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Neurochemistry of consciousness: neurotransmitters in mind
  1. Steven Rose

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    Edited by Elaine Perry, Heather Ashton, and Allan Young (Pp 346, EUR65.00). Published by John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 2002. ISBN 90-272-5156-8

    Consciousness is a portmanteau word, full of rich and different meanings: contrast Marxian, Freudian, and anaesthesiologists' use of the term. In recent years it has also become a fashionable hunting ground for neuroscientists, who are rarely troubled by such complexities. For them, consciousness is being awake rather than asleep, being reducible to awareness. Sweeping aside centuries of philosophical debate, they ponder over whether “it” “resides” in specific anatomical brain structures, in microtubules, in patterns of neurotransmitter release, or whatever. The present book is typical of this type of cheerfully unsophisticated empiricism: its hunt for what the editors call “NCCs”—neural correlates of consciousness—focuses on neurotransmitters, hence the subtitle. However, the concern with “mind” ceases at that point; this elusive phenomenon finds no place in the book's index. The central question for the editors seems to be whether the acetylcholine or the dopaminergic system is the more likely substrate for conscious awareness. This reductionism characterises most of the chapters. That on memory, for instance, abandons even animal memory for a discussion of a physiological phenomenon called long term potentiation, and even the psychoanalyst Mark Solms, on dreams, who surely ought to have a broader perspective, confines himself to contrasting cholinergic and dopaminergic hypotheses. However, the authors are clearly writing to an editorial brief: each chapter, in a book ranging from discussions of attention and motivation through psychotropic drug mechanisms to mental retardation and autism, following a brief nod to marginally wider concerns, offers a neurotransmitter by neurotransmitter list of potential associations or correlations with “states of awareness.” Within these limitations many of the chapters provide competent student friendly overviews of their themes. If the book's pretensions weren't so much larger this would be fine; as it is, those hoping for a more multilevel or theoretically informed discussion will be disappointed.