Letting the rest of the world go by
You get two things with this book. You get an incredible interesting exposition on the workings of the mind (consciousness) and a narrative that ties that story together by showing how mirror neurons almost certainly aren't what you thought they were.
The author does not reject the existence of mirror neurons in humans, but he does poke holes in most of what you probably have been told about them in a host of other books and articles. He gives very nuanced arguments to how the available data doesn't always mean what mirror neuron experts say they do. The author is an expert in the understanding of how we communicate. He'll delve into the "motor theory of speech" and how that deservedly fell out of disrepute over time and was resurrected only because that gave mirror neurons such a central role. The results of various experiments supporting that hypothesis are not always best explained by the ways mirror neuron advocates claim and sometimes they ignore the better explanations.
This is a real strength of the book. While showing how better explanations for the experiments and data are available which don't excessively rely on mirror neurons the author never shies way from educating the listener on the embodied processes of thinking.
I love neuroscience and books about the workings of the mind and human behavior. While reading such books, mirror neurons kept popping up in sections of those books, but over time, I started to realize that the advocates for the magical workings of the mirror neurons did not always make sense and there seemed to be better explanations available. This book tells me why my caution radar was beeping.
I'm sure a lot of experts in the field probably hate this book, but I can recommend this book because it will teach the listener to be cautious about mirror neuron claims, and help the listener learn a little bit more about the way the brain works without overwhelming the listener with too many names of brain parts which I only end up forgetting.
The meaning of consciousness is no longer completely inaccessible to me after reading this book. It's starting to make sense to me. The author does an excellent job of reviewing what is only recently becoming known about the field. He explains difficult concepts wonderfully and uses some of the best analogies I've heard.
The author looks at the relevant philosophy, evolution psychology and the recent neuroscience understandings to go a long way with explaining what is consciousness. He indirectly answers two question, 1) what is it about humans that make us different and 2) will computers ever think.
I've listened to about five or so books and even watched a Great Course lecture on this topic and this book is the first one that went beyond just claiming that the meaning of consciousness is unknowable, and after having read this book, I feel that I'm getting closer to its understanding. I enjoyed the other books, but this one makes me believe that people way smarter than me are getting close to answering those two questions and discovering the real nature of consciousness. .
You know you have a good narrator when you recognize his voice from another book you've read and loved. Mr. Dixon also read "The Beginning of Infinity" and my mind would go back to some passages in that book which were covering similar material. Nicely narrated.
Most of us today have a warped view of what psychiatry does based on its early history and the way it has been portrayed by popular media during earlier time periods. Psychoanalysis (think Freud) was pseudoscience. It thought that diseases of the mind and brain were caused by repressed memories and such, and that it had no empirical data to support it. The author really doesn't dance around the problems inherent within Psychoanalysis. Each psychoanalyst needed to be psychoanalyzed before becoming a psychoanalyst a perfect way to create a pseudoscience.
Psychoanalysts were arguing that all mental problems were behavioral problems and everybody suffered from some sort of mental problem. They had lost touch with reality. The media was right to mock the profession. Things started to change in the 1970s when Washington University in St. Louis, MO started emphasizing the role that data should play in diagnosis instead of tradition and intuition. They even started developing CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) as an antidote to the meaninglessness of blaming the patient for his neurosis. With data it was shown to work.
The first step in developing science is to first define categories. In this case, the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) III started insisting on scientific categories instead of the pseudo classifications that the psychiatrists (mostly psychoanalyst) had been using previously. The tenor of the times had tarnished the image of the psychiatrists and something needed to be done to put the profession back on a scientific basis.
The next step comes about through the realization that the mind and the brain both effect mental health. The first major step (early 1900s) was introducing malaria into patients who had severe mental problems due to advance syphilis. The ensuing fever cured the patients. Unfortunately, lobotomies started being performed, and had no data to support their efficacy. Ultimately, a whole slew of drugs are discovered which led to control of some mental related diseases.
The author shows how today the profession really does add value. Many people's perceptions about the profession were warped by what they saw in popular media while growing up, but the world has changed and so has the profession of psychiatry. For those who want to remain in the dark and only offer criticism they should skip this fine book, for all others who want to enter the 21st century and unlearn their misconceptions I would highly recommend this well written book.