Seeing is more than believing

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Vision
November 24, 2000

Historically, the mind has been the province of psychology while the brain has been the territory of neuroscience. Over the past 15 years or so, a new discipline has established itself at their border. Cognitive neuroscience is perhaps best described as the study of the relationship between mind and brain. Its central aim is to understand how mental activity can emerge from neural matter.

The unashamedly ambitious goal of this book is to provide a review of vision "from the retina to consciousness" and, while the majority of the book is devoted to the higher levels of visual processing, it does a remarkably good job.

The treatment of early vision in the first chapter is somewhat cursory, but after that, Martha Farah writes with an obvious passion for the subject matter, managing to convey her views in the context of a balanced synopsis of the literature. A chapter is devoted to the recognition of objects in general, then a chapter each to faces and words in particular.

Much of the data reviewed come from studies of patients with neurological deficits, teasing out which mental functions are dissociable and which rely on a common neural substrate. This neuropsychological data is supplemented by the results of studies using techniques as superficially diverse as brain imaging, single-cell recording in primates and computational modelling.

From recognition, the book proceeds to cover visual attention, hemi - spatial neglect, mental imagery and visual awareness. What emerges is the impression of an integrated discipline asking important questions about the very nature of mental life. Many questions remain unresolved but, as the author puts it: "If you squint, you can see one big picture."

This book would make an excellent text for a graduate or final-year undergraduate course on cognitive neuroscience, and should be of interest to any psychologist or neuroscientist interested in vision. It fills a niche between texts on the neurobiology of vision and topics such as visual object processing and higher-level vision, and is amply referenced for those wishing to read more deeply.

For a textbook, it is reasonably priced and well illustrated, although some of the figure legends are concise to the point of terseness, at times obscuring their relevance. Overall, the book can only help stimulate interest in cognitive neuroscience research among existing and potential graduate students, al though those who judge their books by the cover might be put off by its bilious shade of cerise. 
 
Colin Clifford is research fellow in psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Vision

Author - Martha J. Farah
ISBN - 0 631 21402 X and 21403 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
Pages - 380

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