at a time when there was strong interest in creating alternatives to the suburban sprawl that exploded across the United States during the 1950s,” Oliver said.  “My coauthor and I thought it important to tell the story of how this largest and most successful example of planned development came to be.”

With a professional background in urban planning, Oliver has worked on planned communities since the 1970s, including at the Irvine Company, which led the planning and development of the Irvine Ranch. In telling the relatively short history of the city of Irvine, Oliver and Stockstill focus just as much on the change to the land as on the people who brought about the change. This includes the competing interests of the Irvine family and the principals of the Irvine Company, as well as conflicts with some environmental groups and community activists.

The UC system, being the catalyst to the master-planned community, features prominently, particularly in a chapter titled “Inclusions, Exclusions and the Campus that Never Was.”

“Not all of what was envisioned for the neighborhoods surrounding UC Irvine has come to pass,” the authors write. “Still, the university has been a significant factor in attracting residents and innovative commercial enterprise to the Irvine Ranch.”

The book was published in June by Routledge.

For more information, contact Oliver at hpo@uw.edu.


Examining the origin and evolution of Chinese filial piety

In “The Evolution of Chinese Filiality – Insights from the Neurosciences,” recently published by Routledge, Deborah Porter brings an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of ancient Chinese history.

Porter, professor in the Jackson School of International Studies, uses social neuroscience, cultural evolution, cognitive archaeology and historical analysis to trace the evolution of filial piety.

Commonly attributed to Chinese philosopher Confucius, filial piety is a deep reverance for the lives of preceding generations. In her book, Porter argues that the conceptions of filiality evolved from a structure of feelings that were inherited from the ancestral past, starting with China’s earliest farmers and their relationship to the stars above.

Deborah Porter

Porter begins by asking why Confucius views a model filial son as one experiencing psychological grief so devastating that he can no longer participate in life. Borrowing the neuropsychological concept of “complicated grief,” Porter looks to evolutionary conditions that would account for the prominence of this relational emotion.

“I think neuroscience really opened my mind to understanding how psychological processes are inextricably connected to our nervous system,” Porter said.

This perspective allowed Porter to discern a crucial relationship between inhabitants of a Neolithic settlement and a constellation in the sky, Turtle. This relationship could account for Confucius’ proscribed filiality. For more than 1,000 years, Turtle’s appearance in the sky coincided with the start of agricultural activities in the spring.

This constellation was revered, Porter said, and became like a member of the community due to its reliability. However, due to the gradual shift in the orientation of the earth’s axis over generations, the constellation eventually moved positions. The people couldn’t explain why Turtle no longer marked the start of the season. They were shamed, believing the constellation was reluctant to participate in their activities.

“That’s the core of this notion,” Porter said. “Confucian filial piety can be understood if we go back to a problematic relationship in mourning Turtle. I establish a line that traces the evolution of the Chinese nervous system and how that system influenced Chinese cultural production to explain Confucius’ vision of a filial son.”

For more information, contact Porter at debzport@uw.edu.