What I learned from working through 1000+ pages on Neuroscience

“Principles of Neural Science“ 1 is a 1400+ pages book on neuroscience, a textbook classic co-written by one of the discipline’s founders, Eric Kandel.

Why did I read this book? Well, during my bachelor’s and master’s I had an informal project to read a non-fiction book of the academic kind during the semester break. And “Principles of Neural Science” was my choice for one term break… and the term, and the break after. Well, it is a big book, and while it is well written, it has no fluffy anecdotes. Thus, I would say, it was more “working through” than reading. Here is what I took along:

You need some knowledge of physics and chemistry

Luckily, it is at least partly explained in the appendix. Without it, much of the rest is not well comprehensible: Electro-chemistry is essential to our understanding of neurons and thus neural science. All the information transport is done based on releasing ions (charged particles). Where they will go to depends on their charge and that of their environment. No clue about charges? No clue about neurons.

There is a lot we know

There is a huge amount of information on the 1000+ pages. And it is not just a huge amount of unconnected claims, but coherent knowledge. And if it is not, the reasons were outlined.

Each of the many chapters summarizes the most important findings of it’s field and there is much research on e.g. mid-level-visual processing or schizophrenia.

The most fascinating chapters for me were on movement, feedback and feed-forward control, pattern generators and motor equivalence.

There is even more we don't know

If you read about neurology in the media, it seems like a well-researched, almost-all-known field: There are some hormones, there are some brain regions that do a specific thing (“Pain-Center” and “Pleasure hormones”3) and these things make us do stuff—pretty directly. Well, no.

I guess in every fifth or so paragraph was a caveat, a problem or a research gap highlighted, in every field, on every level. The described models make mostly sense, and that »mostly« is quickly skipped in the non-scientific communication. Which leads to…

What is called »neuroscience« in media and business is not described in this book

I already mentioned that neuroscience is more complex than “brain center X gets activated and makes you do stuff”. It is already difficult to give solid, applicable advice based on psychology2. In psychology, you are pretty good if you end up with a reasonable model for the behavior you report in your experiments—it can be based on information theory or causal chains. But neuroscience searches for reasons for behavior on a physical level, measuring blood flow, dissecting tissues and the like (or in a different strand, models brain functions in computers).

In short: If a surprising and practical advice is claimed to come from neuroscience it is very often:

  • …due to a huge leap in interpretation (We found that [condition in test] may have some correlation in some circumstances to the activation of a brain area that, among other functions, may also be related to [some positive outcome] (Possibly in a totally underpowered4 study).
  • …psychology being relabeled with the fancy sounding word »neuroscience«

Working with and through the Principles of Neural Science was hard but fascinating. I can highly recommend the book , though my style of reading it more or less cover-to-cover is probably not the standard way. Since it is well organized and has a great way to summarize findings inverted-pyramid style, you can easily jump to the parts that interest you (Assuming that you did learn about electrochemistry!).

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What I learned from working through 1000+ pages on Neuroscience by Jan Dittrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  1. Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM 2000. Principles of Neural Science, 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York. ISBN 0-8385-7701-6. Book’s website and its Wikipedia article. I read the 4th edition, the current one is the 5th. 

  2. And also in psychology there are some results that seem too amazing to be true, as in priming research and its crisis 

  3. Dopamine is often simply called “pleasure hormone” or “pleasure chemical”. However, it is used in many parts of the brain—also in some functions that seem to be related to pleasure (see The unsexy truth about dopamine, Guardian ). Note 2022-04-07: Similarly simplified notions of how the brain works are also rather wide spread in tech culture. Here, the brain is often conceptualized as a computer, frequently as a component in a transhumanist worldview

  4. For an explanation of statistical Power see here