Scientific Whydunit

A Cultural History of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
by Stephen Kern. Princeton University Press, 2004 ($29.95)

Did you forget to take "Quantum Physics and the Murder Novel" your senior year? If so, Kern's book on causality will guide you through a daunting yet enlightening survey of how science has affected literature.

By "murder novels," Kern does not mean whodunits. His focus is on the "whydunits" written by Victorian and modern writers: books that revolve around murder but dwell on their characters' motives, not crime solving. Science comes into play because of the revolution in thought and knowledge between the period 1830 to 1900 and the 20th century. Over these years, Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel revolutionized biology, Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychology, and physicists changed our view of the universe.

The result, Kern says, is reflected in these novels: the protagonist of mile Zola's Germinal (1885) kills because of a murderous rage inherited from distant ancestors--"an explanation," Kern writes, "that is unlikely in a serious modern novel." In Compulsion (1956), however, Meyer Levin has killers driven by childhood sexual traumas, a cause of psychosis unknown before Freud. Although Kern cites more than 100 novels, he concentrates on a dozen or so exemplary authors, with Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as leading Victorians and Theodore Dreiser, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus as modern thinkers.

Kern's central idea is the "specificity-uncertainty dialectic." Roughly summarized: the more specific information scientists gained about the world, the more they realized how little they knew. For example, geneticists in the 20th century learned about genes and had a far better understanding of inherited characteristics than Victorians had--but the very breadth of this knowledge made the idea of a character inheriting an instinct a laughable notion.

Kern, a humanities professor at Ohio State University and expert on intellectual history, has mastered the novels, the critical literature, and the works by philosophers and sociologists bearing on his thesis. His descriptions of the genetics, neuroscience and physics that influenced writers are much briefer but accurate. A Cultural History of Causality is structured like a college course and can be heavy-going. But readers familiar with the novels will see them in a new light and--who knows?--scientists may be drawn by the connections Kern reveals to read these tales of murder. --Jonathan Beard

Sex and Learning

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences
by Leonard Sax. Doubleday, 2005 ($24.95)

When I was a college freshman, a male teaching assistant I sought help from told me matter-of-factly that women were not good at inorganic chemistry. Had I been armed with Why Gender Matters, about how biological differences between the sexes can influence learning and behavior, I could have managed an informed rejoinder to go along with my shocked expression.

Sax--a pediatrician and psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area and founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education--hopes to make today's teachers and parents aware of the science behind differences between girls and boys. He was inspired to write the book as more and more parents brought their young sons to his office in the mid-1990s, seeking an evaluation for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Recalling studies that show boys do not hear as well as girls, Sax felt that for some of the boys he assessed, simply not hearing the teacher led to their inattention, a problem that could be solved by a front-row seat.

Although Sax repeatedly makes clear these differences do not limit what either sex can achieve, he does contend they play a valuable role in determining the most effective methods for teaching, disciplining and understanding children and young adults. Using studies as well as anecdotes from his practice and visits to classrooms, he offers advice on such topics as preventing drug abuse and motivating students. In his chapter on aggression, Sax cites research that shows young male primates are much more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play than females to illustrate why some amount of aggression in boys is normal and why banning "healthy" outlets such as dodgeball--done in his local school district--is misguided.

The book is thought-provoking, and Sax explains well the science behind his assertions. His anecdotes are generally instructive, although some are a little too thin to support his points. Sax ends by offering several compelling arguments in support of same-sex education, such as analyses that find girls are more likely to study physics and boys are more likely to study literature in single-sex schools. But whether or not you agree with Sax, his volume is a worthy read for those who care about how best to prepare children for the challenges they face on the path to adulthood. --Aimee Cunningham

Ethical Catch-up

The New Brain Sciences: Perils and Prospects
edited by Dai Rees and Steven Rose. Cambridge University Press, 2004 ($43)

What are the legal, ethical and moral implications of research in "the new brain sciences"? Rees and Rose, two distinguished British academics, invited the contributors to this collection of essays to ask hard questions about these subjects. Their answers will make you stop and think.

You might hope, for example, that decades of progress in psychiatry and psychology would be helping courts assess guilt, innocence and appropriate punishments. But contributor Stephen Sedley, a British judge who spent six years presiding over homicide cases, finds experts to be of little value. He admires the jury system because "of the rapidity with which twelve lay people were generally able to grasp and apply to a live problem before them principles of law." As for the testimony of psychiatrists, however, he says that he and the jury are typically left "peering into a very deep pool indeed with very little help about what was to be found there."

Perhaps the most visible of the new brain sciences is psychopharmacology, which has brought us drugs now taken by millions of people every day. John Cornwell, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, writes from a courtroom in Louisville, Ky., describing a jury faced with "Prozac on trial." Weeks of neuroscientists' testimony left them baffled when they had to decide the case of a workplace killer who was on the antidepressant. But it is the elementary schoolroom, not the courtroom, that is the scene of today's largest-scale experiment in psychopharmacology. Over 2 percent of American schoolchildren now receive medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, writes Paul Cooper, a teacher and psychologist. "Medication should not be the default mode," he notes, yet increasingly it is, and in many cases, the drug serves to "treat" children who merely "experience difficulty conforming to the kinds of behavioral expectations that are common in schools."

Yet these thorny issues pale next to vexing medical issues that the new brain research may raise. Readers are reminded that a neurologist won a Nobel Prize in 1949 for pioneering the lobotomy and that between the 1940s and 1960s surgeons cavalierly severed critical brain tissue in thousands of patients. Yadin Dudai, an Israeli neurobiologist, decries what he calls a new "lobotomy attitude" in neuroscience today, with researchers working toward "genetic manipulations, brain transplantations, even neurosilicon hybrids." He counsels "humbleness and patience" in view of how little we yet understand. --Jonathan Beard

Wreckage of Psychoanalysis

13 Dreams Freud Never Had: The New Mind Science
by J. Allan Hobson. Pi Press, 2005 ($24.95)

"One Saturday morning," Hobson writes, "I had two incredible dreams, in which I was kissing." Hobson, a psychiatrist and neurophysiologist who has researched sleeping and dreaming at Harvard University for decades, goes on to describe a disembodied mouth beckoning him, "wide open in a most lascivious fashion." This image, he reminds readers, refers to what Sigmund Freud would have called the dream's manifest (versus latent) content. And yet Hobson uses this personal remembrance, like many in his latest book, 13 Dreams Freud Never Had, to explain how sequences of "regional brain activation" can account for a dream's quasi-delusional, almost psychotic qualities--without resorting to psychoanalytic interpretations.

As a physician who began his career treating patients in Boston's most horrendous psychiatric ward, Hobson has strived for 40 years to pay homage to Freud for initiating the brain-based study of mind--and yet also to set dream research free of a "superstitious and religious fixation on psychoanalysis." Hobson's research focuses on the organic aspect of dreaming that makes possible a dream's psychosislike features, including disorientation, visual hallucination and memory distortions. By measuring neural activity during dreaming, he and his colleagues have correlated brain-activation patterns with dream content, enabling them to show that much of a dream's form and substance derive from physiological processes that occur independently of a dream's apparent meaning. Raw emotions and recent memories may trigger a dream, but not necessarily in a way that yields to clear, rule-based interpretations. Along with many current neurophysiologists, Hobson sees a dream's apparent meaning as an after-the-fact attempt to synthesize and put into story form an otherwise meaningless pattern of neural activations, most likely prompted by recent events rather than deeply rooted conflicts.

Not accidentally, Hobson's entertaining tale itself has a dreamlike quality--an autobiographical tapestry woven from strands of science, history and life in which he journeys through 13 of his own 350 dream reports, accumulated during his career. In each case, he uses a dream to make a point--usually how events in his life had most likely stimulated particular brain regions that subsequently were reactivated during a dream. He also weaves through his story recent research to explain the operations of a unified "brain-mind," emphasizing that the mind is a product of brain structure and chemistry, and nothing else. On the heels of half a century of modern neuroscience, he says, "it is now possible to build a new dynamic psychology on the solid base of brain science."

Hobson says Freud was "correct in assuming that any scientific psychology needed to be brain-based. But lacking that base, he was forced to speculate, and I have found that his contribution to a science of the mind is, at best, obsolete and, at worst, misleading." Imagining Freud's reaction to recent research, Hobson envisions the illustrious psychologist admitting that "the time has come to clear the decks of the wreckage of psychoanalysis and build a new science of dreams based on what is now known about the brain." --Richard Lipkin