Review: The Future of the Brain by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman

December 11, 2014
The Future of the Brain edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman (Princeton University Press, £16.95)

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If you want a breezy, whistle-stop tour of the latest brain science, look elsewhere. But if you’re up for chunky, rather technical expositions by real experts, this book repays the effort. The message lies in the very diversity of the contributions: despite its dazzling array of methods to study the brain, from fMRI to genetic techniques for labelling and activating individual neurons, this is still a primitive field largely devoid of conceptual and theoretical frameworks. As the editors put it, “Where some organs make sense almost immediately once we understand their constituent parts, the brain’s operating principles continue to elude us.”

Among the stimulating ideas on offer is neuroscientist Anthony Zador’s suggestion that the brain might lack unifying principles, but merely gets the job done with a makeshift “bag of tricks.” There’s fodder too for sociologists of science: several contributions evince the spirit of current projects that aim to amass dizzying amounts of data about how neurons are connected, seemingly in the blind hope that insight will fall out of the maps once they are detailed enough.

All the more reason, then, for the sceptical voices reminding us that “data analysis isn’t theory,” that current neuroscience is “a collection of facts rather than ideas” and that we don’t even know what kind of computer the brain is. All the same, the “future” of the title might be astonishing: will “neural dust” scattered through the brain record all our thoughts? And would you want that uploaded to the cloud?