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A SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO THE MIND by Robert A. Burton Kirkus Star


What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves

by Robert A. Burton

Pub Date: April 23rd, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-00185-6
Publisher: St. Martin's

A neurologist criticizes the emerging new language that attaches the prefix “neuro” to economics, linguistics, marketing and attempts to explain market crashes by fMRI brain scans.

Burton (On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, 2008, etc.) warns of a dangerous trend in which what once were considered to be “metaphysical musings” by neurologists, are now increasingly being “offered and seen as scientifically based facts.” The author takes issue with those eminent neuroscientists and philosophers who suggest that “the explanation of consciousness is around the corner.” Beginning with the early use of EEGs to explain mental functions by referencing brain waves, he traces the use of modern technology, such as fMRI, to bridge the mind–brain gap, which is an effort that is inherently flawed. Burton explains that using brain scans to observe which areas of the brain are activated is informative but limited. At the neuro-atomic level, scientists have yet to determine the number of cells in a typical brain or the relationship between neurons and the surrounding gray matter that has been thought to play a supporting role but may actually be involved in thought processes. While neuroscientists can observe mental activation, it is impossible for them to determine when (or whether) it is conscious without the subjects' own reports of their thought processes. People form intentions consciously, and they are then carried out in large measure by brain activities (sensations, beliefs, biases) of which we are only dimly aware. A brain scan shows areas of activation but cannot distinguish between conscious and unconscious thought processes. Burton makes clear that neuroscience is “improving both our daily lives and our self-understanding,” but he takes issue with the role assumed by neuroscientists as “the preeminent narrators of the modern story of the mind.”

An informative, witty, provocative meditation on the mind–brain paradox.