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I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self Reprint Edition
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What is it about neuroscience that graces its practitioners with humility? Rodolfo Llinas of the NYU School of Medicine continues this tradition of quietly tackling the deepest issues in I of the Vortex. This exposition on the evolution and development of consciousness is accessible and intriguing enough to interest readers more philosophically than scientifically oriented. Grounded in research, the book posits our awareness as an artifact of the cortico-thalamic binding of perceptions and movements in synchrony; Llinas uses this theory as a launching pad for more far-reaching considerations of selfhood all the more relevant for their correlation with the facts.
Charmingly illustrated with artistic and scientific images cleverly supporting the arguments, the book is a quick if challenging read, and it explains all the scientific basics for those approaching from the humanities. Synthesizing evolution, philosophy, and neuroscience is becoming an increasingly popular endeavor for introspective eggheads, and we should be grateful: the question of consciousness affects us all and touches on every other field, from theology to particle physics. I of the Vortex is a welcome contribution to the theory of mind and essential reading for the introspective. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Anyone interested in new ways of thinking about organization of the brain would do well to give it a look.(Ilya Farber Nature)
I of the Vortex is an exciting book, full of imagination, fit for the well-educated lay reader.(Edgar Garcia-Rill Forum)
Rodolfo Llinas...offers this compelling synthesis of neurology, from the function of the neuron to the workings of the mind.(Science Books & Films)
Using a lively, discursive writing style, Llinas argues that the self is the center of prediction and arises in the motor systems of the brain. A myriad of neuroscience and comparative physiology facts support the fascinating and provocative hypothesis of this book.(J. Allan Hobson, Director, Laboratory of Neurophysiology, Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Harvard Medical School)
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For me the book was remarkable for its honest, rigorous approach--Llnas does not shrug away the qualia problem--he does not claim (like many others) to have an explanation for it. Nonetheless, his thoughts on how the brain may be creating a framework within which the solution to the qualia problem lies, is, to put it in one word, remarkable! Just the chapter on qualia was for me, worth the price of admittance.
The other remarkable thing about this book is how Llias idea of consciousness (centralization of voluntary motoricity) does not just give us the evolutionary reason why it arose (to a computer scientist like me, standard explanations for the evolutionary benefits of consciousness just do not cut it, I do believe a non-conscious entity can, in theory, do all that humans do and more!). Also, this centralization of voluntary motoricity matches with uncanny exactness, the state of "pure consciousness" described in ancient literature such as the Vedanta's Mandukya Upanishad.
It is a pity this book (and Dr. Llinas) haven't attained the "rock star" status that other lesser neuroscientists seem to have reached--I accidentally stumbled on his book, and I thank my stars that I read it!
Llinas' theory of consciousness is derived from the evolutionary need for simplification of complex systems. Based on the neurological wiring of an organism, and indeed the human body, there are an unbelievable amount of actions any such creature could take at a given moment based on its surrounding environment. To simplify decision making, Llinas posits that the brain uses consciousness as the tool for prediction, modulating both learned and hard wired behaviors known as fixed action patterns. This consciousness feature stems from an acute awareness of the self as it relates to its environment and this is driven neurologically by the formation of thalamocortical resonance, which the author later goes on to describe in detail.
Overall, the work was worth the read. Its ramifications on why we think the way we do pull a great deal from our evolutionary history, and it makes one realize just how much we share in common with the neurology of other species (though evolutionary refinement has gifted humanity with more complex wiring capable of speech, among other things). At the same time, the writing style is very technical through the whole of the book. While this is to be expected, and Llinas does try to bring in stories and anecdotal accounts to attempt to make some of the technical passages more accessible, the style choice prescribes one to take it slow, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Breakdown of some of the major sections of the work:
Setting Mind to Mind
Two different views of how the brain works in regards to sensory information from its surrounding environment. The first, proposed by William James in 1890, says that outside information from the senses serves to itself induce actions in the organism. Llinas explains that "from this perspective, the brain is essentially a complex input/output system". Therefore, movement and action decisions do not exist outside of the context of an external cue. The opposing hypothesis, originating from Graham Brown in 1911, was that these neural systems were self-dependent and could operate outside of environmental influences. Llinas believes that the latter hypothesis is more on cue to how the brain operates, and builds off of this by introducing the internal image of the self and its use in relating to the outside world.
Lessons from the Evolution of the Eye
This chapter is somewhat like an introduction to evolution and how it can make significant changes to the development of organs, using the example of the development of the eye from a patch of light sensitive cells to the complex sensory machine it is today. Here, Llinas is basically explaining that evolution has no real end goal, constantly existing in a changing state. The human eye is simply one milestone in this long process, comparing its evolution to making a marble - gradual changes in the "tumbling" process create something near perfection. Overall, you may or may not find this chapter useful depending on how much you know about evolutionary biology as it mainly serves to review the topic.
The I of the Vortex
This chapter in the middle of the book gets to the meat of Llinas' theory. It proposes that the fundamental unit of conscious thought and the internal image of the self lies in the thalamocortical loop. Oscillation at 40 Hz of thalamic neurons exists in resonance with neurons of various parts of the cortex as determined by experiments involving stimulation of cortical and thalamic regions of guinea pigs (Llinas' own work). This 40 Hz oscillation is known as the gamma wave, and is seen coherently across much of the brain during wakefulness and REM sleep. Llinas shows that this cortical loop exists independently of outside sensory information, as during REM sleep, auditory stimulation has seemingly no effect on the gamma wave patterns, contrary to how sound changes this electrical activity while awake. My one complaint about this section is the lack of detail on just how sensory input is integrated into this system. Since sensory information serves to modulate the underlying thought processes of the brain as mentioned by the author, it seems like explaining how the specific nuclei of the thalamus could integrate these inputs into the already existing approximation external reality would have been helpful.
Fixed Action Patterns
FAPs are discrete sets of motor activity that group contractions of multiple muscle groups into a single coherent action. Llinas explains that these sets of "stereotypical" actions are essential to efficient movement. FAPs originate in the basal ganglia. The song of a robin is an example of a fixed action pattern that is embedded genetically. All FAPs are modifiable, the songs being no exception. I thought it was quite interesting that female robins, while not normally capable of song (normally being the ones sung to), can spontaneously sing if supplemented with the male hormone testosterone. This occurs even to birds raised in a lab that have never heard a male's song before, suggesting that this fixed action pattern is indeed a hardwired, genetic behavior and that there are some FAPs in our own brains that may be left over and sitting around unused.
Emotions as FAPs
Discusses the hypothalamus and amygdala, and how these regions of the brain contribute to emotional involvement in fixed action patterns. Llinas explains that FAPs emitted by the basal ganglia are normally in a state of inhibition lest they inappropriately fire (as is the case in Tourette's syndrome). Emotions then are the driving force that uninhibit specific FAPs in response to an outside stimulus (e.g. see lion, become afraid, execute running and avoidance FAPs).
The Collective Mind?
"At least in theory, the Web is a nervous system-like structure in that its functioning seems to be solving, to a certain extent, society's binding problem." Llinas looks here at the development of the Internet and its potential to be another form of consciousness. He explains that its communication modality resembles the speed and bidirectionality seen in the brain, but at the same time it currently falls short of being capable of thought. This chapter was an interesting look into how consciousness may not be dependent on biology and can arise from other systems. Llinas seems to conclude that computers would need similar machinery to explore and manipulate the external world among other things in order to be successful thinkers. I think this chapter was an insightful application of his theories to our electronic world, but as the conclusion of the book I felt there was a missed opportunity here to reiterate more of the main tenants of his book and really drive home his ideas.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to someone with a budding interesting in neuroscience. While Llinas' peer-reviewed work is understandably quite technical and difficult to dive straight into, he does a very good job here in the book of introducing and building off of the basics of neuroscience for the reader so those with a more general scientific/biology background shouldn't have too much trouble breaking into the work. I think if you are curious about how consciousness might be derived from the underlying neuronal activity of the brain, and how complex circuits come together to create this image or approximation of the self in the environment, the completeness in its treatment of most all aspects of Llinas' theory makes the book a fantastic place to start.
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