I've got a new favorite book: The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience. It's beautifully written by Matthew Cobb, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Manchester.
l love reading books about neuroscience, because the brain fascinates me. And indeed, it is me.
No brain, no me. Also, no brain, no you. Without a brain we're nothing. Yes, the body can be kept alive if someone is brain-dead, or nearly so. But there's nobody home inside the body, since the mind is the brain in action, and without a mind there's no conscious awareness.
But I wasn't sure that I'd enjoy this book, since half of it -- the half that I've finished -- deals with the history of how humans have viewed the brain. I was worried that this part would be boring. However, actually it is gripping reading.
What Cobb shows is how over the centuries, thousands of years really, humans have steadily come closer to understanding the brain. The chapter titles in the "Past" section reflect this: Heart, Forces, Electricity, Function, Evolution, Inhibition, Neurons, Machines, Control.
There's little mention of religion in Cobb's book, because religion almost universally either has nothing to say about how reality is, or gets reality wildly wrong. Obviously this makes religious teachings about the brain and consciousness laughably irrelevant. Western and Eastern religions alike were founded in a pre-scientific time when the brain was a mystery.
So it isn't surprising that dualistic notions of the mind or soul being separable from the body were so much in fashion in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and other religions. Ignorance of the brain led people to assume that because consciousness feels ethereal, it actually is.
Now, of course, we know better. No neuroscientist that I'm aware of believes in mind/body dualism. There simply is no evidence in support of dualism, and plenty of evidence in opposition to it.
Which doesn't mean that we in the 21st century fully understand the brain, consciousness, and such. That, I'm pretty sure, is going to be a central theme of the second part of this book that deals with the Present. Chapter titles in this section: Memory, Circuits, Computers, Chemistry, Localisation, Consciousness.
Being a life-long admirer of science and the scientific method, I'm enjoying Cobb's detailed descriptions of how people (almost entirely men) have looked upon and studied the brain, starting with the 4,000 year old Epic of Gilgamesh and the 3,200 year old Indian Rigveda. Both religious texts viewed the heart as the source of thought -- a view shared by ancient Jews.
Common sense and everyday experience is a lousy substitute for rigorous scientific investigation. Cobb writes:
Heart-centred views correspond to our everyday experience -- the heart changes its rhythm at the same time as our feelings change, while powerful emotions such as anger, lust or fear seem to be focused on one or more of our internal organs, and to course through our bodies and change our way of thinking as though they are transported in, or simply are, our blood.
This is why those old phrases about being 'down at heart' and so on have persisted -- they correspond to the way we perceive an important part of our inner life. Just as with the appearance that the sun goes around the earth, everyday experience of being human provided a simple explanation of where we think -- our hearts. People believed this idea because it made sense.
Of course, that viewpoint appears ridiculously wrong to us today. But Cobb lays out the reasons now-discredited ideas about the brain were held at various points in human history. In retrospect it's easy to see why they were wrong. Yet we need to remember that future humans will look upon how the brain was viewed in 2020 as ridiculously wrong.
That's the beauty of science: it progresses. Sure, often in fits and starts, and sometimes even by going backwards for a while. Cobb shows, though, that over the centuries incorrect ideas about the brain fell out of favor, to be replaced by ideas that were closer to the truth, albeit still incorrect by modern standards.
As I often note on this blog, religions don't make progress in knowing the truth about reality. Only science does. One big reason for this is that scientists engage in vigorous debate, subjecting competing theories to intense scrutiny, demanding solid evidence for their correctness. Religions, on the other hand, are big on faith and not questioning authority.
Which is why I liked this passage in Cobb's book. I've boldfaced part of it for emphasis.
Müller had a relatively brief academic career -- he died in 1858, apparently having committed suicide at the age of fifty-seven -- but he attracted a remarkable array of brilliant students and researchers, including some of the greater figures in nineteenth-century science. These included Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Haeckel, as well as less well-known but equally significant individuals such as Rudolf Virchow and Emil du Bois-Reymond.
These young men, imbued by Müller with a taste for applying the methods and outlook of physics to the study of physiology, formed part of the long academic tradition of students trying to prove their teacher wrong. In this case, they rejected Müller's vitalism in favour of a consistently materialist approach. As du Bois-Reymond and Ernst Brücke put it in a manifesto they wrote in 1842: 'no forces operate in the organism other than those common to physics and chemistry.'
That appears to be true. So the students had a better understanding of reality than their teacher did. This also happens when members of a religion break away from it because they've come to realize how false the religion's teachings are.
So a big thumbs-up to science. It's by far our best way of knowing objective reality. When I finish the second part of The Idea of the Brain, I'll write another post about present-day neuroscience.