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Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness 1st Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0809016488
ISBN-10: 0809016486
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Noë turns Descartes's famous statement on its head: I am, therefore I think, says Noë. The author, a philosopher at UC-Berkeley, challenges the assumptions underlying neuroscientific studies of consciousness, rejecting popular mechanistic theories that our experience of the world stems from the firing of the neurons in our brains. Noë (Action in Perception) argues that we are not our brains, that consciousness arises from interactions with our surroundings: Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make. Noë points out that many of our habits, like language, are foundational aspects of our mental experience, but at the same time many, if not most, habits are environmental in nature—we behave a particular way in a particular situation. He goes on to challenge popular theories of perception, in particular the claim that the world is just a grand illusion conjured up by the brain. Readers interested in how science can intersect with and profit from philosophy will find much food for thought in Noë's groundbreaking study. (Feb. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The notion that consciousness is confined to the brain, like software in a computer, has dominated science and philosophy for close to two centuries. Yet, according to this incisive review of contemporary neuroscience from Berkeley philosopher Nöe, the analogy is deeply flawed. In eight illuminating, mercifully jargon-free chapters, he defines what scientists really know about consciousness and makes a strong case that mind and awareness are processes that arise during a dynamic dance with the observer’s surroundings. Nöe begins with a sharp critique of scientists, such as DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who insist that nothing but neurons determines our daily perceptions and sense of self. He then examines studies of human and animal behavior that demonstrate an inextricable link between identity and environment. Nöe regrettably limits his treatise by ignoring considerable research from transpersonal psychology suggesting that consciousness transcends physicality altogether. Still, the resulting book is an invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” --Carl Hays --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1 edition (February 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809016486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809016488
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #324,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on March 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The mind is more than what the brain is doing. The idea isn't new, but it often gets too little respect. Perhaps because people think it implies something supernatural, or perhaps because it just seems weird, but it is a very respectable argument and in Alva Noe's hands, a powerful one.

We often take for granted in brain science that the mind is implemented by things happening inside the skull. That goes against the growing findings that perception is an active process of exploration that depends on our contact with the real world and the skills we possess for navigating its structure. This book takes on the significant challenge of bringing that difficult idea accessibly and non-technically into the popular mind and I think he does an excellent job.

Although Noe doesn't talk about it specifically, Ruth Millikan makes a good related argument that substance categories are really skills. We know substances by our skills for finding and identifying them over and over, not through their intrinsic properties. Noe approaches perception in much the same way. We know the world by interacting with it, not by (or in addition to?) simulating it with detailed models inside our head.

Noe goes a step further and points out how some concepts just don't make from a detached viewpoint, so we are often forced to destroy the phenomena of consciousness, reducing them to something else, in order to study them dispassionately. This is a tough sell, I think, to habitual materialists, but he doesn't rely too heavily on it.

The implication Noe emphasizes is that consciousness is a process involving interaction of the nervous system with the world, not (just) something that is lighting up inside our neural nets.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I appreciate Noe's expansive view of the conditions of human experience, and his battle against simplistic reductionism. Materialist-minded neuroscientists, like many specialists, overstate the significance of their own research, and in a psychiatric context can do more harm than good.

But Noe's single-minded focus on the role of active engagement in everyday-life phenomenology leads him to overstate his own case.

It isn't clear, for example, why an organism's active engagement with its environment, a precondition for normal perception, should count toward a definitive account of "consciousness", while model-building neural activity in the brain shouldn't, unless you're simply assuming about consciousness what you wish to prove, i.e., that it isn't in any way its neurological correlates.

Noe also goes too far in his insistence on environmental engagement as a necessary precondition for consciousness. One of his own examples - patients with locked-in syndrome - brings this out. While Noe uses such cases of radical immobility to argue for the unreliability of brain scans, such cases also clearly illustrate consciousness can exist in a state approaching that of a brain in a vat. (It's not much of stretch to imagine the body functions that support the brain in such tragic cases being replaced with artificial supports, presumably with the patient continuing to remain aware despite no outward sign of consciousness.)

The brain is far from the whole story of consciousness, which can be studied from multiple historical, biological and humanist perspectives, all of which shed light on its development and nature. But Noe's insistence that consciousness requires present active engagement with the world is either an overstatement or a re-definition by fiat.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Noë sets out with great energy to convince us that, "Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make," in fact, something we do actively in our dynamic interaction with the world around us. It is this fact that explains why it has proven so difficult to create an explanation of the neural basis of consciousness. In this he works on dismantling the view that is it the brain that produces images of our environment - the brain being the sole author of what is commonly thought a "grand illusion." We are treated to interesting, sometimes great discussions of the actual conclusions we can draw from PET scan and fMRI technology, remarkable studies on vision, e.g., seeing ferrets with eyes wired to the brain's hearing areas, Bach-y-Rita's sensory substitution approach to getting the blind to see, Noë's (and O'Regan's) own thoughts on the critical role of action in vision. There is a bold and rare take down or at least re-evaluation of the otherwise worshiped importance of Hubel and Wiesel's findings on various cell classes oriented to different "features" of the world - a foundation of the idea that the brain is constructing the world from elementary features. Add to this a great reval of the notion of special (FFA) cells for recognizing faces, a thought provoking set of considerations on the critical role of habit in learning, skill and thought, and a nice trashing of the concept that the brain is simply creating a virtual reality.

All told, this is a very worthwhile read. Its prime weakness is yet in its main thesis. The character of our experience (visual, or auditory, or kinaesthetic...) it is argued (and strongly so), is not a function of the intrinsic character of the sensory stimulation (i.e.
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