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Mind Shift - John Parrington ***

It seems at the moment as if every other science book that's published is on the human brain - but Mind Shift is anything but a 'me too' title. John Parrington gives us a very personal take on what it is to be human from the viewpoint of the mind/brain.

The key theme of the book, we are told is that social interaction, language and culture have been responsible for shaping the human brain and making us the exceptional animals we are (obviously there's an element of chicken and egg here). I say 'we are told' because Parrington tells us this is what he is doing a lot, but it's quite hard to extract the message from a very long book that doesn't really have a structure that reflects that thesis. Instead we get a lot of relatively short chapters on topics that range from mental illness and diversity to the genome and epigenetics. 

Part of the problem with getting the message is that large sections of the book feel like reading a literature review as Parrington gives us the results of study after study without weaving these findings into a usefully structured narrative. The level of the content is very variable too. Parrington is a professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology, and when he is writing about the physical nature of the brain he comes across as authoritative - but many sections are dealing with anything from psychology to the arts and religion and here the writing is more subjective and quite hard for the reader to tie into the theme.

Obviously psychology is important to this discussion, but Parrington relies hugely on the work of a 1930s Soviet psychologist called Lev Vygotsky - so much so, that the book in places reads like a love letter to Vykotsky, he gets mentioned so much. However, what Parrington doesn't really examine is what Wikipedia delicately puts as 'Vygotsky is the subject of great scholarly dispute'. Similarly, many studies in psychology have been either discredited or at least doubted since the replication crisis, yet in reporting on psychology results, Parrington does not explore this. He also gives a surprising amount of notice to the largely discredited ideas of Freud, even though he does point out the issues with Freud's work.

When Parrington writes about religion, literature, music, politics and other such topics the approach taken does not necessarily help communicate much to the reader. So, for example, he spends six pages discussing Wuthering Heights, a book, I suspect, many of his audience will never have read. Because of their personal nature, there is also the feeling that these parts of the book are perhaps rather less fully researched than are the sections more focused on the physical aspects of the brain. So, for example, Parrington tells us that 'the Bible begins with the phrase "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word."' - a phrase that on a copy I looked at occurs on page 1165. 

What we have here is a genuinely interesting, but flawed book. I think Parrington's theme is fascinating, and the book is loaded with ideas, it's just a shame that the message doesn't emerge in any clear way from his writing.

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Review by Peter Spitz

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