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The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self Hardcover – May 29, 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What's going on in there? One of the great scientific and philosophical mysteries is how a few pounds of wet, salty cobwebs can give rise to the rich experience that we call consciousness. Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield peers inside the dimly lit skull to show us what she thinks is going on in The Private Life of the Brain. Greenfield has a facility for explaining tricky scientific concepts in language that can engage any reader. She presents the basics of contemporary thought on consciousness as they relate to her own theory, which involves a continuum of experience between sensual, emotional grounding in the surrounding world and rational, cognitive withdrawal into mental life. Arguing from a wide range of animal and human research, and drawing on the work of philosophers John Searle and Daniel Dennett, she makes her case compellingly but gently, granting that other theories might also hold in this still-uncharted territory. Looking in depth at depression, drug use, and fear, Greenfield shows how each is explained by her continuum theory and how each relates to the life of the human organism as a whole. Could it be true that as our minds work harder, our hearts lose some feeling, and vice versa? It's an intriguing, thought-provoking idea, one that alone makes The Private Life of the Brain essential reading for minds seeking self-enlightenment. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

How are you feeling today? Who might you be? And what do those frequently asked, but profound, questions have to do with each other? An Oxford University brain researcher and the director of Britain's Royal Institution, Greenfield (Journey to the Centers of the Mind) has entered the crowded field of explain-the-brain books with a sophisticated, memorable and accessible set of arguments. Other popular brain books have begun or ended with language, with philosophy, or with disease; Greenfield starts with emotions. She gives readers long looks at the structure of the brain, at the chemical work of neurotransmitters, at young children's behaviors and neural development, and at the effects of psychoactive drugs, from alcohol to morphine. Despite the current excitement about brains and genes, she reminds us that "the effects of the environment" through childhood and beyond create a "personalization of the brain," a succession of outward experiences that lead our cells and neurochemical processes to forge complex neural connections that complicate our built-in emotions. Your personalized brain, with its complex "nets," gives you the consciousness that modifies your feelings now: your sense of self keeps your passions in check. But extreme emotions and experiences--"road rage," or a rave--weaken those "nets" and consequently weaken consciousness, making you more like an animal, or an infant, than usual. "The more the mind predominates over raw emotion," writes Greenfield, "the deeper the consciousness." Greenfield presents a subtle model in everyday language, introducing her readers skillfully to her precedents and rivals in neurobiology and cognitive science. Readers who care about minds and brains will have strong feelings about Greenfield's thoughts--and many likely will feel pleased. Agents, John Brockman and Katinka Matson. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (May 29, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471183431
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471183433
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,691,021 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I found this book surprisingly disappointing due to a severe lack of supporting evidence. For example, her primary thesis--that consciousness is a function of large neural networks--is spelled out in only the vaguest of terms. Her discussion of associated phenomena is similarly superficial...e.g. "It is possible that the core problem underlying manic depression is again one of inappropriately sized neuronal networks." (p. 127) What is an "inappropriately sized" network? This is never defined. Are any studies cited of neuronal networks in manic depression? No, at least so far as I could tell. This problem of inadequate analysis holds for many statements in the book. A second example, picked at random..."According to the brain model of emotion that I am suggesting pleasure is associated with unusually modest associations between neurons. (p. 129)" What on earth does this mean? What neurons are we talking about? Where? How are you defining their association--electrophysiologically, by functional brain studies? This is never discussed. Second, some of her ideas--such as trying to equate schizophrenia with dream states--are not adequately supported in her book and certainly not in the psychiatric literature. A while back books with excessive and poorly defined psychological topics were dismissed with the epithet of "psychobabble"...this book, I'm afraid, comes dangerously close to "neurobabble." Neuronal networks in relationship to consciousness are MUCH more intelligently and thoroughly discussed in Edelman and Tononi's recent (2000)book "A Universe of Consciousnes." Damasio's 1999 book, "The Feeling of What Happens," represents the neurological approach to the problem of understanding consciousness and gives a much richer perspective than Dr. Greenfield's attempt. It is my opinion that time is much better spent reading either of these two books.
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Format: Hardcover
This is excellent science writing. Many complex ideas are made understandable through clear analogies, while clearly pointing out the limitations of those analogies.
The author tries to describe how brain states relate to states of experience; by finding common ground between many extreme experiences. Her elegant (if not original) thesis is that patterns of connectivity between massive numbers of neurons determine our overall state of consciousness. States vary, according to this theory, by how large the interconnected clusters of neurons are, and how rapidly they turnover from one cluster to another. Neuroses and depression reflect a kind of stuckness in wide scale static networks of associations. States of intense sensation all involve "losing our mind" in the sense of dismantling these widespread networks and replacing them with many small networks that rapidly switch from one to another, keeping us trapped in the here and now.
We peer into the life of drug addicts, the fearful, the schizophrenic, and small children, to find some remarkable similarities in their experience. Then we see how the experience is so different for the depressed and those in pain. By comparing these extremes, and comparing the extremes to the way we normally feel, the authors' thesis begins to come to life.
This is a fascinating attempt at a framework for relating brain states and states of consciousness that has a lot of potential, but is clearly still a skeleton. It does, however, make a number of testable predictions discussed in the final chapters, which distinguish this book still further from the usual speculations about how the brain produces conscious experience.
On the other hand, in some ways, there is more missing than presented here.
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Format: Paperback
The Private Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield is a very complex work on consciousness and theory of self. Trained in the field of neuropharmacology and physiology with degrees from St. Hilda's College, Oxford, United Kingdom, the College de France, Paris, and NYU Medical Center, New York, the author has held lecture posts at several of the world's prestigious universities including Lincoln College, Oxford, the Institute of Neuroscience, La Jolla, California, and Queens University, Belfast. In 1998 she became the first female director of Britain's Royal Institution. Her current research is in the causes of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. With this vita she is eminently equipped to discuss the topic.
Although the book seems to be a bit rambling, this is because it covers a lot of territory-but then there is a lot of territory to cover: brain anatomy-physiology, chemistry, neuro-connections, diseases, emotions, consciousness and the emergent self. Probably because she is a pharmacologist and physiologist and most especially a scientist, she approaches her subject by dividing it into aspects that illuminate these characteristics and give rise to testable hypotheses regarding the inner workings of the brain and mind. The chapter headings are therefore: 1) The Idea (the problem of consciousness), 2) The Story So Far (a history of the theories of mind), 3) The Child (early consciousness), 4) The Junkie (pain, euphoria, neuro-effective and neurophysiological chemicals), 5) The Nightmare (loss of consciousness), 6) The Depressive (highs and lows of consciousness), 7) The Human Condition (emotions and a theory of consciousness), 8) The Answer (the wrap up). Certainly much of the material, especially in the first two chapters, is a recap of the work of others.
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