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August 08, 2005

Brain boxes

During my visit to the MIT campus a few weeks ago Doug Sery, my editor at MIT Press, pointed out two large and expensive-looking buildings that were being constructed to house neuroscientists. A generation ago, the glamour building on the block was MediaLab - so we should probably ask: What do these neuro guys do all day? Why are they so well-funded? What does their work portend for the rest of us in the medium term? A blog entry is too small to do justice to these questions, but I can tell you that the MIT Press catalogue contains lots of neuro books. There are scary titles like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS: remember that acronym) which tells you how to ‘reverse engineer the brain’ in order to understand the ‘neourochronometrics of mind’. The latter, so far as I can judge from the blurb, concerns how scientists correlate activity patterns in the brain with behaviour in the world. Another book called Theoretical Neuroscience describes ‘what nervous systems do’ - which, in my case, is get nervous. A book called Social Neuroscience promises – for me, implausibly – that psychiatrists, neurologists and radiologists will enlighten me about ‘the ways human beings are influenced by other humans’. Visual designers and direct marketing hard men will want to read The First Half Second which is about the early stages of visual perception, or microgenesis. But the book I most want to read is called Neither Brain Nor Ghost. Its writer, a philosopher called W Teed Rockwell, argues that the brain cannot be isolated from the rest of the nervous system; moreover, ‘there is evidence that the mind is hormonal as well as neural…the borders of mental embodiment cannot be neatly drawn at the skull, or even at the skin’. It's remarkable how much common ground there is these days between neuroscientists, environmentalists, and philosophers.

Posted by John Thackara at August 8, 2005 09:34 AM


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