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Book Forum: Mind, Brain, and Imagination   |    
Imagination and the Meaningful Brain
JOHANNES PANTEL, M.D., Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:1938-1938. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.10.1938
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By Arnold H. Modell. Cambridge, Mass., Bradford Books (MIT Press), 2003, 253 pp., $32.00.

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The main questions addressed in this book are as old as the history of philosophy. How does matter becomes imagination? How is it possible to gain knowledge about the outer world as well as the internal mental states of other subjects? What are the unique characteristics of human experience when compared with the experience of other species? Arnold H. Modell, a clinical professor of psychiatry, approaches these topics from the perspective of a psychoanalyst. Accordingly, psychoanalytical constructs like the unconscious, repression, or the self play central roles in his argument. He claims (and exemplifies) that only an epistemic pluralism, including knowledge from cognitive science, neurobiology, philosophy of language, linguistics, and psychoanalysis, has the potential to find appropriate answers to a scientific problem as complex as the human mind/brain.

Starting out with a criticism of the neo-Cartesian concept that defines human cognition as a mere representation of reality, he claims that construction of meaning is the most distinguished task of the human brain. Construction of meaning, however, is quite different from processing of information. Rather, it involves an interactive, selective, and value-driven process that cannot adequately be understood without considering an individual’s basic (bodily) needs, personal history, and previous experiences as well as emotions and feelings (which operate as markers of value).

Construction of meaning requires the use of metaphor. In contrast to any other species, only humans possess the capacity to use metaphor as a basic cognitive tool to generate meaning. The (unconscious) metaphoric process enables us to transfer meaning between dissimilar domains (by means of similarity). More precisely, metaphor (which finds its source originally in the body) provides the link between conscious experience and unconscious memory, leading to a recontextualization of memory with respect to present experience. In fact, metaphor is the interpreter of unconscious memory and thus an inevitable tool to interpret, displace, and transform our feelings. Against this background, Modell convincingly demonstrates that many of the most distinguished human facilities, including self-reflection, fantasy, imaginative anticipation of the future, intentionality, and the capacity to empathically anticipate another subject’s mind (theory of mind), critically rely on an unimpaired faculty for metaphoric thought.

In my opinion, Imagination and the Meaningful Brain makes particularly valuable and stimulating reading for researchers from fields of objective neuroscience as well as for biological psychiatrists (as I am). It reminds us that we will never fully understand and disentangle the secrets of the human mind without considering the subjective (first-person) and the intersubjective (second-person) perspective. Although exclusion of these aspects might leave us with explanations embedded in greater scientific certainty, the danger is to "throw out the baby with the bath water," resulting in an oversimplification and, finally, dehumanization of the mind. Similarly, researchers primarily using qualitative methods to explore the human mind (phenomenologists, psychoanalysts, etc.) are encouraged by this book to perceive and acknowledge recent results from an objective neuroscience point of view (instead of neglecting or combating them in a biased manner). Indeed, Modell’s book suggests that an integrative view is the most fruitful and satisfying approach.

Of course, like all other previous attempts, this essay does not give a final answer to the above-mentioned philosophical questions. It is nonetheless an intriguing and modern approach to the topic that has the potential to leave the reader with a broadened horizon and a host of inspiring thoughts. This book is certainly food for thought, and I recommend reading it.

Reprints are not available; however, Book Forum reviews can be downloaded at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org.

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