Book Review: The Executive Brain

The featured book is ‘The Executive Brain. Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind’ by Elkhonon Goldberg. There is a foreward by Oliver Sacks which is particularly relevant as Goldberg was a former student of the illustrious Luria who Sacks has written about frequently. Goldberg’s book is about the Frontal lobes and he writes from the perspective of one who has conducted research in this area for many decades. The book contains a number of interesting discussions of various psychiatric conditions and their possible relation to the functioning of the frontal lobes. This is best summarised in the forward by Sacks in which he states that

..the inertia of parkinsonism, the impulsiveness of Tourette’s syndrome, the distractibility of ADHD, the perseveration of OCD, the lack of empathy or ‘theory of mind’ in autism or chronic schizophrenia, can all be understood, in large part, Goldberg feels, as due to the resonances, the secondary disturbances, in the function of the frontal lobes‘.

Goldberg introduces us to his gradiential principle in which he suggests that cortical function is graduated from one area to another. In other words if we move from area A in the cortex to area C via area B, then area B will have a function intermediate between A and C. Goldberg also takes us on an interesting journey through the properties of the frontal cortex including the asymmetry between the right and left frontal lobes, the implied functions of the orbitofrontal cortex, prefrontal cortex as well as interhemispheric differences. Particularly useful are Goldberg’s descriptions of classic neuropsychologic techniques for investigating the function of different brain regions including double dissociation and the use of the tachistoscope. He also introduces us to his theory that the right hemisphere is responsible for processing novel information and that the left hemisphere for managing previously stored knowledge. I was particularly intrigued by Goldberg’s description of his encounter with a Gibbon in Thailand and the ‘executive’ behaviour that so impressed him. He argues that the Gibbon’s frontal cortex accounts for 11.5% of their cortex and even though they are one of the ‘lesser apes’ my experience is that their human-like behaviour is uncanny (see here for an example). However this might also be attributable to areas other than the frontal cortex alone. Some of Goldberg’s discussion crosses over into areas covered in Crow’s model of schizophrenia which focuses on the role of brain asymmetry although neither Crow nor Goldberg’s model explain geographical differences in the epidemiology of schizophrenia. Similarly recent findings in the ‘great apes’ reveal ‘new’ behaviours which challenge another of the hypotheses. As with similar works covering other brain regions (e.g. Damasio’s ‘Descartes Error’ see here), there is still a need to produce a model which seamlessly traverses different levels of representation. Within each level of representation Goldberg helps the reader to navigate the theoretical complexities.

This is an interesting book, which would particularly appeal to the reader with a mental health/neuroscience background.


Elkhonon Goldberg. The Executive Brain. Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind. Oxford University Press. 2001.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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