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Book Forum: Mind and Brain   |    
From Brains to Consciousness? Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind
LAURA A. FLASHMAN, PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:843-843. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.5.843
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Lebanon, N.H.

Edited by Steven P. Rose. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1998, 278 pp., $29.95.

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In September 1996, Steven Rose, president of the Biology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was invited to prepare a program for the Biology Section’s participation in the annual meeting. He developed a 2-day symposium entitled "Minds, Brains, and Consciousness," which assembled a number of leading players in the field. The presenters, a panel of distinguished neuroscientists and philosophers, were then encouraged to prepare their talks in the form of chapters for this book. They were asked to write about their areas of expertise in an accessible way with minimal assistance from fancy visual aids (i.e., slides and video). In the end, all but four of the presenters were able to provide chapters, and one additional chapter (not based on a contribution to the meeting itself) concludes the book.

The scope of the book is rather large, and its purpose multifaceted. First, it is designed to summarize the contents of the symposium. In addition, it is designed to raise a number of important and at times controversial themes in modern-day thinking about the brain and its functions. That neuroscience has succeeded in trying to delineate the mechanisms involved in visual processing or memory, and even in psychiatric and neurological diseases, is impressive. But as these goals are increasingly met, the field has begun to approach the question of consciousness. Obviously, this is a more complex issue and requires us to consider, in addition to information related to mechanisms and neurophysiology, profound ethical, social, and medical issues. Our understanding of the brain has been driven by advances in technology and can be viewed in terms of an increasingly refined analogy: brain as wax writing tablet, brain as hydraulic system, brain as telegraph system, brain as computer. As Dr. Rose points out, however, to understand the brain we must directly study the brain. How to study such theoretical constructs as the relationship among brain, mind, and consciousness directly is the question raised and debated in this book.

There is an introductory chapter by the editor, which lays out the rationale for the presentation of the rest of the book. Although the rest of the chapters are a series of essays, they are presented in an order designed to carry the reader from the concrete to the philosophical; contrasting views are provided on several of the more controversial topics. Two chapters are devoted to the complexity of the brain, with reference to its neuronal interconnectivity, development of synapses and communication by means of chemical neurotransmission, the balance between specificity and plasticity, and the influence of genetics and environment. The next three chapters focus on our understanding of memory and the question of whether mental decline is an inevitable part of aging. We are then presented with the debate on schizophrenia and its symptoms, with opposing views presented as to the level at which we can understand this disease. For Tim Crow, it is a unitary brain disease with genetic and biochemical involvement. For Richard Bentall, the concept of schizophrenia itself is under question, and looking at individual symptoms makes the most sense; however, from his perspective, symptom expression is better interpreted as an aspect of the mind rather than of brain processes.

The focus of the book then shifts from the brain and brain disorders to models of brain functioning and their relationship to consciousness. The first two chapters in this section take opposite positions regarding the efficacy of the brain-as-computer analogy. First, we hear from a mathematician why computers must lack understanding; then we hear about a computer that is purportedly "well on the way to becoming conscious." An assumption is made that "consciousness" is synonymous with "awareness" and that its antithesis is unconsciousness as manifested by sleep, use of anesthesia, and brain processing below the cortical level. Thus, exploration of the neurophysiology of visual awareness/perception and sleep/wakefulness can be used to illuminate the mechanisms of consciousness, and this is done in the next two chapters. Finally, Midgley makes a plea to take this work beyond neurophysiology, brain mechanisms, and natural sciences and view it within its societal framework, calling for "ontological unity but epistemological diversity."

Although recent findings in the area of cognitive neuroscience, together with their philosophical implications, allow us to approach some of the deepest issues related to illnesses affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia, and the ability of these illnesses to help us understand the nature of consciousness itself, there is no clear consensus regarding many of these issues. This book tries to provide us with several perspectives and raises as many questions as it answers.

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