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Customer Review

on October 24, 2011
This book contains alot of good information about the functions and pathways used in the brain. But I think there are a number of areas where I disagree with her conclusions and those of at least one boxed "expert" reports. The boxed expert is Steven Mithren from the University of Reading. He speculates that racism may have arisen because H. Sapiens Sapiens, with advanced "social and technical intelligence" may confuse the social (fellow man) with technical objects which provides the potential for some races to believe that other races are inferior to others because of a mixing of thoughts about humans, animals and objects. He believes our social/technical knowlegde provides a potential to treat others as objects. "There is no compulsion to do this, simply the potential for it to happen." When it comes to human thought, there is the potential for anything to happen. He points out that this has happened throughout human history. The tendency to see others as objects already has a diagnosis and its not "Cognitive Fluidity." Its Antisocial personality disorder. Its something hard to prove either way but it seems like a speculation that few good scientists would engage in.

When the author discusses "theory of mind" she believes it is an innate human ability to know what is in another person's mind. That is not literally true. Theory of mind is when we begin to realize that people have different thoughts and attitudes than we do. It also, depending on the definer, may include the ability to infer what other people are thinking because of what they say and how they act. We never know what is in another person's mind even if they tell us directly. As people mature they begin to realize that behavior is generally a better indicator of a person's state of mind than what they say but for some, this comes fairly slowly.

She also thinks the case of Phineas Gage gives the example of a brain module gone bad. Phineas Gage had a massive amount of brain tissue damage, primarily in the inhibitory prefrontal lobes but it was not limited to that area, or even a "module." Gage underwent a significant personality tranformation and had a very hard time with any long-term goals or goal directed behavior. Buy he had not developed a "complete inability to direct or control himself." His prefrontal lobes were gone which lessens our ability to inhibit inappropriate behavior but I don't think the result was an "Id gone wild." He didn't go on a massive crime wave nor was he a serial rapist. He had some control, but he had lost much. Gage is seen as a victim of a sluggish (or non-existent) brain module. This then raises the question should the Gage's of today, relapsing drug addicts and alcoholics be unworthy of sympathy and does putting repeat criminals in jail really the thing to do to those whose module is merely sluggish? First drug addicts and alcoholics in recovery don't want sympathy. They appreciate empathy but sympathy puts them in a "one down" position. Should recidivist criminals be put in jail? As of now, we don't have good alternatives. Would the author like a repeat rapist moving in next door or a child molester helping her children cross the street because he got a job as a crossing guard. I think unlikely. Regardless of a "bad childhood" or "bad modules" we are responsible for our behavior and sometimes that behavior warrants punishment and removal from society

Too often she does what she says are the thing that scientists engaged in brain mapping loathe. She seems to often ignore the qualifying phrases that scientists use when they are uncertain, like "could be involved in" "might play a part in" or "offers a plausible mechanism." A good scientist would realize how such minimizing phrases make what may appear to the uninformed as fact, are actually an admission of "we really don't know."

She also proposes that when the mind is mapped completely, we will know everything there is to know about the mind. She states when the map is known, "we will be able to target psychoactive treatment so finely that an individual's state of mind (and thus behavior) will be entirely malleable." Sweeping assumptions like that are why neuroscientists don't like journalists at their conferences, though Ms. Carter rationalizes a different reason. "It may even be possible to alter individual perception to the extent that we could...live in a state of virtual reality, almost entirely unaffected by the external environment." She then says since we seek mind altering drugs and sensatition seeking this would be the culmination of an "old ambition." We have people who live unaffected (we think) by external reality--catatonics. A virtual life unimpeded by the messiness of reality may seem to some desirable but I'll pass.

There are other if not mistakes, further examples of what a journalist can do with superficial understanding of the subject. I'm surprised her physician consultant didn't question some of her claims and inferences. There are more exampes of unwarranted conclusions, biased language and frank errors but read it for yourself. I could be wrong.

If you're not hung up on literal accuracy and don't mind excessive speculation, this book is still pretty good and I would recommend it, if you can put up with some of her conclusions that are really just potentials and possibilites which she at times confuses with facts
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