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THE MISSING MOMENT by Robert Pollack


How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science

By Robert Pollack

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-70985-7
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Marry Freud to brain circuitry and use that linkage to indict modern biomedical science: this is the aim of Pollack, former Columbia College dean, now professor of biological sciences in this intense, provocative volume. Pollack’s (Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA, 1994) assumption of a Freudian mode, complete with id, ego, superego, instincts, and childhood unconscious repressions is a surprise. Moreover, he uses neuroscience findings to shore up the connection. The “missing moment” of the title is the half second before a stimulus (say, an arm pinch) occurs and your perception of what happened. In that half-second, loops of neural circuitry link sensation to memories, emotions, and layers of meaning, conscious and unconscious. In this way our perceptions and consciousness are grounded in synchronous excitations of neuron clusters orchestrated by a 40-cycle-per-second wave sweeping across the brain from front to back. Thus we forever live one half-second in the past. As for Freud, it’s not his death instinct Pollack chooses but its opposite: the fear and denial of mortality. It’s that unconscious motive that drives biomedical science today down roads Pollack sees as doomed to failure. The fear of invasion drives the quest for antibiotics to cure infectious disease: It will never work given natural selection and the abundance and mutability of microbes. The fear of death itself drives a quest for eternal life. As a result, we apply heroic measures and ultimately shun the dying, depriving them of even the most elemental palliative care. There are alternatives, he proposes, as long as we avoid the hubris of tampering with the germ line of future generations. Interestingly, Pollack’s often eloquently expressed thesis does not need or depend on Freud. What he has to say about infection, cancer, aging, and genome research carries a sufficient weight of scientific wisdom by itself to bear attending—on the art of policymakers, health professionals, and the public itself.