by Christiaan D. van der Velde, M.D.; Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 2004, 242 pages, $28
Dr. Goldenberg is affiliated with the University of North Carolina Hospitals, Chapel Hill.
Modern academic psychiatry has so concerned itself with clinical trials of pharmaceuticals and the neuroimaging of various mental disorders that the field often seems to overlook more fundamental questions about the relationship between the mind and brain that had been the intellectual domain of psychiatry for years. With a few notable exceptions, psychiatrists have largely ceded the scholarship on issues such as the nature of consciousness to philosophers, psychologists, linguists, cognitive neuroscientists, and even neurologists. As a third-year psychiatry resident interested in theory of the mind, I have found this neglect surprising and somewhat disconcerting. I therefore eagerly anticipated reading The Mind by psychiatrist Christiaan van der Velde.
A psychotherapist and clinical professor at the University of Connecticut, Dr. van der Velde assumes the daunting task of trying to explain in mere 242 pages how cerebral activities, which are discrete biological events, become mental experiences—more abstract experiential phenomena. He then applies his analysis to explain personality and mental disorders and the mechanism of psychotherapy. In many ways, he is successful in covering a lot of historical, philosophical, and scientific ground.
Unfortunately, the book is so laden with technical jargon and difficult concepts—"percepts," "gestalts," "engrams," and "dialectics" abound but are never adequately explained—that much of what may be valuable content is difficult to comprehend. I found myself having to read and reread sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters in a frustrating attempt to understand the author's arguments. Van der Velde is at his best when he uses specific examples to illustrate complex concepts, as when he discusses the difference between recognition, object permanence, and cognition by describing the brain's various activities on an otherwise simple ride home from work. But such reader-friendly content is too rare.
Structurally, the book is odd. Its relatively short length is divided into five parts and 21 chapters, some no longer than three pages. Ironically, one of the shortest chapters is entitled "The Mind-Body Problem." Few of the chapters have many cited references. Several chapters include rudimentary illustrations, mostly diagrams of the brain. Perhaps the quirkiest aspect of the book is Figure 10, a side-by-side happy face and sad face. The figure illustrates that mood can be determined by the shape of the mouth, a concept that would seem to need no graphic assistance.
It is certainly encouraging to see a psychiatrist actively involved in thinking and writing about fundamental issues of the mind-brain relationship and the implications for clinical psychiatry. The field could certainly benefit from a comprehensive and comprehensible analysis of current theory. The Mind, however, falls short of that goal, and although it may be of some value to experts—I acknowledge that I am not one—it is difficult to recommend this book to a more general readership.