Amazing Discussion Marred By Myopia In Its Final Act. This book, by the guy that created the Palm Pilot (who has since turned to study neuroscience, which he had wanted to do from the beginning apparently), describes the intriguing new theory of how the brain works that he and his team have crafted very well. Hawkins does a truly excellent job of making the advanced theoretical neuroscience he works with approachable by all, from those who have barely ever heard of the word “neuroscience” to his colleagues and competitors in the field. In discussing the neuroscience leading up to the “thousand brain” concept and in discussing how the “thousand brain” idea directly impacts computing and artificial intelligence, Hawkins is truly amazing. The perils come in the third act, when Hawkins begins to apply the theory and what he believes it could mean directly to humans. Here, he begins to sound both Transhumanist and Randian in his claims of absolute certitude that certain beliefs are false – even while actively ignoring that by the very things he is claiming, there is so much that we simply cannot know – and therefore, logically, there can be no true certitude on these claims. While it was tempting to drop the overall work another star specifically for how bad this particular section is, ultimately the sections of the book leading up to that point are so strong that I simply can’t go quite that far. So read this book through Parts I and II, just be aware up front that Part III is the weakest section of the book and could easily be skipped entirely. Recommended.
This was an interesting look somewhat reminiscent of Radley Balko’s The Rise of the Warrior Cop or Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes in that it takes a particular field – in this case, neurotypical neuroscience – and gives a rundown of the history and current issues in the field. As an academic work, it is more lively than some, though lacks a narrative focus that some less accustomed to academic treatises would likely prefer. Overall though, it does a solid job and seems to be truly comprehensive – reading this will give you an idea of what mankind has thought about the brain from the earliest recorded histories through at least some cutting edge research.
Structurally, the book spends quite a bit of time from the earliest histories through 1950 before pivoting to spend most of the rest of the text in the last 70 years of research. Whereas the pre-1950 material is largely divided by time period, the post-1950 material is divided by approach – an interesting dichotomy, but it works. Finally, Cobb wraps up with vague generalities of where the field might be heading.
Of particular note to this reader is the discussion or lack thereof of other researchers in similar avenues that I have read over the last few months, including Richard Masland’s We Know It When We See It, about vision and perception – which Cobb never cites, but discusses some common research as it relates to perception – and Henry Markram, former head of the Human Brain Project and discoverer of the Intense World Theory of Autism. Cobb is particularly critical of Markram and the Human Brain Project, without ever mentioning his contributions to the field of neurodivergent research. (It seems that Cobb has been working from a competing approach, studying simple brains in an effort to understand more complex ones, vs Markram/ HBP’s efforts to digitally model the entire human brain.)
Overall, truly an outstanding overview of the general case of the field that doesn’t bother concerning itself with “special cases”, within its mission this is truly a solid book and is thus very much recommended.
As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
Comprehensive Review of The Field. Cobb seems to do a spectacular job here of giving a general overview of neurotypical neuroscience, from the earliest ways man thought about his brain and cognition to the most current of state of the field in some situations – one citation in particular was from 2019! He doesn’t really address neurological divergences at all, instead focusing on the brain as it is understood for most. But within what he decides to address, this book seemingly gives a very solid, very comprehensive overview of the actual science of the brain. Decently easy to follow as long as you’re ready for an academic review, this book really does what it sets out to do, no more, no less. Very much recommended.
Fascinating Yet Complicated. I seem to be the first Autistic person to be reading this book, at least from reading the available English language reviews on Goodreads after finishing the book yet prior to writing my own review.
Overall, the story is about Henry Markam, his relationship with his son Kai, and how that led to one of the most revolutionary “discoveries” in modern neuroscience: Intense World.
I personally refuse to call this a “theory” because it is fact – a fact which pretty well any Autistic Adult that can communicate can tell anyone who asks. And through this section of the book, roughly the first 2/3 of the text, this is a SHOUT FROM THE ROOFTOPS level AMAZING book. SOOO many times I wanted to literally go to skyscrapers and shout to the world “READ THIS BOOK AND UNDERSTAND ME AND MY PEOPLE!!!!!”. And even with this being something like book 135 or so on the year for me, those level of reactions are indeed rare.
But then we realize that Markram isn’t just trying to *understand* Autistics. He wants to “cure” us. Which is genocide. The text tries to couch this and make Markram and his second wife (and research partner) seem more benevolent, but at the end of the day their research is focused on the eradication of my people.
Along these veins, the recommendations the Markrams make about how Autistic children are to be treated is horrible bordering on monstrous – they want a world devoid of any stimuli other than carefully screened, carefully controlled ones, as they believe that to do otherwise is to “trigger” the development of Autism in young children.
I’m not a neuroscientist, but neither am I neurotypical. I may not be able to point to the exact chemical processes within my brain the way the Markrams can, but I can explain what I understand to be happening within my own skull better than most of my fellow Autistics (though there are some far better than even myself at this).
So I have to say, regarding the back 1/3 or so of this book, to take it with about a boulder of salt. The relationsip aspects amongst the Markrams seem genuine, and the overall goals of creating a legitimate simulation of the mammalian – and specifically human – brain are commendable and needed. But the post-Intense World proscriptions on how parents should raise their children? Take it about as you would any random stranger offering you advice – do some independent research before you commit to an action, and in this particular case… *ask an Autistic adult*, or better yet: several of us.
Overall a highly recommended yet ultimately flawed book, the front 2/3 of it are simply too good not to recommend the book as a whole.