Written by Matthew Cobb


Review by Gunnel Minett

Throughout human history human beings have tried to understand the role of the brain and/or how it enables us experience the world the way we do. Even today we have to conclude that these attempts have been merely ‘speculations’: despite having accumulated a lot of knowledge, we still can’t say that we’ve got a comprehensive explanation as to how the brain works. 

In this book Matthew Cobb (professor of Zoology at University of Manchester and producer of science programmes for the BBC in cooperation with David Attenborough) presents a carefully constructed chronology of neuroscience to explain why we still have such a long way to go. 

As Cobb explains, this search for a complete understanding has always been linked with culture, technology and the freedom to carry out research on the human body. Early on the most popular theories focused on the heart being the ‘brain’ of the body. The actual brain in the skull was seen  as an instrument controlled by the heart, with the blood playing an important role. (We still have expressions that reflect this period such as “making the blood boil” to illustrate strong emotional reactions.) The heart theory was gradually replaced by a better understanding of the role of the brain (in the skull).

Another major milestone in this quest was when religion started to permit dissection of the human body. That, together with advances in technology, made brain studies more accurate. The various stages of this journey can be illustrated by technological metaphors: for example, the brain was compared to the telegraph, when it represented the pinnacle of technological advance. Later the technological metaphor changed to the telephone switch board, and then the computer, implying that the brain was a ‘bio-computer’.

As Cobb points out, the consequences of brain research can be found in many areas. For instance, during a period when brain chemistry was the thing to study, there was a trend in psychiatry towards medication for psychological problems. Even though the prescription of psycho-active drugs is still widespread, this practice seems to have reached its peak (fortunately, some may argue). One explanation is simply that more recent brain research has failed to find an evidence base for this type of treatment. This may eventually lead to major changes in the treatment of psychological problems. However, pills are a very cost-effective way of treating patients whereas alternative therapies are both much more expensive and time consuming. 

It’s instructive to look back at the history of brain research, with the benefits of hindsight: how often have we assumed that science has got it completely right, only to be presented with a new theory emerging thanks to technological advancement. This frequently involved re-interpreting earlier findings in a new light. (Something, which has characterised the ongoing covid pandemic).

This theme of re-interpretation runs throughout the book, which is divided into; ‘Past’, ‘Present’ and ‘Future’ sections. The Past section focuses mainly on the physical role of the brain and how its various functions were discovered and interpreted. In the Present section the theories start to include more of the psychological aspects of brain functions, and at the end of this section, emotions start to come in to the picture, together with attempts to understand consciousness. 

Another common theme of brain research has been the attempt to try to understand the large and complex human brain by studying the smaller and simpler brains of animals. However, even the simplest and most limited brains, such as though in larvae and sea crustaceans, have been found to be too complex to be properly mapped and understood. 

The Future section, which ends the book, reaches an interesting and perhaps somewhat unexpected conclusion: it states, with some certainty, that the main lesson we’ve learned about the brain is that we still really don’t know enough! The more we try to understand the different brain functions the more we arrive at the conclusion that ‘this is not the answer’, reflecting the ancient Sanskrit expression found in one of the world’s oldest scriptures, the Upanishads;neti, neti’ (meaning not this, not that). Repeating this expression is designed to help a person to understand the nature of the Atman (Self or soul) by negating everything that is not Atman. As Cobb points out, so far this seems to be point which brain research has reached: the more that the brain is investigated, more more we can conclude that our current understanding still amounts to; ‘not this, not that’. 

A further theme of the book is the divide between the various academic disciplines. Cobb presents the book from a neuro-scientific perspective which to some extent excludes other disciplines such as (evolutionary) psychology and philosophy (which he is quite keen to dismiss). But, with so many loose ends and unanswered questions, a better approach might have been to include all aspects of brain studies. Taking this wider approach, we can claim that; a) there is no such thing as a brain without a body and b) that emotions play a bigger role in how the brain works than many like to accept. 

As a final comment, let me add that the book offers both a very comprehensive history and overview of the brain and of the role of brain research in the wider society. The conclusion to draw is, as Cobb points out, that this is an area that will continue to fascinate and offer more insights into something that has obsessed human beings throughout history, as evidenced, not only in our research efforts, but also in our world-views, religions and cultures. 

Profile Books, 2020, 469 PP, hardcover, illustrated, ISBN 9 781781 255896