- Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction by Mitchell Glickstein
by Mitchell Glickstein. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2014. 424pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 978-0-2620-2680-5.
Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction conveys the sense that author Mitchell Glickstein must be a wonderful teacher. His use of questions to introduce the book and specific subjects within the chapters prods the reader to engage with the subject matter even before he presents the details. Glickstein explains that his goal is to offer a biological history that will describe where neuroscience is today. To do this he presents key scientific events that explain how we know what we know, ending with the admonition that there is still much to learn. Thus, this is not a textbook summarizing our current knowledge so much as a look at the train of experimental and clinical observations that brought us to this point. Chapters also cover the traditional topics of the field, such as the structure of nerve cells, electrical transmission in the nervous system, chemical transmission and the mechanism of drug action, sensation, vision, hearing, movement, learning and memory, language and the brain, neurological disease, personality and emotion, the treatment of mental illness, and consciousness.
Generalists, and even specialists, looking for a good overview of neuroscience will find that Glickstein’s contribution is solid. In some ways, due to its comprehensive approach, Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction reads like an introductory textbook, but one with information about the historical foundations of current research added. Because Glickstein covers the field’s parameters, and the information is easier to absorb than when reading a tome such as Kandel’s Principles of Neural Science, readers seeking to learn more about the subject will definitely find it useful. The many well-chosen illustrations, diagrams and title pages of significant historical works enhance its educational value, as do the photographs of key figures that help in introducing readers to the important players in the story. In addition, I greatly appreciated his inclination to translate the Latin names for areas of the brain, and I think others will as well. This feature makes sense of the strange names and, at times, adds additional history.
The downside of the book is that it is primarily focused on ideas from the 18th century on, with the 19th and 20th centuries receiving the most page space. As a historian rather than a scientist, I felt the history was too compressed. I missed the broader contextual integration, the social history and the attention to collaborative work across disciplines that generally defines historical coverage. Over the years I have developed a strong bias toward contrasting different periods of history, which perhaps makes it difficult for me to give this book its due because I conceptualize history in terms of histories (or paradigms) and see a value in contrasting the details across eras so as more fully to examine human values and the way human questions are re-mixed at different points in time. In other words, I like the messiness of technological innovations and methodological changes, whereas Glickstein seems to prefer a [End Page 312] story that appears to convey a more progressive delineation. Thus, Glickstein’s approach will work better for readers wanting to learn more about the roots of contemporary neuroscience than those looking for the kinds of integrative historical details and contrasts found in broader histories.
For example, Glickstein notes that the drawings Vesalius presented in the Fabrica illustrated how he would have done a typical dissection. Given how effectively these illustrations communicated his worldview and procedures, I would have liked more detail about the circumstances surrounding them. Published in 1543, as Glickstein tells us, Vesalius’ revolutionary anatomical drawings “represented a new generation of scholars who were not content to repeat the thousand-year old anatomical descriptions but, instead, relied on their own observations” (p. 8). The Roman physician Galen (AD 130–200)—who was not named in the book—was the authority and foundation of medical thought from the 2nd century into the Renaissance and the source of many of the errors Vesalius corrected (much as Ptolemy was the authority on planetary movements before Copernicus developed his...