on March 17, 2014
What really makes this book stand out for me is the caliber and detail of its extensive illustrations. Without them, the associated text would have been problematic to grasp readily or adequately for a non-specialist like me. Quite often here, individual illustrations have been partitioned into complementary views or logical sequences that greatly aid in solidifying the respective concepts or phenomena. While crediting the sources of particular illustrations, Sporns notes individually which of those figures have been redrawn. The resultant consistency of style considerably enhances reader discernment of their content. In all, this selection, composition, and editing of figures are exceptional as well as unique in my reading experience.
Given his extensive background in the subject or related research, the author has selected, integrated, and interpreted the significant findings of a broad range of ostensively esoteric research publications, and rendered them in a quite readable form. The fact that most of his references are journal articles, moreover, indicates the recency or provisional nature of much of the reported brain network characterizations and implications. Although the research contributions of Sporns himself are evident in the references cited, he nonetheless offers a balanced view that explores contending theses, interpretations, or uncertainties. I found his focus on networks, and their heterogeneous neural constructs and flexible dynamics, to be a vital and vivid unifying theme - from which his overall message issued quite coherently. Furthermore, his unified synthesis of network topology and dynamics constitutes the pivotal factor in a well-established framework for continuing research in brain science. Quite significantly, empirically established network (re)organizations and constructs are shown to be amenable to a significant range of revealing quantitative analysis methods and corroborative simulations.
Certain topics were of especial interest to me. In Chapter 3, three types of brain connectivity are introduced: structural or anatomical, functional or interactional, and effective or causal. These forms and their roles/relationships/patterns are then deployed or elaborated throughout the rest of the book. Also, the nature and contributions of spontaneous neural activity, as ongoing patterns of strictly internal brain operations, are an intriguing phenomenon developed in Chapter 8. Such activity serves as an active standby basis for mediating incident external stimuli. They resultantly prompt operative network reconfiguration and functionality - so as to produce suitable responses. Thereafter, the rather novel notions of metastability and coordination dynamics are presented in Chapter 12. Metastability inheres in a quasi-repetitive state transition trajectory in conformity with a prevailing yet tenuous attractor manifold. This tentative trajectory reconciles the opposing tendencies of brain element segregation and integration, while maintaining readiness for rapid task-induced configuration as entailed in the onset of coordination dynamics. When invoked, such coordination effects the coupling of certain modules and thereby enacts transient process integration. This in turn results in appropriate cognitive patterns to yield indicated functional performance.
Fundamental yet discreet reservations concerning several long-standing viewpoints or speculations still prominent in cognitive science literature appear at relevant points in the book. Sporns' observations refer to concepts/initiatives that are simply incompatible with extant brain science, especially with respect to the brain network paradigm he articulates. (Use the term paradigm here, rather than framework, would seem to be warranted by the scope, coherence, conclusiveness, and maturity of the combined empirical and analytical support that is consolidated in the overarching brain network theory he presents.) The following points are of particular import:
· "If cognition is largely symbolic in nature, then its neural substrate is little more than inconsequential detail revealing nothing about the essence of the mind." (p.179)
· "neuroreductionism...implies that cells and molecules can explain all there is to know about mind and cognition...yet it cannot explain their emergent and collective properties." (p. 180)
· "Structural and functional modules identified by network analysis have little in common with the putative cognitive modules proposed by Fodor...Such computational modules...are restricted to its (innate) database,...and...are cognitively impenetrable by other extramodular processes." (p. 195)
· "connectionist approaches...do not address how network growth and plasticity shape the emergence of neural dynamics...(their) models bear little resemblance to the complex architecture of the brain." (p. 245)
· "'The ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple'"(p. 308)...(yet) "ants are complex organisms with complex nervous systems...(which implausibly) `may be irrelevant to the ant's behavior in relation to the outer environment.'" (p. 345)
The book's exceptional merit notwithstanding, I believe that a few matters might be treated more clearly. First, some readers would be well served by the judicious use of tables - to consolidate or summarize vital points or distinctions among the diversity of comparable topics or techniques addressed. For example, tables that outline the nature, scope, resolution, and practical utility of various imaging techniques and simulation/analysis methods would be useful checkpoints for non-specialists. Second, a taxonomy of network forms would be helpful, along with a tabular summary of their salient attributes and their typical roles. Then, it would be of benefit to have: a table that characterizes typical network elements (e.g., map, module, motif); figures that depict generic constructs (e.g., recursion, reentrancy, motifs); and incisive content in all such cases regarding each element's respective applicabilities and typical locales within the central nervous system. These are surely not major concerns, but merely prospects for potential improvement to an already excellent exposition.
In sum, this book serves motivated non-specialists as an authoritative and unified technical literature critique and synopsis - of an otherwise virtually impenetrably complex of research threads and findings. Moreover, it might well be valuable for the orientation of beginning students in cognitive science. Be assured that this book is not science popularization or hype as sometimes typical of mere science writers. Rather, it is a sober and penetrating illumination of brain networks in an expansive and unified sense. In general, the book's organization and its balance of coverage are very good; moreover, the endnotes are ample and most helpful. In all, the book's content is substantive and coherent, encompassing yet cohesive, impressively grounded, and ultimately quite persuasive. Since the author's native language is apparently not English, the book's caliber of writing is especially remarkable. I rate this book at 5-Plus Stars.