Star Trek on the Brain: Alien Minds, Human Minds. Robert Sekuler and Randolph Blake. 244 pp. W. H. Freeman, 1998. $17.60.
Fascinating," said the First Officer. "Yes, Spock, of course it was 'fascinating,' but it was fun, too. Admit it."
"The human predilection for ascribing entertainment value to the absorption of knowledge has always eluded me, doctor."
"And that's just the problem, isn't it? You Vulcans can't tell a good read from a dry textbook."
If that interplay brings a smile to your face, you will probably enjoy the collaborative efforts of Robert Sekuler and Randolph Blake. In Star Trek on the Brain, they have indeed managed to combine some of the most exciting content of a current text on neuropsychology and behavior with a slant that will draw almost anyone into the discussion.
Using characters and situations from the Star Trek series and movies, they launch a consideration of topics such as the functioning of our senses, the importance of memory to our very humanness, the biological bases for aggression and the transmission of cultural norms and rituals. They also examine the role of anxiety and emotion in our lives, the causes of a variety of psychological disorders and, of course, the significance of sex in human behavior.
Toward the end, the authors provide some scientific speculation on three favorite concerns of science fiction: how the rapidly increasing knowledge of our own genetic heritage may affect human behavior, the consequences of further improvement in the creation of realistic virtual environments and whether there is any possibility for the development of telepathy (albeit augmented by suitable brain implants).
Several technical topics that could have become mired in minutiae, jargon or technicalities read smoothly without talking down to the reader or sacrificing accuracy. They move easily between the Star Trek characters and our present knowledge of behavior.
For example, the authors refer to aliens called Ferengi, physically endowed with enormous ears. Ferengi are known to eavesdrop on conversations of others and may note, almost apologetically, that "it's the lobes." This reference to external anatomy and its possibly unavoidable influence on hearing thresholds is neatly distinguished from a situation in which a Ferengi ensign helps unscramble a recorded voice. Although the character again notes that lobes underlie his performance, Sekuler and Blake neatly shift the discussion to the role played by the lobes of the brain in more complex perceptual processing. In this way, the authors have fun with their approach without allowing it to interfere with presenting solid, scientific descriptions and discussions.
Of course, the unavoidable question is whether one must be a "Trekkie" to understand and appreciate this book. Fortunately, the authors provide several aids, including a quite readable dramatis personae, as well as a list of source episodes and a variety of very useful notes. Although I was initially skeptical, I think that these signposts are sufficient to allow one to navigate the Star Trek references without much difficulty. On the other hand, the very fullest enjoyment of this book will probably arise from the warm feeling of recognition in finding references to familiar or favorite episodes.
I recommend the book to those who wish a pleasant introduction to modern issues of neuropsychology. I highly recommend it to those individuals who also enjoy the various Star Trek series and movies. (Enthusiasts can rest assured that the details of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future are, for the most part, handled very faithfully. My only significant quibble concerns several references to the character of Counselor Deanna Troi as a telepath. As was made clear on several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, she is only telepathic when she is interacting with a true telepath such as her mother; she herself is only able to sense emotions. This is, however, a small issue in a generally excellent book.)
One cautionary note: As a devoted fan, I find it hard to believe that there are actually those out there who find our fascination with the characters of the Star Trek universe an annoying obsession. These readers will probably not appreciate the frequent intrusion of science fiction into their reading. But, of course, this book wasn't really written with them in mind. Those who can enjoy some lighthearted fun with their science should get a kick out of Star Trek on the Brain.—Donald H. Mershon, Psychology, North Carolina State University