- Series: MIT Press
- Hardcover: 200 pages
- Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (March 9, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780262017497
- ISBN-13: 978-0262017497
- ASIN: 0262017490
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 62 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #632,819 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) 1st Edition
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With this masterful narrative of his life and science, Christof Koch has done for neuroscience what James D. Watson did for biology in his classic work The Double Helix. At once engaging, informing, and enlightening, Consciousness should be read by every student and scientist of the mind, along with general readers who would like to know how science really works and how scientists really think―and feel―when they engage the world with their experimental tools. Destined to takes its place as a timeless masterpiece in the history of science.(Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine; author of The Believing Brain)
This is a strikingly charming and enlightening―and even moving―report from the front lines of the neurobiology of consciousness from one of our foremost authorities. It is a lucid account of the latest ideas about consciousness science together with their philosophical underpinnings, all in the context of a highly personal, emotional and intellectual autobiography that features to an extent that surprised me, Christof Koch's journey of rejection of religion and discovery of meaning in the universe.(Ned Block, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, New York University)
This is the book Christof Koch was born to write. An exuberant blend of science, wit, wisdom and autobiography, it brings the subject to life and shows why Koch has had such a profound influence on this exciting area of neuroscience.(Geraint Rees, Director, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, London)
Koch weaves a vivid and poignant story, punctuated by fascinating characters and compelling science. The book will leave you with a small piece of Koch's own consciousness, plucked from his head and delivered into yours.(Science News)
... [D]efinitely worth reading.... I argued with Koch all the way through this book. And I loved every minute of it.(Robert Stickgold Nature)
Pioneering consciousness studies requires a nimbly multiprocessing mind. That Koch possesses one is apparent.(Chronicle of Higher Education)
Among the plethora of books on consciousness, this engaging blend of science, autobiography and honest self-reflection stands out. It combines a lucid description of the leading edge of consciousness science with a surprisingly personal and philosophical reflection of the author's life as one of its foremost authorities, shedding light on how scientists really think. Science writing at its best.(Anil Seth Times Higher Education)
... [T]he book offers good rides through the wild forest of the neuroscience of consciousness. Koch is fearless, and does not shrink from talking about phenomenology and qualia; he includes them and tries to formalise consciousness by linking it to direct brain signals or well-defined psychological constructs.(Tristan Bekinschtein Times Higher Education)
This new volume is attractive not only for the breadth and depth that is typical of Koch's writing, but also for its highly accessible nature.... This important book serves as a subtle introduction to many of the driving questions of the discipline that may well significantly change people's understanding of human nature.(Choice)
About the Author
Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He is the author of The Quest for Consciousness and other books.
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The layout of the book is 10 chapters over 166 pages. It is well written in that it contains technical terms but they are well explained for the novice. On the other hand there are also higher level concepts pertaining to consciousness that will probably not be obvious to many readers that are well explained and worthwhile reading for anyone who is not an expert in the field. The text reminds me of a slim guide to neuropathology that one of my med school professors claimed was the only book he studied to pass his subspecialty boards exams. In other words, the more you bring to a book like this, the more you may take away. At the same time it is interesting reading for a novice.
A typical chapter is organized around clinical and scientific observations, associated philosophy and the personal experience and meaning to the author. I thought about characterizing the writing as a very good blog, but this writing by one of the top neuroscientists of our time is several levels above that. Koch writes from the perspective of admiration of some of the best scientists in the world when it is clear that he is among them. He adds a unique perspective referencing his training, his family and social life, and the relationships he has with colleagues and mentors. In the final chapter he describes how his career and experience has impacted on his belief system and personal philosophy.
I will touch on a couple of examples of what he covers and the relevance to consciousness. Chapter 5: Consciousness in the Clinic is a chapter that is most accessible to clinicians specializing in the brain. He briefly summarizes achromatopsia and prosopagnosia or face-blindness. He discusses prosopagnosia from the perspective of clinical findings and associated disability, but also consciousness. For example, patients with this lesion do not recognize faces but they do have autonomic responses (galvanic skin resistance) when viewing faces that they know (family or famous people) relative to unknown people. This is evidence of processing that occurs at an unconscious level that he develops in a subsequent chapter. He describes the Capgras delusion - as the "flip-side" of prosopagnosia in that they face is recognized but the patient believes the original person has been replaced by an impostor. In this case the expected increase in galvanic skin resistant is lacking because there is no autonomic response to unconscious processing.
In the same chapter he details the problem of patients in a coma, persistent vegetative state (PVS) and minimally conscious state (MCS) and how some new developments in consciousness theory and testing may be useful. From a consciousness perspective coma represent and absence of consciousness - no arousals and no sleep transitions. Persistent vegetative state result in some arousals and sleep-awake transitions. In the minimally conscious state there are awakenings and purposeful movements. The minimally conscious person may be able to communicate during the brief arousals. At the clinical level being able to distinguish between the persistent vegetative state and the minimally conscious state is important from both a clinical and medico-legal perspective. He discusses the use of fMRI in the case of apparently unresponsive patients who are able to follow direction to think about very specific tasks and produce the same brain pattern of activation seen in controls. In a subsequent chapter Tononi and Massimini use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and electroencephalography (EEG) for the same purpose. This technique is considered proof of IIT as well as a clinical test to differentiate PVS from a minimally conscious state. In normal awake volunteers the TMS impulse results in brief but clear pattern of reverberating activation that spreads from the original stimulation site to surrounding frontal and parietal cortex. The pattern can be viewed in this online paper (see figure 1). In the patient who is in non-REM sleep there is no cortical spread from this impulse and the total impulse duration is less, illustrating a lack of cortical integration required for a conscious state. When applied to PVS versus MCS patients, the MCS patients show the expected TMS/EEG response that would be seen in conscious patients. The PVS patients do not. He describes the TMS/EEG method as a "crude consciousness meter" but obviously one that probably has a lot more potential than traditional clinical methods.
There are many other clinical, philosophical and scientific issues relevant to consciousness that are discussed in this book that I won't go into. I will touch on a recurring theme in the book that gets back to the title and that is science and reductionism. Philosophical perspectives are covered as well as the idea that the origin of consciousness may not be knowable by scientific methods. Koch's opinion is that most everything is knowable by science and that science generally has a better track record of determining what is knowable. That is certainly my bias and I am on record as being an unapologetic reductionist rather than a romantic one.
This is a book that should be read by psychiatrists and residents. These concepts will hopefully be some of the the mainstays of 21st century psychiatry. It can be read at several levels. I was interested in the development of Koch's ideas about consciousness. I wanted to learn about his relationship with collaborators. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we had similar thoughts about popular media, philosophy, and and psychodynamic psychiatry. I have had career long involvement in neuropsychiatry and behavioral neurology so the description of cortical localization and clinical syndromes was second nature to me. But even against that background, he makes it very clear where consciousness comes in to play. One of my concerns about psychiatric training is that there is not enough emphasis on neuroscience and consciousness. Condensed into this small book there are number of jumping off points. Each chapter has a collection of annotations and there is a list of about 100 scientific references at the end. It may take some work, but this book is a brief syllabus on how to get up to speed in this important area and greatly extend your knowledge of how the brain works.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
So in my case I bought this book because it gives an explanation through a detailed account about what consciousness is (not a ghost, just in case), which means what we know about it today, what it is consciousness now, and what we could expect to know for the future. Another reason is that Christof Koch is an authority on the subject so the combination for learning something new and serious on the topic was perfect.
The other reason to read the book was the personal approach that Koch proposes as a writer. He creates a personal and very intimate relationship with the reader as long as he tells you about his life, how he came to be involved in the subject of consciousness and which are his ideas today after decades of study.
Christof Koch, a physicist, worked for several years with Francis Crick (one of the DNA discoverers) so the proximity with the history of science, the philosophy involved and the effects of living a life dedicated to know who's that guy inside our brains, is all very close, intermingled and narrated in a very exciting style. To read this book is something very similar to stay at Koch's living room, listening to him and sharing good moments of high level science, sadness, memories and humor. "What is striking," says Koch, "to a physicist studying the brain and the mind is the absence of any conservation laws: Synapses, action potentials, neurons, attention, memory, and consciousness are not conserved in any meaningful sense. Instead, what biology and psychology do have in exuberant abundance are empirical observations-facts. There is no unifying theory, with the singular exception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection... [which] is open ended, and not predictive."
Having said that you can rightly conclude that this is both a book about consciousness and also about Koch's consciousness (the reason, I guess, behind the subtitle of the book: "Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist"). Two books in one but clearly separated and cleverly explained and documented.
Indeed, there is lots of explanations based on enormous advances and data about the topic of consciousness but the bad news is there is no consciousness in the form of a cube, a pyramid, or a little person inside a grey box in our heads. There is not a single organ. There is no a special piece of matter with an etiquette saying "consciousness." There is only indirect and distributed evidence. That's the cause of questions like: "How the brain converts bioelectrical activity into subjective states, how photons reflected off water are magically transformed into the percept of an iridescent aquamarine mountain tarn..." To reinforce the idea, Koch quotes John Tyndale: "Granted that a definite thought, and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not posses the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one phenomenon to the other." And thus he arrives to the question of "WHY." Why we see what we see through the microscope or the scanner or the fMRI or, you name it, instead of the consciousness. Why we see the crime but not the corpse. We see a correlate, a shadow, an oscillation, but we don't see the thing in itself. Why some strange things happen in our brain when we see a rose? And "how does nervous tissue acquire an interior, first person point of view?"
A hard problem that Christof Koch deals with experience, intelligence, insight and, last but not least, a romantic vein, to let you know how difficult is the task of looking for this material and intrinsic "ghost". This is why, at the end of the book, in chapter 10, he addressed some difficult issues "considered off-limits...of scientific discourse," to limit, of course, the extent of an open end that could be disappointing. This chapter is a personal final for the author and works as the human side of a scientific that opposes the dualistic view of the world and ask difficult questions, such as "Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia [who] had already pointed out to Descartes three centuries earlier -by what means does the immaterial soul direct the physical brain to accomplish its aim?" If we look for explanations, Koch says, "we must abandon the classical view of the immortal soul." Even in this perspective, Koch manages to get out of trouble that an excessive materialism (physicalism) posits by proposing instead "an alternative account that augments physicalism." So what follows is a step further the end of the book and I'm not going to talk about it, except to add that I would have preferred that the book had finished some lines before this last rumination. To me, a tiny stain, an unnecessary (although eloquent) allegation to give a possible solution to an "impossible" task.
So there are no four stars up there, but 4,9.