I admire communicators who tell you about complex matters, which you would otherwise have little hope of learning about. I write scientific books so I understand how difficult it is. This book is a book about science and at the same time a book about history, and I love reading about the history of science. Here he writes about the beginnings of the Royal Society in the 17th century.
Thomas Willis is the main hero of the book. He was a doctor who began studying the brain itself in the turbulent time of the Civil War. Christopher Wren, famed for building St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London, did some beautiful anatomically accurate drawings of the brain, which was interesting to find out about. And you have the astonishing idea that the brain produces the mind – and in Zimmer’s words, the soul is made flesh – which even today many people find hard to accept.
What I like about this book is that it is not just about the early history of how people came to study the brain, but it is also about recent brain science, where scanners are used to watch what happens in the brain while it is thinking. One of the ideas he tells about is some research I myself was involved with, the brain’s ‘Theory of Mind’. It is a strange concept, which is historically linked with autism. This is the idea that one of the fundamental problems in autism is an inability to understand that other people have minds that explain and predict their behaviour. And I find Zimmer’s account very interesting. We need to find out how the mind can go wrong in such a way that autism results and what it is that stops the ability to socially interact and communicate.