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on October 10, 2012
==== Context ====
For the sake of context, I am a student in the biomedical sciences. I have taken a few psychology and neuroscience classes. I wanted to read this book because I am interested in learning more about the human consciousness and how it is related to the biological brain. However, I have never had any formal introduction to it and none of my classes have focused very much on this topic.

==== Overall ====
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was an unique reading experience, but it was definitely not what I expected. This book has a lot to offer beyond just the biological connection to consciousness (which was my expectation). However, there are sections where the author tends to get bogged down in discussion and musings, and to me, this detracts from the overall experience. Not everyone will enjoy this type of book, but the ideas and theories offered by Dr. Tononi on this field are fascinating to think and debate about.

=== Synopsis ===
"Phi" is a story about the famed astronomer and scientist, Galileo. Similar to "guided enlightenment" theme of "A Christmas Carol", Galileo is helped by three scientists on his journey to understand our consciousness. In the first third of the book, Frick (based on Francis Crick, the geneticist who also spent a great deal of time studying the consciousness) takes our protagonist on a series of encounters to help him answer Galileo's original question: "How could mere matter generate mind?" Once Galileo is convinced of the soul-brain connection, he faces more difficult questions regarding consciousness - questions that can't be explained by simply looking at research and clinical findings. In this second part, Alturi (based off of Alan Turing, whose namesake Test has implications in consciousness and artificial intelligence), demonstrates to Galileo a series of thought experiments, that, along with the facts presented in his first journey, present a theory of consciousness based on Phi. The third part, hosted by a man modeled around Darwin, shows Galileo's understanding the overarching implications of the "phi" theory.

Each chapter of the book is meant to convey one big idea or theme regarding consciousness that Galileo and the reader. Most of the time, the bulk of the chapter is spent on a story, discussion, or metaphor that will be presented to the audience in order to emphasize that idea. Every chapter also has many pictures, paintings, or photos dispersed through it, each adding a visual element to the argument being made or evidence being presented. Lastly, a "Notes" section concludes every chapter, where the author provides his own commentary, explains minor characters, translates quotes, elaborates on evidence, provides references for the art, etc.

==== What I Liked ====

There are many aspects of this book that I really liked. Since I am interested in the brain and the mind, the content had an obvious appeal for me. And the content is really what this book is about. All the other parts of the story are just a way for Tononi to get his point across. I thought the neurological evidence and basic neuroscience was presented in a very clear and intriguing manner. Dr Tononi did a great job with his explanations of the biological background and brain deficits and disorders by presenting them in interesting anecdotes and with relevant historical characters and factual references. The material is definitely accessible to someone new to the field of neuroscience. And for those with a neuro background, it was presented in such a way that it was still interesting and instructive.

The structure of the book made it a very unique and enjoyable reading experience. The chapters are often a balance of subjective discussion with a connection to a more objective element, such as neurological evidence, such as when Tononi uses Tale of the Two Cities to explain the difference between the cerebrum and the cerebellum, and why one is involved in consciousness and the other isn't. Likewise, Tononi uses a balance of both scientific evidence and relevant art, history, culture, and mythology. This balance can also be seen in the illustrations used: alongside stunning photographs of stained hippocampal neurons will be Renaissance paintings. Besides photos of Classical Greek sculptures, Tononi will place a hand-sketch of the corpus callosum, the bridge between the brain hemispheres. Yet both elements, the objective brain MRI scans and the subjective portrait of Copernicus, are skillfully woven together by Tononi to illustrate an idea about consciousness.

I also really liked the "Notes" section at the end of each chapter. These aren't just references and citations. Rather than write as the author, Dr. Tononi does something unique and adds commentary to Galileo's journey as if he is a detached observer, discussing a journey he is witnessing himself. This definitely adds an interesting perspective to an an already engrossing chapter, and you will definitely want to read every "Notes" section.

One of the most obvious elements of the book is the language and writing of Tononi. He writes in a very flowing and eloquent manner that makes it easy and pleasant to read through. It is almost as if you're reading a poem. The dialogue of the characters is also very well written. Frick's lines, such as: "You are empty, Galileo, and have no spirit: nothing enters your immature body at conception and nothing leaves your carcass at death" and "You are merely another beast in the great zoo of the universe" convey his character - that of scientific certainty and arrogance - artfully and make him a far more relatable part of the journey. Tononi's writing style is definitely an enjoyable and attractive part of this tale.

Other things I liked include the minor characters, often pulled from literary or historical contexts. I enjoyed reading about their contribution (often counter-argument) to the discussion and how Tononi decided to portray them. And if you don't know much about them, the author talks about them in his "Notes".

==== What I Didn't Like =====

Back to content, which is the purpose of this book. I have one complaint about the book. It's not huge, but it did bother me and it was prevalent. I thought that at several points throughout the book, Dr. Tononi's discussions became too abstract and too convoluted to clearly convey the point of the chapter. This was especially common problem in the latter parts of Galileo's journey, where the author is attempting to create complex theories and associations and project potential implications. It just feels as if he tries to be too complex and ostentatious, and this can unnecessarily slow down reading all throughout the book. On the last third of the book, I couldn't clearly understand some of the points Tononi was trying to make. Maybe this won't be a problem for a more experienced reader.

===== Final Thoughts ====

Dr. Tononi's book is not for someone who is looking to understand consciousness through a purely biological lens. In fact, only a third of the book would satisfy such an audience. Nor would I suggest this book to someone who is looking for just a layman's explanation - the biological explanations and bases are explained well and are not very technical, but the abstract discussions and thought experiments might not be what they are seeking. "Phi" is for someone who wants to view consciousness through many different lenses, both objective and subjective, but ultimately connect all those perspectives together to an understanding of the topic reached by Galileo and proposed by Dr. Tononi. As I said, this is a fascinating topic and the book has a lot to offer regarding it, but my suggestions would be to take your time reading it and understanding the ideas and arguments that are made in it. Whether or not you agree with his theories, this will allow you to get the most from this book.

In summary, this is a beautiful book that is both instructive and very interesting to read and think about.
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on August 30, 2012
I want to start by saying that PHI is the book that all of us wanted to write, but never did it: Fantasy, visual art, literature, mathematics, science, physics and music are fused by expert hands (and brain) to achieve a masterpiece that, no doubt, will become a classic reading. It is beautifully written with a rhythm that changes going through stories where pleasure, sorrow, beauty, pain, despair, love, all fused together. It is a pleasure to read this voyage through our brain, history, and soul with the help of Galileo, who is called upon discovering the answer to the greatest question: what make us human? I learned a lot without struggle, as the author is able to simplify difficult concepts. This is especially true for the notes: there, the author further explains small and big points made by each chapter either with a smirk or making fun of him self. At the end of the book, he leaves us with an answered question: what is the meaning of the last mysterious symbol in his book, that seems to have an important meaning and value for the author? I hope he will answer soon. I loved the book in its entirety and I strongly recommend it to everybody who wants to know more about what make us human.
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on September 12, 2012
This book came along a week after a hike with a friend during which we discussed consciousness and how it occured, and its implications for a non-physical, spiritual existence. As a physician, my friend argued that consciousness was merely electrochemical. But what does that mean for physical theories like quantum mechanics, especially string theory that requires multiple universes? Then I hear Dr Tononi interviewed on NPR, thought he might have some answers in this book and ordered the it the next day.

Dr Tononi has made the journey from basic neuroscience to spiritual implications fascinating at many levels.
From the first chapter, you have the feeling that your experience transcends the written text; you are exposed to the material at many levels simultaneously. Consequently, the information is reinforced and learning enhanced.

The author revisits complex concepts several times, linking it to the subject of the chapter at hand, further enhancing learning of sometimes difficult concepts. Even the art used to complement the text is adapted to further explanation of the concept under discussion, sometimes to the point of modifying the art! You find yourself thinking at several levels at the end of every chapter.

This is a book that continues to provoke thinking about the material long after you've completed it. It neither supports nor undermines belief systems, but offers a recasting of what "eternal life" might mean. It refreshingly avoids specific conclusions that are beyond scientific observation, leaving any spiritual conclusions to be filtered through one's personal belief system. Dr Tononi does not prescribe, only informs from his experience and intellectual curiosity.

I am recommending this book to my friend and I can't wait for the next hiking discussion!
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on January 30, 2013
Quite frankly, Tononi seems to have come up with an idea for presenting Phi and "integrated information" that he was unable to make work but, unfortunately, was also unwilling to set aside. The vast majority of the book, perhaps as much as 90%, ends up being about that idea -- Galileo in dialogue with various people and in various situations -- rather than the subject the idea was intended to present. So what you get is page upon page of mediocre descriptive text about fictional places and contrived conversations between fictional people (with some really not-so-clever names) much of which has little to do with anything other than itself. As for what is said about Phi and "integrated information," it probably doesn't take up more than 10 to 20 pages and by the end of the book was not compelling enough to have justified the whole experience.
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on August 7, 2012
PHI is a wonderful book by Giulio Tononi that explores our consciousness. Told as a story with Galileo as the main character, PHI reveals the secrets behind our consciousness, as if exploring unknown worlds. Along the way, Galileo meets many wise people who explain to him the origin of consciousness, how our conscious mind works, what happens to our consciousness while we sleep, and even explores the question of whether animals have conscious minds like humans.

The biggest surprise in this book is the multitude of gorgeous painting, photos, and images spread throughout. These images really make the book stand out from anything I've read recently. As a physician, the anatomy lessons brought me back to my neuroscience course in medical school, and the many paintings harkened back to my art history classes back in college. This book was an education and an absolute gem. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in how our brain works and the origin of our consciousness.
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on March 27, 2013
Tononi's 'Phi" attempts to discuss consciousness through the vantage point of fictionalized versions of famous thinkers, with the character of Galileo being our main protagonist who we follow through his enlightenment of what consciousness is as explained through the frame of integrated information. There are many intellectually delightful moments in these discussions, and many poetic allusions that are fun through and through, but I can't shake my disappointment that, for such a profound topic, and for such a scientifically important advancement as Tononi's IIT may prove to be, the book remains a superficial popularization without much depth. When one reads a book like this you can't help but draw comparisons to Hofstadter's GEB which masterfully blended fictional anecdotes with deep ideas, but where Hofstadter plunged the reader deep into the relevant issues, Tononi only skates on the surface, offering glances and teasing those of us who wish to learn more. In the end, I think those who know nothing of Tononi's research will still leave not knowing much, and those of us who have the necessary background will not have gained much either
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on August 15, 2012
I really enjoyed this book. It was very absorbing and went fast, I bought it on Saturday, read it by Monday. I'd have to say that the author chose a very interesting style. You are following around Galileo in one of his dreams while he is exploring the idea of consciousness with various characters. This book can get very deep, very stimulating, sometimes intense and disturbing. The main idea is this concept of "phi", which is the amount of integrated information held by the brain, with consciousness a sort of maximum of this integrated information. I can't say I fully understood it by the end of it, and sometimes I get the feeling that neither did the author, as by the end of the book he was burying his concept in a lot of seemingly meaningless fluff that was rather frustrating to try and decipher. However, despite the fact that the idea might be not as rigid and rigorous as one would hope, I still very much enjoyed the experience of reading this book. It keeps you entertained with very visceral and visual scenes and many pieces of art per chapter. I would recommend this to anyone who was looking for a new book to read.
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on December 1, 2013
I am more interested in ideas than how ideas are packaged. There is no question that the packaging here is charming, lovely, creative, beautiful and quirky, sort of like Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach, in utilizing the literary trope of conversations among fictional characters, especially one modeled on Galileo. I would give this packaging 5 stars, but I would give the substantial idea of integrated information just two stars. The problem is that the idea of integrated information as the core realization of consciousness is I suspect simply wrong. If it were correct, then anything with informational inputs and outputs would have some degree of consciousness, a country, a city or an ant colony. In the extreme, wouldn't this drive one to a form of pan-psychism where even a rock has a low but non-zero degree of consciousness? While the idea of an ant colony being conscious, with ants playing the role of neurons is alluring, and while there is no doubt that an ant colony or city seems to process information, it is improbable, even if not disprovable, that an ant colony or city or country experiences anything. If China is experiencing something, what is it experiencing? The basic idea is that information is not just reduction of possibilities for a receiver as Shannon described it, making information fundamentally epistemological. For Tononi, information becomes an ontological attribute of a system. If it can occupy vastly many possible states in its state space, but occupies only a small subset of possible states at a time, then it has a high phi. There is no need for a Shannonesque receiver or decoder on this account of information. Information just is. It is not the reduction from many possible outcomes to fewer in a receiver, it is being able to occupy many states. Since highly integrated information processing systems can occupy more states they have more of this unusual ontological type of information. Phi is the hypothesized measure of integrated information. It remains hypothesized because no one can measure phi and there is no device to do so now, and I suspect there never will be such a device. How we then go from having high integrated information or phi to consciousness is a mystery to me. I realize that Tononi probably dreams of a phi-measuring device that we can hold up to a rock or lifeform to get a reading on its level of consciousness. I just think such dreams are misguided.
I was dismayed in Christof Koch's recent book 'Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist' to read that he buys into Tononi's theory. I much preferred the views of Christof Koch that he expressed in his previous book 'The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach" where he argues that the neural correlates of consciousness are to be found in certain kinds of neural activity. So if you are looking for books about how consciousness is realized in the brain I would buy Koch's 'The Quest for Consciousness,' Tse's 'The Neural Basis of Free Will' or Prinz's 'The Conscious Brain.' The latter two in particular link consciousness and its neural basis with attentional processing. But if you want a gorgeous and quirky presentation of an idea that probably is not a correct account of consciousness, and that has no explanation for qualia or experience as far as I can tell, then go ahead and buy this book.
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on August 24, 2012
Consciousness is one of the holy grails of science, sort of like the Higgs Boson of the brain. As such, many neuroscientists and psychologists don't go near it. A solution to the problem of consciousness was attempted by a very smart puppy -- Francis Crick, who solved the riddle of DNA's structure (with Jim Watson), but the answer to this other big mystery evaded him. The glimmerings of an explanation may be in Tononi's idea of integrated information, which posits that the brain's circuits are built in a special, and perhaps unfathomable way that reduces uncertainty about the world -- the very definition of information. I felt as if I was being led by the hand, along with an often bewildered Galileo, through the complexities of neuroscience as told through wonderful conversations with the departed pioneers who contributed to cracking the problem of consciousness -- scientists like Bruno, Crick, Shannon, and Turing. And, for the aestheticians out there, every single page holds a work of Enlightenment art or a fantastical image of neurobiology at work. Phi is a spectacular achievement that is without peer.
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on November 9, 2012
If you are thinking of buying this because of the review in The Wall Street Journal, think again. First of all, it doesn't resemble Italo Calvino's works and isn't a novel in any sense. It is more like The Dream of Scipio, with the human brain taking the place of the world. You will learn some things about the brain, but I question the effectiveness of surrounding the lessons with the artificial and confusing dream journey. And, if you are like me, you'll be endlessly annoyed by the illustrations, which are haphazardly placed and poorly identified in the endnotes. They also sometimes undergo "some changes" by the author. He doesn't bother to tell you what the changes are, and he sometimes doesn't properly identify the work. For example, he shows Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, with Apollo photoshopped out, and identifies the statue as "Bernini's Daphne". Very disappointing. (Mrs. ABC)
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