The Brain – the story of you

For the short review of this book, check out my Goodreads review.

Who are you? No, seriously, who are you? Where in your body is that part that is truly you, the one that has control and decision power?

Tell me. Is it the brain?

But how do you know that? How can some grey matter that stays inert in your skull be you? Are you a brain in a vat, dreaming the daily life? Again, whatever your answer is, my question is how do you know? Do you trust your senses and your intuition?

David Eagleman invites us to discover the mysteries of the brain. And when I say discover I want to say marvel at the things we don’t understand. We don’t know all the answers, but we are on the way to ask the right questions.

A fascinating, both neuroscientific and philosophical, The Brain is a small book that gets you up to date with the recent investigations into the nature and the confusing reality of the brain, using simple language, and skipping over the boring details. Of course, if you’re an expert or simply very curious about how our mind works, you won’t find new information here. It’s a very succinct presentation of the brain, senses, reality, and other philosophical topics directly connected with our favorite organ in our body.

I had my grips with some simplistic representation of both philosophy of mind and neuroscience in this book, but after understanding its purpose, I kept reading it as enjoyment and a summary of current scientific interpretations.

I think philosophical concepts will always be fascinating because it’s been so long since they have been proposed, and yet, we still don’t have a clear answer, even though we are getting ever closer to the scientific results. For example, does our identity reside in the brain, and so can we either upload the brain information in a computer or change most of our body with robotic parts? Is our identity connected to our body, and our emotions come from hormones produces in our body and interact with the decision-making process in our brains? We understand many things, including the fact that our body has a key role in the formation of our identity, and yet we still cling to the theory that all we really are is a stream of information.

Why?

Because we don’t have all the answers. Even the existence of the mind (or soul, as some may want to call it) is still a mystery. How can physical matter produce immaterial objects such as thoughts? Is there an emerging mind or just the electrochemical processes between neuronal connections in the brain? Scientific theories and experiments tend to favor one side, but they still don’t have clear scientific evidence. That’s what makes studying the brain so fascinating.

Our reality is fake, we understand that now. What we see, hear, touch, all of it is just the way the brain simulates the objective reality using the sense organs we have. If we add emotions into the mix, our reality becomes even more complex and more unreliable. But more interesting. Not everyone sees reality the same, and we can’t say which reality is real, because everything we think it’s real is created by our mind. In reality, electromagnetic waves don’t have colors, yet our world is colorful.

Then, after identity and reality, the brain is also in charge of many complex processes that we don’t even notice in our waking life. We are conscious of few things, but the unconscious does all the work of keeping our body alive. And sometimes, the unconscious influence our decisions in unexpected ways. Do we have free will? And how do we define this free will? Once a question for philosophers, now a question for neuroscientists.

Free will in the sense of an agent making conscious decisions doesn’t exist when we’re speaking from a neuroscientific point of view. Then why do we have such a strong feeling we are in control?

The weakest part of the book is the final chapter, which deals with the future possibilities opened up by neuroscientific investigations, such as cryopreservation, cyborgs, mind-uploading. It presents the ideas that allow these technologies to be potentially valid, but the lack of details and the engagement in purely speculative scenarios hurt the pace of this book. And we’ve seen so many movies or books dealing with futuristic topics that you would expect something new from the science of the brain, something more tangible. Alas, there is none here. Just a rehash of the same old theories.

I can recommend this book to everyone, simply because everyone who can read has a brain and I think it’s incredible that the brain can think about itself in such abstract terms. But if you’re already a well-read person in these subject matters, maybe pick a more advanced book or use this book as a hub towards recent references concerning the studies of the brain.

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