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It wanders off while I'm trying to concentrate. And maybe also a sense of slightly mischievous relief. After all, for much of the past two decades, neuroscientists have been claiming that they are about to conquer the territory of consciousness, freeing the rich experiences of our waking lives from the clutches of mystics and poets. For some, consciousness is the supreme achievement of the evolved human brain, the product of time-locked waves of electrical activity coursing through its billion neurons and playing an active part in shaping our futures.
For others it is a mere epiphenomenon, an illusion of what has quaintly been termed "folk psychology", while the brain gets on with the real work of registering, deciding and acting on the world. In neither case does "the unconscious" get a look-in; both these schools of thought have had a rather simple, not to say primitive view of the mind in which consciousness is the important stuff. It is what returns every morning when you wake. When you are asleep, or under anaesthetic, you are unconscious.
How boring. One particularly egregious metaphor even described consciousness as a sort of neural dimmer switch. No room for turbulent Freudian ids or controlling superegos in the rationalist world of cognitive neuroscience. Batten down the hatches of our disordered imaginations, and if they get out of control, dismiss the witch-doctors and reach for the Prozac.
So there is something refreshing about being reminded that the thoughts and feelings that constitute our mental life are a little more complicated. But Claxton's very opening words signal problems ahead.
The use of the definite article in his subtitle is merely the start of his problems. To speak of "the" unconscious immediately reifies it; sets it in opposition to a presumed "conscious" self as if each were terms with meanings as relatively straightforward as heart and head.
It concedes ground to simple-minded neuroscience in a way that becomes more troublesome as the book proceeds. Claxton's journey is something of a Plato-to-Nato, beginning with the Egyptians and Greeks, and ending with frontal lobe inhibition. But, as he warns us from the start, he is not one to prevent his mind - or pen - from wandering as he travels centuries and continents. At one moment you may be reading about Plato's view of the unconscious as a form of volcanic activity, and half a page later be immersed in a 19th-century fairy tale or Siberian shamans.
Ideas about thought and feeling from many societies are ripped from their cultural context, leaving the reader alternately intrigued and bemused. The achievement of the book is in showing convincingly how ways of conceptualising what today might be called the unconscious have varied throughout even western history, let alone the very different trajectories taken in China and India.
When we are angry, are we possessed by demons, or is our anger the product of a hormonal surge? When we hallucinate, do the gods speak through us, or is there a disturbance in our neurotransmitter metabolism? Are our dreams the bubbling to the surface of murkily repressed desires, or predictors of the future? Behind these questions lies an even more intriguing one. Has the mind itself evolved through the millennia of human evolution, such that ancient Egyptian minds really were different from ours, or do we simply use a different set of metaphors to conceptualise our experience?
Claxton writes somewhat under the influence of Julian Jaynes, who 30 years ago made an intellectual splash by talking of consciousness emerging from a more primitive "bicameral" mind though he fails to note that the archaeologist Steven Mithen, writing much more recently, makes precisely the reverse argument, that consciousness emerges as our minds become more modular.
To pose the question in literary terms, did Ulysses have as rich an inner life as Molly Bloom, or did Homer merely ignore what was so important to Joyce? In Claxton, are we learning about the history of the unconscious, or the history of ways of representing the unconscious?
Sadly he doesn't make this clear. His agenda becomes more transparent as the book proceeds. First, he must once more topple Freud from his pedestal. Not merely were his ideas about the tripartite division of the self between ego, id and superego crude, and his reductive approach to the interpretation of dreams often bathetic, but he wasn't even really original Claxton unearths a variety of intellectual precursors, from Schopenhauer onwards.
Modern neuroscience can, it seems, as tidily explain "the unconscious" as it can consciousness. Goodbye demons; goodbye the analyst's couch. It is really all about the way in which different regions of the brain, especially the massive frontal lobe, are integrated, so that each region can either activate or inactivate others.
Where the ancients only knew how to speak in metaphors, we can see unmediated into reality. Where St Augustine marvelled at the range of his own mental activity, where Descartes concluded - erroneously - cogito ergo sum, where even today philosophers are troubled by how to understand the relationship between the brain processes that we know empower mental activity and the content of that activity, the wandering mind itself, neuroscience can provide the answer.
Well, I am a neuroscientist, and after 40 years in the trade, I have my doubts. Topics Books. Society books reviews.
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The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious
The Wayward Mind an Intimate History of the Unconscious by Claxton Guy