Headhunters by Ben Shephard

Have you ever wondered how the 3.3 pounds of gelatinous material inside your skull generates the amazing magic lantern show that humans call ‘consciousness’? This, in philosophy, is known as the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness).

Experimental science, undaunted, is having a go at finding out the answer. You may be surprised to learn just how long systematic attempts to understand the brain have been going on for. This book will explain that the beginnings are to be found in the final decades of the nineteenth century. With Darwin’s theory of evolution widely accepted in the science community by that stage, modern neuroscience began.

Headhunters (12 June 2014) by historian Ben Shephard (http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/137451.Ben_Shephard) traces the intellectual journey of four men who met at Cambridge in the 1890s and whose lives interlinked for the next three decades – William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers and William McDougall. It follows their voyages of discovery, taking the reader from anthropological field studies in Melanesia and archaeological excavations in Egypt to the psychiatric wards of the First World War. Their work ranged across fields that today carry a variety of labels – neurology, psychology, psychiatry, zoology – but which for these men formed part of the same enquiry: the search for a science of the mind. A narrative-driven work of intellectual history and a compelling biographical study, Headhunters explores the big ideas about the brain, the nervous system and man’s place in history. In the process the book reveals how science actually works – the passions, the irrational flashes, the moments of insight; the big ideas that work – and the big ideas that turn out to be wrong. Acclaimed historian Ben Shephard takes the reader on an extraordinary intellectual journey – and arrives at some very modern destinations. A fascinating read. Heartily recommended.

To see if this is a subject that would interest you listen to four 15 minute podcasts in which philosophers discuss the latest thinking on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Follow the links at:





Also listen to the very useful BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode (30 minutes) on consciousness and the brain. Available from the link  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0054582   With Steven Rose, Professor of Biology and Director of the Brain and Behaviour Research Group, Open University; and Dan Robinson, Distinguished Research Professor, Georgetown University and visiting lecturer in Philosophy and Senior Member of Linacre College, Oxford University. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. First broadcast Thursday 19 Nov 1998.

336 pages in Bodley Head

ISBN 978-1847921888

Ben Shephard

Ben Shephard

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