This is the story of our quest to understand the most mysterious object in the universe: the human brain.
Today we tend to picture it as a computer. Earlier scientists thought about it in their own technological terms: as a telephone switchboard, or a clock, or all manner of fantastic mechanical or hydraulic devices. Could the right metaphor unlock the its deepest secrets once and for all?
Galloping through centuries of wild speculation and ingenious, sometimes macabre anatomical investigations, scientist and historian Matthew Cobb reveals how we came to our present state of knowledge. Our latest theories allow us to create artificial memories in the brain of a mouse, and to build AI programmes capable of extraordinary cognitive feats. A complete understanding seems within our grasp.
But to make that final breakthrough, we may need a radical new approach. At every step of our quest, Cobb shows that it was new ideas that brought illumination. Where, he asks, might the next one come from? What will it be?
Matthew Cobb is Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester where his research focuses on the sense of smell, insect behaviour and the history of science. His books include The Egg and Sperm Race and acclaimed accounts of the French Resistance during the Second World War and the liberation of Paris in 1944.
– Sunday Times Book of the Year
– Telegraph Science Book of the Year
– Shortlisted for the 2020 Baillie Gifford Prize
"An intellectual tour de force, and a brilliant demonstration of how a historical approach is often the best way of explaining difficult scientific problems [...] Cobb combines scholarship with clarity to a remarkable degree [...] For anybody who wants to understand the depths of our understanding of our brains, and our even deeper ignorance, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough."
– Henry Marsh, New Statesman
"Sweeping and electrifyingly sceptical"
– James McConnachie, Sunday Times
"A truly terrific work and a wonderful read. The best book produced in my lifetime on the brain."
– Richard C Atkinson, President Emeritus, University of California
"Cobb is a rare jewel. [The Idea of the Brain] is a typically erudite, thrilling and thorough exploration of the most complex thing in the known universe."
– Adam Rutherford, The Week
"Rich and fascinating"
– Steven Poole, Guardian
"An engrossing journey through the centuries [...] Cobb explores memory, circuits, computers, chemistry, localization of function and consciousness. In clear and lively prose, he introduces us to the characters, personalities, and debates of each era [...] The reader will come away from this illuminating history of thinking about the brain with a renewed appreciation of the task that remains [...] in the final section Mr. Cobb offers glimmers of the dazzling possibilities."
– Carol Tavris, Wall Street Journal
"Ambitious intellectual history [...] It is a very good book"
– Stephen Casper, Nature
– Shane O'Mara, Times Higher Education
"Fascinating [...] instructive"
– Simon Ings, New Scientist
"Cobb's erudition and engaging writing style take us on an enthralling journey"
– Alex Gomez-Marin, Science