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Brains: How They Seem to Work

Brains: How They Seem to Work

2.9 11
by Dale Purves

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For 50 years, the world’s most brilliant neuroscientists have struggled to understand how human brains really work. Today, says Dale Purves, the dominant research agenda may have taken us as far as it can--and neuroscientists may be approaching a paradigm shift.


In this highly personal book, Purves reveals how we got to this point and


For 50 years, the world’s most brilliant neuroscientists have struggled to understand how human brains really work. Today, says Dale Purves, the dominant research agenda may have taken us as far as it can--and neuroscientists may be approaching a paradigm shift.


In this highly personal book, Purves reveals how we got to this point and offers his notion of where neuroscience may be headed next. Purves guides you through a half-century of the most influential ideas in neuroscience and introduces the extraordinary scientists and physicians who created and tested them.


Purves offers a critical assessment of the paths that neuroscience research has taken, their successes and their limitations, and then introduces an alternative approach for thinking about brains. Building on new research on visual perception, he shows why common ideas about brain networks can’t be right and uncovers the factors that determine our subjective experience. The resulting insights offer a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.


• Why we need a better conception of what brains are trying to do and how they do it
   Approaches to understanding the brain over the past several decades may be at an impasse

• The surprising lessons that can be learned from what we see
   How complex neural processes owe more to trial-and-error experience than to logical principles

• Brains--and the people who think about them
   Meet some of the extraordinary individuals who’ve shaped neuroscience

• The “ghost in the machine” problem
   The ideas presented further undermine the concept of free will

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The 'Brains' in Dale Purves’ book are both the focus of his research and the intellectual giants with whom he mixed in his remarkable career. At one level Brains is a charming autobiography; at another a vivid personal account of 50 years in the evolution of neuroscience. But it also lays down a challenge to the mainstream view that simple, sequential analysis of nerve cells and their responses can explain the apparently impossible task of seeing the world as it really is on the basis of the infinitely ambiguous retinal image. Brains is a delight--for its insights into both the scientists and the science of the brain."

--Colin Blakemore, Universities of Oxford and Warwick

"Dale Purves has been a leading figure in brain science for 40 years: He has made numerous discoveries, founded departments, and written major textbooks. In Brains, he tells the story of his scientific journey and intertwines it in an elegant and accessible way with two others: the uneven progress of the field over the past half century and the new view of brain function to which the field's shortcomings have led him. Some neuroscientists are likely to disagree with Purves' heretical theories, but none can afford to ignore them."

--Joshua R. Sanes, Harvard University

"Brains is much more than a book about brains. It is a journey that takes the reader through the modern history of neurobiology, a personal account that illuminates both what we know about brains and the mysteries that remain in understanding how brains work."

--Terrence J. Sejnowski, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Salk Institute, and University of California at San Diego

"Dale Purves had the good fortune to be present at the birth of the new discipline of neuroscience, which condensed in the 1960s and 1970s from elements of physiology, anatomy, and neurology. The first half of the book tracks his odyssey through two of the linchpin departments of the new discipline, those at Harvard Medical School and University College London, to introduce the basic principles of neuroscience for nonspecialists. The book's second half encapsulates Purves' major contribution to the field of neuroscience, and particularly to visual neuroscience. The experimental tools developed during the past half century provide us with an excellent picture of the activity of individual neurons. At the same time, these tools seduce neuroscientists into a reductionist approach that focuses on the microscopic details of visual analysis. Perhaps owing to his training in philosophy, Purves recognized the evolutionary importance of the way that we see: The brain does not report an objective reality but instead provides its best guess at that reality on the basis of the fragmentary information at hand. The brain can be misled by unusual and contrived visual inputs--the basis of visual 'illusions'--but this scarcely represents a defect: The brain interprets patterns of light, darkness, and color on the basis of the most plausible natural stimuli, and it remains for researchers to learn how this interpretation comes about. Brains offers a guide to thinking like a neuroscientist."

--A. James Hudspeth, Rockefeller University

"This is a lucid, easy-to-read summary that is fascinating reading for anyone interested in what we know and do not know about how brains work. Purves brings together a unique expertise and priceless personal observations about several subfields of brain research and the scientists who have shaped our present understanding of it over the past eventful fifty years."

--Pasko Rakic,Yale University School of Medicine

"Dale Purves' Brains is my favorite sort of reading--an engaging and intelligent scientific autobiography full of vivid personal and historical accounts; the story not only of a life but of an intellectual pursuit. Purves has a unique voice, lively, outspoken, and very human--and his love of science comes through on every page."

--Oliver Sacks

"Brains is an engaging tour of human neuroscience from one of its most distinguished and opinionated practitioners. Dale Purves is a lively and informative guide to the field, having been at the scene of some of its great discoveries and having made many important discoveries himself."

--Steven Pinker, Harvard University, author of The Stuff of Thought

"A rare account of both the modern history of key discoveries in brain research by someone who was there and responsible for many of them and also a heartfelt account of the joy of it all. Dale Purves has given us an inside view of a life in science and explains with clarity what it all means."

--Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique

"Brains is a delightful book that weaves together Dale Purves' personal neuroscience history with the history and current status of the field. I enjoyed it start to finish."

--Joseph LeDoux, New York University, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self

"This book is many things. It's the memoir of an immensely likeable human (who I only previously knew as a distant giant in my field). It's people with strong personalities that give lie to the notion that science is an affectless process. But most of all, it is a clear, accessible, affectionate biography of neuroscience. This is a terrific book."

--Robert M. Sapolsky, Stanford University, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

"Both highly entertaining and educational. A masterpiece."

--Bert Sakmann, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Product Details

Pearson Education
Publication date:
FT Press Science
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
6 MB

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Read an Excerpt


This book is about the ongoing effort to understand how brains work. Given the way events determine what any scientist does and thinks, an account of this sort must inevitably be personal (and, to a greater or lesser degree, biased). What follows is a narrative about the ideas that have seemed to me especially pertinent to this hard problem over the last 50 years. And although this book is about brains as such, it is also about individuals who, from my perspective, have significantly influenced how neuroscientists think about brains. The ambiguity of the title is intentional.

The idiosyncrasies of my own trajectory notwithstanding, the story reflects what I take to be the experience of many neuroscientists in my generation. Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, famously distinguished the pursuit of what he called “normal science” from the more substantial course corrections that occur periodically. In normal science, Kuhn argued, scientists proceed by filling in details within a broadly agreed-upon scheme about how some aspect of nature works. At some point, however, the scheme begins to show flaws. When the flaws can no longer be patched over, the interested parties begin to consider other ways of looking at the problem. This seems to me an apt description of what has been happening in brain science over the last couple decades; in Kuhn’s terms, this might be thought of as a period of grappling with an incipient paradigm shift. Whether this turns out to be so is for future historians of science to decide, but there is not much doubt that those of us interested in the brain and how it works have been struggling with the conventional wisdom of the mid- to late twentieth century. We are looking hard for a better conception of what brains are trying to do and how they do it.

I was lucky enough to have arrived as a student at Harvard Medical School in 1960, when the first department of neurobiology in the United States was beginning to take shape. Although I had no way of knowing then, this contingent of neuroscientists, their mentors, the colleagues they interacted with, and their intellectual progeny provided much of the driving force for the rapid advance of neuroscience over this period and for many of the key ideas about the brain that are now being questioned. My interactions with these people as a neophyte physician convinced me that trying to understand what makes us tick by studying the nervous system was a better intellectual fit than pursuing clinical medicine. Like every other neuroscientist of my era, I set out learning the established facts in neuroscience, getting to know the major figures in the field, and eventually extending an understanding of the nervous system in modest ways within the accepted framework. Of course, all this is essential to getting a job, winning financial support, publishing papers, and attaining some standing in the community. But as time went by, the ideas and theories I was taught about how brains work began to seem less coherent, leading me and others to begin exploring alternatives.

Although I have written the book for a general audience, it is nonetheless a serious treatment of a complex subject, and getting the gist of it entails some work. The justification for making the effort is that what neuroscientists eventually conclude about how brains work will determine how we humans understand ourselves. The questions being asked—and the answers that are gradually emerging—should be of interest to anyone inclined to think about our place in the natural order of things.

Dale Purves
Durham, NC July 2009

© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Dale Purves is Professor of Neurobiology, Psychology and Neuroscience, and Philosophy at Duke University. He is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Medical School. Upon completion of an internship and assistant residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Purves was a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and subsequently in the Department of Biophysics at University College London. He joined the faculty at Washington University School of Medicine in 1973 where he was Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, and came to Duke in 1990 as the founding chair of the Department of Neurobiology in the School of Medicine. From 2003 to 2009 he was Director of Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and is now Director of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Disorders Program of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine.

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Brains: How They Seem to Work 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
jobriant More than 1 year ago
I found this book very inconsistent from beginning to end. The first few chapters are a history of brain research, much of it in first person, and reading more like a bio of the author and his career (with both positive and negative comments on his colleagues). The next several chapters become far more technical than I had expected, explaining graduate-level experiments in painful detail. The final summary chapter was rather an anti-climax. Overall, interesting, informative, sometimes tedious, sometimes enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Drinks frim his flask.
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