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on 21 April 2015
I would like to start by saying that this is an excellent book because I have a particularly harsh criticism of it and I would not like to give the impression that the book is not worth reading.

It is the same criticism that can be levelled against Antonio Damasio. Despite the arrogance of Stephen Hawking that informs us that "philosophy is dead" (The Grand Design page 1) it is very much alive and scientists like Dehaene and Damasio show us why. As with any top academic or scientist they are excellent in their specialist field and the five star reviews here testify to that. Unfortunately, since the mysteries do still abound (despite Dehaene's various attempts to pretend they do not or are almost solved) philosophy has a great deal to offer and the almost laughably daft attempts by scientists to do philosophy in their books makes this clear. To try and refute the positions of Ned Block and David Chalmers in less than two pages at the end of this book is an unworthy and cavalier approach that no philospher would engage in. Dehaene's arguments here are unstructured and poorly presented in contrast to his writing on topics within his field of expertise. Read the philosophers in the field of studying consciousness and you will find that the way they work is far more systematic, thorough and clearly referenced than the "let's do a bit of philosophy now" that finds its way into these books that are meant to be informing us about the state of the art in the research field. If you want to know about the research this book is excellent but be very wary of the attempts at theorising and philosophizing that go beyond the researched evidence base. If you read "The Character of Consciousness" by David Chalmers carefully and understand it better than Dehaene, which sadly isn't difficult, you will see that Chalmers has set up the goalposts for our understanding of consciousness in the challenge to provide a proper explanation for subjectivity. The scientists are not taking this seriously and continue, as in this book, to "explain away" subjectivity instead of providing a proper explanation for it. Appeals to natural selection, correlations, behaviourism even do not provide a proper explanation, they just allow for avoiding the fact that we do not have one. As I see it, David Chalmers has pushed for dualism as a challenge to provide such an explanation or at least stop this arrogant pretence that "we will get there" when such certainty is not possible. Dehaene also seems very keen on the idea of the "language of thought" idea proposed by Jerry Fodor way back and which has in recent years been subject to some quite harsh criticism.

I strongly recommend that readers be very wary of the philosophical elements in this book and read the philosophers referred to instead. A list of names would be something like Chalmers, Block, Carruthers, Prinz, Fodor, Clark, Dennett and Searle but there are others. You will soon see that they approach the arguments with a detailed logic and clarity that is missing in the philosophizing attempted by researchers like Dehaene.
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on 3 May 2014
Dehaene describes the extent of unconscious processing. An input can be unconsciously processed to an advanced level, and what comes into consciousness is a small and heavily edited version of the original stimuli. He does not, however, see this as justifying the claim that everything is performed by the unconscious. He views consciousness as having been selected for its specific functions. He envisages a natural division of labour between unconscious and conscious processing. This is related to the necessity when acting in the world, to move from balances of probability in the unconscious, to decision taking at the conscious level. Unconscious information is transient whereas conscious information is more stable. One function of consciousness is to create stable images as the basis of decision taking. The stimuli can therefore be evaluated, used to plan actions, and memorised for future use.

Unconscious stimuli propagate a long way into the brain, but are amplified when they move into consciousness, boosting activity in the parietal and frontal regions. Substantial changes in the higher visual areas were apparent whenever consciousness was reported. The level of activity could rise as much as twelve-fold. In contrast, a wide range of frontal and parietal areas remained inactive if the stimuli were unconscious. Unconscious stimuli are active in the early visual cortex, but lose strength as they progress through the cortex. On the hand, conscious stimuli pick up strength as they progress.

Many neurons in the anterior lobe respond only to when specific features, such as particular people or buildings are consciously perceived. So the move into consciousness is not brain-wide, but relates to specific neurons. The regions of the brain that correlate to consciousness have important differences in their physical structure. Pyramidal neurons with giant cell bodies, supporting dense dendrites with abundant spines and long axons, are concentrated in layers II and III of the cortex. These layers are thicker in the consciousness-related brain regions such as the prefrontal, cingulate and temporal cortex. These regions have also been suggested to contain the brain's main hubs of interconnectivity.

Dehaene effectively disposes of the idea that consciousness is something unimportant. However, there is still no suggestion as to why the processes described in the more frontal brain regions are experienced subjectively, as opposed to being just a more powerful type of unconscious processing from that present in the earlier parts of the cortex.
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on 3 February 2014
This is a fabulous book, full of insights into how the brain manages our thoughts. Highlights for me were the existence of "Clinton neurons" which fire when we see a picture of Clinton (other politicians are also available) and the detailed analysis of various levels of unconsciousness and coma.

The book is not an easy read, but is well worth the effort. We can all better understand ourselves and others by reading such books.

The main idea in the book is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Only one brain activity can enter consciousness at a time. It is only when an activity goes global in the brain that it becomes a candidate for entering conscious awareness. Meanwhile, the brain is churning away in massively parallel computations that the conscious brain is rarely aware of. The thought that "pops into your head" or the decision you made were there all the time!

Copy provided by NetGalley
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on 2 January 2015
Review of Consciousness and the Brain
If you are interested the the latest techniques used by neuroscientists or medics to determine the level of consciousness any individual patient/individual has at any given time then this is the book for you. I found it interesting and easy to read. I progressed page by page saying to myself things like 'that's interesting', 'that makes sense' 'couldn't agree more' – until page 261 (5 pages from the end of the hardback version). And then the wheels fell off so to speak!

By moving from the area of his undoubted world class expertise (the strictly medical/scientific) into the wider area of philosophy and, specifically, subjectivity, I found that Dehaene was on less secure ground. I can agree with his take on the philosophical 'hot potato' of free will. He is very careful to include 'careful weighting of the pros and cons before committing to action' as part of this process of free will. (He doesn't seem to refer to very common situations where rage and fear 'short circuit' conscious deliberation.)

However, I am not at all convinced of his take on qualia – the subjective felt sensation – which is another philosophical 'hot potato'. My understanding of his position is that information (albeit self acquired through sensors) is not only the basis of felt sensation it is felt sensation. It doesn't seem to matter to Dehaene whether the information is conveyed/processed on biological 'wet tissue' or silicon and copper. To exaggerate for the sake of clarity - if the information could be conveyed/processed through concrete pipes it would still provide the same 'subjective felt sensation'.
Interestingly he and I both agree that D. Chalmers is profoundly wrong when Chalmers argues that the 'easy' problem of consciousness is the information part and the 'hard' problem is the subjective felt sensation part. However, Dehaene seems to effectively eliminate the problem in its entirety by conflating the two into a single phenomenon – information is sensation. My take, strongly influenced by the excellent The Crucible of Consciousness (1997) by Zoltan Torey, is that subjective sensation is a compound phenomenon affected by both information and the substrate/biological tissue through which that information is acquired and processed.
For those interested in the wider aspects of consciousness and particularly how consciousness (including introspective consciousness) emerged as a natural progression in evolution, I would strongly recommend Torey's book.
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on 29 July 2014
Life changing book.
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on 7 December 2014
This was bought as a gift for someone and they were delighted with it and have strongly recommended it to others. I have ordered a second copy as a gift for someone else.
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on 4 September 2015
very good services , enjoyed the book.
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