‘The Idea of the Brain’ explores the evolution of neuroscience

Despite advances, much about the human brain is still a mystery


Even with massive piles of data, scientists still don’t have a fundamental understanding of how the human brain works.

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Brain book cover

The Idea of the Brain
Matthew Cobb
Basic Books, $32

Neuroscientists love a good metaphor. Through the years, plumbing, telegraph wires and computers have all been enlisted to help explain how the brain operates, neurobiologist and historian Matthew Cobb writes in The Idea of the Brain. And like any metaphor, those approximations all fall short.

Cobb leads a fascinating tour of how concepts of the brain have morphed over time. His writing is clear, thoughtful and, when called for, funny. He describes experiments by neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who zapped awake patients’ brains with electricity to provoke reactions. Zapping certain places consistently dredged up memories, which Cobb calls “oneiric experiences.” His footnote on the term: “Look it up. It’s exactly the right word.” I did, and it was.

Cobb runs though the history of certain concepts used to explain how the brain works, including electricity, evolution and neurons. Next comes a section on the present, which includes discussions of memory, circuits and consciousness. Cobb offers tastes of the latest research, and a heavy dose of realism. Memory studies have made progress, but “we are still far from understanding what is happening when we remember,” Cobb writes. Despite big efforts, “we still only dimly understand what is going on when we see.” Our understanding of how antidepressants work? “Virtually non-existent.”

This real talk is refreshing, and Cobb uses it to great effect to argue that neuroscience is stymied. “There have been many similar moments in the past, when brain researchers became uncertain about how to proceed,” he writes. Scientists have amassed an impressive stockpile of brain facts, but a true understanding of how the brain works eludes us.

Don’t expect a computer metaphor to help. Like a computer, the brain’s main job is to process information. But some experts argue that because brains are biological — they evolved within the vagaries of a body — they operate in ways that a machine doesn’t (SN: 8/23/16).

Cobb reckons that, among other reasons, the mere existence of such objections is a harbinger of the end of the computer metaphor. But that doesn’t mean the comparison was a waste. Metaphors clarify thoughts, he writes, and scientists would do well to ponder what might replace the concept.

He ends the book with a creative exercise in looking ahead to what the future might hold. The possibilities include the creation of conscious machines, or even having to accept that there is no brain theory to be found. Still, “our current ignorance should not be viewed as a sign of defeat,” Cobb writes, “but as a challenge.”

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Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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