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The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is The Idea of the Brain: A History. Actually I don’t really need to review it, on the cover there is a quote from Adam Rutherford, who is also a brilliant science communicator, This is a masterpiece. Agreed, end of review!

You want a bit more detail before you commit your shekels and purchase a copy? Okay! What Cobb presents us with is a history of the various attempts by researchers to understand the brain and its functions, which of course also includes such concrete things as the nervous system and abstract ones as thought, memory, consciousness, all of those things that we think make us human. The book is divided into three sections past, present and future. The first deals with those attempts to explain the brain offered up roughly from the seventeenth century up to about 1950. The second deals with approximately the last 70 years, which saw a major change in the tools available to the researchers and in the final section Cobb offers us his opinions on where the research might go from here; a brief survey that he admits is highly speculative.

Astute readers of this review might wonder why Cobb’s book only gets going in the seventeenth century, when humans of some sort or another have been around for a couple of million years, their brains also. This gets explained in the first chapter, which at first glance is confusingly entitled Heart and not Brain! Whilst reading this introductory chapter I found myself humming old pop songs by Cilla Black and Bonnie Tyler, the lyrics of which contain the answer to my question. Anyone Who had a Heart, and Total Eclipse of the Heart reflect a belief that existed for most of humanity’s existence. It was believed that the heart was the seat of emotions, thoughts, consciousness etc. and not the brain. As those pop songs nicely illustrate, much of our everyday speech still reflects that belief. ‘He thought with his heart and not his head’ ‘If you weren’t so hard hearted’ and many, many more. It was first in the seventeenth century that the attention of the natural philosophers turned from the heart to the brain to try and solve the conundrums thrown up by thoughts about thinking. Here the developing empirical approach to science in general kicked in as nicely illustrated by the book’s motto supplied by Nicolaus Steno (1638–1686) in his On the Brain (1669), which also supplies the leitmotif for the whole book:
The brain being indeed a machine, we must not hope to find its artifice through other ways than those which are used to find artifice in other machines. It thus remains to do what we would do for any other machine; I mean to dismantle it piece by piece and to consider what these can do separately and together.
I did briefly muse on the fact that Steno, a truly fascinating figure, also played a leading role in Cobb’s first book, The Egg and Sperm Race, but I digress.

It is well known that the brain is a glibbery, grey mass that you can’t really take apart, let alone put back together again. The best you can do is cut it up into slices, which I’m sure some early investigators did, but without high power microscopes that is not going to tell you an awful lot. All you can really do is fry the slices in breadcrumbs and eat them with a good sauce. What the early brain researchers did do was to set up analogies to other scientific systems and technologies and hypothesize that the brain functions in the same or a similar way. Then try to find some way to test your hypothesis. Cobb takes us through a whole series of these analogy models of the brain and shows clearly how they all failed. What is interesting is that the models were almost always based on the newest scientific theories or technological development within each generation. Hey we’ve got this wonderful new whatsit, I bet the brain functions like that too. This first section of the book is a fascinating journey through a couple of centuries of science and technology and failed and abandoned models of the brain. However not all was lost or totally wrong. This process produced, for example, the valid information that the nervous system and with it the brain are somehow powered by electricity.

Following World War 2 Cobb takes us into what he terms the present of brain research. Here a whole lot of new investigatory possibilities begin to be developed, computer tomography scans for examples. But of course the analogy game doesn’t stop and we what is probably the most widespread and well-known analogy of all, the brain is a computer, which harks back to earlier technological analogies, the telegraph network and the telephone exchange.

Cobb devotes quite a lot of space to showing the efforts invested in the computer analogy and why in the end those efforts also all failed. Within the present section of his book Cobb lays out the whole battery of modern neurological research and the immense effort that has been invested in the last circa seventy years to try and understand the brain, the nervous system and related questions about the nature of memory, consciousness etc.

The strongest impression that I took away from this section was the complexity of the task. Before I read this book my thoughts about the brain were related to the saying, if the brain was simple enough that we could understand it, we wouldn’t be intelligent enough to do so. I sort of knew that the brain was mind bogglingly complex, but having read Cobb’s book I now know that mind bogglingly complex doesn’t come anywhere near describing just how complex it is. One aspect that was new to me is that some researchers, who have accepted the complexity problem (paradox?), have stopped trying to understand the human brain and are trying their luck with smaller less complex brains, in fact the smallest and simplest that they can find. Remember Cobb’s research on the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots? What is the summa summarum of all these efforts? How does the brain really function? The answer that emerges at the end of Cobb’s book is, we just don’t know!

Having stunned us with the science and its inability to answer fundamental questions about the brain the book now takes us into the future, where do we go from here? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are people currently researching the brain or hoping to do so in the future. Cobb takes us through some of the, perhaps, more hopeful approaches but admits that there in no real clean line for the researchers of the future to follow.

The book is beautifully presented: the English edition has a wonderful cover and stunning end papers, black and white line illustrations throughout the text and a section of photos in the middle. There is an extensive bibliography and endnotes that are mainly simple bibliographical references. It is rounded off with a good index.

The astute reader will have noticed that this review is strong on general waffle but low on detail; this is intentional. Matthew Cobb is an excellent writer and a highly skilled storyteller. Each chapter of the book is presented as a scientific adventure story with much humour and enough bad jokes and snide comments to keep any reader happy. I found that the individual chapters made for good bedtime stories. To have gone into more detail would have been the equivalent of revealing the murderer in an Agatha Christie novel and I really don’t want to spoil the fun you the readers are going to have following Professor Cobb down the winding and contorted paths of the historical attempts to understand what is perhaps the most complex object on the planet, the human brain. The final page is I think the best final page that I have ever read in a history of science book.

I can only repeat what I said at the beginning, quoting Adam Rutherford, This is a masterpiece, so get hold of a copy and read it, you won’t regret it.


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Review by Thony Christie - first appeared on The Renaissance Mathematicus and reused in an edited form with permission

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