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The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self Paperback – May 11, 2001
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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 --This text refers to the Digital edition.
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. --This text refers to the Digital edition.
Top customer reviews
Bookcovers on my hardcover and paperback editions (one was a gift) better than bland blue on Amazon site.
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. The theory of neural connectivity is very vague and makes no inroads to explaining just why a complex neural network should produce a mind. The implication is almost that arbitrary complexity should suffice, but this clearly isn't the case. Sensory networks seem to possess qualities of experience, while motor networks do not. There is something more in the networks that give rise to higher mental qualities than just complexity itself, and the author is very vague in this critical area.
Then Greenfield goes on to look at "drugs of abuse" and imagines what it's like to be a person on any one number of illegal drugs, concluding that they are all more childlike. This only due to the fact that her theory entails that fewer neuronal connections at any given time lead to a child-like state and in a few warped ways, many drugs can be seen to reduce neuronal connections. This is begging the question if you ask me.
She also goes into schizophrenia for a bit, likening it to childish experience and "junkie" experience because, again it follows her theory that if there are fewer neuronal connections you are more "childlike." She never broaches where the consciousness comes into this, apart from equating consciousness with emotion and lack of thought.
The rest of the book is a mildly interested play with the framework: depression is an increased amount of neuronal connections and thus a heightened "self," etc. She gets into a few of the implications of her framework.
But overall, it's far too lacking on the science for me, as well as lacking in essential steps in logic to be taken for anything above a mildly entertaining, but unuseful read. I might have given it 3 stars but I admit that a few of the assumptions almost made me put the book down, so I have to go with 2.