Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Shannon Moffett:
The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and
the Quest to Unlock its Mysteries

      Our group as a whole had medium-positive views of this book and gave it an average rating of 6.0 (on our scale of 0 to 10). (But keep in mind that we tend to be rather tough graders, so a rating of 6 is actually pretty good!)

      Rosie thought the book was a very pleasant read, though some of the material was not new to her. She thought the little interludes between chapters were very good. The book didn’t have quite as much depth as she expected, but overall she thought it was very good. Several little things stuck with her after reading the book, such as that “your breath is like a swinging door between inside your body and outside it” (p. 265). Rosie gave it a rating of 8.

      Kirby just read portions of the book and really didn’t care for all the personal stories, and little inconsequential details about people and places, that Moffett included. He gives it a tentative rating of just 4.

      John thought that Moffett had sort of a hero-worship attitude toward many of the people she interviewed and talked about in the various chapters. In particular, John remarked: “I don’t know why she thinks [Daniel] Dennett is so great! I think he’s greatly overrated!” But John thought the personal stories integrated pretty well with Moffett’s narative and that didn’t bother him. Overall he felt that the book was a good summary of where the science of the brain and consciousness is at. Though he also felt the book as a little on “the light side”, he said he enjoyed it.

      Scott thought all the personal stories and detailed descriptions of people, places and events were quite annoying in the first chapter, but—though this sort of writing continued throughout the book—it didn’t seem to bother him so much as time went on. In fact the book kind of grew on him as he read it, and he became more impressed that someone still in college could write so good a book. However, the things he most liked about the book were items which focused more on the science of the brain and the philosophy of consciousness. He especially liked the explanation (in one of the between-chapter interludes) of how the sodium and potassium ions in the neuron work to allow thoughts and memories to occur. Moffett seemed to apologize for including that much scientific detail, but Scott thought it was one of the best things in the book.

      But Scott’s growing appreciation for Moffett and her book came to a screeching halt when he got to the final chapter, which focuses on the philosophical idealist nuttiness of a Zen Buddhist monk. As Scott read that chapter he dropped his rating down from 7 to a 6 to a 5 to a 4. It’s a good thing the chapter and the book stopped when it did or Scott’s rating might have gotten even lower! That last chapter really brought out the fact that Shannon Moffett, despite her sophistication in many respects, is still a naive college student in other respects, and prone to unscientific fads like Zen that college students often fall into to. According to the monk, “Nobody’s ever tried to transplant a brain. The body organs may be replaceable—all of them, possibly—and there would still be a sense of memory and identity” (p. 264). But today, to imagine that the brain even might not be essential to a person’s memory and identity is just totally anti-scientific nonsense.

      Scott agreed with John that Moffett seems to have a tendency toward “hero worship”, or even to adopt the views of whichever person she is interviewing at the moment (another characteristic of flighty youth). Then when trying to make sense of conflicting views which she has imbibed from different sources she tries to combine them into a coherent whole when in fact some of the most essential points are absolutely opposed to each other. In particular the materialist views of someone like Daniel Dennett cannot possibly be coherently combined with those of religious people who believe in minds and souls that have no physical basis in material brains (or their equivalent). Moffett doesn’t yet grasp that a choice must be made between philosophical materialism and philosophical idealism; they cannot be combined.

      Barbara liked the biographical material about the neurosurgeon and said she enjoyed the human side of things. She also enjoyed the final chapter about Zen Buddhism, as well as the factual material about brain surgery. She gave the book an 8.

      Kevin remarked that he “could have used less of the hero worship”, but chapter 3 (about Christof Koch and Francis Crick) especially caught his interest. Kevin felt, however, that the book had “highs and lows”, good parts and parts not so good. He took especial note of the limitations of current scanning devices (such as functional MRI) which allow only gross pictures of what is going on in the brain. He thought the book brought home very well the tremendous density of neurons in the brain. Kevin thought that another good chapter was the one on dissociative identity disorder (or what used to be called multiple personality disorder). But Kevin said that the final chapter “could have been ripped out of the book”! On balance Kevin gave the book a rating of 5.

      Rich got our group into sort of a side discussion on whether there might be female/male differences in writing styles, and what each sex considers to be good writing. I don’t know if we came to any real agreement about this, but the suggestion is that perhaps there does tend to be more focus on “human interest” material on the part of women. In any case, Rich pointed out that Moffett’s writing style had the virtue of “giving me the real sense that I was there myself walking into the room, like the sense of things you have in a movie”. But Rich added that for him, this wasn’t really a necessary part of the book, and “didn’t really need to be there”. He agreed that the interludes between chapters were very good. But regarding the last chapter he asked, “What is this even doing in the book?!” Rich did like a number of things, such as the discussion of synaptic pruning and its possible relation to schizophrenia. But Rich wondered how much he really learned from the book overall. Still he did like the book and gave a rating of 7. Rich, and others, also said they liked the web site that the author set up to accompany the book. (This is at:

      Ron had a lot of the same criticisms as others raised above, and he said that “The personal stories didn’t work for me; they weren’t really appropriate.” He agreed that the website was pretty well done. Regarding the last chapter, Ron said that Moffett and the Zen monk seemed to be wondering where the emotions reside in the brain, or how they can arise from the brain. They seemed to be saying that there must be something more to the mind/brain than just the physical brain and its organization. Ron felt that the book was a “little light” on the science and theory and that even the interludes between chapters were a little light compared to what they could have been.

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