A Universe Of Consciousness How Matter B Paperback – 7 Feb 2001
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About the Author
Gerald M. Edelman is director of the Neurosciences Institute and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute. He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1972. He is also the author of Bright Air, Brilliant Fire Tobiology and The Remembered Present. Giulio Tononi, M.D., Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow in Theoretical and Experimental Neurobiology at the Neurosciences Institute. He is the editor, with Olaf Sporns, of Selectionism and the Brain. Both authors live in San Diego, California.
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Top customer reviews
Edelman and Tononi are writing from the leading edge of neuroanatomy, and present a fascinating and extremely readable account of the architecture of the human brain and indeed monkey and cat brains, which are now being mapped out in very great detail. For this account alone the book gets its five stars. The bulk of the book then builds on this to present a theory of what consciousness, considered as a process, is from a neurological perspective. In brief, the brains of higher mammals who enjoy primary consciousness, that is the conscious experience of their sensory modalities and a range of emotional states, are mostly made up of the cortex and the thalamus. These areas implement hundreds or thousands of tiny modules, all with very specific functions like, identifying colours and lines, orientations and so on. If we now imagine there to be a cloud of such modules and then imagine that each module is connected by a mesh of fibres to some, possibly many of the other modules, we have the essence of the model. It is evidently the case then that when we are awake or dreaming in REM sleep, i.e. experiencing consciousness, the modules are all working away at their allotted tasks, but there is also a vast amount of bi-directional traffic on their mesh of interconnections. However, when we are in deep NREM sleep, or in seizures such as epilepsy, where consciousness is absent, then the modules are all still active but the traffic on the interconnections is absent. The authors are saying then that whatever consciousness is, it is the traffic on these interconnections that distinguishes conscious from unconscious mental states in the brain's physical operation. The system defined by the model operates such that no overall process is in charge but behaviour emerges from the interaction between the dumb modules according to rules not yet understood.
The authors work this model and a lot of additional detail up into a theory which they call they Dynamic Core Hypothesis, the first big result of which is that consciousness cannot be identified with particular neurones, types of neurones or areas of the brain. Consciousness arises from the constantly shifting pattern of activation between the many modules along what they call the re-entrant connections between them. When the pattern switches off, or slows down below a certain rate, then so does consciousness. This to me was all fresh knowledge and magnificent stuff.
The latter part of the book includes speculations on the evolution of consciousness, including what they call the secondary or higher consciousness which only humans enjoy. This would plausibly seem to have arisen first with language as external signalling to peers, followed by the internalisation of language, a talking to oneself that eventually evolves into thought. This in turn gives rise eventually to the discovery or invention of logic and mathematics. They stress that there was no 'logic', in the formal sense, going on anywhere in the universe until thought arose. This is part of their strongly held position that the brain IS NOT a computer.
Here we arrive at the nub of the book. Part of the theory they present is the Theory of Neural Group Selection (TNGS) which is based on observations of the development, over time, of axons and dendrites down in the neurones in response to patterns of stimuli. While TNGS presents the way neurones operate and what the brain needs to be doing as a whole, it doesn't really have much to say about how the changes going on in the neurones are doing what they need to do. Eventually in the book we are at a stage where they declare that the brain is not a computer in the strict sense of not being a Turing machine, but is rather a Selectional system. They make much of the contrast between Turing machines (based on logic) and Selectional systems. However, and I admit I may have missed something here, the workings of Selectional systems, as presented, are not described clearly enough to say whether what they do could or could not be carried out by a Turing machine. To claim that any information processing system IS NOT a Turing machine, I would have thought, requires a formal mathematical description and proof. What does the Selectional system do that a Turing machine cannot? Can a Selectional system tackle classes of problem that are non-computable by Turing machines? Such questions seem to be unanswered.
Nonetheless a fascinating read. The first seventy pages or so were very easy going but once we got into the nitty-gritty it became a demanding book, requiring the kind of slow methodical approach that a proper philosophy text demands. I have seen Edelman criticised that his style includes a lot of repetition of terms and definitions. I actually think that this is appropriate because he is trying to be as unambiguous as possible about concepts that are notoriously slippery.
A very fine book and it will be a while before I go back to reading a Philosophy of Mind text. Hopefully, when I do the philosophers will have found something new to say.
However, it does open the way for more airy fairy philosophical debates about, if forward movement is merely a concept made of linked neuronal maps, what the external world is really like. Or if it is at all. Anyway, great thought provoking and very satisfying book.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Edelman and Tononi propose an extraordinary insight in saying that conscious perception is not 'perceiving' something out there, but the re-arising of stored memories (information) that have been and are being correlated and reinforced by neurological exchange and `reentry' between various informational nodes! Our present conscious experiencing is a remembered series of previous perceptions - a "remembered present" - its meaning and significance created by reinforced neurological tracks or 'value' development.
The first half of the "A Universe..." reviews much of the present scientific understanding of the workings of the brain as a dynamic series of structures, detailing how they work in themselves and how neurons communicate in their unique ways both within and between structures. The second half of the book explores the significance and implications of the informational interacting of those structures and how that very activity contributes to the development of a `dynamic (informational) core'. The brain, as an integrated informational mechanism, itself, creates that which it is aware of!
Giulio Tononi also has another extraordinary book just published, "Phi - A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul". It is a brilliant presentation of a journey through the workings of the brain that one explores along with a Dantesque Galileo, discovering how consciousness can arise through the integration of information that occurs as the dynamic functioning of the brain and not as a product of the physical brain itself.
For anyone who wishes to engage in the challenge of closely re-examining the nature of our very experienceing, I cannot recommend "A Universe of Consciousness" and "Phi" enough. These works explicate a significant scientific paradigm shift. A must read!
-The main purpose of "Universe" is approaching the problem of how objectively describable events ("the external and internal world") produces private subjective experience. Many have attempted this but only recently have we been able to scientifically probe it (although our understanding still reflects the insights of the Greeks and other capable philosophers). The authors give us some unique suggestions for current understanding and integrating further developments. "Universe" builds a foundation of basic neural activity, discusses how computer modeling can offer hints to the working of the human mind although they cannot explain or duplicate it, discusses how conscious and unconscious neural activity may be integrated and differentiated, and suggests how neural activity self-selects (the authors expand upon an earlier thesis that Darwin's evolution is a far better foundation than directly psychological abstractions like Freud's). "Universe" humbly recognizes the incomprehensible vastness of the human mind (the authors call it "hyperastronomical"), and how unlikely it is that we will ever completely describe it except in a trivial sense. The authors suggest we are far better off conceiving of the mind and Consciousness as an incredibly dynamic Event rather than something static (Heraclitus was too kind -- we cannot even have the same thought once, let alone twice). The authors seem to make a major descriptive contribution by insights into the Dynamic Core Hypothesis ( a highly differentiated, anatomically clustered, complex, and self-coordinating functioning of neuronal groups) and re-entry (a continuous reciprocal signalling, roughly similar to a coordinated and massively dynamic feedback type system, which can integrate anatomically segregated areas of the brain without demanding a central "man-in-the-box" coordination area). The authors' discussion of Qualia (the quality and intensity of private subjective experience) seems to reflect our continued inability to describe these phenomena as accurately as we would like.
-"Universe" can be as challenging as you want it to be, and it is an interesting and thoughtful study of consciousness from leading and respected scientists. The notes and Bibliography are excellent, and the authors wisely uses space to develop his ideas, rather than give an overview of everyone else's. The authors admit this is not some kind of final theory of consciousness, but it seems a reasonable description of some of the issues and foundations for consciousness. It is like setting out on an expedition with a basically accurate but incomplete map, which can be changed and filled in along the way, rather than relying on guesswork or hearsay.
As a suggestion to help you enjoy this book, I found it greatly helped to set aside a few minutes to scan each chapter before reading it, which helped appreciate the continuity of the arguments. I also found a neuroanatomy atlas (such as Nolte) useful.
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