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Customer Review

222 of 237 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good news and bad news, November 19, 2010
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This review is from: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Hardcover)
The deep enigma of consciousness has been explored from many directions, including contributions by neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers and a few physicists (both quantum and complex systems scientists). An important study area consists of injuries or diseases that destroy specific brain structures; these clinical events are often closely correlated to nuanced effects on selective aspects of consciousness. Professor Damasio's book makes good use of these data to describe many known neural correlates of consciousness. For purposes of this book, he adopts the working hypothesis that mental states and brain states are essentially equivalent. While many (including this reviewer) find this idea questionable, such tentative hypothesis is quite appropriate for a book of this kind. In science we often adopt useful, if highly oversimplified, models in the early stages of our studies with no illusions that they are perfectly accurate. In this manner "Truth" is (hopefully) approached in a series of successive approximations. Thankfully, Damasio does not claim to "explain" consciousness.

The book's title is based on Damasio's suggestion that our evolutionary history reveals many simple creatures with active "minds" (defined broadly), but only much later did self (awareness) develop; in other words the human self is built in steps grounded in the so-called "protoself." An essential step is the development of homeostatis (life regulation needed to survive) in single cell creatures like bacteria, followed by progressively more complex "societies of cells" in more complex creatures like insects, reptiles, and mammals. Thus consciousness, rooted in our evolutionary past, helps to optimize our responses to the environment so that we may continue our existence. Damasio also describes the self in terms of stages: the protoself, core self and autobiographical self, along with specific brain structures that may support these distinct stages. He concludes that conscious minds emerge from the brain's nested hierarchy of neural networks operating at multiple spatial scales (levels); I will expand on this last point later.

Several chapters consider brain structures that are most essential to mind and consciousness, providing more status to the brain stem and its sub structures than is normally acknowledged by neuroscientists. Damasio's arguments here are based on observations of children born without a cerebral cortex and on several evolutionary considerations. The book cites quite a bit of detailed brain anatomy so non experts should probably read the excellent Appendix on brain structure before tackling any material beyond chapter 2. Normally this suggestion would be offered in a Preface, but this book has none.

I gave the book four stars based on my evaluation of both the good and not so good features: 1) the nice development of a number of important ideas on conscious correlates, 2) the fluff, e.g., some unnecessary technical jargon and the belaboring of obvious points, 3) important omissions. In an example of the latter, I found the memory chapter inadequate given its central role in consciousness. I would have liked to read more about how, where, and at what spatial scales are various kinds of memory stored, or at least given some sense of which parts of the memory puzzle have actually been solved. By loose analogy, if I ask how a TV works, I am unsatisfied by explanations of how to dial in specific channels. Rather, I want to hear about electromagnetic fields and electron guns.

Many readers avoid Endnotes; this may be a mistake. Here is one shining gem involving an interchange between Damasio and Francis Crick, who pointed to several provocative definitions in the International Dictionary of Psychology (1996), providing both these guys quite a laugh. I will not spoil the story by relating the dictionary's definition of "consciousness," but here is this dictionary's definition of "love," "A form of mental illness not yet recognized by any of the standard diagnostic manuals." (Note to my wife, I do not endorse this definition.)

The apparent critical importance of the brain's nested hierarchy to consciousness seemed to me to be substantially understated in Damisio's book. I say this because nested hierarchy is a hallmark of many if not most complex systems, and brains are considered by most to be the pre-eminent complex systems. Think of social systems, for example. They typically consist of persons, neighborhoods, cities, states and nations; their observed dynamic behaviors are fractal-like (scale dependent) and the essence of their behaviors is rooted in the nested hierarchy of interactions at multiple scales, both top-down and bottom-up, the so-called "circular causality" of Synergetics, the science of cooperation and self organization (see books by Hermann Haken). The brain's nested hierarchy and its apparent critical importance to consciousness are discussed in Todd Feinberg's From Axons to Identity: Neurological Explorations of the Nature of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) and my new book (2010), which also explores the possible fundamental role of information in both the physical and mental realms. This latter topic is also covered in a series of essays edited by Paul Davies and Neils Gregersen Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics, 2010.

An alternate view of Damasio's book by Steven Rose was posted February 16, 2011 on this site (an excellent read for those interested in the hard problem).
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 7, 2011 3:42:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 7, 2011 3:42:59 PM PDT
tspencer says:
Paul, it is wonderful to have an author's professional "equal" leave such a detailed review where the most readers can easily access it. I just read another one of yours a minute ago. Thank you!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2011 9:31:48 PM PDT
Thomas, thanks for you comment. Before Amazon.com, the information required to decide whether or not to buy a book was often mainly endorsements by a few "hot shots," but many have probably never even read the book they recommended. Choices made by buyers for the major (physical) bookstores who stock only a small fraction of new books published (several hundred per day!) and reject most others are also probably mostly arbitrary. I credit Amazon with creating a far more democratic system, thereby allowing a much greater range of choices for readers. Mainly for this reason, I am quite happy to contribute my own reviews.

Posted on Aug 21, 2011 5:19:32 PM PDT
Patient Zero says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 24, 2011 1:10:26 PM PDT
Kirsty Nunez says:
FYI. Magazines that publish book reviews must find Reviewers with appropriate knowledge of the Book's subject matter. Often this means finding a Reviewer who has published a book in a closely related field. In such cases, the Reviewer's own book is certain to be cited either by the magazine publisher or the Reviewer himself. This citation indicates that the Reviewer knows the subject matter quite well; it also alerts readers to possible conflicts between Reviewer and Book Author. Omission of such critical information might well be considered unethical.

What motivates a Reviewer to write reviews, which are almost always unpaid? Reviews provide excellent opportunities to place a number of diverse viewpoints (including views expressed in books by several authors) in a broader context. It also provides the Reviewer with a nice chance to promote his own work, a quid pro quo appreciated by all parties. The main caveat, which seems to apply equally to hardcopy and Amazon reviews, is that such promotion should acknowledge diverse views and not otherwise compromise the quality of the review. If a Reviewer of a book on (say) cancer were to cite a totally unrelated book, say "The X Rated Adventures of Mickey Mouse," that would be a problem, but citations to closely related works (including the Reviewer's own books) are quite appropriate.

Do nearly all scientists promote their own work? Is the Pope Catholic?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 29, 2015 1:24:43 PM PDT
R. Spicer says:
Mr. Nunez authored a book with related content. To omit this fact from his review would have been deceptive. His review concentrated on the reviewed book and only mentioned his own appropriately and in context. In a professional review there would have been a short bio of the reviewer and that information would have been included. Mr. Nunez review included little more than that and, obviously, most readers appreciated his insights.
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