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Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness Hardcover – February 17, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Noë turns Descartes's famous statement on its head: I am, therefore I think, says Noë. The author, a philosopher at UC-Berkeley, challenges the assumptions underlying neuroscientific studies of consciousness, rejecting popular mechanistic theories that our experience of the world stems from the firing of the neurons in our brains. Noë (Action in Perception) argues that we are not our brains, that consciousness arises from interactions with our surroundings: Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make. Noë points out that many of our habits, like language, are foundational aspects of our mental experience, but at the same time many, if not most, habits are environmental in nature—we behave a particular way in a particular situation. He goes on to challenge popular theories of perception, in particular the claim that the world is just a grand illusion conjured up by the brain. Readers interested in how science can intersect with and profit from philosophy will find much food for thought in Noë's groundbreaking study. (Feb. 24)
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From Booklist

The notion that consciousness is confined to the brain, like software in a computer, has dominated science and philosophy for close to two centuries. Yet, according to this incisive review of contemporary neuroscience from Berkeley philosopher Nöe, the analogy is deeply flawed. In eight illuminating, mercifully jargon-free chapters, he defines what scientists really know about consciousness and makes a strong case that mind and awareness are processes that arise during a dynamic dance with the observer’s surroundings. Nöe begins with a sharp critique of scientists, such as DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who insist that nothing but neurons determines our daily perceptions and sense of self. He then examines studies of human and animal behavior that demonstrate an inextricable link between identity and environment. Nöe regrettably limits his treatise by ignoring considerable research from transpersonal psychology suggesting that consciousness transcends physicality altogether. Still, the resulting book is an invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” --Carl Hays

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (February 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809074656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809074655
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #958,943 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alva Noe is an author and philosopher based in New York City and Berkeley, California.

He is the author of Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (Hill and Wang, 2009), Action In Perception (MIT 2004), as well as Varieties of Presence, which was published by Harvard University Press in February 2012.

Alva Noe is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, in Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Center for New Media and the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Noe blogs weekly at NPR's 13.7: Culture and Cosmos (www.npr.org/13.7) -- on topics ranging from cognitive science to baseball -- and he is Philosopher-in-Residence with the Forsythe Company (a dance company based in Frankfurt, Germany).

He is now at work on a book on art and human nature.

Alva Noe is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow.

Customer Reviews

This book is a good read, a relatively quick read, and very thought provoking.
Todd I. Stark
This seemed as though it could have been such an interesting book but, alas, the author basically has nothing.
Human Reed
Noe does not go so far as to claim that consciousness is completely detached from the brain.
Albert Sweigart

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on March 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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59 of 65 people found the following review helpful By Found Highways VINE VOICE on March 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Or, to use another of philosopher Alva Noë'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 Noë insists on is that our "theory of mind" (the awareness that other people, like us, are conscious) is practical, not theoretical.

Noë 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, Noë 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, Noë 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 naïve to realize I was getting a lesson in linguistics.

Noë 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.
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65 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Robert W. Sawyer on August 17, 2009
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.
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