TOUCHING A NERVE by Patricia Churchland
Kirkus Star


The Self as Brain
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Churchland (Emeritus, Philosophy/Univ. of California, San Diego; Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, 2011, etc.) probes the interface between our perception of our own mental processes and our growing knowledge of how our brains function.

The author is sharply critical of those who make claims that “free choice is an illusion” and “the self is an illusion,” the kind of hype she dismisses as self-promoting “[n]eurojunk…over-egged ideas about the brain [that] turn out to rest on modest, ambiguous, and hard-to interpret data.” She also dismisses mind-body dualism. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship as co-founder of the field of neurophilosophy, the author weaves together the teachings of philosophers (Aristotle, Plato, Descartes) and scientists (Galvani, Darwin and Helmholtz) to grapple with the problem. She incorporates illustrative anecdotes from her childhood in a small farming community to support her contention that accepting the nonexistence of a spiritual realm separate from the natural world need not diminish spirituality. Recognizing that mental life, spiritual values, joys and sorrows emerge from the functioning of our brains in no way diminishes their reality. Churchland also speculates on the evolutionary leap in the mental life of mammals, which nurture their newborns, and the mental acuity demanded of predators and their prey in the struggle to survive. Reprising the latest advances in neuropsychology, she explains how brain circuitry is organized to model the world (internally and externally) in a series of maps. Going back to Freud's earliest research in neurology, which led him to recognize the existence of unconscious mental functions, Churchland probes the difference between habits and reflexes and between consciousness and semiconscious states such as sleep and coma.

Wide-ranging, insightful and provocative—a book to savor.

Pub Date: July 22nd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-05832-1
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2013


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