The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb review – lighting up the grey matter

From clockwork to computer ... this fascinating study looks at metaphors for the brain and explores the colourful history of neuroscience

Is your brain a computer? Is mine? Is Boris Johnson’s? And if so, where is the tech support hotline? Brains were once conceived of as marvellous clockwork, pneumatic or hydraulic devices, but for the last 70 years we have been encouraged to think of our wetware as our own modern technology. But the brain doesn’t contain any digital switches and was not designed for the convenience or edification of any external user. The idea that it is a computer is just the latest in a series of metaphors, and one that is looking increasingly threadbare.

So runs the argument of the zoologist Matthew Cobb’s rich and fascinating book, which divides neatly into two parts, or hemispheres. The first is a cultural and scientific history of how previous ages thought of the brain. It was a collection of cavities through which animal spirits flowed; then it became a machine, which was a breakthrough idea: perhaps you could investigate it as you might any machine, by breaking it down into its constituent parts and seeing what they do. This suggestion had to be invented, being first put forward in the mid-17th century by the Danish anatomist (and bishop) Nicolaus Steno.

Continue reading...


Journey of Humanity by Oded Galor review – inequality explained?

An study of the factors behind economic growth attempts to reveal the ‘great cogs’ that drive deve...

Read More >

Freedom to Think by Susie Alegre review – the big tech threat to free thought

The modern online environment undermines our independence of opinion, argues a human rights lawyerIt...

Read More >

How Words Get Good by Rebecca Lee review – the secret life of books

An editorial manager at Penguin tells the inside story of how an idea gets from an author’s head on...

Read More >

The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier review – high-concept thrills

In this playful French prizewinner, the mysterious duplication of a plane and its passengers kicksta...

Read More >

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig review – fifty shades of sad

Ever felt something but struggled to express it? A new book might help you put a name to your ‘prol...

Read More >

A brief history of ‘ping’, from gun fights to the NHS Covid-19 app

The word ‘pingdemic’ is spreading as fast as the pandemic. But the meanings of ping stretch from t...

Read More >