US REVIEW OF BOOKS
Exploring the Landscape of the Mind
by Stephen S. Clark
reviewed by Michael Radon
"Society, even today, is a fundamentally competitive place as individuals jostle for advantage over others."
The human brain has been throughout history something of a paradox: a tool that we have used to understand the mysteries of the universe while not revealing a thorough understanding of itself. While much of how the brain works or the nature of the more nebulous concept of the mind remains elusive, science has progressed rapidly to try and answer these questions. In this book, the author combines science, philosophy, and sociology, providing a compendium of knowledge as to how the human mind both separates and links us to the rest of the animal kingdom. This exploration begins first with the scientific reasons behind simple things that are easy to take for granted or avoid considering the causes rather than the effects; things like emotions, motivations, and memories. Using evolution as a starting point and drawing comparisons to the animal kingdoms, these functions of our minds are related to simple things we can understand while also being explained using technical geography of the brain.
From there, the author transitions from the scientific side of things to the more sociological perspective, without abandoning the former. Human society examined throughout history, and how the changes from being a hunter-gatherer society to living in big city life with hundreds of thousands of other people affects us psychologically. At the same time, our modern actions are explained using analogies from both older structured societies and the natural order of things, giving a deeper understanding into the why of minute social phenomena. Charity, empathy, the importance of family, and more are all investigated logically and practically, providing a potential reason for their continued existence and how they contribute to our evolving idea of community. Moving from micro to macro, this investigation of the human existence begins with the chemical reactions that take place in the individual human animal all the way up to the culture and cities we have built, and whether or not they are sustainable on the path that we are currently traveling.
The content and the concept of a book such as this can seem to be too wide in scope at first. Covering so much ground and so many abstract ideas is certainly daunting from the outset, but the author makes the subject matter surprisingly accessible. Using a mixture of both hard and soft sciences, the bulk of the language used to convey the findings and material of this text is simple and easy to comprehend. The author's own conclusions are supplemented by quotes from classic texts written by prominent thinkers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche, Pascal, Proust, and even revered fiction authors like Shakespeare and Melville. The end result is a way to answer big questions that makes sense to readers who may not be intimately familiar with all the different parts of the brain.
One of the aspects of this book that makes it a success is the author's passion for and interest in the subject at hand. As a nonfiction book, the tone is as objective and professional as possible, but because much of the science involved is still progressing or is theoretical, there are plenty of opportunities for hypotheses and conjecture. Where the exuberance of the author is confirmed, it is not a matter of something that can be read directly, but rather something that is easy to infer from the curiosity openly on display. Whether readers are seasoned at studying the nature and complexity of the human mind or are broaching the topic for the first time, this is an excellent study that opens up more than just a few facts here and there, but a new way of approaching everyday situations. The extensive bibliography also provides plenty of opportunities to continue studying these concerns long after this text has ended. Occupying a space between science and social science, this book is a fascinating read that manages to capture both the objective and subjective aspects of what it means to think like a human.