An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin and Machinery of the Mind is a popular science book, published by Phoenix in 1999, by Professor Ian Glynn, a medic and physiologist in Cambridge, England. Extensively researched and running to almost 500 pages, it is a survey of our current knowledge on the biological basis of thought and consciousness.

Opening with a summary of the evidence for the evolution of Homo sapiens - as a way of "clearing the ground" - it then proceeds through the biology relevant to the workings of the mind: the functioning of nerves; visual perception; language; and thinking. It then concludes with a discussion of the philosophical parallels to the book's main questions - the notorious "mind/body problem", free will, and morality.

The author is a physiologist and the book's approach is heavily weighted to the biological systems that produce thought - the "machinery of the mind". This is in contrast to another book with a similarly ambitious title, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, which dispenses almost entirely with neurologic function and concentrates on the cognitive approach to psychology.

In terms of debate, Glynn takes a largely neutral stance throughout the book - his task is to summarize the evidence, rather than develop a grand new theory of his own. Each of the chapters is mainly devoted to telling the story of how our knowledge of this or that function has developed over the years, based on the key researches that have been carried out. The notes at the back are full of references to hundreds of books, journals and papers, from countries around the world, and from the beginnings of psychology to the present day.

It has received critical acclaim from newspapers and journals, e.g. the Guardian and Sunday Times, and contemporaries including the philosopher Nicholas Humphrey and the biologist Matt Ridley.

The book consists of six sections, each subdivided into chapters:

  1. Clearing the Ground - explains the physiological approach to psychology and summarizes the evidence for the evolution of our species.
  2. Nerves and Nervous Systems - an extensive section that outlines in some detail the functioning of nerves and nerve impulses, before ending with a so-called "Cook's Tour of the brain".
  3. Looking at Seeing - considers the problem of visual perception from four approaches: the significance of illusions; the neurology of visual disorders (agnosias); modern neurological investigation of subjects with normal vision; and the computational or cognitive approach.
  4. Talking about Talking - considers the physiology of language, e.g. the Wernicke-Geschwind model and hemisphere asymmetry; the underlying cognitive structure of language, in a chapter called "Chomsky and after"; language in other animals; and the evolution of language.
  5. Thinking about Thinking - considers the various questions concerning memory, including its physiology, the distinction between different types of memory, and amnesias; the physiology and neurochemistry of emotion; and the physiology of planning and attention.
  6. The Philosophy of Mind - or Minding the Philosophers - surveys the more recent approaches to the mind/body problem, e.g. identity theory and biological naturalism; the problem of "consciousness and qualia"; and free will and morality.

An Anatomy of Thought is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in a scientific approach to psychology. The breadth of research is impressive and there are some absorbing passages, such as the author's surveys of bizarre and unsetting brain damages, e.g. Broca's aphasia, and a look at the link between creole languages and the innate language structure of the brain.

At times the approach can seem a bit overly physiological - the evolutionary and cognitive insights into psychology are not considered at so much length, and the reader may find himself wading through more biological detail than he would have liked. But the erudition of the book is its main strength, alongside its broad scope, and the author's recognition that the philosophical issues are worth considering - he reports that most of his colleagues in biology do not agree.

Ultimately it is the wealth of detail that makes the book; Glynn's writing style, like that of Jared Diamond, another physiologist, is fairly low-key - he lets the story tell itself, in contrast to the approach of more charismatic writers such as Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, who introduce their own ideas and personalities into their books.

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