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Review - The 21st Century Brain - Steven Rose

 

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How brains work, the nature of mind and all that kind of good stuff has generated a plethora of books in the last few years. You'd almost think we understood the brain from the amount that's being written, though any good writers (and Rose certainly knows his stuff) will admit there's plenty still to untangle in that amazing organ.

There are at least two reasons why this is an important book. Firstly it's a bit of a balance to Steven Pinker (you don't have to be called Steven in this business, but it helps). Pinker's highly accessible prose carries you along in the assumption that what is often pure theory is more like undisputed fact. (I'm not suggesting Pinker is misrepresenting the information, just that his books read so well it's hard not to be swept up with the flow.) Steven Rose shows us that eminent thinkers in the field question concepts like Pinker's idea of there being modules (or at least virtual modules) in the brain for particular functions. More importantly, the book is a very effective exploration of what we know about the brain.

Rose explores in some detail where the brain evolved from, how it grows, what makes us human, the distinction of brain and mind, how what we learn about the brain can help us to heal problems with the mind, and the darker aspect of manipulating the mind.

But, and there's a big but, this book has none of the readability of a Pinker title. It sits uncomfortably between popular science and a textbook. Rose isn't afraid to use big words. To do otherwise might seem condescending, but it is important to be careful with language if you are going to reach a popular audience. One moment Rose is giving us good, easy to cope with metaphors, next he's saying something like "the development of the brain and vocalising structures involved is an example of ontogenetic specificity" (and that's by no means the worst example). For that matter, big chunks of the book, like that of the prehistory of the brain, are frankly not very interesting to non-specialists.

If you are prepared to skip through some sizeable chunks this is a book that any fan of Pinker's How the Mind Works ought to read. For that matter anyone who wants the best present day understanding of the brain should go for it - it does what it says on the tin - but don't expect it to be easy.

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Reviewed by Martin O'Brien

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Last update 05 June 2007