In this sweeping and electrifyingly sceptical book, [Cobb] tells the story of the scientific understanding of the brain, from early philosophers’ intuitions to the balked, frustrated present ... The second, and best, half of the book focuses on modern science. It is cleverly linked to the history, though, making us painfully aware of how what we think now depends on our inherited beliefs, and how future scientists will look back on our times with the same horrified wonder we have when we read about Gall and Aldini ... Cobb is even more bruisingly sceptical about brain scans ... First the brain was a telegraph, then it was a neural network. Now we seem to have run out of metaphors. Cobb concedes that some unknown technology might yet bestow insight, but, as a good zoologist, he puts his trust more in the patient study of simpler structures. Out of the stomachs of lobsters, perhaps, will come wisdom.
This ambitious intellectual history follows the changing understanding of the brain from antiquity to the present, mainly in Western thought ... With refreshing humility, [Cobb] contends that science is nowhere near working out what brains do and how — or even if anything is like them at all ... for the popular audience he targets, Cobb’s account is an important contribution: few have offered such accessible insights, with choice examples and clear explanations of the societal factors that lie beneath ... The Idea of the Brain puts our current predicament in context and synthesizes much that needs attention. It is a very good book. It could have done more in a time when science is coming to terms with the limitations of the straight, white, wealthy, Western, non-disabled, male perspective. But I hope it provokes contemplation about why certain metaphors linger, where they come from, how they persist, and in what ways they burden us with the invisible assumptions of past cultures.
In the midst of a public health crisis that is rapidly revealing itself to be a mental health crisis as well, we may need a new idea of the brain — and its limits — as a tool for organizing both medicine and self-understanding. There are clues in Cobb’s books about how to reckon with neuroscience and its limits ... Having given us a first-rate history, Cobb can’t tell us what lies ahead ... Of all the next steps we might take, perhaps the hardest is in the other direction: a step back, to reflect not just on the metaphors we live by — drawn from computing, warfare, and gaming — but on what we live for and how we might live better. History is one way to step back, and Cobb’s is a great model.