BRAIN RESEARCH constitutes an extraordinary adventure for our civilization. We stand on the threshold of understanding our moods, how we know, how we learn and remember, and how brain evolution made humans different from chimpanzees. It is the occasion for a celebration, of humanity beginning to comprehend itself.
Richard Restak's new book The Brain, as a tie-in to the PBS television series which began Oct. 10, is part of a distinguished tradition established by other series and their book tie-ins such as Civilisation and Life on Earth. Alas, this book does not meet the same high expectations.
The Brain is, of course, something of a corporate enterprise, having been written around eight shows, themselves already shaped by the values of television producers. One of Restak's earlier books, which still enjoys brisk paperback sales, is also called The Brain (1979). The TV producers, however, were apparently unconcerned about the confusion this duplication in title might cause. And one sees similar traces everywhere in this book of either video values or school textbook traits, suggesting that this book has simply been mangled by production staffs who are convinced that the content must be diluted and massaged into pulp by nonscientists to protect the poor reader/viewer.
The price indicates a coffee-table book, but the illustrations are disappointing. There is not a single picture of a real brain in the entire book, and there are only two pictures of microscopic brain slices. The most attractive illustrations are photographs of rather nice red and yellow dental wax models of the brain's inner circuitry, moistened by a plant mister. Also, real cells don't light up like fireflies when they "fire," as shown in many illustrations; I wish they did, as it would make research far easier! In some of the drawings, the perspective is downright confusing, showing the brain from below, but the surrounding head from slightly above. Prominent among the illustrations are also some science-as-circus boilerplate -- phrenologists' advertisement and the like -- that should have been retired long ago. Others are space-fillers, the kind of family snapshots and "men-at-work" pictures meant to lend a warm and cozy feeling to elementary textbooks. No, it's not a coffee-table book.
THE TEXT sometimes reads as if it got the same treatment as the illustrations. The uninspired opening chapter is dense with anatomical definitions, guaranteed to daunt the reader. There are some striking boners that got past (or were caused by) the editorial process. At one point, for instance, the surface area of the hypothalamus is said to be less than 1 percent of total brain volume, which is like saying that a square inch is a fraction of a gallon.
For those who read beyond, the rest of the book contains an important collection of some of the latest advances relating human behavior to the brain. The psychology/neurobiology/neurology spectrum is a wide one, and Restak does concentrate on the same part of the spectrum favored by the popular press, although he brings to it the medical orientation of the neurologist. In the chapter called "Vision and Movement," he weaves a fascinating story about how we see things, feel things, and move (readers wanting to know more should see Richard Gregory's new paperback edition of Eye and Brain). There follow several very readable chapters on rhythms, stress, and relaxation which touch on everything from pain to the benefits of meditation. The exciting new work on depression will be of particular interest to many, though readers wanting more on biological psychiatry should read Nancy ndreasen's excellent new book, The Broken Brain. I mention these titles because the bibliography is insufficient, and there are no citations or footnotes to aid the reader who wants to know more -- a surprising omission, considering the educational mission of the Annenberg/CPB Project which funded The Brain.
The treatment of left and right brain specialties focuses on the well-known but unrepresentative split-brain investigations, ignoring most of modern neuropsychology (far better is Left Brain, Right Brain by Sally Springer and Georg Deutsch). The chapter on "Learning and Memory" conveys little of the excitement which new interpretations of amnesia have been generating. How nerve cells alter to record a new memory is an even more dramatic story than Restak presents.
The chapter on the major mental disorders is, for me, the high point of the book from both a humanistic and a scientific viewpoint. "Madness" is about disorders which seem to be caused by neurochemical deficits. Restak's skillful and sympathetic telling of the mental illness story does much to communicate the extraordinary advances and the brightening promise for the future achieved by basic research.
The last chapter, "States of Mind," is a once-over-lightly jumble of drug receptors, sleeping and dreaming, Freud, multiple personalities, and Zen; the space devoted to arguments about mind and consciousness being out of proportion to any scientific knowledge on the subject. The undistinguished concluding pages wander off into setting up a straw man (the robot!); they are not the celebration they should be.
One of the most disturbing shortcomings of the book lies in its bias toward the East Coast old boy network. While over 20 percent of American brain researchers are now women, only NIH's Candice Pert rates so much as a small portrait among the 17 modern scientists pictured. Of the 232 individuals in the index only 13 are women, and the bibliography is exclusively male. It's at least a five-fold under-representation of the women already in the field, and probably worse. The lone portrait, all the quotes, and all other indirect references to the work of women scientists occupy less than 1.5 of the 361 pages. Furthermore 70 percent of the American and Canadian researchers mentioned in The Brain are located in the Boston-to-Washington corridor, a three-fold over-representation as only 24 percent of the brain researchers work there.
The complaint here is not uneven treatment (which is unavoidable in a limited selection), nor the quality of the science selected (which is excellent). It's that no attempt seems to have been made to compensate for understandable initial selection bias. Asking your friends is indeed the natural place to start -- it's just not where you should finish.
The author, producers, WNET, the Annenberg/CPB Project, PBS, and Bantam Books all had the opportunity to spot the obvious biases and failed to do so. One expects better, of all concerned, when both book and television series aspire to educational excellence and a national audience.