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A Universe Of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination Hardcover – March 15, 2000
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Emily Dickinson wrote "The Brain--is wider than the Sky," and who can argue with that? Quoted by Nobel-winning scientist Gerald M. Edelman and his Neurosciences Institute colleague Giulio Tononi in A Universe of Consciousness, Miss Emily neatly explains the problem of conscious awareness, then ducks out of the way as the two scientists get to work solving it. Testable theories of consciousness are mighty lonely, as even the soberest mind can be driven to tears of madness pondering its own activity. Centuries of work by philosophers and psychologists like James and Freud have made little progress by starting with awareness and working backward to the brain; these days we have a secure enough base to try looking in the other direction and building a theory of the mind out of neurons.
Though Edelman and Tononi do make a good effort to help out the lay reader, ultimately A Universe of Consciousness is aimed at the interdisciplinary gang of scientists and academics trying to understand our shared but invisible experience. The first sections of the book cover the basic philosophical, psychological, and biological elements essential to their theory. Swiftly the authors proceed to define terms and concepts (even the long-abused term complexity gets a reappraisal) and elaborate on these to create a robust, testable theory of the neural basis of consciousness. Following this hard work, they consider some ramifications of the theory and take a close look at language and thinking. This much-needed jump-start is sure to provoke a flurry of experimental and theoretical responses; A Universe of Consciousness might just help us answer some of the greatest questions of science, philosophy, and even poetry. --Rob Lightner
From Scientific American
A woman senses that a room is light or dark and is aware that she has done so. A photocell senses the same thing without awareness. The difference is consciousness--something everyone recognizes but no one can fully explain. Edelman (director of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego) and Tononi (a senior fellow there) propose what they call the dynamic core hypothesis to explain the neural basis of conscious experience. "This hypothesis states that the activity of a group of neurons can contribute directly to conscious experience if it is part of a functional cluster, characterized by strong mutual interactions among a set of neuronal groups over a period of hundreds of milliseconds." They call such a cluster the dynamic core because of "its ever-changing composition yet ongoing integration." In telling their tale, the authors describe brain structure and function, review earlier efforts to explain consciousness and come to a discussion of higher-order consciousness--the kind that humans have. "Our position has been that higher-order consciousness, which includes the ability to be conscious of being conscious, is dependent on the emergence of semantic capabilities and, ultimately, of language. Concomitant with these traits is the emergence of a true self, born of social interactions, along with concepts of the past and future."
EDITORS OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
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Edelman and Tononi propose an extraordinary insight in saying that conscious perception is not 'perceiving' something out there, but the re-arising of stored memories (information) that have been and are being correlated and reinforced by neurological exchange and `reentry' between various informational nodes! Our present conscious experiencing is a remembered series of previous perceptions - a "remembered present" - its meaning and significance created by reinforced neurological tracks or 'value' development.
The first half of the "A Universe..." reviews much of the present scientific understanding of the workings of the brain as a dynamic series of structures, detailing how they work in themselves and how neurons communicate in their unique ways both within and between structures. The second half of the book explores the significance and implications of the informational interacting of those structures and how that very activity contributes to the development of a `dynamic (informational) core'. The brain, as an integrated informational mechanism, itself, creates that which it is aware of!
Giulio Tononi also has another extraordinary book just published, "Phi - A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul". It is a brilliant presentation of a journey through the workings of the brain that one explores along with a Dantesque Galileo, discovering how consciousness can arise through the integration of information that occurs as the dynamic functioning of the brain and not as a product of the physical brain itself.
For anyone who wishes to engage in the challenge of closely re-examining the nature of our very experienceing, I cannot recommend "A Universe of Consciousness" and "Phi" enough. These works explicate a significant scientific paradigm shift. A must read!
-The main purpose of "Universe" is approaching the problem of how objectively describable events ("the external and internal world") produces private subjective experience. Many have attempted this but only recently have we been able to scientifically probe it (although our understanding still reflects the insights of the Greeks and other capable philosophers). The authors give us some unique suggestions for current understanding and integrating further developments. "Universe" builds a foundation of basic neural activity, discusses how computer modeling can offer hints to the working of the human mind although they cannot explain or duplicate it, discusses how conscious and unconscious neural activity may be integrated and differentiated, and suggests how neural activity self-selects (the authors expand upon an earlier thesis that Darwin's evolution is a far better foundation than directly psychological abstractions like Freud's). "Universe" humbly recognizes the incomprehensible vastness of the human mind (the authors call it "hyperastronomical"), and how unlikely it is that we will ever completely describe it except in a trivial sense. The authors suggest we are far better off conceiving of the mind and Consciousness as an incredibly dynamic Event rather than something static (Heraclitus was too kind -- we cannot even have the same thought once, let alone twice). The authors seem to make a major descriptive contribution by insights into the Dynamic Core Hypothesis ( a highly differentiated, anatomically clustered, complex, and self-coordinating functioning of neuronal groups) and re-entry (a continuous reciprocal signalling, roughly similar to a coordinated and massively dynamic feedback type system, which can integrate anatomically segregated areas of the brain without demanding a central "man-in-the-box" coordination area). The authors' discussion of Qualia (the quality and intensity of private subjective experience) seems to reflect our continued inability to describe these phenomena as accurately as we would like.
-"Universe" can be as challenging as you want it to be, and it is an interesting and thoughtful study of consciousness from leading and respected scientists. The notes and Bibliography are excellent, and the authors wisely uses space to develop his ideas, rather than give an overview of everyone else's. The authors admit this is not some kind of final theory of consciousness, but it seems a reasonable description of some of the issues and foundations for consciousness. It is like setting out on an expedition with a basically accurate but incomplete map, which can be changed and filled in along the way, rather than relying on guesswork or hearsay.
As a suggestion to help you enjoy this book, I found it greatly helped to set aside a few minutes to scan each chapter before reading it, which helped appreciate the continuity of the arguments. I also found a neuroanatomy atlas (such as Nolte) useful.