Paul Matthews & Jeffrey McQuain

Bard on the Brain


We can study the working of the human mind in two different ways. The first is to look at how people behave in different circumstances. This has been going on ever since the beginning of humanity, and is epitomised by the works of Shakespeare, clearly a keen observer of human behaviour. However, now there is a second way, made possible by advances in technology, which is to examine directly what is going on in the human brain.

This book attempts to provide a link between the two ways of looking at the mind. Each section starts with a passage from the works of Shakespeare, and goes on to look at how it can be related to a recent research in neuroscience.

The subjects covered range over a wide area, including emotions, memory and the development of the brain. Specific areas of the brain are shown to be active when we experience certain sensations such as vision, smell and temperature. There are also chapters on the how the brain deals with words and numbers, and on the activity on the brain when planning and executing an action. The last two chapters look at what problems can occur in the brain, either due to the taking of drugs or to aging and disease. The passages from Shakespeare likewise range over a wide selection of his plays, from the 'Brave new world' of The Tempest to Macbeth's Dagger. However, sometimes the links between a section of a play and an area of neuroscience do seem a bit forced.

Associating on thing with another is a known way of remembering a subject, so one might think that this book would be useful for those learning about the brain. However I found that it worked more the other way round, in making some of the characters from Shakespeare more memorable, but not really having the right structure to teach you about neuroscience. Somehow breaking up the narrative into sections convenient to fit in with a passage from Shakespeare means that there is not really any continuity of the ideas needed for serious study. Also I feel that a book linking neuroscience to earlier theories of human behaviour should have given some space to ideas from the philosophy of mind.

The book is well laid out and has plenty of pictures, of both Shakespearian actors and brain scans. Hence I would say that is would make an excellent coffee-table book, but for a deeper understanding of the subject I would look elsewhere.

Published by University of Chicago Press, May 2003      ISBN 0972383026

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