Associate Professor of Psychiatry Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Co-director, Inpatient Psychiatry James J. Peters Veterans Administration Medical Center New York
Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience is a new book written by Dr William R. Uttal. Dr Uttal is Professor Emeritus (Engineering) at Arizona State University and Professor Emeritus (Psychology) at the University of Michigan. He has authored many books, including The New Phrenology: On the Localization of Cognitive Processes in the Brain and Distributed Neural Systems: Beyond the New Phrenology. Cognitive neuroscience investigates the relationship between our minds and our brains. The main theme of Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience is what neuroscience and psychology have contributed to each other.
The book consists of nine chapters. In the first, Introduction chapter, the author writes about new developments in the technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, which allow the study of the anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology of the brain better than before. He writes that one of the important goals of the book is to critically evaluate the extent to which brain imaging has informed psychology. The author further states that there is a major ontological assumption in cognitive neuroscience that consists of the two parts: a) All mental processes are the outcome of neural activity and b) All mental processes are the outcome of the microscopic interactions and actions of the great neuronal networks of the brain. This is the proper level of analysis of the mind-brain problem (p. 5). Dr Uttal discusses the two parts of this ontological postulate and notes that the second part of this assumption determines day-to-day research activities of cognitive neuroscientists. The author also reviews implications of the ontological postulate for philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and some relevant theoretical and technical issues.
The second chapter, entitled Sensation, is dedicated to discussing sensory coding, psychophysics, perceptual processing, and neural and experiential comparisons. The author astutely notes that “Typically, the neural responses studied in humans are compound potentials that are composed of the sum of many individual neural responses. The result is that specific sensory coding mechanisms of individual neurons are obscured in the pooling process” (p. 88). In the third chapter, entitled Perception, the author discusses the imaging studies of perception and perceptual processes, such as recognition and illusions. The author suggests that the application of neuroimaging techniques to the study of perception has been relatively unproductive. He writes, “… the more complex the perceptual phenomena studied, the more inconsistent were the imaging data” (p. 138).
The fourth chapter, Emotion and Affect, examines a history of scientific research on emotions; difficulties in studies of emotions; and the role of the hippocampus, the amygdala, the mammillary bodies, the anterior thalamus, the cingulate cortex, the parahippocampal gyrus, the entorhinal cortex, the hypothalamus, the septal nuclei, and the frontal cortex in emotional behavior. The section on aggression, anger, and behavioral acting out of fears and resentments is very thought-provoking. The fifth chapter is dedicated to learning and memory. In this chapter, the author discusses a history of learning research, a taxonomy of learning types, and the search for learning and memory in the brain. The author notes that “As we learn how variable the findings are and how many different, dispersed regions of the brain seem to be involved in the many learning paradigms, further doubt is cast on the idea that specific learning processes or capabilities are localized in restricted regions of the brain” (pp. 224–225).
The sixth chapter focuses on attention. Psychological research on attention, including the history of such research, is discussed in this chapter. It is suggested that attention is a poorly understood mental process and that psychological studies of attention seldom provide definite answers even to very simple questions. The author also states that brain regions that have been associated with attention have also been involved in other cognitive processes. In the seventh chapter, entitled Consciousness and Other High-Level Cognitive Processes, Dr Uttal examines behavioral and brain imaging research on consciousness and problems associated with studies of consciousness. He also discusses various aspects of thinking and intelligence.
The eighth chapter is dedicated to a discussion of applications of cognitive neuroscience. The author writes about various applications including personnel selection and deception detection. The ninth chapter is entitled Conclusions and a New Brain Metaphor. In this chapter, the author discusses various facets of current and future cognitive neuroscience research. He suggests that “… it seems more likely in the light of current research that there are no demarcatable regions nor any regions of predetermined and fixed cognitive functionality in the brain; there are rather, just ‘softly’ bounded areas that may shrink, enlarge, or be recruited as the current task demands” (p. 378).
Mind and Brain: A Critical Appraisal of Cognitive Neuroscience offers a critical and realistic review of the current state of cognitive neuroscience. The book is very clearly written, contains a lot of interesting historical information, and would be of interest to academically oriented psychologists and psychiatrists and everybody who is interested in cognitive neuroscience.
Leo Sher, MD
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
Mount Sinai School of Medicine and
Co-director, Inpatient Psychiatry
James J. Peters Veterans
Administration Medical Center
Los Angeles, CA
The author declares no conflict of interest.