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19Nov

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.

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