Monday, September 15, 2014

Neuro- The new brain sciences and the management of the mind – book overview

Checked this 2013 book out - authored by N. Rose and J.M. Abi-Rached and published by Princeton University Press.

I worked through the ebook available through CPIT library. The book is a good overview of the state of play with regards to neuroscience, neuropsychology and brings in perspectives and concepts already summarised in other books – for instance, as overviewed on this blog recently, by P. Churchland, Ramachandran and Broks

The book has 9 chapters, an introduction and conclusion and 7 chapters with each chapter overviewing the ‘functional’ aspects of the brain, implications.

The introduction (available frompublisher’s site) provides a good overview of the book and worth a read through before diving into the book itself. 

Chapter 1 covers the ‘neuromolecular brain’ is the historical overview of how we progressed through the last 100 years or so in our understanding of how the brain is structured and how it works. A summary of 8 points in page 43 sums up is presently known. The brain is an organ like other, evolved like other mammals, can be anatomised at the molecular level as being chemical transmissions partially dependent on neurotransmitters and a whole complex of other entities – enzymes, ion channels receptors, transporters etc. Different parts of the brain have different evolutionary histories. Mental processes reside in the brain, so mental states and processes can be potentially observable through the organic function of the brain.

The second chapter is on how the brain sees the world – ‘the invisible gaze’ summarise the long journey taken to the present in how to try to unlock what happens in the brain as it functions. From crude images to present brain scanners and the coloured pictures available through fMRI.

Chapter 3 is a call to heed research on humans rather than mice in ‘what’s wrong with mice’ maintains the argument that study of human brains cannot be completed through making assumptions from animal studies. For instance, page 84 has 6 points which include difficulties in assuming  animals and human behaviour are the same, although mechanics may be the same, biochemical may defer, difficulties with phenotypes, modelling human stressors in animals, weakness of current tests used in animals (mazes) and inferred to human responses, and many trials are not properly blinded or randomised. Hence, the specificity of humans needs to be accounted for.

The fourth chapter is a good discussion on how the brain goes wrong – ‘all in the brain’ covers mental illness and how brain function / malfunction?. How neuropsychiatry is still a work in progress and how although we have made many positive discoveries and applied to treatment, we have only scratched the surface in understanding why and how mental illness occurs.

Chapter 5 concentrates on the ‘social brain’ and summarises the work of social neuroscience, trying to understand why primates are ‘social animals’ and the role of the brain. The specialised area of social neuroscience is presented and discussed. Includes a thoughtful critique for and against the role of mirror neurons, their presence and function and theorised connection to our social nature.

Chapter 6 presents the other side of the coin ‘the antisocial brain’ and tries to unpack how criminality occurs. A historical overview of criminality and its associations with psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience is provided. A slight hiatus after the second world war due to Nazi research in the area followed by revival of interest from the 1980s with accessibility to CT scans. Cautions are discussed with regards to neurolaw – using brain science to try to explain (and sometimes provide defence) criminal behaviour.

Chapter 7 come together with ‘personhood in the neurobiological age’ with the perennial challenge of where the self comes from – the soul or the brain? As per previous chapters, the historical journey towards understanding who we are and the role of the brain is summarised.

The conclusion ‘managing brains, minds and selves’ brings in the challenge into the future. A glimpse of where to next.

I would not recommend this book as the first port of call on things neurobiological. It is written with an academic although, in general, readable style. The function of the book is to update the thousands of studies in the last two decades on brain function and the media hype around conclusions that may be drawn from ‘brain scanning’ . Therefore, the book is a more academic version of  'need for caution in using neuroscience findings', reminding one in drawing conclusions from limited, exploratory studies, many conducted on rats or small ‘building block’ studies which are sensationalised by the media.

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