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Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness [Paperback]

Alva Noe
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 214 pages
  • Publisher: Hill & Wang; 1 edition (2 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809016486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809016488
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 14.2 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 186,791 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Out of Our Heads Noe suggests that rather than being something that happens inside us, consciousness is something we do. "Out of Our Heads" is a fresh attempt at understanding the mind and how people interact with the world. Full description

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This is a good little book 8 Jun 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Alva Noe is a good philosopher, and the argument he presents in this book is worth taking seriously. As a philosopher too (who should disclose that he has traded words and shared parties with Alva), I'm not convinced entirely by his case, but I find the general drift quite persuasive. Essentially, the prevailing orthodoxy that minds are implemented by brains is conceptually lazy and possibly only half the truth, but we have our work cut out trying to go beyond it. Noe has made a brave start. Naturally, there's still an awful lot of mileage in the mind-brain orthodoxy, and much of the hard science in the area would be incomprehensible without it, in some form, but minds extend beyond brains and are sustained in being by more than brains. As an intuition pump here, imagine that minds are like money. Dollar bills and so on implement money, but money is a lot more, even if you exclude collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and so on as beyond the pale. Minds are part of a huge public institution by which we build our organized and collective appreciation of nature and our place in it. Noe sees something like this (my gloss on the view is of course my own to live down) and gives the view a hearty helping hand. My reservation (hence four stars) is over the rather folksy rhetoric that decorates the book. This creditably personal style makes the hard core argument easier and smoother reading, and many will welcome it for that reason, but for me as a logical purist is was rather ad hominem. Anyway, that said, read this book in conjunction with Andy Clark's Supersizing the Mind. The basic message is the same. This is a message whose time is coming, I think. And Noe has done a great job in putting it out there for all interested readers to enjoy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful little book. NoŽ has deliberately avoided 'the jargon and insider-speak, the styles of language and argumentation that already presuppose that one is a member of the cognitive science club' and he has been brilliantly successful in doing so. Having read this book, I was able to go on and read Evan Thompson's much more difficult and comprehensive 'Mind and Life'. Coming back to NoŽ again, I could see how much he'd synthesised in his easily accessible prose. It's a good compare and contrast too with Andy Clark's 'Supersizing the Mind'. Although apparently a very similar thesis, Clark retains the traditional view of understanding mind in terms of cognitive brain function; he doesn't 'get' the fundamental point that this treats human beings as cognitive devices rather than creatures at home in an environment they 'enact' through their engagement with it. NoŽ 's thinking is grounded in phenomenology - Merleau-Ponty in particular - and for readers like me who've heard of this kind of philosophy but don't know much about it, it makes a superb introduction. It is much more than a book about neuroscience or even the philosophy of consciousness. It is also a very HUMAN book that as he says tries to show 'that science and humanist styles of thinking must engage with each other'. So it includes telling and touching examples about his immigrant father's loss of his 'life-world' and the man on the train who couldn't understand his 6 year old son's question about the man's dog. NoŽ practises what he preaches - what reviewer Andrew Ross saw as `ad hominem' folksy rhetoric' appealed to me as a kind of passionate conviction that is too often edited out of the literature of philosophy and science
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Intended 22 Oct 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Like a good Buddhist challenging ego-centric Westerners to point to where their interior, individuated selves might be, Alva Noe challenges the neuroscientific orthodoxy which tries to nail consciouness to the brain. After all, has anybody ever been found to be in their head? Has any post-mortem revealed an interior self or homunculus? No, most of our lives is out of our heads. Our consciousness is in the world and moves around and has its effects out there, not in here. Being's being in the head is an experientially based presumption of scientists who don't realize how thorough-going their own intellectualism is - and go on to obliviously found whole scientific descriptions on this unexamined starting point; their personal experience of interiority. This book begins deconstructing those unfounded and philosophically [even scientifically] errant presuppositions.

Drawing existentially on Maurice Merleau-Ponty and theoretically on contemporary work in the field of situated cognition [which he here makes popular and accessible], Alva Noe begins to establish a legitimately sustained place for consciouness in the processes of the world. Why should I claim information is being processed in my head [where no one has ever actually located information, in spite of trying] when I have a pen and notepad in my hand, on which I am working out an equation? Look, the writing miraculously appears, the very substrate of my thought - there, in the world! Why locate that information processing where it has never been found as such; doing so is a cartesian prejudice. Why say my neurons are the substrate of my memory when I, equally, have images on my laptop? We are outside our heads, or at least contiguous with a world in which divisions of interior and exterior can only ever be relative.
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Amazon.com: 3.1 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An accessible and compelling exploration of the extended mind 30 Mar 2009
By Todd I. Stark - Published on Amazon.com
The mind is more than what the brain is doing. The idea isn't new, but it often gets too little respect. Perhaps because people think it implies something supernatural, or perhaps because it just seems weird, but it is a very respectable argument and in Alva Noe's hands, a powerful one.

We often take for granted in brain science that the mind is implemented by things happening inside the skull. That goes against the growing findings that perception is an active process of exploration that depends on our contact with the real world and the skills we possess for navigating its structure. This book takes on the significant challenge of bringing that difficult idea accessibly and non-technically into the popular mind and I think he does an excellent job.

Although Noe doesn't talk about it specifically, Ruth Millikan makes a good related argument that substance categories are really skills. We know substances by our skills for finding and identifying them over and over, not through their intrinsic properties. Noe approaches perception in much the same way. We know the world by interacting with it, not by (or in addition to?) simulating it with detailed models inside our head.

Noe goes a step further and points out how some concepts just don't make from a detached viewpoint, so we are often forced to destroy the phenomena of consciousness, reducing them to something else, in order to study them dispassionately. This is a tough sell, I think, to habitual materialists, but he doesn't rely too heavily on it.

The implication Noe emphasizes is that consciousness is a process involving interaction of the nervous system with the world, not (just) something that is lighting up inside our neural nets. The distinction is sometimes more subtle that Noe acknowledges. He approves of Gibson's ecological theory of perception, but doesn't address the equally important work on expectancy and hypothesis testing approaches to perception, such as Richard Gregory's ideas and the experimental work done around them.

He is probably right that much of our basic perception relies heavily on active engagement with the world, but then some of it, to me, clearly doesn't. He does a good job showing limits to the feature detection approach to vision (doesn't it beg the question to say that features are "built up" toward pictures in the brain?), but doesn't have an alternate explanation for the elaborate architecture of columns and receptor fields and their activity in dreaming and imagination that seem to support at least some version of the mental representation concept in some kinds of mental activity. It seems in places that Noe acknowledges this sort of work but considers it an impoverished-perceptual or non-perceptual kind of mental activity.

Other than the excellent writing and clear arguments, the best part of this book is the skillful use of various findings regarding phantom limbs, sensory illusions, and inattention phenomena to illustrate the empirical implications of a mind extended beyond the brain case. Even if you don't buy the full externalist argument in all its details, it's hard to read those examples and not have a little light go off in your head and think "oh, so that's what he means by the mind being outside the brain!" That's a mark of good writing.

Noe mentions but does not dwell on the role played by philosopher J Merleau-Ponty in many of these ideas, and his work is worth exploring as well. A good non-technical intro in keeping with the spirit of Noe's book is: Merleau-ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed).

This book is a good read, a relatively quick read, and very thought provoking.
56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "You are not your brain." 8 Mar 2009
By Found Highways - Published on Amazon.com
Or, to use another of philosopher Alva NoŽ's metaphors, "consciousness is more like dancing than it is digestion." Consciousness is something we do, not something we have. Our awareness of ourselves isn't inside our brains, but in the interaction of our brains with the world around us.

One of the ideas that NoŽ insists on is that our "theory of mind" (the awareness that other people, like us, are conscious) is practical, not theoretical.

NoŽ says, "I cannot both trust and love you and also wonder whether, in fact, you are alive in thought and feeling." To put it another way, NoŽ quotes Louis Armstrong on how to define jazz: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna know."

To see something's mind, "we need to turn our attention to the way brain, body, and world together maintain living consciousness."

Using language as an indicator of consciousness, NoŽ may just be reaching for effect when he says that "talking is more like barking than it is anything like what the linguists have in mind." He compares using language to chimpanzee grooming behavior or sheepdogs barking while herding sheep. But linguists often talk about speech's "phatic" or social function (see How Language Works by David Crystal), and one of the first language teachers I had (a Hungarian who taught Russian and Swahili) said one of the main purposes of language was to acknowledge other people's existence. I was too naÔve to realize I was getting a lesson in linguistics.

NoŽ has two "political" goals in this book. One is to "shake up the cognitive science establishment" and the other is to show "that science and humanistic styles of thinking must engage each other."

I don't know if NoŽ will be successful with the first goal, but he succeeded with the second. Out of Our Heads is clear and entertaining, and shows how philosophy and biology can work together to explain human behavior, as well as why they should.
60 of 74 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing But Flawed 17 Aug 2009
By Robert W. Sawyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I appreciate Noe's expansive view of the conditions of human experience, and his battle against simplistic reductionism. Materialist-minded neuroscientists, like many specialists, overstate the significance of their own research, and in a psychiatric context can do more harm than good.

But Noe's single-minded focus on the role of active engagement in everyday-life phenomenology leads him to overstate his own case.

It isn't clear, for example, why an organism's active engagement with its environment, a precondition for normal perception, should count toward a definitive account of "consciousness", while model-building neural activity in the brain shouldn't, unless you're simply assuming about consciousness what you wish to prove, i.e., that it isn't in any way its neurological correlates.

Noe also goes too far in his insistence on environmental engagement as a necessary precondition for consciousness. One of his own examples - patients with locked-in syndrome - brings this out. While Noe uses such cases of radical immobility to argue for the unreliability of brain scans, such cases also clearly illustrate consciousness can exist in a state approaching that of a brain in a vat. (It's not much of stretch to imagine the body functions that support the brain in such tragic cases being replaced with artificial supports, presumably with the patient continuing to remain aware despite no outward sign of consciousness.)

The brain is far from the whole story of consciousness, which can be studied from multiple historical, biological and humanist perspectives, all of which shed light on its development and nature. But Noe's insistence that consciousness requires present active engagement with the world is either an overstatement or a re-definition by fiat.
103 of 138 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Noe the obscure 17 Aug 2009
By John L. Kubie - Published on Amazon.com
I found the summary of neuroscience simplistic and the "new" ideas about consciousness obscure. First, I'm a neuroscientist and I know no neuroscientist who think that the current state of fMRI and PET scans are the holy grail. These are important tools with important limitations.

Second, I don't see how a sensori-motor conception of behavior eliminates the brain. This seems like a retread of reductionist behaviorism.

While I agree with the general thrust of embodied consciousness -- observing how an organism interacts with the environment, rather than passively receives information from the environment -- is generally correct, this does not eliminate the brain, nor the wide variety of approaches that brain scientist use. It makes the project more challenging and interesting.

Finally, try as I might, I don't understand how Noe defines consciousness. It seems like hand-waving. And, like virtually every other attempt to explain first-person consciousness, it either denies its existence (unlikely) or performs magic.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Individualism considered 11 July 2010
By J. Walsh - Published on Amazon.com
Noe's ideas are a good start on breaking the peculiar Western need to locate consciousness in a particular physical place. If I understand correctly, he locates "mind" in the interactions of the brain with the world.

My own sense, and I don't have it well developed, is that we need to go further out, and begin to see mind as including what Durkheim called "social facts". I doubt it will happen soon, due to our delusions of atomism in the social world. We seem to be stuck with the idea that each of us is, say, a pool ball, complete with mind and brain, and that we bounce around, hitting the cushions or each other, and have no enduring connections with any. Noe makes a start toward working out the goofiness of that view.
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