I Stand in Awe of Matthew Cobb – The Idea of the Brain

We should never dismiss past ideas – or people – as stupid. We will be the past one day, and our ideas will no doubt seem surprising and amusing to our descendants.”

All of the above and more

Having just finished writing a book for a general audience I know just how much work goes into it.  The number of papers, books and web sites that I had to read totally amazed me, and my book was only 35 000 words.  Matthew’s magnificent achievement, excluding notes and references is almost 150 000 words.

If I were asked how I pictured my brain, I guess I would say that I pretty much see it as a type of computer, with my memory, such as it is, being a card index system; analogous, if we continue with the computer metaphor, based on, in my case, my card index files and EndNote 🙂 I am, of course, not alone in picturing the brain as a computer, although I suspect that not as many picture themselves riffling through a card index drawer.

Those of you who read my blog, will know that I am a great fan of the history of science, in my case the history of entomology*, so Matthew’s magnum opus, really hits the spot as far as I am concerned, ranging as it does from 4000 BC to the present day. Being a product of my time and having cut my science-fiction teeth on Isaac Asimov and his positronic brain, I have always thought of my brain as assort of wet computer, but up until the 17th Century, feelings and thoughts were generally thought to emanate from the heart.  As Matthew points out – words and phrase like ‘learn by heart’, ‘heartbroken’, ‘heartfelt’ and similar highlight this, even though centuries prior to this, there was an acceptance that the brain was important to human function. Once the connection between the nervous system, the brain and the thoughts and actions of the human body and mind were made, then began the attempts to explain how it all worked.   What I hadn’t really thought about until I read this book, but should of, was that the way in which we perceive the working of the brain and nervous system, is very much shaped by the technology prevalent at the time. So brains went from being clockwork, pneumatic and hydraulic, the nerves being likened to pipes, electrical circuits and even akin to the telegraph. Apropos of the electrical circuit idea, I was amused to discover that one of the important proponents of this theory was an entomologist, Alfred Smee, who worked on aphids and virus transmission. We aphidologists get everywhere.

To me, one of the wonderful thing about this book, leaving aside the very accessible writing style, is how often I said to myself “Wow, I didn’t know that”.  My wife got very tired of me reading out excerpts 🙂

Do you remember generating static electricity when you were at school by rubbing a glass rod with a woollen cloth?  Well, how about the ‘hanging boy’ experiment commonly performed in the mid-1700s in which a boy was suspended from the ceiling and rubbed with a glass tube upon which feathers would miraculously rise up and stick to him?

How about Henry Molaison who in 1953 had his severe epilepsy ‘cured’ by having his hippocampus, amygdala and the entorhinal cortex (basically a lobotomy) removed.  From that day on until his death in 2008, Henry only lived in the now.  He had no yesterdays.

Did you know that if you cut the corpus callosum into two (another attempt at curing epilepsy), you end up with a person with two ‘brains’ not quite the same as the Steve Martin film, but the result is two minds in the same body. In the early months post-treatment, the patient experienced some conflict between the two sides of his brain; his hands would work in different ways when pulling up his trousers or doing up his belt. “These conflicts gradually died down, as each version of himself, hot used to sharing a body (although neither mind was aware of the other’s existence)”

I have always been quite happy with the idea of the brain being a computer, as I think, most people are. Matthew, however, feels that this latest metaphor is no longer valid and that we must think of the brain and how it functions very differently. You will need to read the book to find out exactly what he thinks this. He is, however, very sure that neuroscientists would make more progress in understanding how human brains worked if they studied the simpler brains of insects. SAs an entomologist, I am in total agreement 🙂

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  My feelings about this book have been very aptly summed up by Adam Rutherford who among other words of praise, says it is a masterpiece. 

I am in total agreement. Buy it and read it from cover to cover, you won’t regret it. At only £12.99 it is a real bargain.

Finally, thank you Matthew for taking the time out of your busy life to research and produce this book.  I, for one, very much appreciate it.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews

One response to “I Stand in Awe of Matthew Cobb – The Idea of the Brain

  1. Thank you for enriching my meagre reading list. I find because I use my Kindle for convenience that the quality of my average read has decreased. My fault entirely. I must get back to the library, after I read this book. Thank you. Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

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