OAARSN Book Review
A Userís Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention and the Four Theaters of the Brain, John M. Ratey M.D. (New York: Pantheon, 2001)
In his acknowledgements Ratey describes this book as a popularized condensation of a much larger project, a forthcoming "primer on the brain for mental health professionals." He acknowledges that the book is actually ghostwritten by Mark Fischetti, a professional science writer and editor. The strengths and the very annoying features of this book derive from these facts. The book surveys a lot of contemporary research in the neurosciences and psychology, and so is sure to prove both interesting and informative to anybody but the best read specialists in these fields. On the other hand, there is an annoying gee whiz tone to much of the writing. Moreover, in many places the popularization has slipped over the edge into plain old dumbing down, so the reader is left wondering what the point of some particularly lame metaphor is supposed to be, or just what the author thinks he is explaining at a particular point.
Letís begin by considering some of the books virtues. Brain research, as everybody knows, is booming. In any booming science, it is impossible even for most specialists to keep up with new developments, let alone the rest of us. Just about every reader, even those who read a bit of this and a bit of that about the brain, will be surprised by many of the results Ratey and his ghostwriter report. One that surprised me, for instance, was the link between rheumatic fever and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (p.152-53). For those who havenít read any other books of this type, many of the larger themes the authors labour over might be informative, too: the crucial role of attention to cognition, the surprisingly strong link between motor activity (i.e., moving oneís body around) and purely "mental" activity, and how much more complex memory isóand how much more prone to self-delusion and manipulation we areóthan we though, are all things well worth knowing about.
Of particular interest to readers of this website, the authors make several mentions of autism. There are two main discussions of autism in the book. In the first, they consider it as a result of perceptual problems (pp.78-84), such as a sort of hypersensitivity to environmental stimulii, or as a brain problem which slows the processing of the fragments of information from the environment to such an extent that a person canít piece the various fragments together into a coherent whole. An example they use of the latter phenomenon is a child whose gaze becomes fixed on his motherís nose so that by the time he has processed that information and is able to shift his gaze to the motherís mouth she has turned away with the result the child misses the smiling lips, and so is in no position to form an overall impression of the motherís expression.
In the final chapter of the book (esp. pp. 306-07 and 324-25) they describe a somewhat different theory on which the problem is not with the information being delivered to the brain from the extremities or with its initial processing, but is a problem with directing attention. The authors do a nice job of making clear the crucial role of the ability to sensibly direct oneís attention in successfully getting around in the world. What is the texture of the chair you are sitting on right now? You can probably tell, and now that youíre thinking about it you are probably aware of a constant flow of information northward from your buttocks. Nothing has changed in your bodily posture, which suggests that the information has been available to you all along. But itís very likely that you were entirely unaware of these messages from below before you read the question. Think now of how many different sorts of information are available at all times in this way: Are the lights in the room humming? How tight are your shoes? Without the ability to attend to one or a few of these phenomena at a time, ignoring the rest at least at the level of conscious awareness, our mental resources would presumably be overwhelmed. The theory is that autism is a disorder which, one way or another, prevents this focussing from working properly, either by allowing that sort of overwhelming of mental resources to take place, or by allowing a person to focus on things which ought not to be salient in the context.
The authors suggest that either of these theoriesówhich they donít really distinguish or compareówould go a long way to explaining some of the other characteristic features of autism. For example, the inability to pick up the subtle cues, such as subtle changes in facial expression, which play a crucial role in much run-of-the-mill social interaction can be accounted for by either theoryóa person with autism will, on the first theory, often simply be unable to collect the information at all. On the second theory, on the other hand, the information will find its way to his or her brain but will not, in general, be sifted out from the "noise" coming from elsewhere in the environment.
This is an ongoing theme of the book. Wherever possible, the authors would like to explain problems which are often described in behavioural terms in terms of a problem with the perceptual system or with the lower-level, non-conscious initial processing of information in the brain. The primary motive for doing so is that such an explanation is likely to destigmatize the behaviouróif one is unwilling to enter unfamiliar social settings, it is a liberating experience to find out that this is due to an undetected hearing impairment rather than to being "phobic". This is all quite laudable, though one canít escape the impression that the authors might be overestimating the extent to which such explanations will be available for all the various disorders that are around. For instance, if either of the theories of autism above turns out to be right for a large class of autistic people, as seems plausible, there still seem to be many phenomena, some reported by the authors themselves, which are left unexplained, such as the famous experiments which seem to show that many people with autism do not understand the practice of pretending.
Letís turn now to a few of the less pleasing features of the book. Most annoying for me is a remarkable feat the authors perform: they combine the breathless rhetoric of contemporary writings about advances in the brain sciences with the vapid bromides of a self-help book.
The book is littered with remarks like this one: "I hope you begin to get excited as you realize that what we now confront in the neurosciences is more enthralling than the computer or cyberspace in all its glory. Discoveries in the next thirty years will transform not merely our world, but our very selves." This sort of bosh is dead common in popularizations of neuroscience, which seem to bank on a readership thatís not in a position to call the authorís bluff. Iím sure itís bad form to quote another review in a review, but I canít resist. When responding to a strikingly similar passage in his review of Paul Churchlandís The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul, Jerry Fodor remarks:
If youíre in the research business, you will recognize at once the rhetoric of technohype. It is the idiom of grant proposals and of interviews in the Tuesday New York Science Times. The breakthrough is at hand; this time weíve got it right; theory and practice will be forever altered; we have really made fantastic progress, and there is now general agreement on the basics; further funding is required. Professionals are inured to this sort of stuff and write it, and write it off, as a matter of course. I hope that the laity will prove to be equally cynical.
Indeed. The various neurosciences are in rapid transition, and there is a lot of interesting work uncovering the workings of various parts of the brain. But we really have no more idea than people had in the 17th Century about the things we really care about, namely how the brain gives rise to those features of our mental lives of most importance to us, for instance how a material substance of this sort can give rise to conscious experiences, i.e., experiences which it is like something to have.
What makes Rateyís performance more appalling to me than the shameless self-promotion one finds in books like Churchlandís is that he sells his story as one which might illuminate conditions such as autism or depression, and so be a key to relief of suffering and to achieving a better life for people made desperate by such conditions. The key to constructing happier lives, he assures his readers, is coming, and it is coming from neuroscience. But the shape of the assistance we will get is unfortunately rather vague. He seems to have in mind cases of the sort mentioned before: one discovers that the excessive shyness which has plagued oneís life up until now has been due to an undetected hearing disorder. Finding this out eliminates feelings of shame and, moreover, can be compensated for, and so this discovery is both transformative and liberating. This is very nice for these special cases. But it seems unlikely that such a transformation is going to be available to all of us, since the story seems to rely on the underlying source of the disorder being both of a sufficiently un-central kind (how well oneís ears work is not, for most of us, a crucial part of our self-image and feelings of self-worth) and sufficiently simple that there is some relatively straightforward modifications one can make to compensate for the problem.
There are many other problems that deserve mention.