Gray Anatomies
Can neuroscience really explain our deepest thoughts and emotions?

Reviewed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sunday, February 26, 2006


The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries

By Shannon Moffett

Algonquin. 309 pp. $24.95


The Neuroscience of Genius

By Nancy C. Andreasen

Dana. 197 pp. $23.95


The Positive Power of the Aging Brain

By Gene D. Cohen

Basic. 232 pp. $24.95

During the past half century or so, we have seen enormous advances in mapping the brain and its functions. We now know which area of the brain controls the movement of each finger and how religious ecstasy looks when translated into colored patches on a computer screen. No wonder scientists are beginning to feel ready to communicate the fruits of their labor to a general audience and to explain how knowledge of the brain will help us understand what we do, how we do it and why. Three slender new books are part of this recent trend of popularizing the brain sciences: All were written by professionals trained in the intricacies of gray matter.

Shannon Moffett is the youngest of the authors, still a medical student at Stanford University. Written in chatty and often elegant prose, her Three-Pound Enigma consists of a series of dramatic real-life vignettes of brain surgeons and researchers coping with specific problems, like the baby suffering a mysterious stroke or the man who couldn't find his way home because he had a cyst in his brain. One can readily imagine a spin-off TV series: Two neurosurgeons in white coats peer into a skull and guess what the bullet lodged in the cortex will do to the patient's well-being.

In The Creating Brain , Nancy C. Andreasen, a research physician with a long and distinguished career, presents a short history of human creativity and how scientists have tried to make sense of it. She then goes on to review what we know about genius and insanity, culminating with considerations about how to build better brains for a more creative future by turning off the television and practicing meditation.

Finally, Gene D. Cohen, an eminent psychiatrist who directed the National Institute of Mental Health's Center on Aging, explains the advantages of the aging brain in The Mature Mind -- and gives wise advice about how to keep it alert beyond its usual expiration date.

All three volumes rely on anecdotes containing a suitable amount of pathos and use a similar selection of sketches depicting neurons' tree-like dendrites, cerebral hemispheres and that infamous "motor homunculus" -- the coronal section of the brain where the controls for chewing and eyeball-movement are located. By and large, this is fascinating reading for people who would like to know more about what happens inside their heads.

However, perusing these books back-to-back makes one realize just how young neuroscience still is. What it knows about how the brain works is generally limited to simple functions. No matter how vivid the writing, it soon becomes clear that the relationship between what brain science can say and what it would like to say is still tenuous.

Consider the issue of creativity, which is central to Andreasen's book and rates a chapter in Cohen's. No one would doubt that the brain processes the thoughts and actions that later will be called "creative." But how do creative thoughts differ from ordinary ones? The coincidence between what we label "mental disease" and "creativity" that so puzzled the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso more than a century ago is still a rather embarrassing finding. How can mental processes that we hold to be among the highest achievements of humankind be so uncomfortably close to those we consider defective or aberrant? And how come Einstein had such poor grooming habits, as Andreasen notes?

This problem is part of a more general one. There is no way to observe a creative mental process in the human brain. And that's because the brain alone cannot generate creativity. What we call by that name depends on past history and present context; it exists only in a broader system of which the individual is but one component.

When we get to the more complex and interesting mental activities -- not only creativity but love, care, spirituality, play or aesthetic experience -- what is known about the brain still adds precious few insights to our understanding. As time goes on this is likely to change, but for now the concept of the mind, rather than the analysis of the brain, provides a better key to the more intricate events going on inside the head. The mind is not a material structure, with specific locations and functions. Its content is not hard-wired by genetic instructions, and it can evolve. The difference between a Hitler and a Mother Teresa is less likely to be found in the way their brains were arranged than in how they learned to connect their experiences. In the end, learning is etched into the structure of the brain and becomes indistinguishable from it. But at this point, it seems more useful to pay attention to how the software of the mind gets shaped, rather than hope for the hardware of the brain to yield answers to our deepest questions.

In fact, when the authors turn to giving advice at the end of their books, they tend to suggest behaviors that antedate brain science: Read together with your children to increase the young brain's ability to make connections, says Andreasen; develop mastery in an arts program to keep the brain flexible in old age, advises Cohen. After spending so much time on the ethereal peaks of brain science, it is comforting -- but also somewhat disillusioning -- to get back to the familiar ground of common sense.ยท

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," is the Davidson Professor of Psychology at the Claremont Graduate University in California.

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