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J R Soc Med. 2005 February; 98(2): 81–82.
PMCID: PMC1079393

The Oxford Companion to the Mind

Reviewed by J D Warren

Editor: Richard L. Gregory
pp. 1024 Price £40 ISBN 0-19-866224-6 (h/b).
Oxford: Oxford University Press Books.

There is a way of looking at the world which holds that the human mind and its contents are all that there is. The second edition of Richard Gregory’s lovely book does justice to the greatness of its subject and to its renowned predecessor. If Gilgamesh is the first book of the human heart, the Oxford Companion to the Mind is on a short-list of those dedicated to the heart’s more calculating running-mate. It makes good the dust-jacket’s boast that this is, indeed, an edition for the new century. The book’s compact and sober exterior belies a breadth and exuberance as astonishing as the paradoxes it celebrates. In the course of its 959 pages we are taken on a journey from the abacus to zombies, with stops along the way at such out-of-the-way places as the mysteries of the colour brown, the winning of chess endgames (and the blunders of Kasparov), why doubles are bad news, the legal validity of psychopaths, what the Buddha had to say about visual perception, the manners of conversing with kings (or carving a joint of meat), the history of the jigsaw puzzle, why Adzell the Wodenite was intrinsically good, and the scientific status of levitation and ghosts (whether Pepper’s ghost, or more homely apparitions). It would be almost true to say that all of human (mental) life is here, from the weightiest meditations on our past and our future, as individuals and as a species, to such ticklish subjects as, well, tickling. Nor does the Companion confine itself to mind as it is instantiated in human brains: the operation of other minds in our fellow creatures, and the possibility of future minds in our own digital creations, are themes treated at length.

The Companion’s honour roll of 316 authors (129 new to the present edition) have contributed universally readable, frequently entertaining, and sometimes historic pieces ranging in scope from definitions and brief vignettes to substantial essays. It is a measure of the eclecticism of this enterprise that the list of contributors includes, besides neuroscientists young and old, Beryl Bainbridge, Roger Penrose, and Patrick Moore. Alongside the exotic and the esoteric, the more traditional subject matter of the core brain sciences of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neuropsychology is solidly in evidence. The philosophical foundations of these disciplines, sometimes regarded by neuroscientists as diversions en route to the more serious business of molecules and MRIs, are here firmly in the foreground.

For all its erudition, the Companion has an endearing lightness of touch. The dialogue between the brain sciences, the arts and the greater religions emerges with clarity and verve. The book is commendably even-handed in its treatment of contemporary scientific and philosophical issues: the article on consciousness, perhaps the most notorious case in point, is presented as a symposium in which influential thinkers outline their respective positions. Plato would surely have approved. The inclusion of brief Lives provides a welcome historical context, conveying the poignancy and humour of the passing parade. The Lives exemplify the surefooted economy of style and expression which is a hallmark of the whole work: such mighty themes as ‘religion’ or ‘symbols’ are rendered with an epigrammatic freshness which is never merely facile. The book is a triumph of the editor’s art (that is, the art which disguises art).

Any criticisms will seem mean-spirited. The neurological entries could perhaps be more contemporary in places; and I was a little disappointed not to find an entry devoted to the thorny problem of ‘objects’ as the building blocks of the brain’s experience of the world. But no book can be all things to all men; and to mention such things is rather like quibbling that Raphael could not paint feet. This book will fill many rainy afternoons, and it will be an amiable and scholarly guide to realms I know nothing about. There must be few with an interest in the mind, whether amateur or professional, who would not consult it with profit and delight. To paraphrase Owen Chadwick (as quoted in the article on Adrian in the Companion), I am not sure what wisdom is, but whatever it is, this book must surely advance it.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press