Touching a Nerve
Patricia S Churchland
W W Norton and Company Ltd, £20.00
Patricia Churchland is widely recognised as a pioneer of modern neurophysiology. The title neatly alludes to the sometimes controversial and complex relationship between neuroscience and philosophy explored in this book - also described as the brain-mind debate.
Churchland proposes that ethical questions about choice, learning and morality can be explored and understood by our growing understanding of biology and how the brain works. She guides the reader through a personal account of how neuroscience has enhanced her understanding of philosophy, often beginning with a tale from her childhood which prompted a personal conflict.
Throughout the book she draws together evidence from behavioural studies, psychological testing and neurological experiments that demonstrate the delicate interplay between function of the brain and human thought and behaviour.
Churchland doesn't shy away from provocative questions such as: Is the soul separate from the brain? Is genocide in our genes? Does sexual orientation have a biological basis? She acknowledges that "sciences of the mind can be unsettling" and draws the book to a close asserting the need for balance and caution when interpreting results.
This book provides an excellent overview and introduction to the fascinating subject of neurophilosophy. The conversational tone and anecdotal nature of the book creates an engaging narrative and prevents the complex subject from seeming impenetrable. Churchland has succeeded in creating a thought-provoking and impassioned exploration of how our brain works and what that says about us!