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The Future of the Brain

Book review: ‘The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists’

By Chris Kaperak
University of Washington

According to the human brain, the brain is one of the most, if not the most, complicated systems in the universe.

The Future of the Brain, a collection of essays compiled and edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, goes to great lengths to convince the reader of this statement, offering insight into current areas of neuroscience, ranging from brain mapping to treating neurological disorders.

A collection of leading neuroscientists, including Marcus and Freeman, each contributed an essay to the book, which is divided into sections by topic. Readers will appreciate different sections more than others, depending on their educational background. “Implications,” for example, focuses on applying previous research to new technology and treatments relevant to the brain, so people interested in medicine may find this section very enjoyable. However, the same group that likes “Implications” may have more difficulty with other sections focusing on computational sciences or brain simulations. Fortunately, a section like “Skeptics” helps to bridge this divide, as it examines neuroscientific research more broadly and has some of the most accessible chapters in the book.

The number of essays also varies between topics, as the section on brain mapping has five essays, while the section on analyzing brain stimulation has only two. This variation was not detrimental, but longer sections did indirectly take away from the shorter ones due to the time one spends reading them, making them a little bit easier to forget about.

Given that “The Future of the Brain” has 22 contributors, a reader must engage with 22 voices. Like other collections of essays, this book struggles with unpredictable variety in content difficulty and skill of the author. Some of the authors took the time to define concepts at the level of those outlined in introductory biology classes offered here at the UW, while others wrote for an audience already possessing at least a strong background in biology, if not also familiarity with physical or computer scientific principles. This dissonance made it difficult to know what to expect from the next essay.

“The Future of the Brain” is not a book to be read in a weekend. The high level of much of the neuroscientific principles require a careful reading of each essay to understand the author’s argument. Since the essays are divided by similarity of the field of research presented, later chapters in the book will reinforce a reader’s understanding of new concepts by refreshing the reader in the next essay. However, since projects and ideas overlap at times, the essays also blur together due to this repetition, especially when read in quick succession.

Various projects and organizations associated with current neuroscience, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, located in Seattle, and the Blue Brain Project, appear in multiple chapters. Reading about what work people are doing under the umbrella of these impressive and vaguely-named institutions help make the research in the book feel more relevant to the actual world, and the difficulty of the work in the book shows why these large groups are needed to facilitate brain research.

At the end of the book, two neuroscientists, including one of the editors, provide a surprise conclusion. Pretending they have been visited by a time traveler from the future full of knowledge of neuroscience, they describe the past, present, and future of neuroscience, blurring historical fact and an imagined future. One of the longest chapters of the book, it was also one of the most engaging, as this story excellently summarized the slow development of knowledge of the brain 50 years ago, offered a review of the research presented in the book and other studies of today, and what advances will and will not be made in the future.

Especially interesting in the future of neuroscience is how the writers imagine the ethics surrounding future simulated human brains and identify which brain functions being researched now that will likely still be poorly understood in the future, including language, the focus of an entire section of “The Future of the Brain.”

While certainly not a relaxing weekend read, The Future of the Brain offers a broad spectrum of introductions to different fields of current neuroscience research, perfect for readers interested in going beyond basic neuroscience.

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