'Neuroscience for Dummies' by Frank Amthor, a book review by Brenda Walker

17th Jan 2024

Neuroscience For Dummies, 3rd Edition | WileyBNA associate member, Brenda Walker, shares her review of the book 'NEUROSCIENCE  for DUMMIES'3rd Edition, John Wiley and Sons Inc. 2023.



The author of this volume is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Alabama and his work, spanning over 45 years, has covered nearly every aspect of neuroscience. As he disseminates his wide knowledge in this volume, his obvious enjoyment of the subject suffuses the text.

Although published in 2023, the fact that it is a third edition may cause some professionals to question whether the research is really up to date. Yet, their fears should be allayed by the publisher’s promotional material which describes the volume as containing the latest research advances and technologies in the field of neuroscience that have ‘completely transformed our understanding of memory, depression, the mind-body connection, learning and genetics’. In the ‘Author’s Acknowledgements’ section, Amthor clarifies his position:

 “No professional neuroscientist is completely up to date on the entire brain or nervous system, and what we know and understand about it is constantly changing. Although a great deal of time and effort has gone into making sure the material in this book is accurate and up to date, any mistakes within these pages are mine alone.”

Neuroscience for Dummies is mainly about the brain, presented deliberately in an attractive modular format either for those eager to get a ‘firm grasp’ on how things work in the brain or else are seeking information with ‘easy access’ and ‘easy to understand chunks’, helped by the occasional touch of humour.

>> You’re not a professional neuroscientist or neurosurgeon but may be a beginning student in this field. (If you notice your neurosurgeon thumbing through a copy of this book before removing parts of your brain, you may want to get a second opinion.)

I would agree with the author that the great thing about this book is that the reader can decide where to start and what to read.  Such self-access is ideal for College or University students, but perhaps would be a little overwhelming for a real beginner if exploring an area of prose expressing more advanced concepts threaded with unfamiliar vocabulary and fewer analogies.

The book’s overall variety of print design certainly helps the reader to attend and enjoy the contents rather than be overwhelmed by large areas of dense pages of print. The twenty chapters are organised in five parts and above each chapter heading there is a small insert on a grey background indicating what is to follow in a few key short sentences bearing the title IN THIS CHAPTER. Similar larger inserts are either marked IN THIS PART or give details in bold capitals of a specific topic relevant to the chapter heading.

The reader is also aided throughout by three small icons.  A little bulb indicates “Look at it this way”; a hand with a piece of string tied to the index finger means “Key concept/general principle! You’ll want to remember this!” while a head with mortar board hat suggests “Technical stuff. Take it or leave it.”

Multiple diagrams or detailed images are clear, well portrayed and correlate with same-page text. Amthor, in straight-forward language, guides the learner by using analogies: ‘Think about a plucked guitar string...’ or ‘Suppose you were at a party...’ but as the reader progresses through the book, the prose becomes denser, the concepts more compact and any humour more or less vanishes beneath the seriousness of some of the final chapters that give more emphasis to ‘when things go wrong’; a subject first introduced in Chapter One.

The depth of content for each chapter is vast, yet while the list below detailing the five parts gives an overall view; it fails to do justice to the breadth of subject matter you will find in Neuroscience for dummies.

1. Introducing the Nervous System    

2. Translating the Internal and External Worlds through Your Senses

3.  Moving Right Along: Motor Systems

4. Intelligence: The Thinking Brain

5. The Part of Tens

The volume starts with an Introduction that sets the scene for the central mystery that surrounds the brain: ‘How can a bunch of interconnected cells make each of us what we are – not only in our thoughts, memories, and feelings, but our identity’. Amthor believes he can in part solve this problem and plans to share his understanding with the reader. He makes it all sound so easy. One just needs to know three main things which when summed up are: How neurons work; how they talk to each other in neural circuits; and how the system’s circuits form a set of functional models creating a network of subsystems and interrelated parts by means of computation and specialization. ‘The particular set of modules that you have makes you a human. The content of your specific modules makes you unique’.

Chapter One, entitled ‘A Quick Trip through the Nervous system’ gives a brief introductory outline of the volume’s key elements contained in later, factually condensed chapters. However, the natural familiar-styled prose of this introductory information ensures the reader is never overwhelmed by the facts. Amthor begins with the evolutionary details that led to the ontogenesis of the neocortex and how the change advanced a behavioural path towards language and high-level consciousness. He also expands his earlier introductory comments on subsystems and discusses in more depth various kinds of neurons, their basic functions, organization and interconnections. The difference between grey and white matter is included, as are: minicolumns, the role of dendrites, axons, synapses and the conversion of electrical current into sets of pulses (Spikes) used to compute and communicate. The role of the central nervous system and the sub divisions of the peripheral nervous system are described briefly, as are the senses, motor control, thought, language and memory. Neurotransmitters are left until Chapter Three. This tempting array of what this book has to offer is finalised with a glimpse into neural dysfunction, hopeful revolutionary advances for the future and information on modern imaging and recording techniques.

The clearly delineated pictorial anatomy of the interior of the brain is left to the second chapter entitled ‘All about the brain and the Spinal Cord’. Included in this volume are controversial topics such as Consciousness, Intelligence, Language, the Hemispheres, and the Executive Self together with many interesting scientific facts about past and present, genetics, the natural world, and significant researchers who have contributed to building our present knowledge about the brain. Although, detailed as if a text-book, Amthor sometimes encourages his readers to widen their field of study by suggesting other titles or facts. For instance, at one point he states: ‘In the brain, areas that interact extensively with each other are often close together, but ultimately, any brain area can interact with any other area, producing a very complex theoretical interconnection problem beyond the scope of this book.’ 

Honing in on a particular point of interest or some novel research is always exciting and one such stimulating fact raised by the author was the function and physiology of the von Economo spindle cell neurons discovered back in 1925.  Called VENs for short, they are discussed on pages 187/188. When first noticed in just two brain regions in 1899 by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, both were considered to be executive control areas dealing with self-awareness and self-control. Unlike other pyramidal cells, these large bipolar neurons are now known to contribute to some kind of specialisation of neural circuits and relay signals long distances in the brain via their thin elongated bodies that have one long apical axon and long dendrites projecting from the basal end. They are situated in the anterior cingulate cortex, the frontal-insular and dorso-lateral cortices, and to date, other than in humans, they have been found only in a few species such as whales, dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos and macaques.  The author and other researchers speculate that with such extensive projections, these neurons could link multiple cortical areas together to form large-scale networks. If this was so and they could indeed be linked to ‘self-awareness’, Frank Amthor believes it would ‘produce a revolution in neuroscience and could profoundly change the way people view other species in which this neuron is found’. In the last few years other research has suggestedmuch more remains to be elucidated. The mystery is still present, but starts to unravel!

The final chapter of the book revisits ‘Neural Dysfunction’ and then is followed by a summing up: ‘Ten (or So) Crucial Brain Structures’... that make the human mind what it is; ‘Ten tricks of neurons that make them do what they do’; and ‘Discover promising future treatments for brain and psychiatric disorders, including the possibility of electronically enhancing our cognitive capabilities.’  In Part Five, the volume concludes with a more detailed glimpse into neuroscience’s future contributions which could include treatments involving genetic manipulations, brain stimulation and the use of prosthetics to address neural dysfunction.

As well as an excellent index and glossary, there are details of the author’s research background and a few more suggestions for finding topics outside the scope of this book.  Also included are a few suggestions for providing online quick page access to various relevant aspects via a Neuroscience for Dummies Cheat Sheet which utilises the catch-phrase “A fascinating look at what’s rattling around in your skull.”

So, if you are looking for a not too expensive gift for someone – keen to learn about neuroscience or revise their ideas about the brain, how it impacts memory, learning and emotion, and ‘connects with other physical systems’, or perhaps someone who needs to get a better grasp of the basic concepts and applications of neuroscience – then this book may be just the right choice.

Brenda Walker  December 2023

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