What are we? That question informs the author’s fertile inquiry into mind, brain, and imagination.
Taking the perspective of “a perpetual outsider who looks in on several disciplines,” Hustvedt (Psychiatry/Weill Medical School; The Blazing World, 2014, etc.) gathers recent essays and talks on the intellectual topics that have long occupied her: art and perception, the mind/body conundrum, madness, consciousness, memory, and empathy. She organizes these pieces into three sections: “A Woman Looking at Men Looking At Women,” which considers the works of Picasso, Koons, and Louise Bourgeois; an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs curated by filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar; Wim Wender’s homage to choreographer Pina Bausch; and the author’s experience teaching writing to mental patients and undergoing psychoanalysis herself. The second and third sections, “Delusions of Certainty” and “What Are We?” consider more directly issues of mind and consciousness: “What is a person, a self? Is there a self? What is a mind? Is a mind different from a brain?” Hustvedt feels decidedly unsatisfied by the results of fMRI investigations that map brain activity during such events as reading or looking at art. That research, she maintains, “reflects a simplistic correspondence between a psychological state…and its neural correlates, without much thought about further meanings or the philosophical issues involved.” Nor does she have patience for the assertions of neo-Darwinists—Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker comes in for repeated criticism—who “justify why things are the way they are” by privileging nature over nurture and insisting that certain traits (men being better at mathematics than women, for example) are “rooted in biology.” Hustvedt draws upon—and presents with sharp clarity—a prodigious number of sources, including Kierkegaard (whom she first read when she was 15), William James, Kant, George Lakoff (for his investigation of metaphors), physicist Niels Bohr, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, and 17th-century scientist Margaret Cavendish, “an adamant materialist” who took issue with Descartes’ mind/body dualism, as does Hustvedt.
A wide-ranging, irreverent, and absorbing meditation on thinking, knowing, and being.