SOUTH PORTLAND – At the launch party for her new book, “Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Particular Personality,” at Nonesuch Books and Cards in South Portland last week, author Hannah Holmes knew a traditional book reading would not do – especially given her book delves into shared personality quirks between humans and mice.

Instead Holmes, the South Portland author of previous books examining the importance of dust, life in a suburban back yard and the intricacies of being human, organized a series of games. Her idea was to gauge audience members’ personality traits.

In her test for neuroticism, people were provided with several M&Ms. People then shared with Holmes how they traditionally ate the candy. Some only ate certain colors and indicated some colors didn’t taste as good as others. Others said they only eat a certain amount of M&Ms per bite, while others disclosed they only eat them in certain ways, such as sideways or with the “M” side down.

To test impulsivity, Holmes handed out bookmarks with a series of colors written on them. The names of the colors, however, did not match the color of the type used. People were then asked to read the color of the type itself rather than the name of the color written.

“In highly impulsive people, this is a real stretch because the brain just wants to shout it out,” Holmes said.

These tests are just a few of the examples that Holmes has included in the her book, which was released on Feb. 22 and is available at local bookstores.

“This book has a bunch of other tests and examples to help you track exactly who you are,” Holmes told the standing-room-only crowd, which filled the back corner of the bookstore Feb. 23.

Holmes, who majored in English at the University of Southern Maine, got involved in science writing in the late 1990s when she was recruited to be a reporter for the Discovery Channel online, where she reported on a variety of subjects from all over the world. She also wrote “The Skinny On…”, a column dealing with life’s scientific oddities.

She has published three previous books: “The Secret Life of Dust,” “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn” and “The Well Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself.”

“I am about three-fourths of the way through ‘Quirk’ and I am going to save thousands on psychoanalysis because I am self-determining now what’s wrong with me. As I have said four times now, this is Hannah’s best book. This time I really mean it,” said Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books and Cards, prior to introducing Holmes to the crowd.

Some in attendance, such as Nancy Pattinson, were looking at the book to gain insight into the field of brain science.

“The mind and the brain interest me greatly,” said Pattinson, a psychologist in training at Maine Medical Center.

For others, such as Don Miller, who moved to Maine after he retired, or Tom and Janet Carper, Holmes’ aunt and uncle who traveled from Cornish for the event, Holmes’ book launches are events not to be missed.

“I’ve taken in most of her other book launches,” said Miller, who taught biology in New York for 10 years and did environmental research for 25 years. “She is an excellent popular writer in science. I like to hear her stories, and as a biologist, I love hearing about the stuff she digs up.”

Miller said Holmes has a gift for writing to the general public. It is a gift that fellow Maine writer Monica Wood was quick to see.

“Her books have changed the way I look at other people and the environment we share,” said Wood, who met Holmes a few years ago through a mutual writer friend. “It can transform the way people see others.”

Connie Burns, a Cape Elizabeth resident, said as a librarian at Mahoney Middle School, she has read two of Holmes’ other works, “The Secret Life of Dust” and “Suburban Safari.”

“I thought it would be interesting to learn more about,” she said. “It’s a great title.”

Holmes said the idea for “Quirk” came to her when she was writing “The Well Dressed Ape,” a book that examines how humans operate as a species. While researching that book, Holmes learned that personality is strongly tied to genetics, meaning humans are predestined toward a certain personality when they are born.

“If personality is a biological product, it must be good for something, or else it would have been eliminated a long time ago. That led me to ask, what is the purpose of an obnoxious personality? What is so great about that that nature kept it in the gene pool?” Holmes said.

To examine this, Holmes purchased research mice that had been bred to represent the different personality types, which are made up of five factors: consciousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness and extroversion.

“The book starts with the premise that somewhere in the world there is a mouse that is a lot like you,” said Holmes of “Quirk.”

“If personality is biological, why do we come in so many temperaments? What are the fearful and obnoxious personalities good for and why are we all so different?”

The five factors, she explained, are represented in all humans – and mice – but in different levels.

“The factors are like dials and in each of our brains the dials are set at little bit differently,” Holmes said.

Over the course of studying the mice, pouring through academic research and speaking with experts in the field, Holmes learned that different personality types are needed and come in handy in certain circumstances.

“I learned that every personality type has been essential to dealing with what our unpredictable environment has thrown at us throughout history,” she said.

Writing the book, she said, has changed the way she looks at people, making her less likely now to judge someone solely based on his or her personality.

“This book has taken a huge amount of pressure off my relationships with other people. I’ve gained an appreciation about how different personality types can complement each other,” she said.

“It is a growing consensus in biology that diversity is a tremendously powerful stabilizing effect in nature. It appears it is true for personality, as well,” Holmes added.

A balance of personalities is needed in life, Holmes said at the book event, to keep order.

“If you lose the balance of personality, it can get pretty ugly, like ‘Lord of the Flies.'”

Getting her own head wrapped around the topic of brain science, Holmes said, was the first step in writing the book, which took 20 months. She spent the first six months reading academic journals before she even knew who to talk to and what questions to ask.

The challenge then, she said, is presenting the book in a way that makes sense for her readers.

“It’s definitely something I’ve gotten better at over the years,” she said. “I used to be so fascinated with every single detail of my subjects that I couldn’t believe everyone else wouldn’t be fascinated with every detail.”

“The cool thing about writing is you can follow your curiosity and get paid for it,” Holmes added.

South Portland author Hannah Holmes distributes a brain teaser to the crowd attending her recent book signing at Nonesuch Books in Mill Creek Shopping Center in South Portland. (Photo by Rich Obrey)


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