An Idea that Came and Went

0471183431 This is a shitty book. I really don’t like this book.  What a relief it is to say that. I fall in love with so many of the books I read. I have a tendency to become infatuated with authors.That did not happen this time. Why write notes on a book I hate and barely read? Well, at least it gives me the opportunity to explore my prejudices.

Susan Greenfield (2000). The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self.

Neuroscience, emotions, consciousness, the self, sounds juicy. No. Not juicy. It started out ok. In the preface Greenfield tells us the book started life as “a neuroscientist’s exploration of pleasure.” She wanted to know what motivated her friends and colleagues to work so hard. Great topic.

Chapter one, ‘The Idea’. What is consciousness, where is it located in the brain?  Emotions, reward centers, I’m listening. A recognition that brain functions are explained best by interconnectivity and relationships, not by modules devoted to specific functions. Aversion, aversive stimuli, active avoidance, passive avoidance. Oh yeah! Please continue.

It was all downhill from there. I went from reading every word, to speed reading, to skimming the pages, to jumping to the next chapter. I didn’t like her discussion of the ‘mind’ versus the brain. Despite her efforts to describe integration of brain circuits and functions, she seems trapped in rational imperialism, the description of a tug of war between reason and the emotions. She seems to equate the prefrontal cortex and consciousness with reason. She seems unaware of the way our emotions can enslave our reason, of how concepts, objects and events are stamped with valuations arising from our appetitive and defensive systems, of how reason and emotion complement each other in a ‘self-regulating partnership’.

The following chapters go through a bit of history, discuss childhood, schizophrenia, addiction,  nightmares, depression. More and more interesting tidbits from psychology, philosophy, neuropharmacology. I especially enjoyed the description of neurotransmitters, which function both locally, in transmission of signals across the synapse, and in a broader way. I recently discovered ‘spritzing’. Serotonin from the brainstem and Dopamine from the midbrain are trucked upwards and, under certain circumstances, spritzed into brain tissue, creating changes in brain state. Greenfield tells us that Serotonin is spritzed widely, but the spritzing of Dopamine is more localized. I am very curious about the role of Dopamine spritzing in mania and in our attraction to narcissistic objects.

Chapter seven, ‘The Human Condition’. My all time favorite topic. Greenfield tries to pinpoint her view by describing its similarities and differences with Freud. Her discussion of Freud’s view on pleasure does not ring true. Her statement that “Freud saw pleasure as combating the demand of an Id, a subconscious driven to unity with others,” stuck in my craw. I haven’t read much Freud and know his theories mostly second hand. But I do know that his 1920 essay was titled “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The Id is all about pleasure. And it was the Reality Principle, not the Pleasure Principle, that battles the Id as we mature. But I admit that in evaluating Greenfield’s ideas, Freud is really neither here nor there.

So. Finally. Chapter 8, ‘The Answer.’ More discussion of neural correlates of consciousness and patterns of neuronal connectivity. Then, the piece de resistance, hormones. The pituitary gland. Peptides. Ok. Very good. And? Maybe the book is just dated. Written almost 15 years ago, it suffers heavily from the ravages of time. Greenfield is onto something, but I didn’t really think she got there.

This book is not related to the PBS special, The Secret Life of the Brain (check YouTube) or to David Eagelman’s delicious, enticing 2011 bestseller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

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One response to “An Idea that Came and Went

  1. How does this crap get published all the time?

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