For some reason, chemistry has always been hard for me to understand. Granted, it is a complex subject, so maybe it is hard for most people to understand. In Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience, Dr. David E. Presti tries to make chemistry understandable by laying a foundation and then adding layer after layer to it. I think he has achieved success with this book. While it can be read for pleasure, it is also designed to be a textbook for college-level students. So, if you want to be challenged a bit in learning how we function, this could be a good book for you.
I enjoyed the book. It was difficult and challenging for me at times, especially in the earlier chapters, but I knew that I was making progress and learning about a fascinating human subject — the mind. There is so much we have learned about the brain and mind, and yet, as Presti points out, there is still so much to learn. And this book isn’t just about the biological side of our mind and brain. It also gets well into behavioral aspects.
Presti is a college professor with two PhDs — one in molecular biology and biophysics and the other in clinical psychology. He has a very interesting background, which includes counseling veterans with post-traumatic stress and addictions at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco and teaching Tibetan monastics in India. He doesn’t bring stories from these experiences into the book, but rather writes much as a college professor would deliver lectures in the classroom.
Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience begins with a very brief background and then we are introduced to the brain and nervous system with an historical review of our developing knowledge. Then we are led to chemistry and its role in how nerve cells function in our systems. Presti explains atoms, chemical elements, electrons and and how molecules are structured in fairly easy terms and using diagrams. While these don’t need to be memorized, of course, it is important to recognize that molecules and cells are at the core of life and we need to have a basic understanding if we are to know how we function.
There are chapters on neurons and how they communicate messages throughout our nervous system. Presti then explains cranial nerves, along with how our bodies react to stimuli with such effects as dilated or restricted pupils, faster or slower heart rates, and others. I thought the chapter titled, “Poison, Medicine and Pharmacology” was fascinating. This was followed by a chapter on psychoactive drugs, including nicotine, caffeine, opium, cocaine and more. This, too, is a subject we all know something about, so the chapter is interesting.
Following these are separate chapters on all of the senses. Presti uses what he has taught us about molecules to explain how different aromas, such as perfumes, spices, and flowers, affect our sense of smell. A similar approach is used with taste, hearing, touch, and vision.
There is an interesting chapter on brain imaging, with a chronological approach to the different methods researchers have developed and the methods’ relative merits or negative features. The author also explains both short-term and long-term memory. With so much attention on Alzheimer’s and other cognitive illness today, this is helpful base information.
Another fascinating chapter covers sleep. Readers learn about the sleep rhythms of our body and how society has fought against our natural rhythms to adapt to the working world. Dreaming is an important part of sleep, and Presti addresses this, too.
This is followed by a chapter on emotions. The author reminds us that emotions are not just the mental experience we have, but include a physical component as well. For example, we may feel sadness and then begin to cry. Or we become angry and our blood pressure rises.
The book closes with a provocative chapter on “Mind, Consciousness and Reality.” Presti suggests that intelligence can exist without awareness or what we may experience. In this way, a computer can become intelligent. However, it does not experience consciousness like humans do. As researchers further explore the brain and mind, scientists will be exploring machines and trying to get them to be more and more like humans.
For readers who have a fear of science, this may be more challenging than they want. For readers who are comfortable with concepts like molecules and neurons and how they guide our mind and brain, this will be an interesting and informative book.
Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey
W.W. Norton & Co., Inc, February 2016
Hardcover, 264 Pages