A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention and the Four Theaters of the Brain, John M. Ratey M.D. (New York: Pantheon, 2001)

In his acknowledgements Ratey describes this book as a popularized condensation of a much larger project, a forthcoming “primer on the brain for mental health professionals.” He acknowledges that the book is actually ghostwritten by Mark Fischetti, a professional science writer and editor. The strengths and the very annoying features of this book derive from these facts. The book surveys a lot of contemporary research in the neurosciences and psychology, and so is sure to prove both interesting and informative to anybody but the best read specialists in these fields. On the other hand, there is an annoying gee whiz tone to much of the writing. Moreover, in many places the popularization has slipped over the edge into plain old dumbing down, so the reader is left wondering what the point of some particularly lame metaphor is supposed to be, or just what the author thinks he is explaining at a particular point.

Let’s begin by considering some of the books virtues. Brain research, as everybody knows, is booming. In any booming science, it is impossible even for most specialists to keep up with new developments, let alone the rest of us. Just about every reader, even those who read a bit of this and a bit of that about the brain, will be surprised by many of the results Ratey and his ghostwriter report. One that surprised me, for instance, was the link between rheumatic fever and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (p.152-53). For those who haven’t read any other books of this type, many of the larger themes the authors labour over might be informative, too: the crucial role of attention to cognition, the surprisingly strong link between motor activity (i.e., moving one’s body around) and purely “mental” activity, and how much more complex memory is – and how much more prone to self-delusion and manipulation we are – than we though, are all things well worth knowing about.

Of particular interest to readers of this website, the authors make several mentions of Autism. There are two main discussions of Autism in the book. In the first, they consider it as a result of perceptual problems (pp.78-84), such as a sort of hypersensitivity to environmental stimulii, or as a brain problem which slows the processing of the fragments of information from the environment to such an extent that a person can’t piece the various fragments together into a coherent whole. An example they use of the latter phenomenon is a child whose gaze becomes fixed on his mother’s nose so that by the time he has processed that information and is able to shift his gaze to the mother’s mouth she has turned away with the result the child misses the smiling lips, and so is in no position to form an overall impression of the mother’s expression.

In the final chapter of the book (esp. pp. 306-07 and 324-25) they describe a somewhat different theory on which the problem is not with the information being delivered to the brain from the extremities or with its initial processing, but is a problem with directing attention. The authors do a nice job of making clear the crucial role of the ability to sensibly direct one’s attention in successfully getting around in the world. What is the texture of the chair you are sitting on right now? You can probably tell, and now that you’re thinking about it you are probably aware of a constant flow of information northward from your buttocks. Nothing has changed in your bodily posture, which suggests that the information has been available to you all along. But it’s very likely that you were entirely unaware of these messages from below before you read the question. Think now of how many different sorts of information are available at all times in this way: Are the lights in the room humming? How tight are your shoes? Without the ability to attend to one or a few of these phenomena at a time, ignoring the rest at least at the level of conscious awareness, our mental resources would presumably be overwhelmed. The theory is that Autism is a disorder which, one way or another, prevents this focussing from working properly, either by allowing that sort of overwhelming of mental resources to take place, or by allowing a person to focus on things which ought not to be salient in the context.

The authors suggest that either of these theories – which they don’t really distinguish or compare – would go a long way to explaining some of the other characteristic features of Autism. For example, the inability to pick up the subtle cues, such as subtle changes in facial expression, which play a crucial role in much run-of-the-mill social interaction can be accounted for by either theory; a person with Autism will, on the first theory, often simply be unable to collect the information at all. On the second theory, on the other hand, the information will find its way to his or her brain but will not, in general, be sifted out from the “noise” coming from elsewhere in the environment.

This is an ongoing theme of the book. Wherever possible, the authors would like to explain problems which are often described in behavioural terms in terms of a problem with the perceptual system or with the lower-level, non-conscious initial processing of information in the brain. The primary motive for doing so is that such an explanation is likely to destigmatize the behaviour – if one is unwilling to enter unfamiliar social settings, it is a liberating experience to find out that this is due to an undetected hearing impairment rather than to being “phobic”. This is all quite laudable, though one can’t escape the impression that the authors might be overestimating the extent to which such explanations will be available for all the various disorders that are around. For instance, if either of the theories of Autism above turns out to be right for a large class of autistic people, as seems plausible, there still seem to be many phenomena, some reported by the authors themselves, which are left unexplained, such as the famous experiments which seem to show that many people with Autism do not understand the practice of pretending.

Let’s turn now to a few of the less pleasing features of the book. Most annoying for me is a remarkable feat the authors perform: they combine the breathless rhetoric of contemporary writings about advances in the brain sciences with the vapid bromides of a self-help book.

The book is littered with remarks like this one: “I hope you begin to get excited as you realize that what we now confront in the neurosciences is more enthralling than the computer or cyberspace in all its glory. Discoveries in the next thirty years will transform not merely our world, but our very selves.” This sort of bosh is dead common in popularizations of neuroscience, which seem to bank on a readership that’s not in a position to call the author’s bluff. I’m sure it’s bad form to quote another review in a review, but I can’t resist. When responding to a strikingly similar passage in his review of Paul Churchland’s The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul, Jerry Fodor remarks:

If you’re in the research business, you will recognize at once the rhetoric of technohype. It is the idiom of grant proposals and of interviews in the Tuesday New York Science TimesThe breakthrough is at hand; this time we’ve got it right; theory and practice will be forever altered; we have really made fantastic progress, and there is now general agreement on the basics; further funding is required. Professionals are inured to this sort of stuff and write it, and write it off, as a matter of course. I hope that the laity will prove to be equally cynical.

Indeed. The various neurosciences are in rapid transition, and there is a lot of interesting work uncovering the workings of various parts of the brain. But we really have no more idea than people had in the 17th Century about the things we really care about, namely how the brain gives rise to those features of our mental lives of most importance to us, for instance how a material substance of this sort can give rise to conscious experiences, i.e., experiences which it is like something to have.

What makes Ratey’s performance more appalling to me than the shameless self-promotion one finds in books like Churchland’s is that he sells his story as one which might illuminate conditions such as Autism or depression, and so be a key to relief of suffering and to achieving a better life for people made desperate by such conditions. The key to constructing happier lives, he assures his readers, is coming, and it is coming from neuroscience. But the shape of the assistance we will get is unfortunately rather vague. He seems to have in mind cases of the sort mentioned before: one discovers that the excessive shyness which has plagued one’s life up until now has been due to an undetected hearing disorder. Finding this out eliminates feelings of shame and, moreover, can be compensated for, and so this discovery is both transformative and liberating. This is very nice for these special cases. But it seems unlikely that such a transformation is going to be available to all of us, since the story seems to rely on the underlying source of the disorder being both of a sufficiently un-central kind (how well one’s ears work is not, for most of us, a crucial part of our self-image and feelings of self-worth) and sufficiently simple that there is some relatively straightforward modifications one can make to compensate for the problem.

There are many other problems that deserve mention.

  • The author’s can’t resist studies with a provocative conclusion, and so they report many such studies only to mention at the end that the study is not taken seriously by researchers in the field. This is a problem whenever one is considering research in the human sciences, where much research seems to be ideologically motivated, especially in fields like sociobiology.
  • This seems to be related to the authors approach to politically sensitive topics, such as the recent fierce debates about recovered memories. Here was a debate where ideology definitely trumped accuracy, but the book seems to be constructed to avoid offending anybody who took part in the debate … all of whom probably deserve to be offended.
  • The research the authors report often contradicts their rhetoric. They note that the brain is much more plastic and adaptable later in life than was at one time thought, and use this as an opportunity for some feel-good rhetoric which suggests that by “knowing thyself” you’ll be able to figure out what you need to do to make up your deficits. There may, in fact, be more opportunity for this sort of thing than was once thought, but as the research in the chapter on language makes clear there are also windows which, once closed, cannot be reopened. To fail to note these limits during their flights of rhetoric is to invite readers to misconception and disappointment.
  • The “four theaters” which feature in the title of the book, are perception; attention, consciousness and cognition; brain function; and identity and behaviour. This four theaters theory is offered as Ratey’s “new perspective” on the mind-brain, and is the subject of a chapter of the book. The benefit of this new perspective is supposed to be that by categorizing disorders by the theater in which they occur one will be in a better position to understand how to respond to them. It’s not clear if it’s due to the attempt to popularize the theory, or if the problem is in the theory itself, but I couldn’t detect any principled reasons for dividing things up in the way Ratey does, nor could I see that labelling a disorder as belonging to one theater rather than another allowed any explanation which wasn’t available just by understanding the disorder.
  • The authors glibly pronounce that in spite of the fact that much of the language used in the cognitive sciences is taken from the theory of computation, “the brain is nothing like the personal computers it has designed” because it does not assemble thoughts and feelings from bits of data. Of course, as assembling thoughts and feelings from bits of data is exactly how they describe the workings of the brain at many, many points later in the book, though they struggle manfully to avoid using these terms. Instead, they opt for a series of alternative metaphors, many of which will leave any reader scratching his head. I frankly don’t see how it’s particularly more informative to think of the mind as a river than as a computer, especially in light of the fact that at some levels of description the mind indisputably is, literally, a computer, while there is no sense in which it is a river. Maybe this is another spot where Ratey and his ghostwriter have decided that readers would not be able to follow a more accurate description, and so opt for handwaving. I don’t think that was a good choice.
  • Finally, I must mention that when the book wanders away from simply reporting scientific research and treads into philosophy or theology, the writing is particularly simple-minded and inept. Consider this passage about a jungle: “Even if you know the exact number of tigers, beetles, parrots, monkeys, and banana trees, you have no hope of knowing which species will fare the best in the long run. Every single event has the potential to upset the balance of power and thus to change every subsequent event. In such a complex system, it really is up to the monkeys and tigers to see who gets the upper hand.” So far, so good. What’s it got to do with us? Well, our brains are even more complex than a jungle, says Ratey, and so there is no predicting how a particular factor will influence the future states of the brain. This conclusion seems warranted. But that’s not what Ratey says. Instead, he goes on as follows: “In a system as complex as our brain, it really is up to us, and this is why it is so crucial that we learn about or brains. We do have free will, in a sense, for everything we do affects everything that follows, and the brain develops in a largely unpredictable way.” But the analogy fails miserably: there’s nothing to play the role of “us” in the jungle. It’s up to the monkeys and tigers. Similarly, in the brain it’s up to the things taking part in the struggle inside the brain to determine what is going to happen if this “neural Darwinism” is correct, that is, it’s up to neural pathways, not to the person in whom the brain resides nor to the brain as a whole. If the analogy holds, “we” are in the position of the jungle as a whole, not of the monkeys and tigers, and the jungle doesn’t determine what’s going on. So even if “in a sense” this story means we have free will, that’s a sense of free will that nobody has ever cared about and nobody wants. Notice also that even those behaviours which nobody would count as the result of free will, such as compulsive behaviour, have the potential to affect everything that follows in largely unpredictable ways. This passage would get a mighty low mark in a first year philosophy course. This leaves me with a nagging worry that maybe specialists in other fields will find the authors attempts to tread in their territory similarly incompetent.

David DeVidi
Department of Philosophy
University of Waterloo