It's hard to resolve where the best place to encounter Chris Frith might be - a classroom, a pub, or a party. In this book, the last is set as a means of providing exchanges between a working cognitive neuroscientist and people from the humanities and other sciences - English and physics, in this case. Frith goes to some effort to show how many misconceptions about how the mind works still exist in our society. He wants to set those right, and does so splendidly in this book on the workings of the brain. With a style one might almost describe as jocular, Frith reveals how the brain deals with the world outside and within us.
Frith had the good fortune to enter the field as the new, non-intrusive methods of brain imaging were emerging. Big, cumbersome and expensive, these tools, the PET, fMRI and CAT scanning devices soon came into more widespread use. These machines could map the living brain, while patients could be queried or given tests to assist in determining which brain areas were active at a given time. Frith describes these tools as moving brain studies from a "soft" science to a "hard" science in which detailed measurements could be made. Previously, it was either guess-work, or brains could be analysed only after a patient's death.
What has emerged from these studies is a very serious challenge to what we call "reality" and our perception of it. The brain does many things without our realising it. Apart from the obvious ones like keeping the heart and lungs pumping, there is the issue of what we "see". We like to think that when we "look" at something or somebody, we are seeing a continuous image. That's simply not the case. Beyond the fact that the eye undergoes a rapid shifting motion called "saccading", it's also converting photons into electrical signals. The brain must interpret the incoming messages and make sense of them. When it finally sends a message to the frontal cortex, an "image" has been recorded and you are now in a position to react to it.
The many vagaries in the operation of the brain in creating the mind, lead many in the humanities to scorn cognitive neuroscience. Frith uses his English professor as a foil to challenge the value of his work. "You can't pin down the mind like a specimen in a display case", he has her intone. But Frith's work and that of the many researchers he cites, demonstrates the fallacy of believing that we are in control of our minds.
Vision is but one area where the brain must interpret input and build a result for you to understand. The brain has developed a number of tricks to help itself produce something meaningful from what the senses tell it. The chief resource in this mental technique is memory. From our earliest years, the brain has been recording and cataloguing various inputs to assist in the formation of what we think we perceive. A point that must be remembered through all this is that the catalog isn't something that the devices can pinpoint for us to analyse. Memory, though it has fairly well-defined pathways, is part of a very dynamic and elusive system. What it produces for our conscious use is highly arbitrary. The brain may serve up memory images almost as a whim. Very little of it is under our control, yet we continue to assert we are given "free will". Frith doesn't deny there's an element of will in how we think, but it's anything but "will" in an absolute sense. And we must be cautious about how free of constraints it is. Since the brain is faced with countless episodes of false information, such as optical illusions, those memories we depend upon as the foundation for decisions, "free will" comes close to being meaningless.
For the person new to the ideas and research being done in how the brain works, this book is the ideal starting point. It's invaluable for the concepts it introduces and explains - so far as is known, and does so in a compelling manner. While he chides the English teacher on the one hand, he pays attention to her comments as a lever for introducing a topic needing further explanation. And his explanations, while challenging some long-held philosophical notions, demonstrate how much we've learned, yet still need to know about the brain. A fine gift for a student seeking a career path. What we learn about the brain tells us a great deal about who we are. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]