This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
“This is the story of our quest to understand the most mysterious object in the universe.”
Those who pay attention to the various interests of contributors to this site may have noticed that I review a fair few books that offer insight into how and why people behave as they do from the point of view of properly researched science. I am, however, a casual reader on the subject, not an academic with a background in, for example, psychology or neuroscience. I suspect The Idea of the Brain would be better appreciated by those with a stronger scientific grounding than I possess.
I insert here the caveat that I read the majority of this book during an escalating novel pandemic when the country was required to live under unprecedented lockdown conditions. I found the text dense at a time when my attention was wont to wander. I hoped to enjoy the copious information conveyed more than I could manage.
Following a brief introduction, the book is structured in three parts: Past, Present, and Future. As may be expected, Past covers centuries of study. The author selects those researchers he feels significantly progressed man’s understanding of the brain and describes each of their accomplishments in some detail. It is this detail that challenged my ability to retain focus. There were nuggets to be gleaned. The sections covering areas I already had knowledge of retained my attention the most.
The more researchers learned about the workings of the brain, the more they came to realise how complex it is and how little it is understood.
“To argue that there are things we can never understand is to undermine the whole point of science, which is to explain what is currently unexplainable.”
Many false premises were posited and blind alleys followed. Sometimes these led to the unexpected uncovering of useful knowledge.
The second section, Present, covers progress made in the last century. This includes the invention of various imaging techniques that allow scientists to observe an active brain without removing portions of skull – as had been done previously. The leap forward this offered laid bare how little it helped in understanding how brain activity affects consciousness – the mind, thought.
“There are many scientists who feel we are drowning in a tide of data about the structure of brains, while what we really need are some clearer theories and ideas about how it all fits together.”
“in and of itself knowledge of structure provides no direct understanding of dynamic function. Where is not how.”
Examples are provided of the benefits that became available to patients thanks to the ongoing research – at the cost of a great many creatures sacrificed in labs. Ethical considerations are mentioned along with economic reality. One patient briefly benefited greatly from an item of supportive technology until the company that provided it went bust. Her loss, after glimpsing what could have vastly improved her quality of life, had a distressing impact.
Chemical treatments for depression, schizophrenia and the like were often discovered accidently. These led to the increasing medicalisation of illnesses linked to the brain. As side effects became apparent and few effective new treatments were added after decades of research, pharmaceutical companies lost interest.
“Our understanding of the origins of mental health problems, and how to treat them, remains profoundly unsatisfactory.”
“It is hard to know what to say. We do not understand how a healthy brain and mind work, so it is hardly surprising that we do not know how to fix things when problems arise.”
Brain activity can now be monitored in real time but it remains hard to pin down, from the many parallel processes observed, correlation or causation. On what or where consciousness may reside, even less is known. There remains
“complete ignorance of how neural activity is turned into thought”
The final short section, Future, is perhaps the most bleak in terms of considering progress. Great leaps forward in terms of observation have demonstrated how little is yet understood. The limitations in where to go next with current research are acknowledged.
“’The Brain Has a Body’. And the body has an environment, and both affect how the brain does what it does. This might seem trivially obvious, but neither the body nor the environment feature in modelling approaches that seek to understand the brain.”
“the brain does not represent information: it constructs it”
The author includes an extensive list of notes at the end of the book for those who wish to read further on the research that underpins what he has written.
Any Cop?: My interest in the topic enabled me to plough my way through but this was a challenging read for a lay person. What I take away though is greater comprehension of where the science is now. The increase and development in my knowledge makes me glad to have read the book. It offers a candid and in-depth exploration of a complex topic, skilfully rendered but perhaps recommended only for those who have prior understanding of the basics of brain science.
“The four most important words in science are ‘We do not know’.”