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A Universe Of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination Paperback – March 6, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (March 6, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465013775
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465013777
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #157,024 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Emily Dickinson wrote "The Brain--is wider than the Sky," and who can argue with that? Quoted by Nobel-winning scientist Gerald M. Edelman and his Neurosciences Institute colleague Giulio Tononi in A Universe of Consciousness, Miss Emily neatly explains the problem of conscious awareness, then ducks out of the way as the two scientists get to work solving it. Testable theories of consciousness are mighty lonely, as even the soberest mind can be driven to tears of madness pondering its own activity. Centuries of work by philosophers and psychologists like James and Freud have made little progress by starting with awareness and working backward to the brain; these days we have a secure enough base to try looking in the other direction and building a theory of the mind out of neurons.

Though Edelman and Tononi do make a good effort to help out the lay reader, ultimately A Universe of Consciousness is aimed at the interdisciplinary gang of scientists and academics trying to understand our shared but invisible experience. The first sections of the book cover the basic philosophical, psychological, and biological elements essential to their theory. Swiftly the authors proceed to define terms and concepts (even the long-abused term complexity gets a reappraisal) and elaborate on these to create a robust, testable theory of the neural basis of consciousness. Following this hard work, they consider some ramifications of the theory and take a close look at language and thinking. This much-needed jump-start is sure to provoke a flurry of experimental and theoretical responses; A Universe of Consciousness might just help us answer some of the greatest questions of science, philosophy, and even poetry. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

A woman senses that a room is light or dark and is aware that she has done so. A photocell senses the same thing without awareness. The difference is consciousness--something everyone recognizes but no one can fully explain. Edelman (director of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego) and Tononi (a senior fellow there) propose what they call the dynamic core hypothesis to explain the neural basis of conscious experience. "This hypothesis states that the activity of a group of neurons can contribute directly to conscious experience if it is part of a functional cluster, characterized by strong mutual interactions among a set of neuronal groups over a period of hundreds of milliseconds." They call such a cluster the dynamic core because of "its ever-changing composition yet ongoing integration." In telling their tale, the authors describe brain structure and function, review earlier efforts to explain consciousness and come to a discussion of higher-order consciousness--the kind that humans have. "Our position has been that higher-order consciousness, which includes the ability to be conscious of being conscious, is dependent on the emergence of semantic capabilities and, ultimately, of language. Concomitant with these traits is the emergence of a true self, born of social interactions, along with concepts of the past and future."

EDITORS OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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The authors' presentation of their complex subject is admirably clear.
This book has a broad appeal not only to those interested in neuroscience but also to those interested in philosophy, history, and art.
melanie m holzman
If this is the case the neural processes underlying the conscious experience must also be highly differentiated and informative.
Rama Rao

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

121 of 135 people found the following review helpful By Ryan Malloy on June 20, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book is worthwhile mostly for the wealth of experimental data provided. Unfortunately, I think the authors often jump to conclusions that their evidence neither precludes nor proves. The most pervasive example of faulty logic is the central theme of the book. The authors provide evidence that consciousness is *associated* with vast, interconnected regions of the brain. When a person is aware of a stimulus, more neural areas are active than when he/she is not. From this, they conclude that consciousness *arises* from diverse neural areas in the brain. This is the key fault of the book--the authors do not differentiate between *association* and *origin*. Perhaps conscious activity that occurs in a small area of the brain promotes extracurricular activities elsewhere. Just because two events occur simultaneously does not mean one caused the other!
The authors describe their work as a "theory of consciousness"--completely misleading in another sense. Even if we were able to precisely understand what neural processes lead to consciousness, which neurons were involved, etc., the consciousness mystery still would not be solved. The most fascinating and mysterious question is "HOW do the neural processes lead to consciousness?" Uncovering the neural processes associated with consciousness is a great way to begin, perhaps the only way. However, to call the authors' work a "theory of consciousness" is absurd. Imagine a 18th century person able to view the modern automobile through timetravel. Suppose here were able to deduce that turning a key started the automobile, pushing the right pedal made it accelerate, etc. before he was forced to return to his time. Would his knowledge be a "theory of the automobile"?
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78 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Anthony R. Dickinson on September 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This new volume provides a biologically-based perspective on consciousness. Although Edelman & Tononi may often appear to lead the reader into believing that a `selector' is needed in order for one to choose between the many alternative possible behaviours that one might act out, there is no room for a Humunculus (the little man inside the man `seeing' solutions) of any sort here. For those unfamiliar with Edelman's previous writings (all of which I would recommend) there are plenty quotes from his earlier self, the principle idea here being a logical extension of his thesis developed over the last 20 yrs. Coming clean right from the start, the data acquired from introspection is rejected as a technique to be subjected to any robust empirical analysis, but consciousness is here identified not solely with brain states/activity (there is a clear need for interactions with others and the world `out there') - the authors putting forward a model of consciousness as being a `particular kind of brain process'; unified/integrated, yet complex/differentiated.
The early parts of the book discuss the `impasse' reached by many philosophers in their attempts to explain the `mind-body' problem whilst rejecting both strong dualist and reductionist positions: "..consciousness requires the activity of specific neuronal substrates .......... but is itself a process, not an object". There is a clear appeal to holistic thinking here (`the whole is greater than the sum of its parts') - but the message is more subtle. What Edelman & Tononi are pointing out is that, still in need of explanation is the fact that although the contents of consciousness change continually, its possessor remains continuous.
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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful By The trebuchet on September 9, 2003
Format: Paperback
There is no doubt in my mind, after reading this book, that the authors have done excellent scientific work and made very interesting discoveries. On the other hand, it has certain problems.
To start with, it seems clear that they do not have a full grasp of the philosophical problems they are attempting to resolve - or if they do, they avoid going into the stickier points. This is not necessarily a reason to condemn the book; there are huge volumes of philosophy on this subject, and it would be futile to try and fit a quick resolution into one small volume already full of other facts. Nonetheless, they probably should have avoided the philosophical aspect entirely if all they were going to do is attack the mind/body problem in a way that arguably does nothing but shift the terms around a bit to produce the appearance of a resolution. There is essentially nothing new here, philosophically, and they certainly had more than enough interesting material for a book without attempting this.
A second thing that disappointed me is the lack of contrasting points of view. It seems unfair to ask an author to present a summary of theories which argue against his own, but in fact it's in the best interest of an author/scientist. What are the points of contention between theories, and what are the alternate explanations? This gives the author an ideal chance to explain why their theory is superior, what it has that the others lack... and in turn it gives the reader the chance to be convinced (or not) by the force of the argument, which is always more intellectually satisfying than being led by the nose.
Stylistically, also, it could have used a bit of revision. Long, complex sentences are fine (great, even) for something like Proust.
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