Review: The Three Pound Enigma

How does "the mind" emerge from the brain? We are closer to a coherent answer than ever before, thanks to accumulating evidence from a variety of fields - including cognitive neuroscience, clinical psychology, internal medicine, somnology, and even modern philosophy. In "The Three Pound Enigma", Shannon Moffett explores the cutting-edge of these disciplines, literally: from the risky operation by neurosurgeon Roberta Glick described in the first chapter, to penetrating theoretical discussions with the sharpest researchers around (including vision scientist Christof Koch and philosopher Daniel Dennett), this book provides a cross-section of current brain research.

Unlike so many popular science books, "The Three Pound Enigma" has something for novices and experts alike. Clear explanations of everything from fMRI technology & K-complexes to anterograde amnesia & dissociative identity disorders will dazzle the layperson, and yet Moffett also provides something for the professional audience: a glimpse into the personalities of some of the field's most successful scholars, sufficiently detailed to give additional insight on their (in)famous theoretical perspectives.

For example, although many can lay claim to having late-night conversations about consciousness, very few (other than Moffett, and her readers) have had such a conversation in a crowded Memphis nightclub with renowned consciousness philosopher Daniel Dennett. Or, perhaps a better example may be the anecdotes related by somnologist Robert Stickgold, who traces his career from undergraduate neurobiology research at Harvard, to a stint as a computer programmer, first on Wall Street ... and then in one of the country's preeminent sleep labs. Or, better yet, Moffett gives fascinating context to one of the most unlikely collaborations in modern neuroscience: that between red-haired iconoclast Christof Koch and the late Francis Crick, a 1962 Nobel Laureate and the co-discoverer of DNA's double-helix structure.

Between clever quips (e.g., cognitive neuroscience: the expensive branch of philosophy) and penetrating insights about the current state of brain research, Moffett also includes "interludes," each of which documents a different stage in cognitive development, from conception to death. Although these sections are not tightly integrated with the text, they're useful grounding for both neuro-novices and experts alike. There's even a good deal of freely available web content, available for those who want to delve a little deeper into the topics discussed in the book.

In summary, Shannon Moffett's book is a wonderful introduction to the ideas underlying modern brain research, as well as a revealing portrait of several of the individuals driving these developments. The book comes highly recommended to laypeople with an interest in learning more about major players in brain research, and even to more experienced readers who desire a more personal view of the biggest names in the field.

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