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on 24 May 2013
Blackmore has admirable clarity in explaining complex ideas, and this gives this book merit in providing an intelligible summary of many of the concepts and arguments that have arisen in modern consciousness studies. However, there are shortcomings in her coverage of some important areas. Near the beginning of the book, she assumes a dismissive attitude to any connection between consciousness and decision making, which does not do justice to what recent neuroscience has to say about the brain's reward circuit. Her claim that only the dorsolateral prefrontal area, which is involved in executive planning and reasoning, has any impact on decision making looks questionable in the light of this research. Lengthy chapters in the middle of the book deal with the brain's processing of temporal sequences and lack of attention to much of the visual field, but ultimately this amounts to nothing more than saying that the brain provides a model or representation of the external world that is adaptive rather than particularly accurate or comprehensive. As such it says nothing about the origin or function of consciousness itself.

In particular, the author promotes a very specific theory of consciousness, without giving readers of what is supposed to be a starter or introductory book, a proper view of the alternatives. The idea offered here is 'delusionism', the proposition that consciousness is a delusion. Many consciousness researchers consider that evolution would not have selected for consciousness if it had no purpose, but rather than properly discussing the reasons for rejecting this view, the author uses what is no more than a play on the word 'zombie' (important in some versions of consciousness studies), to avoid discussing this crucial topic. Lacking this, the 'delusional' project looks to fail, without offering readers much development of the alternatives.
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on 18 July 2017
Interesting, I must find time to read the full treatise
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on 29 May 2016
An interesting look into the science and philosophy behind the problem of soft and hard consciousness, discussing free-will and consciousness-of.
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on 14 April 2013
This book, based upon "Consciousness: An Introduction" by the same author, attempts to tackle what consciousness actually is, and how the resulting subjective thoughts and feelings (or `qualia') that occur, are produced from the `objective' workings of a physical brain. The author attempts to tackle such issues by drawing from the findings of a variety of experiments that probe the inner-workings of the brain, as well as from philosophical disciplines. Ultimately, the author argues that the key defining characteristics of consciousness, specifically the sense of `self' and that experiences occur as a continuous stream, are but an illusion.

On the whole, the writing style is engaging, enthusiastic and informal, and does not resort to excessive jargon. Only on a few occasions are concepts introduced (particularly regarding the different areas of the brain, and what they do) where no elaboration is given. I also felt that some of the figures, while added character to the book, were not particularly useful, and did not help shed light onto the more challenging ideas that were discussed.

The author discusses, and challenges, our notion that there is an `experiencer' who experiences, and that such experiences occur as a stream that are either in or out of consciousness, by drawing from findings of a variety of experiments. Particularly interesting were the discussions regarding patients where the right and left hemispheres of the brain have been divided, and those patients which have multiple personalities. Such case-studies challenge our usual, and highly cherished and seemingly concrete, notions of `self' and our relationship with our surroundings. Indeed, such seemingly `real' feelings as these may be an illusion, exemplified by the fact that we are on `auto-pilot' while driving along an oft-travelled route; an act that requires very little consciousness.

Needless to say, none of the experiments reveal anything conclusive about the nature of consciousness, and many interpretations exist to explain their findings, which the author clearly acknowledges. Which is why it is all the more surprising that, towards the end of the book, the author takes the firm stance that we must accept that consciousness is an illusion and that we are `deluded'. Indeed, the author argues that consciousness is the result of a memeplex; the interaction between ideas and habits within the brain, which reinforce our illusion of `self' every time `I' is used. However, the author forgets what initiates this sense of `I' in the first place. Furthermore, the idea of memes is introduced using the example of how religion propogates, but instead this reads as a rant against religion, which I found inappropriate. All-in-all, this made for a very unsatisfying end.

To summarise, the book is a reasonable, interesting introduction to consciousness, which serves as a useful spring-board to other topics and books. Just be aware of the author's bias in the meantime.
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on 30 August 2006
Roughly the same questions are given to alot of the most interesting people in contemporary consciousness research. It spans over psychology, philosophy, neuro-science and religion - and does so without getting boring.

It's spread out into the "conversations" and it's a very good-night read - but don't expect any real depth from it. Each conversation gets about 10-15 pages (if I remember correctly) - so it's hard to be anything but superficial.

Where it REALLY wins me over is in the way it creates a map of the different ideas and thoughts within the field of consciousness. It does this REALLY well, so if you want to get a grasp of the different ideas and paths there are to explore - this would be a great place to start.

It puts focus on free will and what consciousness really "is" - and how it is formed.

If you buy this book, please remember to look at the little dictionary in the back, it's got all the terms described in a way that almost everyone can understand it.
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on 22 March 2015
One of the few books in this series I haven't really enjoying - most are excellent, but didn't feel this really went anywhere or had any interesting opinions... Disappointing
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on 24 August 2006
This is not a detailed book on consciousness. The author interviews most of the current consciousness theoreticians to get a flavour of their ideas and how they differ from each other. Each person gets about 10 pages or so, so don't expect more than a brief appreciation of each.

The language is also quite technical (-there is a glossary, but it's very short), so I would not recommend this as a first read on the subject. Being a series of interviews, the text does not flow as well as a book and is sometimes rather stacato.

Overall, this is a good synopsis on the current thinking : use it to choose the theory you find most attractive and then search for books by that author to get the real meat of their theory.
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on 29 January 2011
Many books in this excellent series have provided clear and balanced introductions to their subjects - but not this one. It becomes clear early on that the author is determined to "sell" her take on the subject, which seems to be pretty much the same as that of Daniel Dennett. This rather unhelpful view is that consciousness does not exist and that we "imagine" it, missing the obvious problem that there has to be a consciousness to be able to imagine anything. Much experimental data is summarised to show that things are not exactly how they seem but there is no logical link between these findings and her nihilistic conclusion. For example the evidence that a decision to make a simple movement seems to have been made before we become aware of it only shows that some actions are controlled unconsciously - as everyday experience of eg walking illustrates: the "record keeping" function of consciousness does not require it to precede every action and she is quite unjustified in extrapolating this to asserting that consciousness is not involved in more complex decision-making.

She does not seem to have any clear idea of the value of consciousness in imagining hypothetical situations allowing us to formulate contingency plans, an important reason for humans and possibly other higher mammals to have evolved this capacity. She prefers to regard it as an incidental (and unexplained) by-product of parallel processing in the brain - again with no logical support for this assertion.

The author's dismissive viewpoint allows her to side-step the difficult problems of the subject and these are barely addressed in this disappointing book.
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on 30 June 2009
Considering that this is a Very Short Introduction, this book is odd and I am ambivalent towards it.

On the one hand, it is well-written, persuasive and thought-provoking. On the other, it is openly biased and inappropriate for a short introduction to a new subject.

My misgivings about it mainly concern the style of presentation of the subject rather than Blackmore's actual opinions. These may or may not be correct, but it is unusual in an introductory work to present and then dismiss the opinions of swathes of other researchers and present your own views in the best light possible.

For example, the use of the word "magic" in scientific literature when describing a theory is obviously pejorative. Yet Blackmore uses it in this way several times, while also describing the theories of Descartes and the 20th century scientists Popper and Eccles as "hopeless". The only theories that receive unequivocal backing are her own and those of Daniel Dennett. Other opinions are often explained in terms of facile metaphors which lead the unguarded reader to see such views as silly.

Balance is not an easy thing to achieve and objectivity is, of course, the impossible goal. Yet Blackmore should have tried harder. The perspective she has may well be valid, but in an introductory work one should give a broad outline of the field and let the reader decide which arguments seems the most interesting or plausible. At most the reader can be given a prod in the directions that seem the most fruitful, but Blackmore indulges in several hearty shoves.

The above is the main criticism, but I also wonder whether Blackmore fully believes what she is saying or whether she has thought about the true implications.

Firstly, it is rather strange to write an introduction to a field of study and then argue that the thing being discussed is an illusion and does not exist - why not write an introduction to alchemy? Would a convinced atheist write a book introducing theology?

Secondly, consider this quote (p81), discussing the self: "We can equate it with some kind of brain process and shelve the problem of why this brain process should have conscious experience at all, or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self. I think that intellectually we have to take this last path." In the space of a few lines, Blackmore dismisses the self and uses the words "I think...". If the self does not exist, what does it mean to say "I think"? Whether or not Blackmore's view on the self is correct or not, her view on this and her writing a book on consciousness are blatantly contradictory. Who will read it? Why put your name on the cover? Perhaps "she" has thought of this: if the self does not exist, "she" can hardly be blamed for any flaws in the book.

Overall, it is a stimulating book to read and it will get you interested in the subject, but some may be tempted to throw it out of the window at various points. Perhaps Oxford should rename it a Very Controversial Introduction.
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on 29 December 2012
I've read a number of the titles in this series, and have found them to be wonderful starting points for further research. Even when tackling controversial topics, writers give balanced views. Not so here.

As others have stated, Blackmore approaches the topic with an agenda. The arguments have already been weighed. While I disagree with others' assertions that her point of view is ultimately nihilistic, it is clearly devoted to a neo-Buddhist negation of self, backed by Dawkinsian theory and some neuro-scientific leaps of faith.

There are a number of scientific avenues explored, but they are given radically different time, weight and devotion. With some topics, such as Libet's thought/action experiments, I was left with methodological questions hanging in the air. With others, such as mimetics, I felt that an extremely controversial field was presented as an accepted theory, in spite of its lack of support within many scientific circles.

Anyone with even a passing interest in metaphysics is sure to be disappointed by Blackmore's dismissive tone and scant coverage, which essentially negates whole millennia worth of philosophising.

A Very Short Introduction should spur one on to independent research on a topic. It should not be a condensed sermon on the merits of a relatively narrow point of view.
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