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Review of "The Well-Tuned Brain"

By Peter C. Whybrow
W.W. Norton, 2015
Review by Leo Uzych, J.D., M.P.H. on Jun 9th 2015
The Well-Tuned Brain

Peter C. Whybrow is the Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, at UCLA.  In a "Preface" to his book, entitled The Well-Tuned Brain, Whybrow informs readers that the book is his effort to highlight how knowledge of science may improve self-understanding, and how such insights may serve humankind and the common good, going forward.  Readers are informed, further, that Whybrow's effort is to integrate neuroscience, psychology, and history with economic commentary and sociocultural insight, to craft a cohesive story upon which to build a balanced future vision.

And indeed, the interdisciplinary expertness of Whybrow's discourse, from start to finish, is the cornerstone of the intellectual edifice constructed masterfully by Whybrow.  Congruent with the book's intellectual beauty is the artistically beautiful nature of Whybrow's writing.  The textual tapestry crafted beautifully by Whybrow is a great boon to readers.

Intellectual artist Whybrow paints the canvas of the text with brushstrokes of expertly instructive, critical, and thoughtful discourse, views, and opinions.

The substantive body is blanketed with a blanket of relative abstruseness.

The multidisciplinary breadth of knowledge and insight exhibited by Whybrow is remarkable, with far flung intellectual tentacles reaching disparately to fields encompassing neuroscience, economics, psychology, history, and sociology.

Along the book's lengthy path, intellectually sharp-sighted Whybrow sights a vast array of notable researchers and thinkers.

Following the text are multitudinous "Notes", arranged on a chapter by chapter basis, providing a didactically rich abundance of citation data and didactic annotation tethered to textual material.

One of the many treasures to be found in this treasure laden book is Whybrow's superb skill with regard to spotting, and putting to paper, minute details.

Embedded in the textual terrain are a multitude of substantively animating quotes culled from eclectic sources.

The text's corpus is further enlivened by occasional snippets in the form of quotes drawn anecdotally from real life conversations.

Here and there, bits and pieces of biographical data, regarding Wybrow's life, are likewise grafted anecdotally into the body of the text.

Some intellectually well-designed "Figures" instructively adorn the textual body.

The human brain, as Whybrow opines forthrightly in the book's "Introduction", is not "well-tuned" to modern-day circumstance.  Adding flesh to this bone, Whybrow points to a contemporary mismatch among three cardinal factors.  First, instinctual strivings, with the propensity for overconsumption being a relic of a time when survival of the individual was dependent on fierce competition for scarce resources.  Whybrow thus discourses that the short-term, reward-seeking focus evident particularly in American society today originated in normal mammalian biology.  Secondly, according to Whybrow, an efficient, habit-driven brain confounds instinctual strivings.  And the third prong of the mismatch is the material affluence of contemporary market culture (and, through habituation, indifference to cultural aspects outside the market).

Whybrow asserts, in Chapter 1, that growing obesity is an obvious marker of a cascade of health woes triggered by the mismatch of evolved biology and the behavioral challenges of living in a competitive, commercial culture.  Whybrow teaches that, although people, rationally, may be committed to reasonable body weight, that rational commitment (as convenient, cheap, novel, and high-calorie foods have become available readily in America, and elsewhere) may be overwhelmed by the ancient brain's preference for immediate reward.  In Whybrow's view, the antecedents of America's obesity epidemic, and its associated disabilities, are understood best as an interconnected whole, within which evolutionary, biological, and cultural elements are entwined.

Whybrow expounds, in Chapter 2, on the preconscious network of reflexive self-knowledge known, commonly, as intuition.  Readers are taught that the brain's tuned patterns of habit and intuitive thinking arise through trial and error; and, once laid down, are notoriously resistant to change.  Culture and intuition, in Whybrow's view, form a dynamic, mutually reinforcing whole, which is the glue holding human societies together.

Whybrow opines critically, in Chapter 3, that the conviction that human behavior in economic affairs is inherently conscious and rational is a delusion flying in the face of common sense and scientific evidence.  There is, according to Whybrow, long-standing evidence that people are not consistently rational.  Whybrow discourses, further, that America was conceived as the Great Experiment:  a democracy to be validated by individual freedom, rather than by arbitrary authority or religion.  But, in Whybrow's judgment, America's Great Enlightenment Experiment has not worked out entirely as planned.  Whybrow comments, in this respect, that people, motivated fundamentally by self-reward, are prone, in the face of affluence, to greed, corruption, and addiction.  This is the nature of the human beast.

In Chapter 4, Whybrow teaches that who people are, as unique, free-thinking individuals, reflects the brain's capacity (through its networked communication) to distill, remember, and make choices, using the scattered information of accumulated experience.  A cycle of perception, learning, and action as the fundamental engine of the mind garners discussion.  Whybrow discusses that, in the brain, making choices is not a sporadic activity but a process designed to produce adaptive, continuous improvement, with the goal of pleasurable experience.  Wybrow asserts that "thoughtless" economic and emotional dependency on habitual consumption distorts the brain's internal market.  According to Whybrow, when immediate opportunity reinforces hedonistic preferences, most of the time the capacity for personal restraint loses.

Market mayhem is on centerstage, in Chapter 5.  Looking critically at the global fiscal seizure of 2008, Whybrow observes a consensus that excessive borrowing, easy credit, and complex home loan bundling helped spur the U.S. housing bubble and fuel the subprime mortgage crisis leading to the 2008 seizure.

In Chapter 6, Whybrow discusses, with his customary intellectual eloquence, the weaving of the web of trust.  As Whybrow explains, human parental-infant bonding is instinctual; and the chemistry of this bonding is the chemistry of love.  This same elixir, as Whybrow explains further, primes the development of trust and social bonds essential to building character and community.  Whybrow teaches that, ideally, as the infant mind adopts preconscious efficiencies of habit, forges self-awareness, and begins to embrace imagination and language, a web is weaved, sustaining a child's capacity to trust others.  Whybrow believes that this web of trust, in its collective expression, is the foundation of human society.

Discourse appertaining to character forms the substantive cynosure, of Chapter 7.  In Whybrow's judgment, individual character is the backbone of vibrant human society.  Whybrow discourses  that what guarantees happiness and employment in a world changing rapidly is achieving the strength of character and self-command that ensures lifelong learning and responsible citizenship.

Habitat is pondered by Whybrow, with his usual deep thoughtfulness, in Chapter 8.  Whybrow muses that it is through habit formation and memory that the structures people live in come to shape the way people think about habitat.

The focus of Whybrow's rapt attention, in penultimate Chapter 9, is focused raptly on food.  As the chapter begins, Whybrow instructs that the history of food is the history of human cultural development.  The belief of Whybrow is that America is on the cusp of social change; and that awareness of food is moving beyond a mere commodity of consumption to a place once more at the center of human culture and health.  As the chapter progresses, Whybrow considers instructively the reestablishing of a direct relationship, in America, between farmer and consumer.

Discussion relating to imagination forms the substantive core, of concluding Chapter 10.  Whybrow explains that imagination is the mental capacity that sets humans apart as a species; and it is also the pervasive driver for many of the cultural and social achievements of humans.  Whybrow admonishes, however, that an invasive "technology of the intellect' is eroding the traditional role of imagination in society, particularly in a gadget-driven world enthralled to machines.

In a "Reprise", Whybrow expresses optimism  that, collectively, people can acquire the wisdom to sustain a balanced and vibrant society.  The challenge is assuming personal responsibility for the health of our families, our schools, and our communities, and for the ecology that feeds us.

Without wishing to seem churlish, it may be said that particular views and opinions put forth by Whybrow, certainly with much expertise and obvious thoughtfulness, nonetheless may not converge fully with the thinking of other experts.

But the book's vast intellectual richness surely will greatly enrich readers intellectually.

At a professional level, scientists, psychologists, economists, historians, and sociologists are among those who surely will be vastly enriched professionally by the book's contents.


© 2015 Leo Uzych


Leo Uzych (based in Wallingford, PA) earned a law degree, from Temple University; and a master of public health degree, from Columbia University.  His area of special professional interest is healthcare.  Twitter @LeoUzych