A journey of exploration means maps must be made - they aren't provided. Exploring the mind, which philosophers once claimed to do, requires maps of the brain. These are only now being created. And the mappers aren't philosophers, but cognitive scientists and medical scholars. Many maps have been made available to us in recent years. Enough maps that Robert Winston could produce a guidebook on the human mind. In this highly entertaining and informative book, Winston describes what has been learned about the brain and what it means for the mind. If anybody still thought those two elements were separate, this book should dispel that misconception.
Winston is candid about the relationship of this book to a BBC-TV series, but a media link doesn't render the information less useful. He spends the first chapters outlining the way in which measurement of brain activity has improved in recent years. This must be one of the few accounts that doesn't open with Phineas Gage and the tamping iron that pierced his skull yet left him alive, if changed in personality. Instead, Winston credits Paul Broca with finding the first "module" of brain activity [speech]. The author builds from that mid-19th Century revelation with explanations of where processing areas are located and how they operate. Brain functions were located by identifying damaged areas of afflicted patients through autopsy. Building an image of which areas of the brain performed or controlled which tasks was a painfully slow process. Not until new, non-intrusive technologies were developed did the pace of research quicken.
Winston covers a number of topics with this book, citing the work of many scholars and medical professionals. They all contributed something of interest, even if their ideas proved false. The segment on lobotomies isn't for the squeamish, and it's chastening to learn how long that procedure was sustained and how widely accepted. On a more positive note, Winston is able to show how various brain-damaging illnesses and mishaps have demonstrated the brain's power of recovery. With the billions of neurons exchanging singles around the brain, damage there or to body organs may lead to the brain shifting signal paths. While the brain can't "heal" itself, it can move emphasis from one area to another. This is part of the reason why someone blinded can achieve enhanced hearing capacity. The neuronal areas processing visual information are shifted in duties to deal with sound.
This isn't only a guidebook to what is going on in the brain. It's also a user's manual in maintenance and upkeep. He explains the evolutionary roots of many of our habits. Why, for example, do we sleep? Our helpless condition during sleeping made us vulnerable to predators. Did sleep make us more alert when awake? Winston spends a good deal of time in explaining how necessary sleep and rest are to the brain. He notes the importance of dreams as a means of rearranging and prioritising our memory cargo. The recovery enabled by sleep makes us more receptive to new information.
However, some new practices overturn the benefits of sleep. There are impairments to the regular operations of the brain resulting from the use of various chemicals. Winston's long list and analysis of what damages brain cells and their processes would make a Puritan smile. From nicotine to alcohol, he presents a gloomy picture of how easy it is to reduce your brain's capacity to process information or retrieve memories needed. The processing and use of information is what the brain does to establish what we call the "mind". Even though surgeons can probe the brain without your feeling anything, this "lump of porridge" inside your skull is vulnerable.
Winston has a great store of information to provide us in this topic. The amount of research that's gone into how the brain works is vast, and growing. He describes clearly the various instruments that now measure brain activity while we're talking, reading, or even answering the investigator's questions. We can be shown pleasant scenes, horrifying events or simply add a column of figures while our brains tell the machine which areas are active in each circumstance. With diagrams, some photographs and a working bibliography, this is a fine book to use as a starting point for understanding what is going on in there. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]