Undiscovered Mind

John Horgan. The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation, Free Press, 1999

This is a lack-of-progress report on efforts to understand how the brain works. Much as we like to believe that computers are getting better at doing the things that the brain does, we appear to be a good way from building one that mimics common sense in a useful way. Efforts to modify the brain with drugs remain strangely ambiguous despite all the hype we hear about Prozac. Placebos - read Hope - are still one of the most powerful methods of helping people. Talking cures are similarly mired in doubts. We have little proof that any of the hundreds of therapies are better than any of the others and some evidence suggests that faith healing is better than anything supposedly rooted in scientific insights. People with no training in any psychological doctrines do as well at helping people as those who have years of experience.

Efforts to explain human behaviour by genes have been bogged down by many phony claims. Only certain clearly defined disorders where the brain breaks down at the neurological level like Huntington's disease have an undeniable genetic basis. Twin studies have problems that don't often find their way into popular articles on the subject. While Horgan is not in doubt that evolution contributed to the creation of our complex brains, a variety of claims in the emerging domain of evolutionary psychology are not much better than works of fiction. Between the ground of neurons and the airy realm of the everyday functioning of thought is a structure that is still little described by any existing theory. Not a book for the easily depressed. - Martin S. Kottmeyer, from Magonia Supplement 39, July 2002.

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