By Zack Lynch with Byron Laursen; St. Martin’s Press, 2009; 256 pp.; $25.99; ISBN 978-031-237-862-2
Neuroscience is by any account still in its early days, and some functions of the brain, such as emotions and the subconscious, appear especially unwilling to unlock their mysteries. But functional magnetic resonance imaging, just one of many promising neuro research technologies, has already shown scientists which regions of the brain fall in love and which become addicted to drugs. As the brain unfolds itself to neuroengineers, so, too, will the consequences of this new understanding for years to come, making this a good time to take stock.
In The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World, Zack Lynch delivers on his subtitle through 210 mind-opening pages. There’s the discovery of 43 facial muscles whose microsecond twitches subconsciously reveal a criminal suspect’s emotions and truthfulness; memory bombs that produce short-term amnesia; electronic soporifics that induce a kind of temporary narcolepsy in enemy soldiers; and hedge funds such as MarketPsy Capital (which gained more than 35 percent in 2008 while the Dow Jones average dropped by an equal amount), that use neuroscience to help predict investor behavior.
Indisputably, learning how to manipulate the brain will result in vast, society-wide changes. But some are decades away. And as with any social upheavals, even the ones closer to hand might be completely unpredictable. Who in 1995 foresaw a decade of Google, Facebook, and YouTube?
Lynch, who sits on the advisory board of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and has briefed the U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense on cutting-edge neuroscience, knows his field. Nevertheless, early days are always filled with predictions that don’t come to pass: Where are our flying cars, food pills, and atomic-powered dishwashers?
If Lynch and coauthor Byron Laursen have taken on the impossible task of polishing the crystal ball, they at least succeed in clearly presenting what we know today. Nor is their view of the neuro revolution entirely upbeat. For example, they devote a page to a taut description—which could have been expanded to five or more—of how Russian special forces broke a 2002 Chechnya-related hostage crisis in a Moscow theater using still-undisclosed neurochemicals. The authors report a consensus suspicion that the Russians gassed both hostage takers and hostages with fentanyl (a synthesized opiate) and in the process killed a reported 33 terrorists and 129 hostages. All but one, they chillingly note, died of a “respiratory depression.”
Yet for all that, the book’s narrative still ultimately centers around a technology enthusiast’s vision of the future, one that may not sufficiently take into account the very emotions and motivations—often flawed and sometimes malicious—that have yet to yield themselves to science. And that our future, unfortunately, plays out not always according to the way we should be but the way we are.
About the Author
Mark Anderson is an author and science writer based in Northampton, Mass., who loves books. He recently reviewed Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age.
According to Spectrum's wordsmith, Paul McFedries, "the neuro- prefix gets quite a workout" these days. Read his August column, "Brave Neuro World."