Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fall 2007 books

Here are some candidates for our reading group this semester.

Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World, by Chris Frith (Blackwell, 2007). [Amazon, $24.95]
Inside your head there is an amazing labor-saving device; more effective than the latest high-tech computer. Your brain frees you from the everyday tasks of moving about in the world around you, allowing you to concentrate on the things that are important to you: making friends and influencing people. However, the 'you' that is released into this social world is also a construction of your brain. It is your brain that enables you to share your mental life with the people around you. Making up the Mind is the first accessible account of experimental studies showing how the brain creates our mental world. Using evidence from brain imaging, psychological experiments, and studies with patients, Chris Frith, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, explores the relationship between the mind and the brain.

How the Body Shapes the Mind, by Shaun Gallagher (Oxford, 2006). [Amazon, $25.45]
How the Body Shapes the Mind is an interdisciplinary work that addresses philosophical questions by appealing to evidence found in experimental psychology, neuroscience, studies of pathologies, and developmental psychology. There is a growing consensus across these disciplines that the contribution of embodiment to cognition is inescapable. Because this insight has been developed across a variety of disciplines, however, there is still a need to develop a common vocabulary that is capable of integrating discussions of brain mechanisms in neuroscience, behavioural expressions in psychology, design concerns in artificial intelligence and robotics, and debates about embodied experience in the phenomenology and philosophy of mind. Shaun Gallagher's book aims to contribute to the formulation of that common vocabulary and to develop a conceptual framework that will avoid both the overly reductionistic approaches that explain everything in terms of bottom-up neuronal mechanisms, and inflationistic approaches that explain everything in terms of Cartesian, top-down cognitive states. Gallagher pursues two basic sets of questions. The first set consists of questions about the phenomenal aspects of the structure of experience, and specifically the relatively regular and constant features that we find in the content of our experience. If throughout conscious experience there is a constant reference to one's own body, even if this is a recessive or marginal awareness, then that reference constitutes a structural feature of the phenomenal field of consciousness, part of a framework that is likely to determine or influence all other aspects of experience. The second set of questions concerns aspects of the structure of experience that are more hidden, those that may be more difficult to get at because they happen before we know it. They do not normally enter into the content of experience in an explicit way, and are often inaccessible to reflective consciousness. To what extent, and in what ways, are consciousness and cognitive processes, which include experiences related to perception, memory, imagination, belief, judgement, and so forth, shaped or structured by the fact that they are embodied in this way?

Why Choose This Book?: How We Make Decisions, by Read Montegue (Dutton Adult, 2006). [Amazon, $16.47]
Why do we choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream? Why do we select one lover rather than another? Baylor University neuroscientist Montague (now a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study) deftly marries psychology and neuroscience as he probes how we make choices. On one hand, decision making boils down to simple computation. Montague argues that our brains are efficient computational machines. But unlike computers, our brains fix on the goals of survival and reproduction, realizing that every hasty decision can be costly to the survival of the species. Our brains also harbor experiences (memories) that foster the choices we make. On the other hand, we can make choices that go against survival: for instance, we can choose to die for an idea. Why is that? Because, says Montague, human computations involve valuation, choosing between one value and another, requiring computation of cultural and psychological qualities. Although the notion of the brain as a computational machine can be traced at least as far back as Descartes, Montague adds new ideas to our understanding of how our brains compute. But his sometimes engaging and sometimes plodding book doesn't always explain the complex science for general readers.

Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st Century, by Neil Levy (Cambridge,, 2007). [Amazon $34.65]
Neuroscience has dramatically increased understanding of how mental states and processes are realized by the brain, thus opening doors for treating the multitude of ways in which minds become dysfunctional. This book explores questions such as when is it permissible to alter a person's memories, influence personality traits or read minds? What can neuroscience tell us about free will, self-control, self-deception and the foundations of morality? The view of neuroethics offered here argues that many of our new powers to read ,alter and control minds are not entirely unparalleled with older ones. They have, however, expanded to include almost all our social, political and ethical decisions. Written primarily for graduate students, this book will appeal to anyone with an interest in the more philosophical and ethical aspects of the neurosciences.

Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior, by Mark Blumberg (Thunder's Mouth, 2006) [Amazon, $11.66]
This is a passionate (and at times polemical) survey of what contemporary neuroscience has to say about the nature of instinct. Actually, as it turns out, it might be more accurate to say the "nurture" of instinct, since Blumberg firmly argues against the perspective that what we think of as instincts are innate—he reframes "instincts," ranging from a baby's tendency to mimic faces to monkeys' fear of snakes, as a consequence of reflexes rather than innate knowledge. Though initially a bit dense with scientific jargon, the book picks up midway through, and the then generally accessible prose skillfully unpacks behaviors that seem instinctive, ranging from the mundane (getting thirsty) to the astonishing (androgenital licking in newborn rats). The writing is as persuasive as it is rich in intriguing detail, and a reader may well find that, by the end of the book, the word "nativism" (the perspective that animals and humans are born with cognitive instincts in place, which Blumberg at one point calls "an intellectual and experimental red herring") has become a dirty word.