It is remarkable how many neuroscientists lose their nerve.
They often fail to follow insights and findings to their logical conclusions.
As an example, the brain consists of hundreds of systems and circuits each dedicated to specific functions, but most also able to contribute to the overall functioning of the organ and the organism. When the need arises, they can be recruited and pressed into the service of the greater good. These systems and circuits are the fruit of millions of years of evolution, but until recently few people saw them for what they are: individuals that also belong to ever more complex organizational hierarchies. Neurons, glia cells and the other key contributors to the functions of the brain live to communicate and cooperate. Each on its own is a stunted thing. Together they can create the works of Shakespeare, or work out how to go to the moon.
Louis Cozolino is professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, and in this book he pushes the envelop of the idea that brains are social organisms that develop and grow from their interactions with each other and with the material, maternal, familial and social environments. The important point is that the brain is not a static structure. It continues to grow and develop throughout life, and experiences sculpt the physical and functional landscape of our minds and bodies. Not just traumatic or adverse experiences, but also the positive ones. Hence the idea that psychotherapy and meditation may help reverse or re-fashion the maldevelopment and faulty wiring created by events earlier in life.
The basic concept is important. There are still people embroiled in the sterile nature vs. nurture debate. I recently heard some family members of people with a neuropsychiatric problem criticizing research that suggested a role for the environment in the genesis of the disease. They felt that it was a waste of time to look at anything other than the neurology of the illness. Yet the genes expressed in the brain do not determine behavior. Instead they help to condition the ways in which we respond to the environment. One mother was incensed, saying that her son had enjoyed a perfect childhood, so the illness was not her "fault." Chances are that it was nobody's "fault," but a delicate interplay of susceptibility genes with subtle environmental factors.
In Six Parts and 23 chapters, the book gives a very good overview of the roles of genes and the environment on neuroplasticity, neurogenesis and the development of the social and emotional functions of the brain.
Part I: The Emergence of Social Neuroscience Introduction: I-Me-Mine
1: The Social Brain
2: The Evolving Brain
Part II: The Social Brain: Structures and Functions
3: The Developing Brain
4: The Social Brain: A Thumbnail Sketch
5: Social and Emotional Laterality
Part III: Bridging the Social Synapse
6: Experience-Dependent Plasticity
7: Reflexes and Instincts: Jumpstarting Attachment
8: Addicted to Love
9: Implicit Social Memory
10: Ways of Attaching
Part IV: Social Vision: The Language of Faces
11: Linking Gazes
12: Reading Faces
13: Imitation and Mirror Neurons: Monkey See, Monkey Do
14: Resonance, Attunement, and Empathy
Part V Disorders of the Social Brain
15: Impact of Early Stress
16: Interpersonal Trauma
17: Social Phobia: When Others Trigger Fear
18: Borderline Personality Disorder: When Attachment Fails
19: Psychopathy: The Antisocial Brain
20: Autism: The Asocial Brain
Part VI: Social Neural Plasticity
21: From Neurons to Narratives
22: Healing Relationships
23: Social Brain and Group Mind
The chapters are followed by selected references up to the end of 2004, followed by a good index.
Although the neurosciences have expanded enormously in the last few years, this book remains an excellent introduction to the ways in which the brain develops through life and some of the research indicating that it may never be too late to change.
I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the brain and human behavior.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life