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Book: Birth of the Mind

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Birth of the Mind addresses the relationship between DNA and the development of the brain. Most of the ideas in the book are fairly simple and easy to understand:

  • It's both nature and nurture. We start with an initial structure that is highly adaptable. You can transplant a third eye onto a creature and it's brain will create the necessary processing structures for it.
  • Genes designate structure coarsely and relatively. One more more beacons draw certain types of cells towards them along channels. The stronger the beacon, the stronger the pull. If you move the beacon, you can change the location of where something develops.
  • The same genes get reused in different parts of the body like building blocks. Very few genes are unique to the brain. This is perhaps why there are so few genes in the human genome.

You won't get too much insight into how the brain works. Birth of the Mind is more akin to civil engineering than architecture, dealing with the materials of construction rather than the function of what is constructed. Birth of the Mind is deceptively short (< 200 pages), so you shouldn't have any problem pairing it with another pop-sci brain book to fill in some of the gaps in this book.

The brevity of Birth of the Mind sways my overall review of it. The writing is mostly clear but isn't clever, the analogies are rather bland (mostly computer programming analogies), the footnotes don't provide that much additional detail, and most of the writing is an exercise in aggregation rather than drawing a clear thread through a backdrop of works. But it's short. It's short enough that I see it as a good (re)introduction for future pop-sci neuroscience readings. The Amazon reviews are almost entirely glowing, so it would appear that a lot of the readership appreciated the material within.

Someone in the future will write a better version of this book, mostly because neuroscience/cognitive science is still making important discoveries on the nature of the mind and how it is formed. I'm awaiting an author to come along in Hofstadter-like fashion and pull together all the loose threads and unify our picture of the brain, from genes all the way up to consciousness. Having listened to how Hofstadter and Marcus both emphasized chunking/recursion, perhaps someone will be able to come along and draw analogies between the way we build our complex brain out of simple building blocks and the way we build complex concepts out of simple words. Maybe this book already exists and I just don' t know about it.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on February 7, 2006 11:01 PM.

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