Touring Brain Science's Bold Frontier, and Where It Leads
THe New Brain
by Richard Restak
Rodale Books, 228 pp. $ 23. 95
Most of us carry around a standard model of how our mind works. Our thoughts happen in our brains, we assume. Some of them just buzz around in there inconsequentially; others actually cause us to do things. Most of the things they cause us to do are trivial, but a few are tremendous. Human thoughts, originating in human brains, created the Verrazano Bridge, "The Marriage of Figaro," "Paradise Lost," and Bugs Bunny. They also, of course, created Auschwitz, the Soviet Union, the hydrogen bomb, and Madonna's last movie.
All these thoughts, and all these actions, and all their consequences, trivial or tremendous, are under the scrutiny of an inner entity that we call "I." The "I" can even scrutinize itself, as mine just did very briefly. The "I" is possessed of, or perhaps just is, volition — the "I" can freely decide to think, say, or do things. All our thoughts and behavior belong, in some sense, to the "I." It squats there an inch or so behind our eyeballs, a tiny homunculus directing the action.
Science is shedding some interesting light on this confident little schema. It is possible that within 20 years or so, that "standard model" will come to seem as antiquated as Ptolemy's account of the solar system. In "The New Brain," Dr. Richard Restak, who is a professor of neurology, brings us up to date with what is going on in this field, and offers some speculations as to where it all might lead.
Much of what Dr. Restak has to tell us is based on the new technologies of brain imaging. There are several of these technologies, most of them traveling under TLAs (that is, three-letter acronyms) like "CAT," "PET," "MRI," and "MRA." For the purpose of understanding Dr. Restak's book, it is not particularly important to know the details, or even to keep the different technologies distinct in your mind.
The main point is that in order to study brain activity, we no longer need to open up the skull, probe intrusively, or perform "subtractive" comparisons of normal and injured brains — the only techniques available until very recently. Using CAT, PET, and so on, we can see what is going on in the brain, in quite tiny localized regions, while it is in a normal state, performing normal tasks.
The discoveries that are coming out of this research are often surprising. Perhaps most astonishing is the brain's ability to reorganize itself — what Dr. Restak calls its "plasticity." For example, and contrary to all intuition, the musical gift known as "perfect pitch" can be acquired by almost anyone, given appropriate training at a suitable age.
These sorts of adaptations are easier in childhood, of course, but they are possible at any age. The bad news is that, as with body-building, these "rewirings " of the brain require prodigious and sustained effort, effort of will, which of course brings us right back to the central mystery, that squatting homunculus behind the eyeballs.
Further bad news is that some such reorganization of brain function may be going on at a large social scale, as a result of the shift from a words-based to an image-based society. Our grandfathers read books and wrote letters; we watch TV and send family photographs by e-mail, and do both while chatting on our cell phones. This may be causing some change in the actual nature of human consciousness, a shift from legato to staccato thinking. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may, says Dr. Restak, be "the brain syndrome of our era."
(Still with me? OK. What was I saying? Oh, never mind.)
There are all kinds of practical applications for these new brain-imaging technologies. We may, for instance, be able to get much, much better at lie detection. In one particularly unsettling experiment quoted by Dr. Restak, a group of white Americans carefully screened to be free of any racial bias were shown pictures of people from different races. Several of the subjects exhibited intense activity in a fear-anxiety area of their brains when viewing pictures of black people. As the author notes dryly: "While the subjects said one thing, their brains said the opposite." One can think of some politicians one would like to see undergo this test.
In a chapter titled "Cosmetic Psychopharmacology," Dr. Restak starts from the possibilities for better treatment of mental disorders, then takes us into the area of "lifestyle drugs." As well as offering relief for major horrors like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer's, the neuro-pharmacologists can now take on shyness, pessimism, grief, forgetfulness, and everyday transient unhappiness.
The ethical problems are of course obvious, and have been topics of discussion in a theoretical sort of way since at least the publication of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" 70 years ago. They will soon become very pressing, as the brave new world of no-worries pharmacologically-induced hedonism is now upon us.
On the whole, though, this is an upbeat book. We are, says Dr. Restak, headed for some problems we are going to have to think very hard about (perhaps with the assistance of concentration-aiding drugs), but we shall also be able to perform wonders of healing. One of the most remarkable examples of "plasticity" is the brain's ability to take information from one sense organ and interpret it as if it had come from another. We have had hints of this for a long time.
The condition, or gift, of synesthesia, for instance, in which words or letters are seen as having certain colors, has been noted for at least 100 years; the novelist Vladimir Nabokov testified to it. Ordinary language blurs sensory categories all the time: "I see what you mean about that loud tie he's wearing — it stinks!" Our understanding of these phenomena is now close to the point where we can bring sight to the blind and sound to the deaf. These are wonderful developments.
At the end of all this is, or soon will be, the ability to observe and transmit thought itself. Says Dr. Restak: "The technology exists to make simple forms of telepathy an achievable goal." Brave new world, indeed. "The New Brain" is a stimulating tour of the frontier zones of neuroscience, out of which will emerge the most important discoveries, and the most challenging ethical conundrums, of this new century.
To cope with these things, the human race is going to need great resources of wisdom — a quality that, I note with some dismay, goes unmentioned in this book's index, and whose location in the folds and crevasses of the brain has apparently not yet been determined.