Reviews of Mental Biology

Metapsychology On-line Reviews
Reviewed by Leo Szych, J.D., M.PH.

Mental Biology  is a book about brain and consciousness.  The author, W.R. Klemm, DVM, PhD, is a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, at Texas A & M University; Klemm is, as well, a prolific writer, authoring over 500 publications.  In the book’s “Preface”, Klemm states forthrightly that the thrust of the book is about brain and consciousness (with consciousness being viewed from womb to tomb).  The book’s contents are, in fact, an intellectually expansive repository, harboring a copious amount of neuroscientific centric discourse.  The textual discourse, overall, is composed in relatively  esoteric fashion; albeit stylistic elements of plain English writing as well as bits and pieces of relative informality can be found also in the text’s body.

It was immensely intellectually refreshing to read this book, exuding such superb knowledge and understanding of the subject matter comprising the text!The mainstay intellectual pillar upholding the book’s substance is Klemm’s keen observation, of areas of substantive interest, with a keenly observing eye.

Numerous gaps in neuroscience knowledge are spotted by the discerning intellectual vision of Klemm.The observations of Klemm are accompanied by bluntly (and expertly!) opinionated commentary. Over the book’s course, Klemm’s critical scrutiny extends to research involving humans as well as various animal species.

A considerable number of research references are embedded in the textual terrain. Following the text is a “Notes” section, giving citations for textually referenced materials. The text’s body is adorned, didactically, with some highly instructive “Figures”.

Klemm anecdotally sews, here and there, some biographical details of his life seamlessly into the textual cloth. The discourse of Klemm is notably tinged philosophically. Substantively, the brain and consciousness are on centerstage in this book.  And, in Chapter 1, Klemm proffers the contention that , at the level of the individual person, a major natural selection force driving the creating of mental capacity and character is the human mind, especially the conscious mind.  As the chapter nears its end, Klemm further offers the claim that the book will show how the brain shapes its destiny; and that what a person thinks and does shapes brain function.

How brains work comprises the substantive cynosure, of Chapter 2.  In this enframing context, the wide sweeping ken of Klemm instructively and informatively sights:  neural networks; topographical mapping; circuit impulse patterns; nerve impulse patterns; neurotransmitters; “cognitive binding”; oscillation; the brain’s three minds (of:  nonconscious mind; unconscious mind; and conscious mind); wakefulness; consciousness as a brain state of being; self; and neuroplasticity.

The nature of consciousness rises to the substantive fore, of Chapter 3.  In Klemm’s view, the most profound human sense is the conscious sense of self.  Klemm discourses that, for full consciousness, sense of self is necessary but not sufficient; the hallmark of higher consciousness is introspection about one’s self.  It seems to Klemm that consciousness, as a state, is dependent more on circuit organization than on total number of circuits.

As Chapter 3 continues to unfold, Klemm, characteristically revealing much erudition and thoughtfulness, further expounds expertly on an array of issues relating to the nature of consciousness.  The expertly erudite discourse of Klemm ranges to thoughtful consideration of:  brainstem trigger of wakefulness; language; circuit impulse patterns as the currency of conscious thought; “mirror neurons”; oscillatory synchronization; “Global Neuronal Workspace”; working memory; habits and compulsions; hallucinatory consciousness; dreams; sleep; rapid eye movements; and slow wave sleep.

The writing of Klemm, in Chapter 3 and throughout the book, strongly shows fierce independence of intellectual thought. Consciousness centric discourse continues with much intellectual vigor, in penultimate Chapter 4.  Avatars notably draw the  close scrutiny of Klemm, in this chapter.  With much intellectual deliberateness, Klemm ponders the possibility that circuit impulse patterns of conscious self are the equivalent of a brain created avatar that acts on behalf of the brain and body.  It is Klemm’s belief that the avatar is what makes people human.  Issues appertaining to the avatar are skillfully dissected and examined by the intellectually very sharp scalpel of Klemm.

In Chapter 4, the sharp blade of Klemm’s piercing acumen further cuts to the core of the issue of whether people are free, or are robots. In Klemm’s blunt judgment, free will studies have been plagued by unwarranted simplistic assumptions; and robotocists commit major fallacies of logic or acceptance of insufficient data in interpreting such studies.  Klemm opines bluntly that, until science provides evidence, it is scientifically irresponsible to insist that there is no such thing as free will.

The perspective emphasized by Klemm is that everyday intentions and decisions may arise through a combination of unconscious and conscious actions.  Regarding habitual tasks, the unconscious mind issues the intent or decision; and the conscious mind then realizes what has been done.  Regarding novel or complex tasks, the conscious mind does the processing, and informs the unconscious mind.  The greatest value of the capacity for conscious choice, in Klemm’s view, is that it gives people power over themselves and their environment.  Klemm expresses the hope that his analysis of neuroscience research regarding free will shows that the robotocist view is poorly supported scientifically.

Further areas studied closely by Klemm, in Chapter 4, in the enframing context of consciousness, encompass:  “change blindness”; learning; introspection; language; reasoning; creativity; personal growth; personal responsibility; placebo and nocebo effects; and epigenetics.

The “spooky science” of quantum mechanics attracts the close attention of Klemm, in concluding Chapter 5.  Sighting Einstein and relativity on his intellectual radar screen, Klemm raises the issue of the possible relevance of relativity to brain function and consciousness.  In this last chapter, Klemm further expounds on:  string theory; parallel universes; “dark matter”; dark energy; and near death experiences.  As the chapter draws to its end, Klemm thoughtfully puts forth some perspectives on science and the mind’s odyssey.

Particular ideas embraced by Klemm may not be shared fully by other experts. And the cautionary note may be sounded that Klemm, equipped with a very powerful intellectual camera, has taken a highly revealing snapshot of parts of the area encompassing neuroscience; but research and clinical advances tethered to the realm of neuroscience are a movie in progress.

But surely, the very powerful intellect of Klemm will hold scientist readers in thrall. Philosophers, as well, will quite likely be enthralled by the intellectual power of Klemm.

New York Journal of Books
Reviewed by: Donald F. Calbreath PhD

Mental Biology provides a challenging and thought provoking picture of one of the most complex and confusing issues in modern neuroscience. One cannot intelligently discuss the issues of conscious thought without including this book as part of the conversation.”

The purpose of Mental Biology is broad: to challenge current thinking about how the mind works, what consciousness really is, and whether or not free will exists. Klemm methodically takes the reader through a short course in neuroscience, with a focus on the structure of the brain. He then spends the bulk of the book looking at the complex and often confusing issue of consciousness, exploring its role in learning and memory.

Issues of behavior are raised when Klemm asks the provocative question, “Does consciousness do anything?” (His answer is “Yes, it does.”) The final section of the book takes us into a world that can be wonderfully confusing. Quantum mechanics, the Big Bang theory, string theory, and multiverses all enter into a discussion that draws few conclusions, but does raise a number of unanswered questions.

Klemm provides a valuable insight that is often ignored or downplayed: the impulses transmitted throughout the nervous system are not made up of electrons, but positive ions.  We tend to think of electrical signals as being due to electron flow (that works for TV sets, cell phones, and other electronic devices). If electrons were to flow through nervous tissue, a great deal of damage would quickly take place and the system would soon cease to function. Signals in the nervous system are propagated by movement of positive ions through membranes, producing a difference in electrical charge across that structure.

As a key component of his basic thesis, Klemm introduces the idea of circuit impulse patterns (CIP). This concept more accurately reflects the reality of the linking of neural processes into a complex network than does the focus on a single nerve path and synapse. Neurotransmitters act in a variety of mechanisms depending upon the sum total of all the nerve impulses involved.

By invoking the idea of CIPs, Klemm can then develop a sense of emergence of more complex phenomena from a set of less complex systems that interact, following ideas put forth in other settings by Philip Clayton and others.

The idea of consciousness has intrigue philosophers, theologians, and neuroscientists for a long time. Klemm puts forth some interesting and challenging thoughts on this topic. He argues that the brain does not just contain the conscious mind, but actually develops it.

Further, he states that the unborn child has a form of rudimentary consciousness at about month seven of the pregnancy (which opens the door to some troubling issues dealing with late-term abortions). In addition, Klemm feels that the normal adult brain does not achieve complete development until the mid-twenties. This idea is in keeping with a body of research dealing with impulse control showing conclusively that impulse control is not well formed until the early twenties. There are obvious implications in both the educational and legal realms for treatment of teens.

Klemm parts company with much of the neuroscience community when it comes to the topic of free will.  He first does his homework by listing and evaluating the different arguments against the idea of free will, and then goes on to provide his position that supports the concept that we do have freedom of will.  In doing so, he challenges many current students of the question. His conclusions stand in contrast to those of other neuroscientists such asDaniel Dennett (author of Consciousness Explained, among other books).

At times, Klemm drifts into a sort of mysticism.  He states at one point “. . . life is a unique and seemingly magical category of creation . . .” In other passages he talks of life being a “miracle” and of a “mysterious life force” possessed by sentient animals and humans. Klemm gives no clue as to his personal philosophical position, so the reader is left to wonder whether he is speaking from some theological perspective or just using the vague terminology employed by scientists when they are confronted with complex life questions that they cannot answer using a naturalistic approach.

Given the complexity of the material covered in the book, the Notes section at the end seems a little sparse. There are fewer than 200 references cited, with no comments attached to any of the citations. An expansion and elaboration of this material would definitely prove helpful to the reader.

Mental Biology provides a challenging and thought provoking picture of one of the most complex and confusing issues in modern neuroscience. One cannot intelligently discuss the issues of conscious thought without including this book as part of the conversation.

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The Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation
Reviewed by Jonathan Cowie

William Klemm is a senior professor of neuroscience at Texas A & M University in the US and so I had thought that this book might well go above my head (since though reasonably read across the biosciences, I have to confess to a bit of a blind spot when it comes to neuroscience: it never came up in my environmental science studies and my science policy work only really engaged with neuroscientists over non-neuroscience topics such as funding and research assessment.

Having said that, I am interested in what it is that make sentient intelligence, sentient intelligence? Why do we sleep? What is the nature of consciousness? From which spring SFnal questions such as can we artificially create a consciousness?

I am please to report that Klemm does not shy away from these questions and has a fair go at answering them (as far as I can tell from my largely ignorant perspective). And there is a good reference list; indeed, I looked one up which was a PLOS One paper (fortunately open-access) on near-death experiences (they seem to be genuinely perceived and intense experiences but not necessarily evidence of life after death).

The level of science needed by the reader is not that high (around junior school science), though to get the best out of this book the reader will need to be comfortable with handling high school concepts: the reader will need to be able to ‘think’ (which is not a bad thing given this book’s subject). About the most complex neuroscience it gets is that of the concept of ‘circuit impulse patterns’ (CIPs). What’s more the author has an engaging writing style.

Weaknesses? Well, I did not get all the answers I was hoping for. I did not find out whether there was some formulae or whatever that translates neural patterns into consciousness (CIPs aside). This was annoying. But having said that, William Klemm is a professor of neuroscience and so one has to give the benefit of the doubt that he is making a fair summary of where his discipline stands today. Assuming this then the problem is that we (humanity) do not know exactly what consciousness is except in the loosest of ways and possibly only are currently approaching the topic from its edges. Yes, we (humans) may know of the Higgs boson, the expanding Universe, glacial-interglacial transitions, biological evolution, how antibiotics work and designing computer programmes and neat as well as more basic websites, heart-grabbing music, etc., but we clearly know comparatively little about our brain and its consciousness. So it is not the author’s fault that he cannot give readers more full and frank answers.

I have to say that I did get a bit worried towards the end of the book where he decidedly gets into metaphysics, missing mass, dark energy and so forth: was he going all wishy-washy woo-woo? And then I thought about it. The author does not go into the metaphysics in great detail, but I felt he was perhaps beginning to head into holographic universe territory and that in itself is quite a thought. Nor all the way through does he tell us what to think. He points to key neuroscience experiments and their results but, while these suggest conclusions, in a number of cases matters are not cut and dried and so he (commendably) leaves it to the reader to make their own mind up. Frustrating at the lack of concrete answers this may be, the book’s subtitle does refer ‘the new science’ and so it would really be presumptive of us to expect more.

This is a thought-provoking and an engaging and largely jargon-free book that makes us realise that, while we can see literally billions of light years to distant galaxies or elucidate much of the co-evolution of light and planet again over eons, the one exploration we are barely beginning is taking place here and now with the study of our own minds. How frustrating, yet intriguing, is that?

San Francisco Book Reviews
5 Stars. Posted in Science & Nature by  – April 28, 2014. .Also posted on Amazon

The subtitle says it all:  The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate.  The author ofMental Biology, W.R. Klemm, boosts the reader’s sense of a logical foundation, indicating that the degree of functionality is directly related to the facility with language or mathematical reasoning.  This idea is profound to anyone who recently visited a classroom, whether as a student or an instructor.  One of the things that consciousness does is direct attention.  Klemm reveals this by raising a rather significant idea:  are we free or are we robots?  He also raises questions that may have passed through our conscious at one time or another in our lives.  What sets this book apart from others is that the answer he infers provides a framework to allow us to consider how our minds are built and perhaps how they actually work.

Klemm gives us a good sense of the nature of consciousness and what it really means to be conscious.  The book is essentially a guide to help us understand ourselves.  And it does this with forethought and insight.  The book is smoothly written with a keen sense of wit and understanding.  Hence, the reader finds familiarity in Klemm’s sober message of our true nature.

Reviewed by D. Wayne Dworsky

Put On Hold E-magazine, Barbara Morris.
November, 2014

In April 2014 his latest book was released, Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate, written in a jargon-free style understandable to the lay reader.
What is particularly appealing to me about Mental Biology is that Dr. Klemm takes on researchers who argue that the conscious mind is merely a passive observer and free will is an illusion. It makes me crazy when someone makes a bad decision and wails, “It wasn’t my fault”. Dr. Klemm presents evidence showing that mental creativity, freedom to act, and personal responsibility are very real. He also ex-plains the brain-based differences between non conscious, unconscious, and conscious minds.
If you are fascinated how the mysterious three-pound organ in our heads creates the rich display of human mental experience, including the sense of self and consciousness, Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate should be on your reading list. Also, if it concerns you that too many don’t like to take personal responsibility for their actions, be sure to check his blog: Blame Game: Essays on Personal Responsibility vs. Excuses.
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