Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Book Review: The Three-Pound Enigma - Shannon Moffett

The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the quest to unlock its mysteries

By Shannon Moffett $24.95 Algonquin Books

What could be more fascinating than the human brain? In the tradition of Oliver Sacks, Shannon Moffett takes us on a journey to meet the people who study the brain and learn their discoveries. Written as a series of essays, interspersed with little tutorials describing the brain at different periods of development, The Three-Pound Enigma provides a lively, yet meandering, tour through the modern science of the human brain. Rather than describing the facts of the brain in detached and scholarly style, Moffett humanizes the quest for the brain’s secrets by visiting the sundry cast of characters, which include renowned philosopher of the mind, Daniel Dennett, dream researcher Bob Stickgold, and neurosurgeon Roberta Glick.

While this approach may make each individual essay more interesting, ultimately the focus on personal narrative undermines the coherence of the book. The collection thus seems like a series of episodes in a PBS series rather than a unified volume about modern cognitive science. Rather than gently guided from one topic to the next logical step, the reader is awkwardly shuffled from a dream laboratory, to the controversial (and some would say marginal) topic of dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personalities) to the infant field of neuroethics. Despite this flaw, and the weakness of certain chapters relative to others, those who enjoyed Sacks’ Anthropologist on Mars or other popular work on the brain should find this book an engaging read about the fascinating bridge between brain and mind.

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