A lucid account of brain research, our current knowledge, and problems yet to be solved.

THE IDEA OF THE BRAIN

THE PAST AND FUTURE OF NEUROSCIENCE

A fresh history and tour d’ horizon of “the most complex object in the known universe.”

Although scientists still struggle to understand the brain, they know a great deal about it; Cobb, a professor of biological sciences, delivers an excellent overview. No one experiences his or her brain, but even the ancients were conscious of their heart, so deep thinkers, led by Aristotle, concluded that it governed human actions, perceptions, and emotions. Some Greeks experimented—on live animals; Cobb’s descriptions are not for the squeamish—but “they merely showed that the brain was complicated. Aristotle’s heart-centered view remained enormously influential, partly because of his immense prestige but above all because it corresponded to everyday experience.” Matters changed only with the scientific revolution, and Cobb writes a riveting account of four centuries of brain research that soon revealed its structure and made slower but steady progress describing its functions, which depend on complex brain cells, neurons, that communicate with each other through electrical signals but don’t actually touch. The author ends the “history” section and begins “present” in the mid-20th century. This may puzzle readers, but he has a point. “Since the 1950s,” he writes, “our ideas have been dominated by concepts that surged from biology into computing—feedback loops, information, codes and computation, but…some of the most brilliant and influential theoretical intuitions about how nervous systems might ‘compute’ have turned out to be completely wrong.” Although the computer metaphor is showing its age, the digital revolution has produced dazzling progress, allowing scientists to study individual neurons, localize brain activity in living subjects, and manipulate objects by thinking. Cobb concludes that this avalanche of new knowledge hasn’t brought us nearer the holy grail of brain research—a neural correlate of consciousness—or led to dramatic advances in treating mental illness or paralysis, but these will happen…eventually.

A lucid account of brain research, our current knowledge, and problems yet to be solved.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5416-4685-8

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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