Tuesday, March 07, 2006

New Books Reviewed

The Washington Post has a review of three neuroscience books: Gray Anatomies: Can neuroscience really explain our deepest thoughts and emotions? The reviewer is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

THE THREE-POUND ENIGMA, The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries
By Shannon Moffett
Algonquin. 309 pp. $24.95

THE CREATING BRAIN: The Neuroscience of Genius
By Nancy C. Andreasen
Dana. 197 pp. $23.95

THE MATURE MIND: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain
By Gene D. Cohen
Basic. 232 pp. $24.95

Csikszentmihalyi begins his review with
During the past half century or so, we have seen enormous advances in mapping the brain and its functions. We now know which area of the brain controls the movement of each finger and how religious ecstasy looks when translated into colored patches on a computer screen. No wonder scientists are beginning to feel ready to communicate the fruits of their labor to a general audience and to explain how knowledge of the brain will help us understand what we do, how we do it and why. Three slender new books are part of this recent trend of popularizing the brain sciences: All were written by professionals trained in the intricacies of gray matter.
He ends with a note of caution regarding the importance of the hardward over the software:
When we get to the more complex and interesting mental activities -- not only creativity but love, care, spirituality, play or aesthetic experience -- what is known about the brain still adds precious few insights to our understanding. As time goes on this is likely to change, but for now the concept of the mind, rather than the analysis of the brain, provides a better key to the more intricate events going on inside the head. The mind is not a material structure, with specific locations and functions. Its content is not hard-wired by genetic instructions, and it can evolve. The difference between a Hitler and a Mother Teresa is less likely to be found in the way their brains were arranged than in how they learned to connect their experiences. In the end, learning is etched into the structure of the brain and becomes indistinguishable from it. But at this point, it seems more useful to pay attention to how the software of the mind gets shaped, rather than hope for the hardware of the brain to yield answers to our deepest questions.
It's also clear that Hitler was the one with the moustache. .