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Joaquin M Fuster. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003, pp 284, £47.95. ISBN 0-19-514752-9
Joaquin Fuster is a distinguished American neuroscientist whose work has explored the neurophysiology of cognition, largely in animals, but with the ultimate goal of understanding how the human mind is implemented in the brain. His own research has focused particularly on the neuronal basis of working memory, revealing “memory” cells in the prefrontal cortex that help to retain the information an animal must “keep in mind” if it is to act appropriately after a delay—like the position of a covered well containing food. These prefrontal memory cells are a key component of an extensive cortical network required to maintain working memory, which also involves posterior brain regions closer to the sensory cortices, with a more traditional role in representing our surroundings.
Cortex and mind ranges far beyond the confines of Fuster’s own experimental work. Its ambition is to describe how our key cognitive abilities—perception, memory, attention, language, and intelligence—emerge from the widely distributed cortical networks, or cognits in Fuster’s terminology, which, he believes, represent the entirety of our knowledge. Fuster’s interesting position is that interwoven and sometimes identical networks are involved in each of these cognitive functions, which are therefore far less well localised and less distinct than much of our contemporary quasi-phrenological thinking suggests: no cognitive function has a fully dedicated cortical area or network; conversely, a cortical network or representation is at the disposition of any and all functions.
This view has a good deal of appeal; perception is in part the reactivation of memory, attention is expressed in the changing content of perception, language and intelligence emerge from the categories that perceptual memory creates…and yet other observations, like the role of the medial temporal lobes in acquiring declarative memories, or of the fusiform gyrus in face perception or inferior parietal lobe in spatial awareness, seem to call for a more finely differentiated theory of cortical function than Fuster’s general line of argument suggests.
Fuster’s main thesis condemns him to repeat himself at times as he works through the roster of our cognitive functions, and he tends to a rather abstract style. But there is much fascinating information to be found here—I particularly enjoyed the closing chapters on language and intelligence—and anyone who is used to locating cortical functions on colourful scans will find cause for thought in these pages.