Re: BOOK: Brave New Brain

Date: Fri Nov 16 2001 - 11:14:13 MST

JR forwards a review of:

> Brave New Brain: Conquering Mental Illness in the Era of the Genome
> Nancy C Andreasen

I heard something interesting on this topic last weekend. We attended
New Student Parents' Day at Caltech where my son is a freshman, which
happens to also be where both I and my wife Fran went to school.
There were a number of presentations, one by the various professors
who teach freshman science classes. The biology teacher seemed to be
an especially good teacher, an entertaining and interesting speaker.
The talk he gave went something like this:

His goal in teaching introductory biology was to introduce the students
to what he feels is going to be the most important revolution in the
biological sciences in the next few decades. That is the increased
understanding of the brain and associated increase in treatments for
diseases of the brain and mental illness. Unfortunately he has found
that college freshman have very little interest in studying diseases,
since they generally consider themselves immortal. An additional problem
is that most students taking this class are physics and engineering
majors, who generally take the view that biology reduces to physics by
first principles and is not very interesting. So he has to trick the
freshmen by starting with biophysics and showing how single-molecule
interactions can lead to interesting biological behavior. This leads into
the study of biological pathways within the cell, chemical messengers,
neurotransmitters, and finally they are into brain pathology where he
wanted to lead them.

It was a good talk and I was hopeful that my son would enjoy his class.
Not all of the teachers were so engaging. Fran actually had known
this teacher, as she was a biology major when she was in college.
He does specialize in brain biology so presumably his ideas about what
areas of research are going to be most important are somewhat biased.
I was surprised, with all we hear about the genome and cures for cancer,
etc., that he would describe brain research as having the most potential
for important discoveries.

But from an Extropian perspective a greater understanding of the brain
might lead to more than just cures for disease. We could gain an
understanding of how to use our brains more effectively, and if the
taboos can be overcome, begin to know what genetic and environmental
factors influence intelligence levels. Any research which can improve
the efficiency of our most important organ, the brain, has the potential
to be truly revolutionary.


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