Memories and emotions are what make us us

Principles of Cognitive Neuroscience. Authors Dale Purves, Elizabeth M. Brannon, Roberto Cabeza, Scott A. Huettel, Kevin S. LaBar, Michael L. Platt and Marty G. Woldorff. Edition First. Publisher Sinauer Associates. Pages 757. Price £39.99. ISBN 9780878936946.

May 22, 2008

The best explanations of human behaviour often emerge when two or more disciplines provide converging evidence. This is certainly the case with cognitive neuroscience, which brings together current theoretical perspectives drawn from cognitive psychology, neurobiology, neuropharmacology, neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry. Putting together a student-focused text that shows the depth and breadth of our knowledge in this rapidly advancing field is a demanding task.

There could be no better pedigree for writing a cognitive neuroscience text than this group of authors from Duke University, US, who each run a laboratory at the cutting edge of the neurosciences. They have managed to assemble a textbook that is accessible to students, contains excellent illustrations yet does not gloss over the complexity of the research. The text is accompanied by a helpful website with animations and activities, and each copy is provided with free download access to an interactive atlas of human neuroanatomy.

Any hard-pressed lecturer putting together a course on cognitive neuroscience may think this is manna sent from heaven - it is not. It is from the US and herein lies its weakness. The focus of the research chosen is distinctly North American, and this leads to biases and omissions. For example, Nelson Cowan's model of working memory gets better coverage in the text than the Baddeley and Hitch model; indeed, while Alan Baddeley gets a mention in the author index, Graham Hitch does not. This may result, in part, from the odd referencing style the authors have adopted, in which they dispense with American Psychological Association-style references in the text but provide additional reading at the end of each chapter aimed at directing students to appropriate sources. I would swap all the fancy web-based support for a decent reference list.

The omission of the contribution made by neuropsychopharmacologists to an understanding of the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex and its role in executive function does seem a little quirky, given that one or two of the researchers in this field are the most heavily cited in the neurosciences. Neither is there a discussion on the role of dualism and materialism in the development of the neurosciences, while the brief inclusion of philosophical debates in the final chapter relating to consciousness seems far too late to benefit the reader. Unsuspecting students will also have to wade through descriptions of classic research using incongruous examples. This has the potential to be an excellent textbook if it were ever to be translated into English.

Who is it for? Anyone who does not mind a lack of reference to Max Coltheart.

Presentation - Very readable with helpful supporting diagrams. Interesting digressions placed in boxes.

Any extras? Sylvius 4 software, offering an interactive tutorial on human neuroanatomy and a digital atlas of human brain structure.

Would you recommend it? Not to my taste.

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