Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
December 2018
Fred's Rating: 
Alan Jasanoff
Total Pages: 
Basic Books

Alan Jasanoff, the award-winning director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, has identified a widespread 'Brain Mystique'-- "a collection of folk theories about the brain that are scientifically false. In this gift book he dispels these theories and provides an engaging tour from brain to body to the social and physical world."

I was given the hardcover edition but I give here the website for the Kindle edition which contains the first 22 pages of this book:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this book's covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief review (click on ‘Read more’) by Amazon, for Amazon does not yet have any ‘Top customer reviews.’ I recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option and scroll down to the author’s 7-pp Introduction, which is a ‘must read’ for this book. The Kindle ‘Look inside’ option also contains the first 12 pages of the 15-pp first chapter which has the interesting title ‘Eating the Brain.’

Chapter 9 – Neurotechnology Unbound – provides a negative way of assessing the so-called ‘cerebral mystique.’ I selectively extract the most important statements of this assessment. “The idea that hacking the brain will free it from the body’s confines reflects much of the fascination with neurotechnology. But it is also an idea that springs from the cerebral mystique and carries with it three fallacies rooted in problems I have discussed throughout this book. First is the concept that brain and body are separable to begin with, a notion that illustrates the extent to which the brain has become a stand-in for the dualist’s disembodied soul. We saw in Chapter 5 that this is not only a philosophical error but a biological one, in conflict with the fact that many features of human behavior depend critically upon reciprocal interactions between brain and body. The second fallacy lies in the sense that the brain is inherently stronger or less limited than the body. Chapter 2 criticized the discourse that depicts the brain and body as working by different principles, with the brain more abstract and inorganic in its modes of operation.”

“The third fallacy is the view that hacking the brain is a good way to break free of any limitations at all. In practice, no existing device comes close to accomplishing this. Although some of the recent triumphs of human neurotechnology are breathtaking, all are limited to some extent by the physical as well as metaphorical violence of hacking. Even non-invasive brain manipulation with TMS is said to feel like a woodpecker pecking at your head, and the crude technology that that requires this seems like a poor substitute for good old-fashion speech. Meanwhile, more meaningful neural interventions require risky brain surgery that few subjects would undergo without dire need.” ….”Nevertheless, neurotechnological visions fueled by the cerebral mystique retain a special place in the fantasies of those who think about humanity’s evolution as a species, as we shall see.”

I conclude my review by giving the last paragraph of the last chapter: “The brain is special because it helps orchestrate our behavior without distilling us down to an essence. It is a transit point for myriad influences that work jointly on us and through us. In an enlightened age where the brain’s function as biological mediator of manifold factors is appreciated, we should have greater ability to look both within and beyond the individual for sources of virtue, intellect, success, and pathology. We should be able to formulate better solutions to many of our challenges at home and in society, with medicine and technology, and also with justice. We should gain insight into how the circumstances of others might have acted on our brains had we been in their places, and as a result we would more easily comprehend the tribulations of less fortunate people. The more we understand this, the more we will understand each other, and the faster we will advance together.” I just had to include this last paragraph, for it shows wisdom of non-technical topics of value that are seldom mentioned by neuroscientists.

I found the six chapters of Part I to be a more than adequate history of philosophy, the young science of psychology, and the very young field of neuroscience. But the four chapters of Part II are the heart of this book, for they deal with current ideas about the importance of the interactions between the inseparable three – body, brain, and environment – described and discussed very well indeed by Alan Jasanoff. For me, Part II had the hard-to-put-down topics of interest, enough to raise my initial thought, based on Part I, of 3 or maybe 4 stars. Part II changed my rating to five stars.