Veteran neuroscience popularizer and psychiatrist Restak (Poe’s Heart and the Mountain Climber, 2004, etc.) approaches with both excitement and caution a decade’s worth of brain-imaging discoveries linking particular nerve circuits to complex behaviors.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other types of brain scans make it possible to track which cortical cognitive and sensorimotor areas and which subcortical emotional circuits light up when an experimental subject is thinking, reasoning, remembering, making moral decisions, gambling, arguing, feeling pain, looking at sad or happy or angry faces. Restak coins the terms social neuroscience and neurosociety for this kind of research; we are a social species, he emphasizes, dependent on mutual aid, trust and communication. He presents many interesting findings. For example: A synchrony between muscles and mind leads us to automatically position our bodies closer to positive events or experiences and distance ourselves from negative ones. “Mirror neurons” mimic the actions of the person we are watching or listening to, a phenomenon exploited by coaches who use imaging exercises for their teams. The brain tends to assume that oft-repeated information is true (remember Joseph Goebbels). The brain also has a “negativity bias”; it becomes more vigilant and active when given negative information. Its emotional centers play an important role in generating empathy. Restak also cites work on the role of hormones in bonding (oxytocin) and aggression (testosterone); on how memories can be implanted; and on the popularity of mind-enhancing drugs. Offering some overwrought examples, the author claims that this fascinating information could lead to brain manipulation by politicians, police, employers and marketers. Then he backs off with a caveat: This new “neurophrenology” is in its infancy; there is much more complexity to human behavior than brain scans can capture. The challenge is to continue to ask the biological and ethical questions that will keep us one step ahead of the manipulators.
A good summary of current research, along with some lurid alarm-sounding.