- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (July 13, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 019530893X
- ISBN-13: 978-0195308938
- Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 1.1 x 6.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,303,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Future of the Brain: The Promise and Perils of Tomorrow's Neuroscience
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Brain repair, smart pills, mind-reading machines--modern neuroscience promises to soon deliver a remarkable array of wonders as well as profound insight into the nature of the brain. But these exciting new breakthroughs, warns Steven Rose, will also raise troubling questions about what it means to be human.
In The Future of the Brain, Rose explores just how far neuroscience may help us understand the human brain--including consciousness--and to what extent cutting edge technologies should have the power to mend or manipulate the mind. Rose first offers a panoramic look at what we now know about the brain, from its three-billion-year evolution, to its astonishingly rapid development in the embryo, to the miraculous process of infant development. More important, he shows what all this science can--and cannot--tell us about the human condition. He examines questions that still baffle scientists and he explores the potential threats and promises of new technologies and their ethical, legal, and social implications, wondering how far we should go in eliminating unwanted behavior or enhancing desired characteristics, focusing on the new "brain steroids" and on the use of Ritalin to control young children.
The Future of the Brain is a remarkable look at what the brain sciences are telling us about who we are and where we came from--and where we may be headed in years to come.
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The author of this book has given a critical discussion of the technologies of neuroscience, differentiating those that are currently available from those that are projected to arise in upcoming decades. He also gives a thorough overview of brain science and anatomy, geared toward a "semi-popular" readership, and which allows a deeper appreciation of the technologies used to "modulate" the brain. The author does not shy away from philosophical musings, but he keeps them at a reasonable abeyance, and does not let thought experiments and armchair speculation get in the way of practical, scientific discussion. His materialistic worldview is refreshing and is resonant with some very new views of consciousness, namely that it evolved and adapted to the needs of human survival.
Sometimes though the author lets his distaste of alternative points of view detract from the rational dialog that he predominantly engages in throughout the book. The field of `evolutionary psychology' for example, is subjected to harsh criticism, which for the uncommitted reader, such as this reviewer, detracts from the quality of the book. He also takes aim at the "meme" idea of Richard Dawkins, exclaiming that those who hold to the idea "should know better." This kind of rhetoric, again, does not serve a useful purpose to anyone who is genuinely interested in the subjects that are discussed in this book.
Also criticized in the book is the modular or `architectural' view of mind, which holds that the mind is a collection of modules each one of which has a different function. The proponents of the modular theory of mind assert that these modules have evolved independently (or nearly so) and have remained unchanged for quite some time. The author does not agree at all with this theory, believing that there is more to the mind/brain than mere information processing. The mind/brain is also concerned with "giving meaning," he says, but he never really clarifies how it can indeed do this, although emotions are thought to play a key role. The author goes even further in asserting that it is the presence of emotions in the mind/brain that distinguish it from a computer. This may be true, but it has little to do with the main theme of the book. It is another place in the book where the author seems to get distracted from his primary goals. This is not to say that his meanderings are not interesting in and of themselves. In fact, there are many issues raised that are very important from the standpoint of someone interested in such topics as the nature of intelligence and how emotions are used to solve problems. In a footnote for example, the author points to the work of the "psychometricians," who assert that intelligence can be reduced to a single factor, which they refer to as `crystallized intelligence.' Thus a modular theory of mind is to be rejected. At any rate, research in cognitive neuroscience has shed light on the modular view, with the issues thankfully being delegated to laboratory experiments, rather than the sophisticated rhetoric of philosophical speculation.
So what of the technologies of neuroscience? Do they hold much promise for the well being of humankind in the next few decades? The author ends the book with what he believes are the most optimal developments in this regard. There is no doubt that changes in biochemistry can affect cognitive processes, but the decisions on which kinds of changes should be done has been and continues to be a contentious issue. The author discusses in detail the different drugs that have been used, such as the SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Prozac (fluoxetine) is an example of one of these, and evidence is readily available as to its advantages and dangers. The author cites only one in three patients actually obtained an improvement, and withdrawal from its use can cause severe problems, even though it is not "formally" addictive. Also discussed is the use of Ritalin (methylphenidate) to treat ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and also the propensity in the last decade to define mental disorders or maladies in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable from normal states of the brain. It could be said with fairness that pharmaceutical companies have been responsible for most of this, due to their need to drive and sustain their business, but caution also must be exercised in dismissing too quickly the drugs that do have a substantial benefit.
The author also discusses other topics that are moving away from being science fiction, and are approaching practical implementation. These include mind-reading technologies, neurogenetics, psychogenetic engineering, psychotropic drugs, and biocybernetics. All of these are exciting technologies, and show much promise, as well as much peril. The discoveries of neuroscience will enhance dramatically ethical discussion and deliberation, as the last chapter of this book is an example of. This reviewer remains extremely optimistic about future developments, given the brilliance exhibited in our collective human past.
He is also a prolific writer on evolutionary biology. He is a proactive opponent of a strictly reductionist stance in biology and a stern critic of what he sees as a genocentric approach to psychology and what it means to be human. Some of his books (most notably Not in Our Genes (1984) written with Richard Lewontin and Leo Kamini, and Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (2000) which he edited with Hilary Rose) are more about the politics of evolutionary biology than about the science; but here Rose keeps his political views mostly in the background. The result is an informative book that helps us to understand what science is learning about how the brain works and about how it can be affected by outside agents.
After an introductory chapter he begins with the nitty-gritty of how the brain came to be and how it might be understood--from proto-cells in the pre-biotic soup to axons, dendrites, synapses and brain "structures." His theme throughout is that the brain cannot be understood except as a process continually in motion. He argues that how our brains developed cannot be appreciated through an isolated study of the genetic blueprint. Instead we must look to the brain's developmental history in interaction with the environment to determine what it is and how it works and why.
The middle chapters move from the brain to the mind, from the nuts and bolts of neurology to the experiential human being living in an environment in part created by itself. Rose touches on the "mystery" of consciousness and the paradox of free will. He finishes with some conjectures about what kinds of pharmaceutical agents are to come, what kinds of invasive procedures might be employed in attempts to combat various diseases or to cope with the effects of ageing or to help make us "better than normal." The final chapter is on "Ethics in a Neurocentric World."
Although Rose does not spell out how the mind differs from the brain--I take it he presumes a dictionary definition--much of the book is concerned with the distinction. The brain is the flesh and blood; the mind is the experience, is how I read him. I want to add that the distinction between brain and mind can be seen as similar to the distinction between sex and gender. Sex is biology. Gender is the cultural expression of that biology.
He objects to viewing the brain as composed of "modules" directed by genetic imperatives. He writes that "...life is not a static 'thing' but a process" (p. 62) We are forever changing. The Steven Rose of 30 is not the same as the Steven Rose of today. He is a different person because of what has happened to him during the ensuing decades, and how he has reacted to what has happened, and what he has learned. And if Steven Rose were somehow cloned, that Steven Rose would be different still because of the different environments--pre-natal and afterward--in which he would grow.
He speaks of "patterns of activity" in the working brain. He doesn't like the use of "modules" such as a supposed "reading module" or "reading instinct." (p. 134) However it is really impossible to write about something as foreign to our everyday experience as the workings of the brain without resorting to metaphor and analogy. Something is like something else. Something is compared to something else. This is how we learn. So instead of modules, Rose employs variously, "a collection of mini-organs" (p. 149); "brain regions" (p. 157); "brain...structures" (p. 133), etc. In fact he uses the term "modules" himself on, for example, pages 149, 156, 158. Furthermore his railing against the use of our experience in the "Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation" during the Pleistocene by evolutionary psychologists is partially contradicted by his acknowledgment that we are indeed shaped by our environment as we in turn shape it. It is clear to me that where Rose and the evolutionary psychologists differ is in their perception of how much the environments since the Pleistocene have changed us. Steven Pinker, Edward O. Wilson and others think "not all that much," while Rose thinks "a whole lot." The truth, one can imagine, lies somewhere in between.
It should be noted that one of the unsolved problems in evolution is knowing how fast evolutionary change can take place. Stephen Jay Gould spoke of rapid change after long periods of stasis while others have disagreed; but no one can say how much we have changed biologically since the Pleistocene. It is known that large populations are strongly resistant to evolutionary change because mutations quickly get swamped in the huge genetic pool. My feeling is that in populations as large as ours, little evolutionary change is taking place. The environment is constantly changing, but the selective pressure usually brought about through starvation, disease, and competition from other species is really not much in evidence. And so I tend to side with those who believe we haven't changed all that much.
Steven Rose is a wise and caring man who sometimes forgets his manners when speaking about those with whom he has sharp disagreements. But in this book he is at his best and most well-behaved. Let me finish with perhaps the wisest of his observations. He is speaking of the increased "powers of surveillance and coercion available to an authoritarian state." He warns, "The neurotechnologies [now available and to come] will add to these powers, but the real issue is probably not so much how to curb the technologies, but how to control the state." (p. 302)