Book Review

"The New Cognitive Neurosciences", Second Edition
Michael S. Gazzaniga, Editor-in-Chief
2000 MIT Press, a Bradford Book
ISBN 0-262-07195-9 (hardcover)
1434 pp, $129.95

Reviewed by
Sergio Navega
April 2000

It is interesting to accompany the birth of certain areas of scientific investigation. Sometimes their origins are as unorthodox as the back seat of a New York taxi. In the late 1970s, Michael Gazzaniga and George Miller were heading to a dinner meeting where a new sub-field of research was about to receive a coherent name. After so much time, the investigation of how the mind emerges from the brain finally obtained a fair designation: Cognitive Neuroscience. The book "The New Cognitive Neurosciences" was, in its first edition, a hallmark of the then infant field, and now in its second incarnation, the tradition continues.

Besides being one of the founders of the field, Gazzaniga was also one of the authors of the first textbook on Cognitive Neuroscience (Gazzaniga 1998). But "The New Cognitive Neurosciences" is not another textbook.

With eleven sections (Development, Plasticity, Sensory Systems, Motor Systems, Attention, Memory, Language, Higher Cognitive Functions, Emotion, Evolution and Consciousness), the book appears to cover all noble areas of Cognitive Neuroscience and more. Each section is comprised of from 6 to sixteen individual articles, totalling 94 contributions. The articles are not mere summaries of discoveries, but research-level explorations, often with 14 or more pages. This is a very different approach from that of a similar work like Arbib's (1995) excellent volume, in which articles are smaller (3 to 4 pages, although this volume managed to group 266 papers).

Because of its size, this is a typical book that cannot be read confortably in one's lap: you have to lay it in a suitable desk. Herein lies its greatest advantage and also disadvantage. The advantage is that, because of its size, the book is able to insert the reader in the middle of the most interesting discussions in the area, leaving few (if any) topics uncovered. However, such a size also induces the reader to consider the book as representing the definitive word in each of these topics. This is not entirely true, as there are some small editorial idiosyncrasies that leaves some holes uncovered.

A case in point is the treatment of language acquisition [Article 63]. Karin Stromswold wrote a beautifully interlaced paper, starting with linguistic considerations about Chomsky's principles-and-parameters theory and delving into the intrincacies of auxiliary versus lexical verbs (can / is able to, will / is going to, must / have to). We notice here the typical reasoning pattern that proponents of innate language modules often put forth: a search through thousands of transcripts of children's utterances don't reveal negative evidences from which they can acquire these auxiliary/lexical verb distinctions. Thus, Stromswold concludes, it must be an innately specified mechanism. This kind of reasoning appears to be incomplete, because it stops exactly in the middle: no need to pose evolutionary hypotheses which could explain why this could have happened. Perhaps because it is a damn hard task to come up with a suitable (and verifiable) theory. But the rationale of innatists is that this is not their problem, this is a problem for evolutionary biologists.

Those who see the question differently (for instance, Elman et al. 1996) propose theories which not only discard innatist preconceptions but also bring to surface some interesting developmental ideas. Even in the most interesting moment, when Stromswold discusses very appropriately both Down's and William's Syndrome, she is not free of possible criticisms. There are several reports (see Karmiloff-Smith 1998, Johnson et al. 1999) which question the usual interpretation of the Williams Syndrome as being evidence for double dissociation of innate mechanisms for language.

It all sums up, as said in Stromswold's conclusion, to solve the problem of inductive intractability of the language acquisition process. If one doesn't have a powerful enough mechanism to acquire language inductively, then the easy way out is to suppose that there are some innate help. The great danger here is to consider that language learning is a purely symbolic process, that the learning of syntactical constructs independs of real world experiences. When one takes into account the rich environment into which children are inserted, it is unreasonable to consider anything like "poverty of stimulus".

Although I expressed a certain criticism on Stromswold article, I must confess that it is a very well written article, with compelling argumentation. As the issue is still unresolved, my critique of her article may be better understood as being directed toward the lack of appropriate treatment of the competing theories, in the rest of the volume. And here I return to my point about the size of the book. With such a size, one is tempted to see everything in it as the final word, which is far from truth. Obviously, one can also ponder that no book can achieve such a completeness status.

However, all is not lost. An interesting paper by Patricia Kuhl [Article 8] gives another take at language. She starts sketching the origins of the language debate, positioning it around the Chomsky/Skinner hullaballoo. The debate is further categorized as being composed of syntactic, semantic and phonological parts. The article concentrates on aspects of the latter.

Kuhl lays the foundations of a new way to see "interactionism", a way in which Piagetian concepts of development are modified by (and also alters) learning. Transplanted to the phonological arena, this idea promotes the basics of a new concept, the so-called "perceptual magnet effect". According to this concept, an initially weak phonological category is surrounded at distance by categorically similar sounds. With time (and new experiences), these sounds are progressively dragged closer and closer to this central category, as if attracted by a magnet.

Using this exposition, Kuhl follows showing examples of English phonological development, as compared to Japanese. Next, the article shows how phonological categories are shaped, starting from a basically unstructured plateau. Although this is exposed as a phonologically relevant explanation only, one can easily conjecture if similar mechanisms are also at work in the remainder of the linguistic abilities of children.

The Memory section couldn't possibly have a better editor: Endel Tulving, one of the most respected names in the matter. This section shows its weight also because of Daniel Schacter's and Tim Curran's article on Implicit and False Memories [Article 58], a topic which is producing quite a stir lately, because of false reports of sexual abuse of children, induced by "therapists". Scholar treatment of this subject is certainly another laudable aspect of this volume.

The section on Sensory Systems shows another pearl of this volume. Wolf Singer is, perhaps, one of the top five investigators of neural coding strategies. The question is of fundamental importance not only for Neuroscience, but also for Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. His paper [Article 23] establishes some new ground in which to understand this complex issue.

He argues that mammalian brains use two manifestly different stratagems to code information. The first is used by cells specialized on the processing of statistically frequent signals. These signals are often of low complexity and are processed by feedforward architectures, where each neuron may be said to act on the data relatively independently of the others.

The second level is composed of infrequent items, and in this case of high complexity, demanding the processing power of several neurons, grouped in dynamically reconfigured assemblies. These groups are formed by a rapid and often transient synchronization of the participating neurons and it is suggested that this synchronism may be interpreted as a signature of relatedness. Could this be the solution to the philosophical conundrum of the "similarity judgement"? We will have to wait more to see.

In my opinion, few lines of research can claim to be more important to the understanding of our brain than this one. Once we discover how our brains represent and act on information, it is expected that everything else fits in place. It is refreshing to see such an important topic well represented in this volume.

No review of such a voluminous work can claim completeness (or even fairness). Hence, it is wise to reinforce here that this review only touches on the beauty and appropriateness of the book. In a field as recent as Cognitive Neuroscience, this volume should certainly be considered as its most important source of reference, an important standpoint in support of the huge amount of work that still awaits the field in the future.


Arbib, Michael A. (editor) (1995) The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks. The MIT Press, Bradford Book.

Elman, Jeffrey; Bates, Elisabeth A.; Johnson, Mark H.; Karmiloff-Smith, Annette; Parisi, Domenico; Plunkett, Kim (1996) Rethinking Innateness, A Connectionist Perspective on Development. The MIT Press, a Bradford book.

Gazzaniga, Michael S.; Ivry, Richard B.; Mangun, George R. (1998) Cognitive Neuroscience, The Biology of Mind. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Johnson, Mark H.; Paterson, S. J.; Brown, J. H.; Gsödl, M. K.; Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1999) Cognitive Modularity and Genetic Disorders, in Science Vol 286, 17 Dec 1999.

Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1998) Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders, in Trends of Cognitive Science, Vol. 2, No. 10, Oct. 1998.

Articles Cited

[8] Kuhl, Patricia K. (pg 99) Language, Mind, and Brain: Experience Alters Perception.

[23] Singer, Wolf (pg 325) Response Synchronization: A Universal Coding Strategy for the Definition of Relations.

[58] Schacter, Daniel L.; Curran, Tim (pg 829) Memory Without Remembering and Remembering Without Memory: Implicit and False Memories.

[63] Stromswold, Karin (pg 909) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Language Acquisition.

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