Robert Winston

The Human Mind - and how to make the most of it

The way we think is so much a part of us that maybe we don't consider how it could have been otherwise. Then again, if we are feeling depressed or we are struggling with some complex problem we might wonder if there is a better way of dealing with it - surely scientists must have found ways to improve our mental powers. Likewise we may wonder whether the conflicts which arise in our dealings with other people could be avoided. There is generally plenty of advice, but little in the way of solid evidence. In this book Robert Winston tells us what scientific work has been done on the various aspects of our mind and what we do with it.

What makes us what we are

Winston starts by looking at the structure of the brain and the way that different senses are connected to it. There has been much recent work using fMRI scanners which have been able to see which parts of the brain are affected by different stimuli. We see how the physical state of the brain corresponds to the mental state of a person - indeed in the past mentally ill patients were sometimes treated by cutting away parts of the brain. Winston tells us how this procedure has fallen into disrepute. More recently the cutting of the corpus callosum has been used as a treatment for severe epilepsy, resulting in 'split-brain' patients who have been the subject of many scientific studies.

The book also looks at our character - whether we are introverts or extroverts for example. There are several passages on how playwrights represent different aspect of someone's character. Winston also looks at the way we are persuaded into a certain course of action by advertising and the like.

Emotions and relationships

Chapter 8 'The loving mind', deals with the phenomenon of falling in love, but it is not just about one to one relationships but also social behaviour in general. Winston looks at how we recognise the emotional state of other people and the problems of those who are not able to do so. Emotions are also the subject of chapter 5 'The emotional mind', where the physical nature of emotions is examined. There is sometimes a tendency to see some illnesses as 'all in the mind'. Conversely emotional problems may be considered to have a physical cause, and so are dealt with by medication . This book shows that such views are too simplistic, but that emotional wellbeing and physical wellbeing do indeed tend to go together. There is also a section on narcotics and what makes drugs addictive.

How to make the most of it

So does Winston give us any advice on how to make the most of our minds? Well chapter 6 'The learning mind' looks at mental development in children as well as different types of memory. But for advice you should read the last chapter which is mostly concerned with creativity. I have to say that he strikes me as a highly sceptical person, so don't expect any 'magic' procedures for improving your brainpower. But there is plenty of useful information on what has been shown to improve mental abilities. Of course it is well known that exercise improves you mental state. On the question of diet, far from it just being an old wives tales that fish is good for the brain, Winston tells us how this view is supported by studies which have looked at the effect of fish oils on the development of children.


My one criticism of the book is that it is a bit of a jumble - occasionally it seems like just a collection of anecdotes. Possibly this is because the book was released in conjunction with a television series, and so has a different structure from a book on its own. But the book does cover a wide area - if you have read Draissma's book on memory or Edwards' book on drugs then you will find extra information of interest here. In fact my main criticism of those books was that they didn't go deeply enough into the science of their subject, and this book helps to fill that gap, without becoming too technical. It contains plenty of fascinating information and I think that anyone would benefit from reading it.