The Missing Moment
How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science
By Robert Pollack
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 9780395709856, 256pp.)
Publication Date: September 1999
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In THE MISSING MOMENT a distinguished molecular biologist explores the nature of time and argues for a radical rethinking of how time affects our sense of self, our mortality, and the future of science and medicine. Only in the past few years have we learned enough about the brain for this remarkable book to be written. We know now that our brains continually filter the present through memories and emotions of the past. In fact, strictly speaking, we live in the past: since it takes the brain a second to process perceptions, what we think is the present actually happened a second ago. We also know where and how the unconscious operates and how painful memories are repressed; repression is not a psychological defect but an evolutionary necessity for our species. All thought, even the most rational, is permeated with unconscious feelings, fears, and emotions. Scientists, like the rest of us, make choices for reasons they don't understand. Thus the direction of scientific research is driven by private demons, not public needs. We can see this in medical science, where doctors develop the tools to diagnose genetic diseases they cannot cure, bringing pain rather than comfort to patients. Today science can do more good than ever before, and it can also do more harm. The time has come for scientists and others to abandon the notion that there is any such thing as the disinterested pursuit of truth. Instead, they must strive for a therapeutic self-awareness of their unconscious agendas and work for larger goals than personal immortality.
Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, was formerly dean of Columbia College. He worked for years with James Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. His first book, Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA, was widely praised for both its science and its writing. He lives in New York City and Chelsea, Vermont.
"Marry Freud to brain circuity and use that linkage to indict modern biomedical science: this is the aim of Pollack, former Columbia College dean, now professor of biological sciences in this intense, provocative volume.
Pollack's assumption of a Freudian mode, complete with id, ego, superego, instincts, and childhood unconscious repressions is a surprise. Moreover, he uses neuroscience findings to shore up the connection. The "missing moment" of the title is the half second before a stimulus (say, an arm pinch) occurs and your perception of what happened. In that half-second, loops of neural circuity link sensation to memories, emotions, and layers of meaning, conscious and unconscious. In this way our perceptions and consciousness are grounded in synchronous excitations of neuron clusters orchestrated by a 40-cycle-per-second wave sweeping across the brain from front to back. Thus we forever live one half-second in the past. As for Freud, it's not his death instinct Pollack chooses but its opposite: the fear and denial of mortality. It's that unconscious motive that drives biomedical science today down roads Pollack sees as doomed to failure. The fear of invasion drives the quest for antibiotics to cure infectious disease: It will never work given natural selection and the abundance and mutability of microbes. The fear of death itself drives a quest for eternal life. As a result, we apply heroic measures and ultimately shun the dying, depriving them of even the most elemental palliative care. There are alternatives, he proposes, as long as we avoid the hubris of tampering with the germ line of future generations.
Interestingly, Pollack's often eloquently expressed thesis does not need or depend on Freud. What he has to say about infection, cancer, aging, and genome research carries a sufficient weight of scientific wisdom by itself to bear attending--on the art of policymakers, health professionals, and the public itself." Kirkus Reviews
"Mr. Pollack is what keeps science writers awake nights: a scientist who really writes." The New York Times
"In a stimulating critique of modern science, Pollack, a Columbia University biology professor, challenges conventional notions of consciousness by arguing that the past is an inextricable component of the mind's grasp of the present. He begins with a look at sensation: our five senses, he maintains, are products of the ancient choices, fixed in a human genome millions of years ago through natural selection. With a nod to Freud, whom he calls an experimental psychologist, Pollack then points to strong evidence that repressed memories, hidden from consciousness in untapped neural networks, do exist, setting the stage for conflicts in adult life. He also reports that within the past few years scientists have discovered how a 40-cycle-per-second wave, arising deep inside the thalamus, sweeps through the entire brain, constantly binding together sensory information and memories. Synthesizing these findings, Pollack contends that our minds function only via continual reference to the past. The whole scientific enterprise, he argues, is just as prone to unconscious fears and fantasies as is any person. The collective myth of science and of biomedicine, in Pollack's diagnosis, involves misplaced beliefs in the omnipotence of rational thought, absolute control over nature and triumph over death. With eloquence and wit, he contends that biomedicine' s heroic goals of beating infectious microbes into total submission, of eradicating cancer and of dramatically extending life expectancy should give way to emphasis on disease prevention and methods to slow the aging process. Full of liberating insights, his provacative study on hard-core rationalists, establishment physicians, behaviorists, neurobiologists and life-extension researchers to rethink entrenched positions." Publishers Weekly
"Combining the knowledge of the scientist with the sensibility of Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Pollack brilliantly explores the epistemological and physiological limits of contemporary science." -- Howard Gardner
"Bob Pollack has written another remarkable book. I've read The Missing Moment twice. His challenge to his fellow scientists, to face up to old age, death, and dying as neglected research urgencies, is passionate and powerful. The book is crammed with information fresh to me. The sequence on epidemics brings Paul de Kruif to mind, for vivid writing." -- Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, War and Remembrance, and The Glory
"The Missing Moment asks questions that are at the heart of the human condition, and looks at how science has addressed or misaddressed them. It is a fascinating exploration of the unconscious forces in the lives of scientists--forces that for better or worse profoundly affect our society and culture." -- Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicinee, author of Night Falls Fasst and The Unquieeeeet Mind
"In the half-second between a physical stimulus and its conscious perception, Pollack explains, the signal passes through the unconscious. There, it filters through stored memories and primal experiences. This psychological process affects the substance of thought itself and, by extension, scientific research. According to Pollack, the bias of modern medicine toward aggressive and intrusive treatment over prevention and support is, at root, an unconscious denial of human mortality. Separately, both of these main points are compelling; Pollack's emphasis on the role of the unconscious in the workings of the mind and senses expounds upon an often overlooked field. Likewise, his manifesto for more humane medical sciences should be taken very seriously. The putative connection between the two seems strained, however, and diminishes Pollack's other excellent discussions somewhat. For academic and larger public libraries." Library Journal