on 13 May 1999
States of Mind is a fascinating book, offering opinions from some of the top neuroscientists and brain researchers in the country. LeDoux writes about fear, and what actually happens in our brain when we are afraid. Jamison writes about the connection between creativity and manic depression. If we cure manic depression, do we destroy creativity? Very interesting reading. And easy to comprehend by the lay person.
on 26 April 1999
It was with a certain amount of reluctance I approached States of Mind. For starters, it's about the brain and the mind, two topics which I often find incredibly good at inducing drowsiness. Second, and more seriously, it's a very collaborative affair. The front cover lists no less than eight authors, all experts in various aspects of neurobiology. But that turned out to be the book's saving grace.
Each article was originally a public lecture, designed for a non-specialist audience. And that's what makes the book so readable. First, the articles tend to have a very fluid, readable style, unlike so much academic prose. Because they were originally intended as lectures, they aren't as dense ... it's assumed the reader is a casual listener, rather than an expert, carefully reading and re-reading each sentence. And that makes this book a real treat. It's extremely enjoyable to read about the latest in brain research, explained by real experts in their fields, and in such a readable form.
The experts range from a Harvard professor (Jerome Kagan, director of the Mind-Brain-Behavior Initiative) to a best-selling author (Kay Redfield Jamison, who gives a fascinating look at manic depressives among the gifted). Despite covering a wide variety of topics, each article is eminently readable and flows nicely into the next. Which has to be a credit to the editor, Roberta Conlan. Obviously, this isn't a book for everyone. It does assume a certain background knowledge of the brain and how it works. But if you're interested in finding out what the state of our knowledge of the brain is, this is an excellent place to start. Our picture of the mind changes so radically with each passing year that you have to read something very up-to-date if you want to avoid "learning" something that's no longer thought to be true.
If there's any real surprise here, it's the current state of the endless "nature vs. nurture" debate. For much of this century, we seem to have been in "nurture mode", endlessly arguing the primacy of environment over genetics. But the experts in this book certainly lean the other way. Not that anyone is arguing that environment isn't relevant, but there does seem to be a strong tendency to assume that genetics are more important. So in summary it's readable, up to date and full of great information. A bit specialized, but if you're curious about how that lump of matter between your ears works, you won't do much better than this. For more science book reviews, check out my web page, at exn.net/printedmatter
This fine collection of essays provides an overview of the state of research on the mind/brain. Avoiding deeply technical or metaphysical issues [although not ignoring either] these essays describe some of the structural elements of the brain, how those elements guide our behaviour and what implications may be derived from this understanding. Roberta Conlan has chosen her authors well. Each selection clearly conveys its topic with supportive information and useful graphics to aid our grasp of the subject. This book is a fine starting point for any study of how the brain works, both physically and cognitively.
The underlying theme throughout the essays is the evolutionary process. How has adaptation led the human brain to today's conditions? In any study of the brain, it is the abnormalities that provide focus. These essayists accept that both genetics and environment work together to create the dispositions humans now possess. No single element can be isolated in understanding how the brain functions. Beginning with the physical, especially the neuron's structure and operation, they move on to demonstrate how changes in brain chemistry can lead to addictions, mood swings and even creativity. The authors don't shun the many ethical questions about brain research or therapies. However, they insist that a new framework for psychological studies is required, one based on evolutionary, hence, biological foundations. In essayist Eric Kandel's words, "Everything is organic."
If any of the essays must be selected as the outstanding one, it is J.Allan Hobsan's study of sleep and dreaming. He describes the neurochemistry of dreaming before relating studies of both human and animal dream indicators. Hobsan postulates five distinct sleep periods, REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep with Recognizing that relating dream content is fraught with imponderables, he nevertheless builds a case for a biological basis for dreams.
With the rapid advances being made in human cognitive studies, many works are quickly outdated. This book provides a foundation for analysing and assessing updating publications. It's a worthwhile investment and will retain a useful place on anyone's shelves for some time to come. Read it to find out how it will help understand yourself and those around you. You won't be disappointed. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]