The Private Life of the Brain: Emotions, Consciousness, and the Secret of the Self

May 13, 2011
author |
Susan Greenfield
year published |

The Private Life of the Brain book cover

Publisher’s Weekly | How are you feeling today? Who might you be? And what do those frequently asked, but profound, questions have to do with each other? An Oxford University brain researcher and the director of Britain’s Royal Institution, Greenfield (Journey to the Centers of the Mind) has entered the crowded field of explain-the-brain books with a sophisticated, memorable and accessible set of arguments.

Other popular brain books have begun or ended with language, with philosophy, or with disease; Greenfield starts with emotions.

She gives readers long looks at the structure of the brain, at the chemical work of neurotransmitters, at young children’s behaviors and neural development, and at the effects of psychoactive drugs, from alcohol to morphine.

Despite the current excitement about brains and genes, she reminds us that “the effects of the environment” through childhood and beyond create a “personalization of the brain,” a succession of outward experiences that lead our cells and neurochemical processes to forge complex neural connections that complicate our built-in emotions.

Your personalized brain, with its complex “nets,” gives you the consciousness that modifies your feelings now: your sense of self keeps your passions in check. But extreme emotions and experiences — ”road rage,” or a rave — weaken those “nets” and consequently weaken consciousness, making you more like an animal, or an infant, than usual. “The more the mind predominates over raw emotion,” writes Greenfield, “the deeper the consciousness.”

Greenfield presents a subtle model in everyday language, introducing her readers skillfully to her precedents and rivals in neurobiology and cognitive science. Readers who care about minds and brains will have strong feelings about Greenfield’s thoughts — and many likely will feel pleased.