“The Biological Mind” – Book Review

Just when you thought you were getting all comfortable in your own head, here comes “The Biological Mind” by Alan Jasanoff to shake things up a bit. And for a good reason!

Challenging the status quo and one’s core beliefs is one of the best ways to put your Critical Thinking skills at work and strengthen both your cognitive and emotional responses. Alan Jasanoff’s “The Biological Mind” does just that. It cleverly triggers cognitive dissonances that the reader will most likely feel compelled to solve by engaging in self-analysis and closer documentation on a variety of brain-related topics.

Why the stir? The book aims to demystify wide-spread beliefs such as those that human brains are the key to an individual’s identity, the main source of their extraordinary skills or even a valid path to artificially achieve immortality. To fulfill this goal, the author paints a biologically more realistic picture by integrating the rest of our body, social and environmental factors in the explanation of why we are who we are and why we do and think the things we do.

Jasanoff believes that “You are not only your brain” is “the most important lesson science has to teach” and “The Biological Mind” is one of the vessels that carry this lesson to its readers.

The main message of the book is that the power of your vastly complicated brain is overrated and that the perception that “the brain is all that matters” arises from a false idealization of this organ and its singular significance, a phenomenon the author calls the Cerebral Mystique. Since this distorted perception “infects lay-people and scientists alike” (Jasanoff includes himself in this category), discussions and arguments that clarify the biological roots of our minds are needed and represent a great way to stimulate scientific, individual and social progress.

The two parts of the book, “The Cerebral Mystique” and “The Importance of Being Biological” address the history and scientific basis of this idealization of the brain, along with its social implications, and most importantly, why it is crucial to part with it and embrace more reasonable ways to understand and use the functions of our mind.

The “Cerebral Mystique” explains what underlying beliefs and segments of knowledge support the emphasized view of the brain, which in reality, argues Jasanoff, it’s not much different from its “chemical brothers” (pun intended!), the chemical liver, the chemical kidneys or the chemical pancreas. The brain-body dualism,  the augmented perception of brain complexity, the concept of neuroexceptionalism and even how these beliefs play a role in pseudoscientific claims, these are all subjects addressed at large in the six chapters of the first part of “The Biological Mind”. This segment of the book also presents the implications of neuroimaging and its role in spreading distorted messages about the brain’s qualities, the relativity of fMRI interpretations (including the idea of brain areas specialized for distinct cognitive tasks and the placement of complex processes such as Free Will and Consciousness) and arguments supporting the idea that “no brain is an island”, meaning that brains should not be considered in isolation, but should be viewed in the context of the body and environment.

The second part of the book, “The Importance of Being Biological” deals with extremely interesting social and scientific implications of the Cerebral Mystique, but most of all provides an image of what we can achieve if we renounce this augmented view regarding our brains and implicitly, regarding who we are. It is here that Jasanoff explicitly states the balanced view he’s proposing as substitute for the Cerebral Mystique – it is one that requires us to re-assess the significance we place on internal factors that contribute to who we are and why we do the things we do, and recognize the role of external factors, such as environment and social interactions when it comes to defining our nature and expected behavioral results. External factors of human behavior, mental illness and neurotechnology are the main subjects in this book segment. The book ends with a fictional chapter in which Jasanoff presents the meaning and the possible effects of the seductive idea of brain preservation in hopes of reviving the individual at some point in the future, if and when the required technology becomes available.

“The Biological Mind” is extremely well documented and draws its hypotheses, conclusions, and examples not only from biology and neuroscience but also from philosophy and arts such as literature, sculpture, and painting, so if you’re looking for a new book to place on your TBR pile, you will most likely find several interesting titles in it.

I found the book to be quite dense information and idea-wise, which in itself is great, but at times may make the text pretty hard to follow, especially since there are also a few quite abrupt jumps from slow-paced, anecdotal rhythms to core neuroscience-related concepts and explanations. 

The informational abundance also triggers what I believe to be the book’s biggest issue: valid data gets bundled with rather big chunks of biased material. The book itself is mainly scientific and as I said before, well-documented, but when you try to put together a large number of high-level and even controversial topics in a little over 250 pages, many things can go wrong, and they do. Confirmation bias (cherry-picked data), dichotomous views (when actually aiming at demystifying this exact type of erroneous perception), straw man fallacy (providing arguments against views that are not actually formulated by the opponent) and double standards made their way into the text. Also, I believe that when many correlations are presented by an author in order to provide support for his/her hypotheses, a distinction between correlation and causation needs to be explicitly formulated, to ensure that readers with no scientific background will not trace erroneous connections between the elements (example: people born in winter are more likely to develop schizophrenia; used in support of the conclusion that external factors have a significant role in determining who we are and who we become; obviously, not causation). These are some of the reasons why I believe readers, scientists or not, should activate their critical thinking skills and re-assess certain parts of the book based on supplementary information, before drawing their final conclusions about the many subjects addressed in the book.

The text is very generous when it comes to the ideas and concepts it presents, it definitely makes you think about a variety of topics and challenges core beliefs. I am definitely one of Jasanoff’s biased readers, since my view regarding the brain is already a holistic one, so I tend to dismiss the severity and spread of the dualist or dichotomous views, for example. Therefore, my “bias radar” may have also been set for a low threshold, just like some fMRI studies Jasanoff mentions in the book. I definitely agree with most of his conclusions, but I guess you could say I agree with what he argues, and not necessarily with how he argues in support of the ideas he promotes.

“The Biological Mind” definitely helps the understanding of what the brain is in the biological sense and integrated into the social, external environment. It also provides strong arguments that directly or indirectly refute pseudoscientific and irrational claims, such as intelligent design or the idea that transplanted organs transmit specific memories or proclivities.

By far, my favorite chapter is “Neurotechnology Unbound” (9th chapter, part II), which deals with a variety of modern topics widely considered by scientists to be the next steps in humanity’s development. The next great leaps, along with humans going interplanetary and even intergalactic at some point in the future, will most likely stem from the way we will learn to reasonably enhance and use the features of our bodies (brains included) and the power of healthy social interactions. Technology itself is a great result of human needs. When it comes to brain enhancement, humans seem to expect a lot in the future, but not all expectations are realistic. In “Neurotechnology Unbound”, Jasanoff addresses the realistic promises and fallacies or neurotechnology – starting from the so popular “hacking the brain” concept and branching out to subjects such as deep-brain stimulation, brain-machine interfaces, singularity, the transhumanist movement and nootropics (smart drugs or cognitive enhancers). The chapter offers descriptions, explanations, and examples, along with the presentation of social and ethical implications of these processes and phenomena.

In conclusion, I definitely enjoyed reading “The Biological Mind” by Alan Jasanoff. I think it’s a great read for scientists and non-scientists alike, but be prepared to find yourself thinking about many of the subjects presented in the book, for a prolonged time after finishing reading it. My guess is that you will most likely go back again and again to certain parts of it, spend a serious time documenting on many of the concepts and implications of those topics and that at the end of each of these analytic segments, you will come to new and more evidence-rooted conclusions about yourself and the world. And I think this is what makes a book great, its power to challenge and transform readers in a way that bring them closer to who they want to be and whom they need to become in order to fulfill their potential and goals.

“The Biological Mind” is available in Kindle, Audio and Hardcover formats starting March 13th, 2018 and you can download a free sample or order it here.

Alan Jasanoff, Ph.D.,  is the award-winning director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering.

P.S. This is not a commercial endorsement deal. I get no commission from the sales of this book. A representative of The Hachette Book Group invited me to read and honestly review the book for Psychology Corner. My review is based on an advance copy of the book.

Photo Source: Copyright (C) Basic Books. Used with publisher’s permission.

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