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Brain Arousal and Information TheoryReview - Brain Arousal and Information Theory
Neural and Genetic Mechanisms
by Donald Pfaff
Harvard University Press, 2005
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Jun 20th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 25)

It is well known that the capacity of the human central nervous system (CNS) to be aroused is an essential aspect of not only our basic biological functioning but also our mental life, as expressed by the ability to engage in cognitive and emotional processing of a vast array of environmental stimuli.  The significance of the phenomenon of arousal for the functioning of the CNS, and the quest of Donald Pfaff to understand the mechanisms behind it, are sufficient to make his book Brain Arousal and Information Theory a compelling read for those interested in uncovering the never-ending mysteries of the "organ" of the mind. 

In the book, Pfaff argues that there is a generalized arousal factor whose behavioral effects are quite compelling (e.g., it accounts for 1/3 of the variance in the behavioral data of a series of experiments conducted by Pfaff himself with mice as subjects).  Statistical evidence suggests that this factor has three distinct and measurable components: sensory alertness, motor activity and emotional reactivity.  Therefore, Pfaff proposes an operational definition of arousal that includes all three components, and that conceptualizes increases in generalized arousal as increments in each one.  Although he treats an organism's behavior as the primary physical manifestation of generalized arousal, recordings of the electrical activity of the cortex (EEG), and evidence of sympathetic pathways' activation, are also taken into account as expressions of generalized arousal.

Generalized arousal is not the only focus of the author's quest for a comprehensive account of the central nervous system's arousal mechanisms. Pfaff cites specific forms of arousal, which appear to be defined as those whose sources are more obvious such as sex, hunger and fear.  He then proposes that an organism's state of arousal is a function of generalized arousal, and that specific forms of arousal, along with constant values, reflect the organism's stable traits (i.e., temperament).  He focuses on generalized arousal and specific forms of arousal to demonstrate, by means of experimental evidence collected over time, that they are capable of influencing each other (for example: food deprivation can increase emotional reactivity). Their interconnectivity makes any formal model of arousal, even the one proposed by the author, a complex and challenging undertaking of limited success. 

Pfaff relies on information theory to provide a formal account of neuronal and behavioral arousal-related responses, which are conceptualized as responses to stimuli that can be considered high information bearing.  He proposes a theoretical equation for predicting arousal. Unfortunately, its simplicity does not reflect the complexity of the subject matter, at least as described by the author, and may leave readers baffled.  The same argument can be made about the author's operational definition of "generalized arousal", which is expressed by relying on the comparative "more" as in: "more alert to sensory stimuli of all sorts, and more motorically active, and more reactive emotionally".  The absence of clearly defined referent points may leave some readers uncertain as to the measurement of generalized arousal that the author proposes.   

Notwithstanding some definitional cloudiness, several sections of Pfaff's book are quite attention-grabbing for the specificity of the information they provide. Particularly noteworthy is the section in which Pfaff describes, with painstaking accuracy, the neuroanatomy and physiology of the brain's arousal systems.  Another interesting section highlights the multiplicity and redundancy of the ascending arousal pathways. Given the essential nature of the phenomenon of arousal in any organism's life, it is easy to agree with Pfaff that multiplicity and redundancy serve to reduce the probability of failure of an organism's arousal systems.  In another equally captivating section of the book, Pfaff focuses on specific nerve cells that extend from the lower brainstem to the hypothalamus.  These cells are of particular interest to any account of the mechanisms of arousal because they are characterized by large-spectrum responses, whose triggering is dependent upon the informational content of the environment that surrounds them.

Chapter 7 is clearly one of the most challenging.  In it the author attempts to envision, as concretely as is feasible at the present time, his conceptualization of arousal systems while, more modestly, acknowledging its limitations.  Some readers may find the reading of this chapter disappointing, whereas others may actually find it inspirational.  Among the former will be those who expect answers where there is much more research needed, whereas among the latter will be those who understand the limitations of the available evidence and perhaps are looking for new insights to guide their own research efforts.

The last chapter is mostly devoted to the possible practical applications of a theory of arousal to human cognition, emotion and behavior.  This chapter may disappoint readers who are searching for the practical implications of the author's proposed model of arousal (from the obvious sleep disorders and fatigue states to Alzheimer's disease).  In this chapter readers will find the author making the case that our growing knowledge of arousal systems can benefit the study of a variety of practical issues, but they will find the coverage limited and the ideas vague.  Thus, the chapter becomes more of a missed opportunity than an encouraging and inspiring window into future research endeavors.

Notwithstanding a few missed opportunities, the author's contribution to our understanding of arousal mechanisms remains both innovative and challenging.  Readers will certainly savor Pfaff's insight, expertise and rigor, which encompass a variety of research areas. His most remarkable contributions are his repeated mention of the interplay between arousal systems and manifestations of cognition and emotion, his focus on information theory as a means of understanding arousal systems, and his conceptualization of primitive arousal systems as universal response potentiators, with bilateral and bipolar properties.  This book will be read avidly by those who are interested in any of the above-mentioned issues and by those who simply want to get a fresh look at the concept of arousal.  In either case, the author's intentions will be unmistakable: challenging readers to combine evidence from different fields and integrate it into a series of questions to guide much-needed research.

 

© 2006 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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