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The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience Hardcover – April 21, 2020
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"Elegant... engrossing... clear and lively... The reader will come away from this illuminating history of thinking about the brain with a renewed appreciation of the task that remains."―Carol Tavris, Wall Street Journal
"This ambitious intellectual history follows the changing understanding of the brain from antiquity to the present... Cobb's account is an important contribution: few have offered such accessible insights, with choice examples and clear explanations of the societal factors that lie beneath... It is a very good book."―Nature
"Sweeping and electrifyingly skeptical"―The Guardian
"A fresh history and tour d' horizon of "the most complex object in the known universe." Although scientists still struggle to understand the brain, they know a great deal about it; Cobb, a professor of biological sciences, delivers an excellent overview."―Kirkus Reviews
"The book reveals that there are many ways to think about what brains are, what they do, and their relation to the mind. Cobb's erudition and engaging writing style take us on an enthralling journey, rich with accidental discoveries, controversies, and rejected hypotheses."―Science
"In this engrossing book, Matthew Cobb deftly recounts the tortuous history of research on the brain, in which researchers pursue the hard problems of memory, consciousness, and volition, always limited by forced comparisons between human brains and the machines available at the time. A work of history and deep scholarship, but written in an engaging and lively way, The Idea of the Brain is optimistic about the recursive attempts of our brains to understand themselves, yet reminds us that the three most important words in science are, 'We don't know.'"―Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True
"The story of the most complex object in the universe has never been told with greater clarity, insight, and wit. Charting the route to future discoveries, this is a masterpiece"―Adam Rutherford, author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived
"Matthew Cobb weaves a fascinating story of the historical arc of neuroscience, from the initial discovery that the brain gives rise to our minds, to the state of the art in the manipulation and control of the brain."―Russell Poldrack, author of The New Mind Readers
"This exquisitely well-researched and thrilling book charts an epic high-level quest to understand our deepest selves. Its scale and scope is phenomenal and leaves us with a profound sense of wonder about science and humanity as well as the brain itself. Altogether a feast."―Daniel M. Davis, author of The Beautiful Cure
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• Part 1: PAST (pages 11-200). After a multi-page presentation of Smee’s work, the author states: “Although Smee is now forgotten by all but a handful of historians, and he had no influence on our understanding of brain function …” (p. 79) That’s a good description of 60-70% of Part 1. I’m not a historian.
• Part 2: PRESENT (pages 201-365). The author introduces this part by stating: “In reality, no major conceptual innovation has been made in our understanding of how the brain works for over half a century.” (p. 203). The chapters that follow review specific topics, like memory, for the period from 1950 to today with each chapter proving the accuracy of the introductory statement.
• Part 3: FUTURE (pages 367-390). “It’s hard to predict how we will eventually come to understand the brain, and what that understanding will consist of.” (p. 369)
If I’m remembering correctly, the “Cat in the Hat” explained how to find things that were lost stating that the process involved “finding where they are NOT”. This book finds what the brain is not but gives the reader little hope for a breakthrough in discovery in the foreseeable future.
It's not just a history of neuroscience. It's a primer on how science is done, a reminder how global science is and that if a working scientist has one moment of clarity and real insight in a career, she's doing well. Also, with very few exceptions he or she who gets to a discovery first will be just ahead of a pack. Science will find its way. Tough racket.
It's the best general reader science title I've read since Zimmer's She has her Mothers Laugh.
But I have a little throwaway criticism of some scientists (of whom Professor Cobb seems to be one) and some philosophers (represented by the clever Professor Patricia Churchland whom Prof. Cobb cites in his chapter on consciousness).
In brief, wouldn’t you agree that there is no place in science or philosophy for unfounded absolutism and ideology? Is that not something curious, open-minded people can agree on? On one level, Professor Cobb’s book espouses from beginning to end just this right rejection of dogmatic absolutism.
This rejection is found right off in Professor Cobb’s scientifically-founded brake regarding science’s progress in understanding how the brain works: "There is a significant flaw in this tale of astonishing progress, one that is rarely acknowledged in the many books that claim to explain how the brain works. Despite the solid bedrock of understanding, we have no clear comprehension about how billions, or millions, or thousands, or even tens of neurons work together to produce the brain's activity."
How refreshing. A humble perspective from a scientist on where things stand in neuroscience. An acknowledgement that science does not know everything.
Then comes Professor Cobb’s next paragraph espousing biologism: “[The brain’s activity] is all achieved by neurons and their complex interconnections, including the many chemical signals in which they bathe. No matter how much it might go against your deepest feelings, there is no disembodied person floating in your head looking at this activity – it is all just neurons, their connectivity and the chemicals that swill about those networks."
(Biologism: the belief or theory that all human emotions, feelings, thoughts, and achievements are ultimately just the result of—in Professor Cobb’s mantra of the creed: "neurons and their complex interactions, including the many chemical signals in which they bathe.”)
How disappointing. Hubristic unfounded absolutism on the part of this respected scientist. And it is obviously illogical.
In the first paragraph, Professor Cobb acknowledges that we don’t even know how 20 or 30 neurons work together to produce the brain’s activity. But of course we know with absolute certainty that it couldn't possibly be a silly notion of a "soul" or "spirit" or "homonculus (ha, ha!)" or other "disembodied person" inhabiting your brain or body.
There is no place in science for this kind of absolutist ideology with its illogical straw men and jokes (see the quotation from Prof. Churchland that "so far as anyone knows, non-physical souls do not respond to milliamps of current" (358). A nice gag, but perhaps it is the non-physical spirit that constitutes the milliamps driving consciousness, the dark matter that can't be seen but is part of the very fabric of the universe.)
Logic (dear Professors Cobb and Churchland) and consistent humility might suggest that a theological explanation is – at minimum – a possibility: “no matter how much this might go against your deepest feelings.”
I find it disturbing – this absolute and unquestioning faith in biologism so prevalent among intelligent scientists and philosophers, this need to discount so readily and quickly and yes – irrationally with a cute joke – an explanation that is at least a possibility, again “however much this may go against the thinker’s deepest intellectual convictions.”
There is no place in science for unfounded absolutism: including irrational, dogmatic creeds of belief and faith that anything—anything at all—that questions biologism is of course silly. Believers in biologism are unfortunately, in my experience, true believers and nothing will shake them. How sadly and deeply ironic.
Despite this little throwaway criticism, this is a fascinating book. But for me it did just the opposite of what Professor Cobb may have hoped to achieve with his stated articles of faith (his asides) regarding biologism: the book was actually a convincing demonstration to me that there may still be a place for God and the human Spirit. It convinced me yet again of the profound wisdom of my law professor’s statement in graduate school and law school: “All discourse is ultimately theological discourse.”
Finally, despite Prof. Churchland’s flim-flam statements about flim-flam philosophers (statements quoted by Prof. Cobb), I would suggest reading Professor Raymond Tallis's works on consciousness and the brain. Dr. Tallis possesses all the credentials – as a widely published medical doctor, philosopher, and committed evolutionist— to throw much needed intellectual cold water on the creed of biologism. Try his book “The Explicit Animal – A Defense of Human Consciousness." Or try what I consider his masterpiece of logic, science, and philosophy, "The Hand – A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being."