In colour, mind's shadows remain

Mysteries of the Mind
August 17, 2001

Mysteries of the Mind is a "pop science" review of human cognition written by a practising neurologist. As might be expected from the publishers, National Geographic , it is full of splendid colour illustrations, but the text has been less carefully prepared. The bold-type callouts include banalities such as "shift work is a remarkably efficient device for disrupting the individual's normal sleep-wakefulness cycle" and are on occasion repeated on different pages.

This coffee-table book is targeted at a broad audience, similar to Susan Greenfield's Brain Story . Her book was a spin-off from a popular television series, but who would want to buy Richard Restak's offering? The most interesting chapters are on the history of neurosurgery and excerpts from the author's own neurological case-book, in which readers are presented with various case histories and invited to come up with their own diagnoses. Perhaps the book is part of a recruiting drive by the Society for Neuroscience.

But why would the non-professional want to open the black box of the brain-mind? Most people would accept that the mind is the product of brain events, but do we really want to know the microstructural details? Are the glossy pages of Technicolor brain images much more than high-tech phrenology? Although the chapter on memory provides a useful descriptive overview, the author steers clear of much of the controversial material, including the hot disputes over false and "recovered" memories, and other issues with policy implications.

The nearest brush with controversy is the discussion of the genetic basis of gender differences. Restak is prepared to see both sides of this argument, and he concludes that the plasticity of the human brain allows us to alter much of our genetic inheritance through "mental attitude and determination". Later, he remarks that advice to "think good thoughts and stop worrying" can dramatically affect survival rates among heart-attack patients. Grandma would be pleased to see that her homespun wisdom is now dignified with the title "cognitive therapy".

Having argued the importance of "mental attitude" in the healing of physical disease, Restak then turns the tables by claiming that behavioural problems such as substance abuse are best understood as manifestations of brain disorder. I imagine that the founders of the Temperance League would have been surprised to hear that willpower is the best cure for coronary heart disease but is not much help in the fight against alcohol, narcotics or nicotine addiction.

Restak justifies his approach by reference to the mind-brain identity theory. Indeed, the very first sentence of the book claims: "Whenever we speak of the mindI we're actually referring to activities carried out by our brain." This position, however, is not without its own philosophical problems, which have encouraged some authors to espouse dualism as a way of explaining the efficacy of mental force - for example, the psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, who uses mindfulness training to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder patients. In the chapter on consciousness and cognition, Restak acknowledges that the dualism of mind and brain is an ancient and intractable philosophical problem and admits that the apparent progress of neuroscientists in tackling this problem is because they have "loaded the deck" by defining consciousness in terms of the brain.

What puzzles me most is why yet another publisher has decided against choosing a psychologist to write a book on the mind. Penguin chose a biochemist to edit a recent anthology on consciousness, the BBC commissioned a pharmacologist and the National Geographic chose a neurologist. Why is it that psychologists are no longer considered experts in their own field? Is Michael Gazzaniga's prediction of the death of psychology beginning to come true?

Keith Sutherland is executive editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Mysteries of the Mind

Author - Richard Restak
ISBN - 0 7922 7941 7
Publisher - National Geographic Books
Price - £22.00
Pages - 256

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