Non-Fiction Reviews


Mental Biology
The new science of how the brain and mind meet

(2014) W. R. Klemm, Prometheus Books, 18.99 / Can$21.00 / US$19.95, trdpbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14944-4

 

William Klemm is a senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A & M University in the US and so I had thought that this book might well go above my head (since though reasonably read across the biosciences, I have to confess to a bit of a blind spot when it comes to neuroscience: it never came up in my environmental science studies and my science policy work only really engaged with neuroscientists over non-neuroscience topics such as funding and research assessment.

Having said that, I am interested in what it is that make sentient intelligence, sentient intelligence? Why do we sleep? What is the nature of consciousness? From which spring SFnal questions such as can we artificially create a consciousness?

I am please to report that Klemm does not shy away from these questions and has a fair go at answering them (as far as I can tell from my largely ignorant perspective). And there is a good reference list; indeed, I looked one up which was a PLOS One paper (fortunately open-access) on near-death experiences (they seem to be genuinely perceived and intense experiences but not necessarily evidence of life after death).

The level of science needed by the reader is not that high (around junior school science), though to get the best out of this book the reader will need to be comfortable with handling high school concepts: the reader will need to be able to 'think' (which is not a bad thing given this book's subject). About the most complex neuroscience it gets is that of the concept of 'circuit impulse patterns' (CIPs). What's more the author has an engaging writing style.

Weaknesses? Well, I did not get all the answers I was hoping for. I did not find out whether there was some formulae or whatever that translates neural patterns into consciousness (CIPs aside). This was annoying. But having said that, William Klemm is a professor of neuroscience and so one has to give the benefit of the doubt that he is making a fair summary of where his discipline stands today. Assuming this then the problem is that we (humanity) do not know exactly what consciousness is except in the loosest of ways and possibly only are currently approaching the topic from its edges. Yes, we (humans) may know of the Higgs boson, the expanding Universe, glacial-interglacial transitions, biological evolution, how antibiotics work and designing computer programmes and neat as well as more basic websites, heart-grabbing music, etc., but we clearly know comparatively little about our brain and its consciousness. So it is not the author's fault that he cannot give readers more full and frank answers.

I have to say that I did get a bit worried towards the end of the book where he decidedly gets into metaphysics, missing mass, dark energy and so forth: was he going all wishy-washy woo-woo? And then I thought about it. The author does not go into the metaphysics in great detail, but I felt he was perhaps beginning to head into holographic universe territory and that in itself is quite a thought. Nor all the way through does he tell us what to think. He points to key neuroscience experiments and their results but, while these suggest conclusions, in a number of cases matters are not cut and dried and so he (commendably) leaves it to the reader to make their own mind up. Frustrating at the lack of concrete answers this may be, the book's subtitle does refer 'the new science' and so it would really be presumptive of us to expect more.

This is a thought-provoking and an engaging and largely jargon-free book that makes us realise that, while we can see literally billions of light years to distant galaxies or elucidate much of the co-evolution of light and planet again over eons, the one exploration we are barely beginning is taking place here and now with the study of our own minds. How frustrating, yet intriguing, is that?

Jonathan Cowie


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