Twenty years ago, the neuroscientist John E. Dowling wrote a book about the brain called Creating Mind. Since then, our understanding of cellular neurobiology and even systems neuroscience has exploded. So Dowling decided to update his book. Yet our understanding of the mind has not exploded apace with our understanding of the brain—scientists and philosophers can’t even agree on a definition of what “mind” is. This updated book, called Understanding the Brain: From Cells to Behavior to Cognition, is not going to settle that debate.
Most chapters of this new version begin with an anecdote describing some poor soul who is suffering from a neurological disorder the chapter explains: Bob lost his memory as he aged; Tess had depression; Helen Keller was Helen Keller; etc. It worked for Oliver Sacks, and it works here. Professor Dowling starts off with the basics by outlining the structure and organization of the brain, the cells that compose it, and how chemical and electrical signals are transmitted through those cells. He uses the visual system, which he spent his career studying, as a synecdoche to represent how sensory data from the outside world gets perceived and processed.
This background information is the bulk of the book; we don’t get to higher brain functions like language, rationality, and emotions until the last third. The pinnacle—consciousness—is not broached until the last (and shortest) chapter.