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Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

4.7 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0670025435
ISBN-10: 0670025437
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* For 15 years, professor of cognitive psychology and science writer Dehaene (Reading in the Brain, 2009) and his team have been working to identify and understand patterns of brain activity, or “signatures of consciousness.” He now brings us up to speed on the whole of consciousness research in this exciting delineation of the scientific breakthroughs, including the advent of brain-imaging technologies, that have illuminated the brain’s astonishingly complicated anatomy and intensely intricate, lightning-fast processes. Dehaene recounts experiments involving visual illusions and semantic processing that reveal key facts about the brain’s management of the incessant stimuli bombardment and ponders the evolution of our all-important “language of thought.” An excellent teacher with a gift for vivid analogies, Dehaene writes that “consciousness is like the spokesperson in a large institution . . . with a staff of a hundred billion neurons” issuing briefs that tell us what we need to know moment by moment. He then explains his and his colleagues’ groundbreaking theory about the “global neuronal workspace,” where information is made “available to the rest of the brain,” wowing us with descriptions of our pyramidal neurons and their spiny dendrites and the discovery that each neuron “cares” about such specific stimuli as “faces, hands, ­objects.” A stunning examination of the “exquisite biological machinery” that has made us an animal unlike any other. --Donna Seaman

Review

“Ambitious . . . Dehaene offers nothing less than a blueprint for brainsplaining one of the world’s deepest mysteries. . . . [A] fantastic book.”
The Washington Post

“Dehaene is a maestro of the unconscious.”
Scientific American Mind

“Brilliant… Dehaene’s special contribution is his global-workspace theory, the first step in a complete account of why some neural processes lead to conscious experience…. Dehaene’s account is the most sophisticated story about the neural basis of consciousness so far. It is essential reading for those who want to experience the excitement of the search for the mind in the brain.”
--Chris Frith, Nature
 
“In Consciousness and the Brain, [Dehaene] summaries the fruits of two decades of vigorous experimentation and modeling…. The book introduces the methods that acted as midwife at the birth of a science of consciousness…. Postulating that global availability of information is what we subjectively experience as a conscious state begets the question of why…. Answering such questions requires an information-theoretical account of what type of data, communicated within what system, gives rise to conscious experience in biological or artificial organisms. Dehaene’s well-written and well-sourced book avoids this, as this, as he opts to restrict it to behavioral and neuronal observables.”
—Christof Koch, Science
 
“Consciousness tomes have become a dime a dozen over the past decade or so, with every last researcher feeling the need to join the fray. But Stanislas Dehaene is one of the few at the top of the disciplines involved – philosophy, history, cognitive psychology, brain imaging, computer modelling – to add something new.”
New Scientist
 
“An excellent teacher with a gift for vivid analogies, Dehaene writes that ‘consciousness is like the spokesperson in a large institution . . . with a staff of a hundred billion neurons’ issuing briefs that tell us what we need to know moment by moment. He then explains his and his colleagues’ groundbreaking theory about the “global neuronal workspace,” where information is made ‘available to the rest of the brain,’ wowing us with descriptions of our pyramidal neurons and their spiny dendrites and the discovery that each neuron ‘cares’ about such specific stimuli as ‘faces, hands, objects.’ A stunning delineation of the “exquisite biological machinery” that has made us an animal unlike any other.”
Booklist, starred review

“A revealing and definitely not dumbed-down overview of what we know about consciousness.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Stanislas Dehaene’s remarkable book is the best modern treatment of consciousness I have read to date. Dehaene, a world-class scientist, has pioneered the development of a set of experiments for studying consciousness that have revolutionized the field and given us the first direct approach to its biology. Simply stated this book is a tour de force. It opens up a whole new world of intellectual exploration for the general reader.”
—Eric Kandel, author of In Search of Memory and The Age of Insight, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking (January 30, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025437
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025435
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #303,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a physician and Stanford researcher (initially in artificial intelligence and currently in cognitive neuroscience), I have been interested in consciousness research for 50 years. How does the brain create consciousness? And, if this is "simply" a story of billions of spiking neurons talking to one another, can it be done in silicon? (If so, this may occasion a profound turning point in human history.)

I have followed Professor Stan Dehaene's prestigious journal publications for a decade as he has amassed a wealth of evidence supporting the view that consciousness is 1) experimentally accessible, 2) has reliable neural correlates (signatures), and 3) is functionally important . Dehaene (a professor at the College de France in Paris and director of the INSERM Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit) is one of the world's leading scholars of consciousness. Fortunately for us, his literary agent, John Brockman (of "Edge" fame) persuaded him to write this popular work.

That Dehaene writes this well in English makes me wonder how spectacularly he must write in his native French. We are not only transported to the cutting edge of research on consciousness, but the voyage is a thrill. As expected, Dehaene is thoroughly steeped in the history of consciousness from Plato, through Descartes, Hume, and the Continental philosophers. His writing is also filled with references to French art, literature, and humanism (like serotonin molecules, that culture seems to have diffused from the Louvre down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and become bound in this book.)

Right from the start (see the beautiful, free Introduction on Amazon) he reminds us that it all began in the caves at Lascaux with the depiction of a dreamer's soul wafting about like a sparrow.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It is wonderful to find a book that has taken consciousness from a philosophical subject, approachable mostly by way of metaphor, to the scientific, experimental level.
Mr. Dehaene begins, as is often necessary in science, by defining the term consciousness in a clear and unambiguous manner that delineates it from other related and often conflated terms such as awareness and attention.
But the majority of this book concerns data taken from nuts-and-bolts experiments in the lab, many using brain-imaging equipment, that give information about actual brain processes that occur during consciousness and how they differ from those of unconscious processing. And sometimes startling insights about the evolution of consciousness and the reasons it may have developed.
Four "signatures" of consciousness were identified from this experimental data, and using these signatures, a theory of consciousness was developed and also a practical method for determining the actual state of animals, babies, or patients who have suffered brain trauma or paralysis and are not able to communicate directly with people.
This is cutting-edge, ground-floor science, and I am thankful to live in an era where I can access this knowledge. It is in the nature of science that new experiments and findings on the nature of consciousness will doubtless now occur rapidly, but this is the finest book on consciousness I have read thus far.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dehaene and his colleagues have made enormous contributions to our understanding of conscious and unconscious processes in the brain. This lucid explication provides and up-to-date synthesis of their work with that of others. Cleverly integrating neuroscience with experimental cognitive science, Dehaene has meticulously identified several signatures of consciousness, that is, patterns of brain activity that are distinctive to conscious processing. This differentiation is not graded but rather binary: above a threshold, the brain "ignites" into an "avalanche" of activity. Dehaene has refined and updated Bernard Baars's well-established "global workspace" theory of consciousness, the distinctive feature of which is sharing information widely across the brain. This book also makes the profoundly important clinical contribution of elucidating the complex and varied sequelae of coma and pioneering ways of identifying consciousness in unresponsive patients. Given the book's accessibility to lay readers, family members of patients recovering from comatose states will find it extraordinarily useful and informative. What we are learning about ourselves from burgeoning research on the neurobiological basis of consciousness is truly mind boggling and is likely to change our self-understanding in ways that are challenging to anticipate. We can be grateful that Dahaene was persuaded to put his knowledge into a book.
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This book is an impressive tour de force on the research on consciousness, particularly on the question of what makes the difference between a conscious and an unconscious perception. I flash the image of a coffee cup on a computer screen briefly, followed by a "masking" image (say, of random lines). If the mask follows the coffee cup too closely in time, the cup is never seen - make the gap in time between cup and masking image a little longer, the cup is seen. What is going on in the brain that makes the difference? What makes the cup "accessible" (gives it "access" in consciousness, or not? That is, how to explain "access consciousness." That the unseen/unregistered cup has been perceived unconsciously, that there are real effects of this hidden perception that can be shown, is one of the fascinating stories in Dehaene's book - by the way, eerily confirmative via now current, open science (though Dehaene doesn't go into the subject), of widely-read books circa 1970's (sorry, don't remember titles) arguing that industry psychologists had extensive, but non-public studies on this effect and were using this subliminal effect widely in marketing. Along the way, Dehaene develops his concept of "signatures" for consciousness - areas of the brain that must be involved in the brain's processing for the coffee cup to be perceived. This includes, for example, the P3 "wave" - a synchronous firing of a set of these areas. The book is very detailed, yet readable; the case for his conclusions thoroughly made. A read to be appreciated for the great deal of information it provides.Read more ›
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