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Seung has written a clear and remarkably accessible introduction to the connectome - the physical wiring of the brain. But it is also a visionary work, arguing persuasively that the essence of personal identity consists in the information that the connectome instantiated. A fascinating book, but sadly lacking in formal references.
My husband is into learning about the way the mind works and science. This book was a bit difficult to follow at times, being somewhat scientific, but he thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot from it.
In "Connectome: How the Brains Wiring Makes Us Who We Are," Sebastian Seung provides a refreshing new look at the how the brain is wired (our connectome) and how our knowledge of this wiring can redefine how we think of our brain and who we are. This book is written for any level of knowledge in the field of neuroscience and through this review, I hope to provide a brief overview on the book and what is involved in the study of the connectome.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, finding Seung's diverse background in both computing and neuroscience very interesting in his approach to studying the brain. While the book does go into areas "beyond humanity" and some heavy philosophical and religious ideas that I felt did not belong in this kind of book, I found the different take on the study of connectivity very interesting and informative.
The book is divided into 5 parts that break down where we have come from, where we currently are, and where we should go in analyzing the structure of our brains connections.
"Does Size Matter"
In the first section of the book, Seung explains much of the major scientific advances in neuroscience that have brought us to where we are today. He does a great job by explaining previous beliefs about the brain and how, through advances in imaging technology and several famous case studies, we have found that most of our initial thoughts were far from accurate. The field of neuroscience has spent years trying to determine what differences in size and shape of our brains has meant and how these differences shape who we are. Seung also starts to emphasize the importance at looking at the brain at a finer scale to find out exactly how the brain is organized.
The second part of the book is dedicated to providing background on the neurons of the brain. Being one of the most important and fundamental elements in neuroscience, the author goes into great detail and uses many easily understood representations to describe the how the neuron functions in itself and also how neurons interact with one another. Memories are one of the most important examples of how neurons can change and create new connections with one another in order to "save" information. Seung discusses that much of what we know about memories involves groups of neurons and regions of the brain and in order to better understand what makes a memory at the neuron level, better technology must be available.
"Nature and Nurture"
One major area of study is how our genome (entire collection of our genes) and our connectome (entire connections of our neurons) are related. Many agree that both are very important in determining who we are and become. While our genes may initially determine how our brains develop, Seung explains that the connections that are formed thereafter depend on our experiences and attempts to shed some light on how that may occur. Seung also introduces the four types of connectome change - reweighting, reconnection, rewiring, and regeneration ("The four R's") and their importance in improving normal brains and helping to heal diseased or injured brains.
The largest part of the book focuses on the new science of connectomics and the advanced technologies being invented for finding connectomes. Seung already emphasized the importance of looking at the connections of neurons themselves to fully understand how the brain is wired, so most of this section brings up the flaws of current techniques that are unable to provide the resolution and clarity that he claims is essential in connectomics. While current methods of dividing the brain rely mostly on functional divisions, Sueng argues that we must return to dividing the brain based on structural differences that would be apparent given greater imaging technologies and methods. Finally, the author adds that knowledge of the molecules involved in the four R's of connectome would be essential to creating treatments to change the connections of the brain to treat brain disorders and diseases.
In the last section of the book, Seung goes beyond the study of the connectome into a much more philisphical realm of life and death and what it means to be human. Proposing ideas such as scanning someone's brain to create a personal computer simulation and preserving peoples brains for future resurrection, the author goes back and forth between topics of science and religion. While some points he makes are grounded with some scientific basis, he goes above and beyond in ideas that many would consider unethical. The transition from looking at the connectome as a way research and treat diseases to a way to address the meaning of life seemed out of place and irrelevant to an otherwise very interesting book on the brain.
This book is written for those with a new found interest in neuroscience and the experienced experts alike and uses simplistic and relevant representations to help get across the most detailed of concepts. The use of stories and personal experiences of the author also make the book very interesting in the midst of some very dense topics and ideas. The structure of the book also makes for a relatively quick read as Seung divides each of the five parts into several chapters that each cover a few main ideas. He also includes a section of footnotes at the end of the book that can be referenced for further insight and specifics of much of the research mentioned.
Overall, I thought this book was very interesting and is a great read for anyone with a significant interest in neuroscience. Because much of the book consists of the author's personal opinions and ideas, the information in the book should be taken as such and used more as a foundation for ones own ideas and not a scientific reference. A lot of what the author suggests in the book as far as directions of study are very futuristic and dependent on technology that currently doesn't exist. Since much of the advice and ideas are hypothetical, it is difficult to find relevance to current research in the field and Seung is much better at explaining how much we actually do not know regarding the connections in the brain. I thought the final section of the book was very irrelevant to the books purpose of explaining the connectome and does more harm than good in bringing up controversial religions and ethical topics and ideas.
In discussing the wiring of the brain, Sebastian Seung claims that "connectomes are like vast books written in letters that we barely see, in a language that we do not yet comprehend." This book does an excellent job in explaining where we have come from and presents some ideas on where we should go, but the way we are going to get there is very unclear.
If you are looking for a book that explains the basic foundation of connections in the brain and don't mind sifting through some very abstract ideas, than I highly suggest this fun and interesting read.
Who are we? What are we? Dualists take the position that the mind is separate from the brain, while monists say they are the same thing. The connectome presents an intriguing third option: the mind is not the brain per se, but rather the way that the neurons are connected. Sebastian Seung presents this using everyday language, relating the effects to everyday occurrences and meaning. Your genes determine how your body grows from an egg to an adult. Your connectome is determined only partially by your genes, and quite a bit larger part by your experiences. It is almost a platitude: your experiences make you what you are, but in this book we have a clear explanation of why and how that works.
Part I starts by looking at the history of brain science. Phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull, is a largely discredited pseudoscience, but Seung teases us with the idea that phrenology at least promoted the idea that certain kinds of mental processing is associated with certain parts of the brain. Brain size has always been a historical fascination, but it is the structure that is important, not the size. Penfield's sensory homunculus maps specific sensory functions to specific parts of the brain. Phantom senses from amputated limbs can be found in this mapping.
Part II starts with the building blocks: neurons, how they function, how they grow, and most importantly how they connect. Seung's unconventional style leads us to the 'Jennifer Aniston neuron' which apparently we all have. It is a specific neuron that is triggered when we recognize Jennifer Aniston. Similar neurons exist for all other specific concepts that we have come to know. This brings him to an explanation of how memory works. Neurons are triggered or inhibited through their connections. The repeated firing of neurons at the same time cause neurons to create new synapses -- new connections that are the basis for long term memory. Learning is then simply the making of new connections between neurons. The way we perceive the world, and the way we remember what happened to us in the past, all comes from the pattern of connections between the neurons. The future of psychiatry is destined to be reduced to a new field called connectopathy: the ways that the connectome might be mis-wired.
However, connections are not simply binary on-off mechanisms. The connectome in changed through four different mechanisms which he calls the four R's of connectome change: reweighting, reconnection, rewiring, and regeneration.
Part IV shifts to more practical matters: how can we measure and study the connectome? He surveys the various means for solidifying the brain, slicing it, photographing, recognizing the structures, and tracing the path of nerves and how they are connected. For a worm with 302 neurons this has been done, but this is hardly a practical approach for humans-scale brains. MRI and other techniques allow studying living brains. It is all a bit too course grained for now, because while understanding the function of regions of the brain is important, it is the actual specific connections between specific neurons that form actual intelligence. Technology allow for increasingly fine observations, and increasingly massive data result sets, and it would appear that some day it may be possible to map your connectome.
Part V concludes the book with some interesting speculation that is sure to please the science fiction fans among us: can we achieve immortality through scientific means? First, can we freeze or pickle ourselves and be revived in the far future when death has been cured? Second, can we be uploaded to a software simulation of the brain. If the connectome can be fully traced in an individual, there is no reason that a simulation of the nerves would not produce a running facsimile of that individual with all their memories and skills. However, that copy of the person would be that: a copy, and not the original individual. It would make no sense to desire that a copy of ourselves achieves immortality, however some connectomes are wired to be insanely egocentric, and just might decide to do it anyway.
One tidy book brings us up to date on the state of neurology -- at least at a level that can be understood without a background in neurology. The book has to dispel a lot of myths and historical pseudoscience. It also makes it clear that we are still just at the beginning of the journey of understanding how the connectome achieves its most baffling result: a sense of consciousness.
Connectome, by Sebastian Seung is a discussion of modern neuroscience from the perspective of the neuron. It combines some philosophy with cutting edge neuroscience techniques and considers the possibilities of the future. If one is interested in how the mind works, where science of the mind is going and what potentials future research hold, this is a must read. The author's research is very broad in topic and far reaching in its potential to give insight into the working of the mind. This is very much a broad strokes account rather than scientifically rigorous but it is hard not to get excited about the future of the authors research from this book.
The author breaks down the book into 5 sections tackling different ideas. He starts out discussing the size of brains and the weak correlations between intelligence and brain size. He gives evidence that there is a correlation of size of brain and with intelligence- but is careful to remind the reader that correlation and causation are not the same thing. In addition, ideas about the mapping of actions and skills to certain brain regions is discussed - ie speaking with one part of the brain hearing with another. From the first theories of mind, the author bridges to the second part of the book which is the theory of mind from the perspective of the neuron. The theory of mind from the perspective of the neuron is the more evolved theory and the one the author is currently doing his own research on. The author continues on to discuss nature and nurture and the way the environment impacts the formation of our brains. He brings up the examples of children brought up in the wild or isolated from human contact who are unable to change when they are discovered and tried to be incorporated in human society. In particular the development of the mind has environmental prerequisits that are life stage dependent. The author then discusses connections in the brain in greater detail and how they are formed, revitalized and change over time. Understanding how neural connections work and are maintained is critical for understanding the mind. The author ends with a discussion of cryogenics and the science of it. It is an interesting philosophical and practical discussion of the permanence of the mind and what is needed for it.
Connectome is very interesting and will excite the public about current fields of neuroscience. The author is in the process of trying to map the full connectome (connection of neurons) of rats. An enourmous feat given the exponentially growing complexity associated with the mapping of neurons. I enjoyed the book and think its a worthwile read, my only hesitation in giving it 5 stars it is light on science relative to such recent books as Kandel - In Search of Memory. It is more of a speculation on what the future of neuroscience holds than a discussion of what the author is specifically doing in detail. But that minor point aside, it is enjoyable and highly interesting.
Sebastian Sung is a brilliantly lucid writer. His analogies are clear; his ideas, interesting. Sadly his medical materialism taints the whole meal. According to Sung, there is no soul. Or anything else which can't be physically measured.
Most notably missing are any references to emergent properties. Nor does he refer to the idea that the knowable real world is based on naturally occurring fractal patterns, rather than on logically linear patterns. Worse yet, no where does he mention the idea that the only way to make scientifically accurate, real world measurements is with tipping-point based math. To Sung, simple counting math is enough.
Why give this book four stars then? Sung's explanations are amazingly clear. For this alone, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in neuro anatomy.
What about the fact that Sung believes the non material aspects of life all reduce to neurons? Well, geniuses are allowed their biases. And Sung is truly a genius. Steven Paglierani
Prof. Seung kann sehr gut und klar erklären, die Idee der Connectome ist gut begründet und logisch sinnvoll und consistent. Der Grundmechanismus wird einleuchtend dargestellt. Meiner Meinung nach wird zu viel Gewicht auf die Messmethoden und deren Erklärung gelegt; dies kann man nachschauen, oder gehört in den Appendix. Es fehlen mir mehr Beispiele und Diagramme für mögliche (oder bereits bekannte!) Connectome. Und es fehlt etwas der Bezug (oder die Abgrenzung!) zu den Netzwerkanalysen, wie sie von Olaf Sporns durchgeführt werden; diese könnten auch Grundlagen für die Connectome sein, wenn sie nicht sogar massiv überlappen.
This is a very informative book about a very complex subject. It is well-written in layman's terms and its use of analogies, case histories and anecdotes, makes for a very easy and enjoyable read. I was a little bit disappointed to find out that the second half of the book was really a listing of notes and comments and references related to the book contents. Still a good buy for those with an inquisitive mind and an interest in what makes us tick