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Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul [Hardcover]

Giulio Tononi
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

14 Sep 2012

This title is printed in full color throughout.

From one of the most original and influential neuroscientists at work today, here is an exploration of consciousness unlike any other—as told by Galileo, who opened the way for the objectivity of science and is now intent on making subjective experience a part of science as well.
Galileo’s journey has three parts, each with a different guide. In the first, accompanied by a scientist who resembles Francis Crick, he learns why certain parts of the brain are important and not others, and why consciousness fades with sleep. In the second part, when his companion seems to be named Alturi (Galileo is hard of hearing; his companion’s name is actually Alan Turing), he sees how the facts assembled in the first part can be unified and understood through a scientific theory—a theory that links consciousness to the notion of integrated information (also known as phi). In the third part, accompanied by a bearded man who can only be Charles Darwin, he meditates on how consciousness is an evolving, developing, ever-deepening awareness of ourselves in history and culture—that it is everything we have and everything we are.
Not since Gödel, Escher, Bach has there been a book that interweaves science, art, and the imagination with such originality. This beautiful and arresting narrative will transform the way we think of ourselves and the world.

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Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul + Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist + The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (14 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030790721X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307907219
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.3 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 74,959 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Truths partly obscured 31 Aug 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Tononi stresses that consciousness is involved with some areas of the brain such as the cortex, but not at all with others, although different regions are based on similar neuronal processing. He suggests that the difference may lie in the greater degree of connectivity between cells such as cortical cells.

He points out that consciousness is not a given for types of brain activity. Thus in non-dream sleep there is no consciousness. So a change in brain activity from wakefulness to sleep can oblate consciousness. This shift also appears to relate to changes in connectivity.

He reminds us that an entity may be more than the sum of its parts. In the brain individual processes, such as forming and retrieving memories, or understanding speech and finding words, are performed outside of consciousness, although they may lead towards conscious processing.

Consciousness is viewed as the integration of multiple concepts or modalities. The more that is integrated within the brain, the more behaviour becomes a function of internal processing rather than direct reaction to the environment, so behaviour is a product of the whole rather than the parts.

It is further suggested that the integration of information allows a whole to distinguish more than the sum of the parts. The author identifies this as phi or the conscious process. He asks why even such integrated processing should give rise to subjective consciousness. The 'combination problem' haunts this book. Both Leinbiz and William James failed to properly resolve the combination problem of how small elements could combine into the experienced unity of consciousness. It is argued here that consciousness is low at the level of individual neurons.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, imaginative book 28 Dec 2012
By Irene
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Philosophical, historical and visual with an illustration (artwork, photograph etc) on almost every page, I found this exploration of consciousness by Tononi a literary work of art. Will read again and again and recommend to anyone interested in consciousness, maybe particularly 'novices' in the subject.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Too flowery 11 Feb 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I can see what he was trying to do. Echoes of Godel, Escher, Bach but unfortunately the style gets in the way of the substance. I think the author was trying to impress us with his broad intellectual range and although he succeeded with that, the true message of the book suffered as a result. After a while, I ended up just reading the notes that summarised each chapter. A missed opportunity because he is an authority on the subject.
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Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is not at all what I was expecting but the author draws you in and before you know it it is 3am and you're getting you head around some incredible concepts without really seeming to try. The book is also beautiful, with carefully selected pictures and illustrations - so much so that I may need to purchase the physical print version. I highly recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in concepts of consciousness and intelligence - the implications of the theory expanded in the book are profound.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  51 reviews
56 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Multifaceted and Thought-Provoking Journey to Understand Our Souls 10 Oct 2012
By Gazi M. Rashid - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
==== Context ====
For the sake of context, I am a student in the biomedical sciences. I have taken a few psychology and neuroscience classes. I wanted to read this book because I am interested in learning more about the human consciousness and how it is related to the biological brain. However, I have never had any formal introduction to it and none of my classes have focused very much on this topic.

==== Overall ====
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was an unique reading experience, but it was definitely not what I expected. This book has a lot to offer beyond just the biological connection to consciousness (which was my expectation). However, there are sections where the author tends to get bogged down in discussion and musings, and to me, this detracts from the overall experience. Not everyone will enjoy this type of book, but the ideas and theories offered by Dr. Tononi on this field are fascinating to think and debate about.

=== Synopsis ===
"Phi" is a story about the famed astronomer and scientist, Galileo. Similar to "guided enlightenment" theme of "A Christmas Carol", Galileo is helped by three scientists on his journey to understand our consciousness. In the first third of the book, Frick (based on Francis Crick, the geneticist who also spent a great deal of time studying the consciousness) takes our protagonist on a series of encounters to help him answer Galileo's original question: "How could mere matter generate mind?" Once Galileo is convinced of the soul-brain connection, he faces more difficult questions regarding consciousness - questions that can't be explained by simply looking at research and clinical findings. In this second part, Alturi (based off of Alan Turing, whose namesake Test has implications in consciousness and artificial intelligence), demonstrates to Galileo a series of thought experiments, that, along with the facts presented in his first journey, present a theory of consciousness based on Phi. The third part, hosted by a man modeled around Darwin, shows Galileo's understanding the overarching implications of the "phi" theory.

Each chapter of the book is meant to convey one big idea or theme regarding consciousness that Galileo and the reader. Most of the time, the bulk of the chapter is spent on a story, discussion, or metaphor that will be presented to the audience in order to emphasize that idea. Every chapter also has many pictures, paintings, or photos dispersed through it, each adding a visual element to the argument being made or evidence being presented. Lastly, a "Notes" section concludes every chapter, where the author provides his own commentary, explains minor characters, translates quotes, elaborates on evidence, provides references for the art, etc.

==== What I Liked ====

There are many aspects of this book that I really liked. Since I am interested in the brain and the mind, the content had an obvious appeal for me. And the content is really what this book is about. All the other parts of the story are just a way for Tononi to get his point across. I thought the neurological evidence and basic neuroscience was presented in a very clear and intriguing manner. Dr Tononi did a great job with his explanations of the biological background and brain deficits and disorders by presenting them in interesting anecdotes and with relevant historical characters and factual references. The material is definitely accessible to someone new to the field of neuroscience. And for those with a neuro background, it was presented in such a way that it was still interesting and instructive.

The structure of the book made it a very unique and enjoyable reading experience. The chapters are often a balance of subjective discussion with a connection to a more objective element, such as neurological evidence, such as when Tononi uses Tale of the Two Cities to explain the difference between the cerebrum and the cerebellum, and why one is involved in consciousness and the other isn't. Likewise, Tononi uses a balance of both scientific evidence and relevant art, history, culture, and mythology. This balance can also be seen in the illustrations used: alongside stunning photographs of stained hippocampal neurons will be Renaissance paintings. Besides photos of Classical Greek sculptures, Tononi will place a hand-sketch of the corpus callosum, the bridge between the brain hemispheres. Yet both elements, the objective brain MRI scans and the subjective portrait of Copernicus, are skillfully woven together by Tononi to illustrate an idea about consciousness.

I also really liked the "Notes" section at the end of each chapter. These aren't just references and citations. Rather than write as the author, Dr. Tononi does something unique and adds commentary to Galileo's journey as if he is a detached observer, discussing a journey he is witnessing himself. This definitely adds an interesting perspective to an an already engrossing chapter, and you will definitely want to read every "Notes" section.

One of the most obvious elements of the book is the language and writing of Tononi. He writes in a very flowing and eloquent manner that makes it easy and pleasant to read through. It is almost as if you're reading a poem. The dialogue of the characters is also very well written. Frick's lines, such as: "You are empty, Galileo, and have no spirit: nothing enters your immature body at conception and nothing leaves your carcass at death" and "You are merely another beast in the great zoo of the universe" convey his character - that of scientific certainty and arrogance - artfully and make him a far more relatable part of the journey. Tononi's writing style is definitely an enjoyable and attractive part of this tale.

Other things I liked include the minor characters, often pulled from literary or historical contexts. I enjoyed reading about their contribution (often counter-argument) to the discussion and how Tononi decided to portray them. And if you don't know much about them, the author talks about them in his "Notes".

==== What I Didn't Like =====

Back to content, which is the purpose of this book. I have one complaint about the book. It's not huge, but it did bother me and it was prevalent. I thought that at several points throughout the book, Dr. Tononi's discussions became too abstract and too convoluted to clearly convey the point of the chapter. This was especially common problem in the latter parts of Galileo's journey, where the author is attempting to create complex theories and associations and project potential implications. It just feels as if he tries to be too complex and ostentatious, and this can unnecessarily slow down reading all throughout the book. On the last third of the book, I couldn't clearly understand some of the points Tononi was trying to make. Maybe this won't be a problem for a more experienced reader.

===== Final Thoughts ====

Dr. Tononi's book is not for someone who is looking to understand consciousness through a purely biological lens. In fact, only a third of the book would satisfy such an audience. Nor would I suggest this book to someone who is looking for just a layman's explanation - the biological explanations and bases are explained well and are not very technical, but the abstract discussions and thought experiments might not be what they are seeking. "Phi" is for someone who wants to view consciousness through many different lenses, both objective and subjective, but ultimately connect all those perspectives together to an understanding of the topic reached by Galileo and proposed by Dr. Tononi. As I said, this is a fascinating topic and the book has a lot to offer regarding it, but my suggestions would be to take your time reading it and understanding the ideas and arguments that are made in it. Whether or not you agree with his theories, this will allow you to get the most from this book.

In summary, this is a beautiful book that is both instructive and very interesting to read and think about.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, amazing, a masterpiece 30 Aug 2012
By Mark Sivak - Published on
I want to start by saying that PHI is the book that all of us wanted to write, but never did it: Fantasy, visual art, literature, mathematics, science, physics and music are fused by expert hands (and brain) to achieve a masterpiece that, no doubt, will become a classic reading. It is beautifully written with a rhythm that changes going through stories where pleasure, sorrow, beauty, pain, despair, love, all fused together. It is a pleasure to read this voyage through our brain, history, and soul with the help of Galileo, who is called upon discovering the answer to the greatest question: what make us human? I learned a lot without struggle, as the author is able to simplify difficult concepts. This is especially true for the notes: there, the author further explains small and big points made by each chapter either with a smirk or making fun of him self. At the end of the book, he leaves us with an answered question: what is the meaning of the last mysterious symbol in his book, that seems to have an important meaning and value for the author? I hope he will answer soon. I loved the book in its entirety and I strongly recommend it to everybody who wants to know more about what make us human.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interface between science & spirituality 12 Sep 2012
By Mountain Traveller - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book came along a week after a hike with a friend during which we discussed consciousness and how it occured, and its implications for a non-physical, spiritual existence. As a physician, my friend argued that consciousness was merely electrochemical. But what does that mean for physical theories like quantum mechanics, especially string theory that requires multiple universes? Then I hear Dr Tononi interviewed on NPR, thought he might have some answers in this book and ordered the it the next day.

Dr Tononi has made the journey from basic neuroscience to spiritual implications fascinating at many levels.
From the first chapter, you have the feeling that your experience transcends the written text; you are exposed to the material at many levels simultaneously. Consequently, the information is reinforced and learning enhanced.

The author revisits complex concepts several times, linking it to the subject of the chapter at hand, further enhancing learning of sometimes difficult concepts. Even the art used to complement the text is adapted to further explanation of the concept under discussion, sometimes to the point of modifying the art! You find yourself thinking at several levels at the end of every chapter.

This is a book that continues to provoke thinking about the material long after you've completed it. It neither supports nor undermines belief systems, but offers a recasting of what "eternal life" might mean. It refreshingly avoids specific conclusions that are beyond scientific observation, leaving any spiritual conclusions to be filtered through one's personal belief system. Dr Tononi does not prescribe, only informs from his experience and intellectual curiosity.

I am recommending this book to my friend and I can't wait for the next hiking discussion!
37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, Beautiful, Poetic - A Wonderful Read 8 Aug 2012
By Jack - Published on
PHI is a wonderful book by Giulio Tononi that explores our consciousness. Told as a story with Galileo as the main character, PHI reveals the secrets behind our consciousness, as if exploring unknown worlds. Along the way, Galileo meets many wise people who explain to him the origin of consciousness, how our conscious mind works, what happens to our consciousness while we sleep, and even explores the question of whether animals have conscious minds like humans.

The biggest surprise in this book is the multitude of gorgeous painting, photos, and images spread throughout. These images really make the book stand out from anything I've read recently. As a physician, the anatomy lessons brought me back to my neuroscience course in medical school, and the many paintings harkened back to my art history classes back in college. This book was an education and an absolute gem. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in how our brain works and the origin of our consciousness.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat Scattered, but Overall Quite Good, Worth the Read 15 Aug 2012
By Amazon Customer - Published on
I really enjoyed this book. It was very absorbing and went fast, I bought it on Saturday, read it by Monday. I'd have to say that the author chose a very interesting style. You are following around Galileo in one of his dreams while he is exploring the idea of consciousness with various characters. This book can get very deep, very stimulating, sometimes intense and disturbing. The main idea is this concept of "phi", which is the amount of integrated information held by the brain, with consciousness a sort of maximum of this integrated information. I can't say I fully understood it by the end of it, and sometimes I get the feeling that neither did the author, as by the end of the book he was burying his concept in a lot of seemingly meaningless fluff that was rather frustrating to try and decipher. However, despite the fact that the idea might be not as rigid and rigorous as one would hope, I still very much enjoyed the experience of reading this book. It keeps you entertained with very visceral and visual scenes and many pieces of art per chapter. I would recommend this to anyone who was looking for a new book to read.
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