The Neurobiology of the Prefrontal Cortex: Anatomy, Evolution, and the Origin of Insight (Richard E. Passingham & Steven P. Wise )

Written by Dave Clarke on .

Richard E. Passingham & Steven P. Wise

Oxford University Press (, 2014

ISBN: 978 0 19 871469 9

Richard Passingham did his undergraduate degree at Oxford University (BA, 1966), and then did a Master's degree in Clinical the Institute of Psychiatry in London (M.Sc. 1967). He then undertook his Ph.D. at the University of London (1971). Afterwards he returned to Oxford University as a Research Officer on a MRC Programme Grant. He was made a University Lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology in 1976 and a Fellow of Wadham College in the same year. He was made an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the MRC Cyclotron Unit at the Hammersmith Hospital in 1991 and an Honorary Principal at the Welcome Centre for Neuroimaging in London in 1996. In 1993 he became an ad hominem Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford University and became a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in 1997. Richard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2009 and Fellow of the American Psychological Society in 2010.

Steven P. Wise received a B.A. in biology from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. in biology from Washington University in St. Louis. After a brief period of postdoctoral study, he had a 30-year career as a neurophysiologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr Wise served as the Chief of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Chief of the Section on Neurophysiology of the Laboratory of Systems Neuroscience.

The Neurobiology of the Prefrontal Cortex uses a comparative approach, combining evidence from humans and monkeys. It also adopts a multidisciplinary approach, combining evidence from anatomy, cell recording, imaging, and lesion effects, enabling understanding of the broad scope of data on the function of the primate prefrontal cortex. With the aid of flattened line drawings this book helps readers understand the connections of the prefrontal cortex and their importance to its function. Throughout the publication Passingham and Wise explain advances, suggest testable proposals and examine ideas about experiments for future exploration of the prefrontal cortex.

As we know, the prefrontal cortex makes up almost a third of the human brain, and it expanded dramatically during primate evolution. Passingham and Wise present a new theory about its fundamental functions arguing that primate-specific parts of the prefrontal cortex evolved to reduce errors in foraging choices, so that our ancestors could overcome periodic food shortages. This evolutionary development laid the foundation for working out problems in our imagination, which resulted in the origin of insights that allow humans to avoid errors completely or at least for most of the time. Of course this is variable and dependent on tasks and direction of human development.

Much of the book covers those parts of the prefrontal cortex evolved entirely in primates and explains why other parts of the brain cannot carry out the functions that the prefrontal cortex does. Relying on evolutionary history and using evidence from lesion, imaging, and cell-recording experiments, Passingham and Wise argue that the primate prefrontal cortex generates goals from a current behavioural context and that it can do so on the basis of single events. Further they suggest that the prefrontal cortex uses the attentive control of behaviour to augment an older general-purpose learning system, one that evolved very early in the history of animals. This older system learns slowly and cumulatively over many experiences based on reinforcement.

This book does give us a real insight into the biological basis of the uniqueness of human characteristics, the specific ecological variables and social organisation, which provides a real understanding to how these challenges have been made. It explains clearly how early primates moved towards new ways of foraging along with the evolution of thumbs and frontally directed eyes. This allowed development of the additional agranular areas, including the premotor cortex permitting control grasping movement. This increasing reliance on visual information also coincided with the increase in relative brain size, additional visual areas and different modes of locomotion resulting on reliance towards more energy-rich food resources. It also allowed greater food selection throughout the seasons permitting an advantage over other non-primate food strategies which relied on slow and error-prone foraging. The other benefit is that errors can be dangerous if not even fatal. We have evolved to a position where food acquisition is a peaceful and even pleasurable task (for some) and the only foraging carried out is through purses,