An erudite book that reveals how and why the understanding of consciousness still eludes us.



Throughout Western history, the nature of humans’ inner lives has vexed philosophers, physicians, scientists, and theologians. Makari (Psychiatry/Weill Cornell Medical Coll.; Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis, 2008) offers a thorough examination of debates about soul, spirit, and what we now call “mind.”

The author primarily focuses on 17th- through mid-19th-century British and European thinkers. Is mind, he asks, “a necessary theory, a physical thing, a language game, or a deep-seated prejudice?” Language itself has caused myriad problems. The French, for example, were at a loss to translate John Locke’s choice of words—and invention of neologisms—to represent inner life: “consciousness” and “self-consciousness” were not rendered clearly by terms such as la conscience (implying ethical awareness) and esprit, which signified spirit or soul. Besides Locke, Makari examines major theorists such as Newton, Descartes, Diderot, Voltaire, Hobbes, Bacon, Hegel, and Schelling. While these names may be familiar to readers with a background in intellectual history or philosophy, less familiar figures from Makari’s large cast of characters unfortunately emerge less as fully delineated personalities than as purveyors of abstract ideas. The author creates a lively narrative about Franz Anton Mesmer, the eccentric, egotistical perpetrator of animal magnetism, who captivated many in pre-revolutionary Paris and repelled others who feared that he conceived men as “magnetic machines with no will and therefore no capacity for self-governance or self-knowledge.” Political and social change, the author argues, were intrinsically connected to the acceptance or rejection of various thinkers. “When the French Revolution drove out the Church and the protectors of the soul,” he writes, “a fully formed secular, modern lineage of the mind was waiting, ready to emerge.” Despite advances in neurophysiology and research into mental illness, Makari maintains that we still think of dualities when it comes to mind (“the mind-body problem, the Nature/Nurture problem, free will versus determinism”), a view that many readers will share.

An erudite book that reveals how and why the understanding of consciousness still eludes us.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-393-05965-6

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...


Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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A riveting look inside the human brain and its quirks.


Acclaimed British neurologist Sacks (Neurology and Psychiatry/Columbia Univ.; The Mind’s Eye, 2010, etc.) delves into the many different sorts of hallucinations that can be generated by the human mind.

The author assembles a wide range of case studies in hallucinations—seeing, hearing or otherwise perceiving things that aren’t there—and the varying brain quirks and disorders that cause them in patients who are otherwise mentally healthy. In each case, he presents a fascinating condition and then expounds on the neurological causes at work, drawing from his own work as a neurologist, as well as other case studies, letters from patients and even historical records and literature. For example, he tells the story of an elderly blind woman who “saw” strange people and animals in her room, caused by Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a condition in with the parts of the brain responsible for vision draw on memories instead of visual perceptions. In another chapter, Sacks recalls his own experimentation with drugs, describing his auditory hallucinations. He believed he heard his neighbors drop by for breakfast, and he cooked for them, “put their ham and eggs on a tray, walked into the living room—and found it completely empty.” He also tells of hallucinations in people who have undergone prolonged sensory deprivation and in those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, migraines, epilepsy and narcolepsy, among other conditions. Although this collection of disorders feels somewhat formulaic, it’s a formula that has served Sacks well in several previous books (especially his 1985 bestseller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), and it’s still effective—largely because Sacks never turns exploitative, instead sketching out each illness with compassion and thoughtful prose.

A riveting look inside the human brain and its quirks.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-95724-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

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