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Into the Silent Land – Book Review

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology
Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology by Paul Broks

The brain is simply a mechanical storyteller. That is the underlying idea of Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology. The book is an amazing foray into the self and its purpose, ultimately questioning its very existence. There are some very interesting thoughts put forward here. The idea that the self, as we generally accept it, is nonexistent is hard to swallow because it goes against the very nature of human experience. However, the author presents his case quite clearly and quite convincingly.


Seemingly aware of the controversial nature his idea, Broks, an English neuropsychologist, eases the reader into it carefully. He first presents a few stories of experiences he has had with patients. Some of the experiences he describes, such as his initial sense of fear when dealing with his first severely mentally ill person, struck a chord with me, as I had experienced similar feelings when placed in the same situation. Broks uses this fear, and its subsequent alleviation after time, to illustrate an important concept that he echoes throughout the book; one miniscule change to our brain could make us a completely different person.


The remainder of Into the Silent Land deals with this thought within the context of the self. As such, he suggests that the brain is little more than a mechanical device. With neurons firing away like a well-oiled engine, the product of our brain is its ability to tell stories. In turn, these stories create the person we see ourselves to be, our self. Indeed, Broks suggests that we are all simply a collection of atoms arranged in a particular sequence that produces the self we see in the mirror, replete with memories and all.


One of the more poignant chapters, and one which illustrates this concept, involves a man taking a trip in the near future when a machine is capable of transporting one instantly from Earth to Mars. ‘Transport’ is hardly the best term as the person making the incredible journey has every molecule of their body scanned on Earth and their body is replicated at their destination exactly as it was before. The person on Earth is simultaneously disintegrated, so there are never two copies alive at the same time. The problem comes when the machine performing this task malfunctions, leaving the original traveler alive and well on Earth while his duplicate goes about his business with no knowledge of the other’s existence. The question then becomes whether the two men are the same person; a somewhat heady inquiry, but one which inevitably gets you thinking.


From a scientific standpoint, what Broks says sounds not only plausible, but also completely true. The brain, as we understand it today, is simply an organ like any other. However, this goes against how we perceive the world, which inherently leads us to one of two conclusions; either our brains are simply story-telling machines that are lying to us or there is something more going on in the brain than we are currently able to discover through science. Into the Silent Land doesn’t give us the answer, however. Broks is content to let the question bounce around in our heads and then state that he doesn’t think the answer will ever be found. I tend to agree with his assessment.


To read this excellent, thought-provoking book, buy it here.