• Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (February 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400068401
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400068401

Synopsis of Quirk

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How unique is your personality? Well, somewhere, perhaps in your own basement, is a mouse who’s a lot like you: anxious or extraverted; agreeable or aggressive; upstanding or a bit of a manipulator. Personality — the entire range of it, including the people who make you crazy — is an essential diversity that Nature has built into every animal on earth. As varied as we are, we each have a role to play in guiding our species through good times and bad, floods and famines, boom years and bust.

So, what’s your role? Here you’ll find questionnaires that clarify exactly what sort of mouse you are. What’s more, you’ll learn why you are the way you are — what you’re good for, and what sort of people might complement your style.

With her trademark wit and sly humor, Hannah Holmes goes directly to the mouse’s mouth, and the laboratories of brain researchers, to uncover the basis of personality. Using the Five Factor Model, which slices temperaments into the major factors (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness) and minor facets (such as impulsive, artistic, or cautious), Holmes demonstrates how our genes and brains dictate which factors and facets each of us displays. Are you a Nervous Nelly? Your amygdala is probably calling the shots. Hyperactive Hal? It’s all about the dopamine.

Each facet took root deep in the evolution of life on Earth, with Nature allowing enough personal variation to see a species through every possible condition. In fact, the personality genes we share with mice make them invaluable models for the study of disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety. Thus it is deep and ancient biases that guide your dealings with a very modern world. Your personality helps to determine the political party you support, the car you drive, the way you eat M&Ms, and the likelihood that you’ll cheat on your spouse.

Drawing on top researchers, the lives of her eccentric friends, the conflicts that plague her own household, and even the behavior of her two pet mice, Hannah Holmes summarizes the factors that shape you. And what she proves is that it does take all kinds. Even the most irksome and trying personality you’ve ever encountered contributes to the diversity of our species. And diversity is the key to our survival.


Now, welcome to the first…


No wintery weather! No pale writer under fluorescent light! No lousy wine! (Unless that’s all you have.)

Yes, just a personal introduction to a book that will finally make sense of the pack of loons you call your family, friends and co-workers! Print out this “reading,” or use the links as you go. But first…

Put on your pajamas. Pour a glass of wine. Find a comfy spot. Go ahead. We’ll wait.

There! Isn’t this already one of the best readings you’ve ever attended?

Ready to go?


We’ll have someone introduce the book, a tradition that evolved because writers are trembling introverts who stink at self promotion. So here’s Mary Roach, super-famous author of Stiff and Packing for Mars:

“What an amazing book. I don’t often really use the term ‘life-changing,’ but this is. Suddenly I understand the people around me. To learn that deep down we are motivated by the same basic brain chemicals and structures as the mice on Hannah Holmes’s desk is oddly, profoundly liberating. Because along with the understanding comes acceptance. Thus QUIRK is so much more than an interesting and engaging read.  Regardless of what kind of mouse you are, you should read this book.”

Thanks, Mary!

(Mary Roach really said that. It’s on the back of the book, along with words from the super-famous Abraham Verghese…

…and other famous people. But we’re not here to name-drop. Much.)


So what is this book about, in a nutshell? Somewhere there is a mouse with a personality a lot like yours. Why? Why does Nature make animals in a range of temperaments? The reason is that no single personality type is a match for everything this chaotic planet can throw at us. So some of us are suited for good times, other for hard times; some for grasping short-term opportunities, and others for making plans. Leaning on one another’s strengths, humans – and mice – survive. Our diversity is a testament to the challenges we face together. Which mouse are you? What’s your role?

To acquaint you with your inner mouse, QUIRK contains more than a dozen quick quizzes on various elements of personality. Let’s see a few. If your answers tend toward the “often” side, you’re higher in that facet of personality. Take your time. Answer the quizzes. We’ll talk about one of them a little further down.

ANXIETY INDICATORS Rarely Sometimes Often

I’m easily startled:

I’m a worrier:

I keep my opinions to myself:

Anxiety is the quintessential “avoid” emotion. When it rises up, it’s instructing you to step away from the edge of the cliff, back away from the spider, run away from the scary man with the axe. Everyone’s brain monitors her environment for danger. But some brains shrug off most of the omens and portents as meaningless. And others duck and cover for every passing sparrow.

Anxious Mitzi Mouse sharpened my pencils at night.


I speak without thinking:

I buy things then regret it later:

I get bored with routines:

The novelty-seeking and impulsive personality thrives on a steady stream of stimulation. Quiet contemplation, to this personality type, has all the appeal of colon surgery. These are explorers, and as their attention skips across the landscape of people and ideas, they can seem fickle and absent minded. This personality notices everything, and often reacts without pausing for analysis. People low on novelty seeking and impulsivity are… boring. In a nice, reliable way. They don’t play the lottery and they wouldn’t take their 30 best friends on a cruise if they won. They nonetheless make ideal friends, because they choose causes carefully and stick by their choices. Of course, impulsive novelty seekers make great friends too, because they’re a lot more fun.

Extraverted Maxi was an intrepid explorer.

MORALITY INDICATORS Rarely Sometimes Often

I’m upset by cheating.

I tell the truth even when it’s embarrassing:

I do what’s right, not what’s easy:

If you score low on morality, fret not. It doesn’t mean you’re a criminal without a conscience. As with low trust, people with low morality don’t place great faith in their fellow man. They operate on the assumption that a little manipulation and some shading of the truth delivers better results than candid communication. People with high morality are more direct in their dealings with others. They don’t beat around the bush or pad the truth. You may not care for what they have to say, but at least you know they mean it.

In QUIRK each quizzlet is followed by a three-part look at the science. If you’d like a sampler of that, below is an excerpt from the “morality” section.


If you were thinking of leaving the reading, pause for a cookie. Or two. Nobody is counting. Then you can go. The trembling writer will not feel rejected; the bookstore owner won’t gaze mournfully after you, hoping you’ll at least slow down for a magnetic pen or a Kindle cover. Shouldn’t more readings be like this?

Scroll back up to www.hannah-holmes.com where you can skip the reading but still:

A: Request a hand-drawn, one-of-a-kind bookplate so that even if you live in Kazakhstan you can have a signed book.

B: See the silly QUIRK movie, featuring the mice who lived on my desk for 16 months, and a dog who likes to cram a water pitcher on his head and dance around – an extravert, in other words.

C: Link to a full, free, scientific personality test.

D: See what more famous people say about QUIRK.

E: Catch up on the blog, Human/Nature, a daily dose of quirky science.

F: Find news, appearances, reviews, and excerpts of QUIRK and previous books.

BUT… if you’d like to see where this reading ends up, please settle in and enjoy your cookies in unabridged form:

1: Get your book signed without waiting in line! For a one-of-a-kind, hand-drawn, bookplate, inscribed to the human – or mouse – of your choice, send your name and mailing address to: info@hannah-holmes.com. If you’re impulsive and prefer immediate gratification, this can be scanned and e-mailed to you. Sample:

2: Take a full, serious, for-real personality test. Developed by real, serious personality researchers, and about as homely as you’d expect, it will produce a thorough guide to your personality, including how far off average you might be. (Just speculating.) The more you know about your unique self, the more you’ll get out of QUIRK. Start on this page http://www.personal.psu.edu/j5j/IPIP/ipipneo300.htm and click both the permission boxes; then click the “continue” button at the bottom. This is academia. There are rules. If the link is broken, Google “IPIP-NEO.” Then follow the rules.

3: See the movie: a two minute documentary about QUIRK, featuring neurotic Mitzi, extraverted Maxi, and a dog dancing around with a water pitcher on his head. It may take a minute. If you’re extraverted and impatient:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhzVnN5mcKs


Nobody’s counting. If you’ve sucked all the marshmallows off the top of your cocoa and would like to drop in some more, this is a great time to hit “pause.” Nobody’s watching. We want you to be completely comfortable, because we’re wrapping up with about 1,200 words’ worth of real, actual book. A few minutes’ worth. Ready?

Please remember this is your personal reading. You can change the font to any color you like.


So, as I said, each personality element is followed by three treatments: The element as we see it in mice; the element as we see it in ourselves; and then how the element serves animals, thus earning its right to continue.

Note: Mitzi and Maxi are two dear mice who lived on my desk during the writing of this book.


An Excerpt

…Mitzi Mouse would never kill Maxi Mouse. In fact, if Maxi ever had babies Mitzi might well bustle into the nest and help her care for them. Mitzi, although she is stronger and more aggressive, does not hurt Maxi. Quite the reverse. She grooms her, cleaning her back and head, the hard to reach places. An observer would be tempted to say Mitzi is kind to Maxi.

Is Mitzi a morally upstanding mouse? Is she one fuzzy ounce of ethical rectitude?

If two males replaced the girls on my desk, one might kill the other. Would that be immoral? Male mice are obligated to battle each other if they hope to mate with females. A mouse who failed to attack other males would fail to reproduce. Is that moral?

Morality is such a morass. Humans routinely kill each other in our fervor to dictate which behaviors are right and wrong, just within our own species. To arrive at a definition that also covers the behavior of fish and fowl is a recipe for global, interspecies blather.

But the whole point of this book is to examine the human personality through the simplifying lens of science. So here goes.

The behaviors we consider moral in ourselves are – coincidentally? – those that counteract our selfish urges. They are the behaviors that help us to reproduce successfully while maintaining our social organization. They stop us from killing our family and neighbors in a passing temper tantrum. They help us to harvest no more than our share from the fruit tree.

So, is it fair to say that the behavior a mouse exhibits in the name of reproducing and maintaining its social organization is also moral?

Mice, like us, refrain from attacking their mates. Call it morality, but note that it’s also biologically sensible. Females, especially if they’re related, will take care of each other’s pups. That may seem charitable and community oriented, but biologically it results in more protective adults hovering over each mother’s vulnerable brood. These behaviors are influenced by vasopressin and oxytocin, which presumably temper the selfish urges that would otherwise prevail. And those social behaviors help mice to survive. So do mice have morals?

It is certainly possible to create a mouse who doesn’t follow the social “rules” of its species. Researchers create such mice in hope of understanding the antisocial personality. Inga Neumann’s lab has analyzed a strain called SAL, created by breeding many generations of the most aggressive mice. The SAL males don’t posture and rear and rattle their tails when an unknown male appears in their cage. They just attack. And when the researchers looked into their brains they found a deranged vasopressin system. While vasopressin helps a male bond with females, it also helps them fight off other males. And when the vasopressin is maladjusted, apparently so is the mouse.

This level of aggression doesn’t necessarily help a mouse to compete. By attacking without the usual preliminaries, a hyperaggressive male forfeits the advantage of sizing up his opponent. He initiates fights that are either unwinnable, or unnecessary. Some strains of hyperaggressive mice may also attack females, which is patently self defeating: A dead female can’t bear his pups, hence his violent DNA goes nowhere. Are these sociopathic mice? Immoral mice?

Humans have preferred a more cerebral version of morality. We think it has to involve a struggle with conscience. That’s a version of morality I can’t, in good conscience, ascribe to a mouse. Or even a male prairie vole. Mice have a lot more personality than most people imagine, but an ability to discern right and wrong is pushing things a whisker too far. Even rats, which are more social and intelligent than mice, have an equivocal capacity for self sacrifice. A famous experiment of the early 1960s found that a rat would stop pressing a bar for food if her bar-pressing also delivered a shock to a rat in a neighboring cage. But to this day scientists debate whether that was altruism or a selfish act aimed at silencing the racket from next door.


An Excerpt

…If you want to flex your social brain, to feel its various components strain against each other, present it with this classic dilemma. Try not to consider legal ramifications, only moral ones:

You’re standing by the railroad tracks watching a runaway train come toward you. The train cannot be stopped, and after it passes you it will kill five people stuck on the tracks. But beside you is a switch that can divert the train to a spur where it will kill only one person. What will you do?

About 90 percent of humans polled conclude they’d engage the switch. Aren’t we good, clever, moral animals? Well, let’s do it again to be sure.

This time you watch the scene unfold from the vantage point of a footbridge over the tracks, and this time there’s no spur. Only a massive object could stop the train this time. At your side is an absolute giant of a man. And there’s no railing…

About 90 percent of humans would not push the giant. Philosophers and psychiatrists argue about what our double standard reveals about our built in morality. But it likely has something to do with the brain circuits that screech a warning when a social animal is tempted to kill its fellow creatures. Flipping the switch has the same effect as pushing the giant. Each time one person dies and five people live. But when you flip a switch, your brain doesn’t have to envision your hands making forbidden contact with your victim.

When I insert myself in either dilemma I nearly get a headache. My prefrontal cortex considers the mathematics of the situation, the relative tragedies, and concludes that I must act. I reach out to flip the switch or push the man, and am frozen at the thought of condemning a person to death.

Morality as most of us experience it isn’t rational. Research has shown that we generally declare our moral standards, then release a babbling brook of gibberish as we struggle to make our choices look logical.

Another classic brain teaser illustrates this even more embarrassingly than the train dilemma:

As adults, a brother and sister find themselves together in a city where no one knows them. They decide to have intercourse just once. They use every precaution against conceiving a child. They part ways and that’s the end of it. Why is this wrong?

Again the prefrontal cortex writhes.

There is only one scientific reason that siblings shouldn’t mate: Their genetic weaknesses may be compounded in their offspring. So if the two siblings are infertile, for instance, what’s the problem? No harm, no foul, right? Yet the human brain squirms with revulsion at the image.

That’s because the human, like the mouse, has evolved a biological aversion to relatives. It’s nothing personal. Between related adults a hug and a kiss is tolerable, but nothing we’d want to make a habit of. The human brain, like the mouse brain, seems to use odor as the switch that turns off attraction. Accumulating evidence reveals that the human won’t mate with anyone she or he smelled frequently in childhood. This isn’t a conscious decision. It’s a case of the brain automatically wrinkling its nose at any potential mate who smells too familiar. It is thus with mice. A normal mouse has no interest in mating with relatives, but if a scientist blocks her sense of smell she becomes a mouse of very loose morals.

Murder and incest are just two of the rules all humans agree on. We call these rules morals, and we argue that morality requires a conscious deliberation. But what’s the difference between a mouse who avoids incest and a human who avoids it every bit as instinctively? Why do we call the human who resists the urge to kill his mate a moral man, while a mouse who obeys the same law is… simply a mouse?

Furthermore, why do individual humans display such varying degrees of moral conviction? I can only guess it relates to the human’s ancient struggle to both compete and cooperate. Like all animals, and plants, humans must fight for their room and board on earth. Room and board are limited. Not every boy and girl who participates will get a ribbon. And so humans retain a competitive drive, a powerful instinct for self preservation.

But our species is burdened also with ungainly offspring, and is dependent on group living for shared food and protection. Human females – and hence their offspring – are particularly vulnerable at the time of birth. Therefore that old selfish brain must be smothered, wrapped in a blanket of sociability. Humans must tend and befriend each other, or die of helplessness.

Beneath the brain’s blanket of trust and altruism, the ancient and competitive brain still thrashes with the desire to kill the boy who broke your daughter’s heart. Its sticky fingers reach out to fold away the extra $10 a clerk hands you in change. The competitive brain is alive and well in there.

The variation in human personality presumably arises because each human brain finds its own balance between those biological needs: to dominate; and to be liked. Every strategy within the normal spectrum work. Even the most committed do-gooder will stop sharing food with the poor if her own children start to go hungry. Even the most manipulative rascal takes pains to cheat subtly enough that he won’t be ejected from society…


An Excerpt

…Both mouse and man observe a ban on killing one’s mate and one’s offspring. The male prairie vole cleaves to his family presumably because to abandon them would reduce the survival rate of his offspring. The male human presumably does the same.

I dislike using different words to describe identical behaviors in humans and other animals. To call cooperative behavior “instinct” in mice but call it “morality” in men is confusing. Why not call mouse behavior moral, too? Or call human kindness an instinct? Given the baggage weighing on all those words, perhaps it’s time for a fresh word altogether. We science writers try not to throw jargon around, but this is a special circumstance. Scientists have a really nice term that covers a wide range of “agreeable” behaviors: Prosocial.

An animal who hopes to benefit from company and cooperation must evolve some behaviors that will counteract his fundamental instincts for competition and self-preservation. Such behaviors are known as prosocial. They allow two animals to approach each other, to work together, to share.

Different species show differing degrees of prosociality. Some, like tigers, have nearly none. A female can tolerate a male only when she needs to mate; she puts up with her own offspring only until they’re grown. At the other extreme are colonial insects like honeybees. These animals are so prosocial that most individuals never attempt to mate and pass along their own DNA. They sacrifice everything for the colony.

Humans are less prosocial than bees, but more prosocial than mice, or even prairie voles. That’s clear from the large groups we form. If mice and voles were forced to live in villages of a hundred, they’d fight the whole day long. Mice and voles can tolerate immediate family and a few relatives nearby, but males especially have no need for buddies. Humans, on the other hand, do cluster in groups that include many different families.

The human male is particularly aberrant in the amount of social schmoozing he can abide. Men not only tolerate each other, but they even form strong bonds with males from different families. I can think of only a few mammals that even approximate this degree of sociality – baboons, chimps, bonobos and some dolphins. In all these species both males and females are extremely social.

Of course, not every individual dolphin is equally prosocial. Some spend more energy looking after their own interests, and others spend a little too much time on their friendships. Some extremes don’t work very well, and are weeded out. Over time and generations, the range of dolphin personality stabilizes within a range that works. And so it is with humans.

Biology has equipped us to resist the urge to kill our neighbor or steal his spear, both of which can cause a dangerous erosion of our reputation. For an animal that can’t live without social support, a good reputation is so valuable that evolution has smiled on humans whose brains steer them away from antisocial behaviors…

Wow! There’s an entire category of art on Wikimedia Commons called “Nude females reading.”


You don’t have to raise your hand in public. You don’t have to wait for the pompous gentleman in the front row to ask a long and winding question designed to prove he’s smarter than everybody else. You don’t have to ask if you’re compatible with your boyfriend… in front of your boyfriend. Fire away: info@hannah-holmes.com

OK, I’ll answer one question, to save you the labor of typing it: What led me to write this book?

Truthfully, I was wondering why obnoxious personalities exist. I mean, if personality is roughly half genetic, why hasn’t Nature kicked all the meanies out of the gene pool? How can selfishness and aggression be helpful to our species? Now it seems so obvious to me. Selfish people get through those crummy times when the environment is going to kill off everyone in the village except the most tough-minded, competitive individuals. But of course every personality has its strengths and weaknesses. Super-agreeable people are much loved, and help to bind a group together. Neurotic are ever alert for thunderstorms, snakes, and meanies.


Click to locate a community bookseller:

…or a multinational phenomenon:


Book readings can be fun! If you enjoyed it, or even if you didn’t but you’re an agreeable and cooperative mouse, please pass it along.


Hannah Holmes

Excerpt from Quirk



DEPRESSION QUESTIONS Rarely                          Sometimes                  Often

I can’t get motivated:

Little things get me down:

The glass is half empty:

This gives you a quick look at where you land on this facet. If your answers tend toward the “often” side, you’re higher in that facet.

The depressive personality has a tendency to look on the bleak side. If you score high on depression, then you may tend toward the skeptical, solitary, and slow-moving end of this personality measure. That doesn’t mean you’re always blue. You just aren’t going to be voted “most lively and optimistic.”

If your score is mid-range, you might not always think that you, or the world, are in great shape, but neither are you hanging your head like Eeyore. If your score leans toward “rarely,” then you probably have a solid respect for yourself, you feel motivated, successful, cheerful, and you’re eating and sleeping like a champ.

Then again, Klaus-Peter Lesch, whose mouse lab I visited in Germany, isn’t so sure there is such thing as “real” depression. He’s met plenty of people who feel hopeless, lifeless, and spiritually spent. Both he and his wife treat these patients in the psychiatric hospital downhill from his office. Sometimes they can give a patient a pill, and drive the gloomy feelings away. But other times they try pills, and talk therapy, and different pills, and still the patient suffers.

“I don’t believe any two patients have the same depression,” he proposes. “Depression is a group of disorders. There could be 100 or 150 disorders within the framework of depression.”

Wow. That raises an interesting problem, doesn’t it? The people who study the biology of personality are discovering that we’re too complicated to describe. And yet, the best tool psychologists have to diagnose us is a very simple list of descriptions. The famous DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), the book that tells you whether you’re officially off the rails, is not based on scientific research. It is not based on discoveries about serotonin and genes and neurons. It’s not even based on studies of huge numbers of people, which might have revealed subtle patterns. First published in 1952, and based on an Army manual, the DSM creates, out of thin air, names for the various ways a human personality can go haywire. The scientific basis of these invented categories is… well, it’s mainly based on how psychiatrists view their patients. So it’s really not very scientific.

And that makes it difficult to come up with a logical treatment plan for depressed people. Talk therapy works for some, but not all, people. Serotonin drugs work for about half. Some people recover spontaneously, others never rise from depression. Clearly, we don’t understand this disorder very well. So we look to the mice.


Because human depression is so poorly understood, scientists have created oodles of depressed mice. It’s instructive that this is even possible. That there are so many ways to lower the energy level of a brain tells us a couple of things: One, it may be a common condition in wild animals. Two, as such, it’s probably not a dire, horrible fate.

But first things first: Given our confusion over what depression is, how would you know if you succeeded in creating a legitimately depressed mouse?

Just as the elevated-plus maze is a standard measure of mouse anxiety, the forced swim and the tail suspension are common tests of murine moroseness.

For the first, a researcher lowers a mouse into a beaker of water. The mouse swims around the beaker for a while. She might try to power herself up the side of the glass. She will probably poop a few times. (Mice do that for any new experience. Mitzi and Maxi used to do it when I handled them.) But after just a few minutes the average mouse will quit. She’ll float quietly. (She will not drown. Mice are expert little swimmers, and can paddle for two and a half hours. They’re also good floaters. When they stop swimming their faces rest above water and they appear calm.)

Regardless of how it appears, researchers categorize the floating as “despair behavior.” I expect this is a misnomer, since despere is Old French for “lose hope.” Hope implies a sense of the future. Mice aren’t likely to have a sense of the future, hopeful or otherwise. They live in the moment. And if at the moment they are stuck in water, then que sera, sera. Given razor blades, they wouldn’t slit their little wrists because they don’t realize that their future is bleak. So the term “acceptance” might fit better than despair. Whatever you call it, the mice who quickly substitute floating for swimming are considered to be depressive, and therefore useful for research.

To conduct the “tail suspension test,” a researcher sticks tape to a mouse’s tail then hangs the animal from a tiny scale. The scale records the mouse’s struggle to get free over the course of six minutes. To minimize distractions, this experiment often takes place inside a small, white cubicle, with data flowing out to a hungry computer. (I admit I don’t like lifting Mitzi and Maxi by their tails, but it really does seem to be fine. Veterinarians do it. Even people who run web sites dedicated to pet mice do it. I can find no indication, anywhere, that it hurts them. In fact, they use their tails as some monkeys do, gripping with it as they climb. But lifting them by the tail just seems rude.) As with the “forced swim,” it’s the time a mouse spends hanging motionless that scientists measure. The ones who cease struggling soonest are the ones you want to test drugs on.

So that’s how scientists determine if a mouse is depressed. The forced swim and the tail suspension tests are the most common in part because they are the least distressing to mice.

If that were the only indication of mouse “depression,” I would have my doubts. It seems to me that the first mice to quit swimming could also be considered the most conservative ones. Accepting that their environment is currently impossible to conquer, these mice save their energy. When their environment changes, they’ll have the strength to resume their tasks.

But the whole point of creating depressed mice is to find drugs that combat depression in people. So what happens when you feed a despairing mouse a nibble of serotonin drug? She swims longer before conceding to her environment, and wriggles longer when hung by her tail. This is reassuring. It means a mouse is on the right track. It can be used to try out new drugs that have fewer side effects, or a greater success rate.

What, then, do the legions of despairing mice tell us about our own personalities?

Reviews of Quirk


Another fabulous “vlog” review from the stunning Joanne Manaster of joannelovesscience!


The Scientist Volume 25 | Issue 2 | Page 77
Date: 2011-02-01

by Bob Grant

Fast becoming adept at probing the science behind being human, science writer Hannah Holmes, author of 2009’s The Well-Dressed Ape, is at it again with Quirk. This time around Holmes dissects human personality into five distinct components: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. She calls them “dials…each set to different temperatures,” and proceeds to slice each component further into separate facets (for example, neuroticism breaks down into anxiety and depression, extraversion into impulsiveness, activeness, cheerfulness, and assertiveness, and so on).

Holmes covers the evolution of each of these facets and takes the reader on a tour of world-class laboratories studying some of these qualities in mice, always with an eye toward tying it back into understanding the peculiarities of human personality.

The reader can even take brief personality tests at the beginnings of each subchapter. An interesting, science-fueled ride through the human psyche, Quirk might not make you a better person for reading it, but you might come away understanding exactly what makes you unique.


“What an amazing book.  I don’t often really use the term “life-changing,” but this is. Suddenly I understand the people around me. To learn that deep down we are motivated by the same basic brain chemicals and structures as  the mice on Hannah Holmes’s desk is oddly, profoundly lliberating. Because along with the understanding comes acceptance. Thus Quirk is so much more than aninteresting and engaging read.  Regardless of what kind of mouse you are, you should read this book.” — Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Packing for Mars


“Hannah Holmes manages to look at the world through very unique lenses and what she comes up with is extraordinarily perceptive, completely unique and, morever, makes for great reading. I loved The Well Dressed Ape. Her new book Quirk has topped even that marvelous book.” – Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone


The Scientist Volume 25 | Issue 2 | Page 77 by Bob Grant

Fast becoming adept at probing the science behind being human, science writer Hannah Holmes, author of 2009’s The Well-Dressed Ape, is at it again with Quirk. This time around Holmes dissects human personality into five distinct components: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. She calls them “dials…each set to different temperatures,” and proceeds to slice each component further into separate facets (for example, neuroticism breaks down into anxiety and depression, extraversion into impulsiveness, activeness, cheerfulness, and assertiveness, and so on).

Holmes covers the evolution of each of these facets and takes the reader on a tour of world-class laboratories studying some of these qualities in mice, always with an eye toward tying it back into understanding the peculiarities of human personality.

The reader can even take brief personality tests at the beginnings of each subchapter. An interesting, science-fueled ride through the human psyche, Quirk might not make you a better person for reading it, but you might come away understanding exactly what makes you unique.



Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar PersonalityHannah Holmes, Random, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6840-1

The contours of the human soul emerge from the scamperings of mutant rodents in this sprightly exposition of the biological roots of behavior. Science journalist Holmes (The Well-Dressed Ape) tours neurology and psychology labs the world over where genetically engineered mice, rats, and voles explore mazes; survive shocks, dunkings, and being hung upside down by their tails; get hooked on cocaine and have their brains probed for chemicals.

Amid their ordeals, Holmes contends, they display rudimentary, pint-sized versions of human personality traits like anxiety, cheerfulness, altruism, self-discipline, and even artsiness. Holmes links their travails to deft explorations of the latest research into human psychology and makes insightful firsthand observations of specific personalities, from her own shy neuroticism to her husband’s impulsive extroversion and scientists’ quivering dread of animal rights “terrorists.”

The author’s take is relentlessly mechanistic: personality, in her view, is largely the product of genes, governed by the involuntary action of hormones and neurotransmitters, and explained by potted speculations about evolutionary advantages that are interesting if not always convincing. Fortunately, her tart reductionism (“Spark, schmark!… Humans have no more sacred spark in our personality than squirrels do”) is softened by sympathetic reportage and whimsical humor. (Feb.)

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