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Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness Paperback – May 10, 2005
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From Scientific American
When he was still a student, Richard Feynman hinted at a career to come as a scientific wonderer when he wrote: "I wonder why. I wonder why. / I wonder why I wonder / I wonder why I wonder why / I wonder why I wonder!" Such wondering, and meta-wondering, takes us to the heart of what geneticist-cum-neuroscientist Francis Crick (who would know) calls "the major unsolved problem in biology"--explaining how billions of neurons swapping chemicals give rise to such subjective experiences as consciousness, self-awareness, and awareness that others are conscious and self-aware. The body of literature attempting to solve this problem is extensive, and getting one's mind around the field is a herculean task successfully executed by psychologist Susan Blackmore in her delightful introduction, Consciousness. Presented as a textbook, it is so highly engaging that I recommend it for general readers, too. In many ways, the book is structured like a brain, with loads of independent modules (boxes and sidebars featuring profiles, concepts and activities) tied together by a flowing narrative and integrated into a conceptual whole. The easy problem, Blackmore says, is explaining each of the functional parts of the brain, such as "the discrimination of stimuli, focusing of attention, accessing and reporting mental states, deliberate control of behavior, or differences between waking and sleep." In contrast, the hard problem in consciousness studies "is experience: what it is like to be an organism, or to be in a given mental state." Adding up all of the solved easy problems does not equal a solution to the hard problem. Something else is going on in private subjective experiences--called qualia--and there is no consensus on what it is. Dualists hold that qualia are separate from physical objects in the world and that mind is more than brain. Materialists contend that qualia are ultimately explicable through the activities of neurons and that mind and brain are one. Blackmore, uniquely qualified to assess all comers (she sports multihued hair, is a devotee of meditation, and studies altered states of consciousness), allows the myriad theorists to make their case (including her own meme-centered theory) so that you can be the judge. Making a strong case for the materialist position is Gerald M. Edelman's latest contribution, Wider Than the Sky, offered as a "concise and understandable" explanation of consciousness "to the general reader." Concise it is, but as for understandable, Edelman understates: "It will certainly require a concentrated effort on the part of the reader." As director of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif., a Nobel laureate and author of several books on consciousness (Neural Darwinism, The Remembered Present and Bright Air, Brilliant Fire), Edelman has impeccable credentials. But science writing for a general audience involves more than expunging scholarly references and providing a glossary of technical terms as a substitute for clear exposition. To wit, on memory Edelman writes that "it is more fruitfully looked on as a property of degenerate nonlinear interactions in a multidimensional network of neuronal groups." Such prose is common throughout the book, which is a shame because Edelman is a luminously entertaining conversationalist, and his theory that the brain develops in a Darwinian fashion of neuronal variation and selection, and that consciousness is an emergent property of increasingly complex and integrated neuronal groups, has considerable support from neuroscience research. An ideal combination of exquisite prose and rigorous science can be found in California Institute of Technology neuroscientist Christof Koch's The Quest for Consciousness. A rock climber adorned with a tattoo of the Apple Computer logo on his arm, Koch takes an unabashed neurobiological approach, the natural extension of what his longtime collaborator Francis Crick started in 1994 when he wrote in The Astonishing Hypothesis "that 'you,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." To me, the most astonishing aspect of this theory is that it is astonishing to anyone. Where else could the mind be but in the brain? Nevertheless, finding the neuronal correlates of consciousness (NCC) has proved elusive, so instead of concocting a grand unified theory, Koch and Crick undertook a very specific research program focusing on the visual system, to understand precisely how photons of light striking your retina become fully integrated visual experiences. Koch and his colleagues, for example, discovered a single neuron that fires only when the subject sees an image of President Bill Clinton. If this neuron died, would Clinton be impeached from the brain? No, because the visual representation of Clinton is distributed throughout several areas of the brain, in a hierarchical fashion, eventually branching down to this single neuron. The visual coding of any face involves several groups of neurons--one to identify the face, another to read its expression, a third to track its motion, and so on. This hierarchy of data processing allows the brain to economize neural activity through the use of combinatorics: "Assume that two face neurons responded either not at all or by firing vigorously. Between them, they could represent four faces (one face is encoded by both cells not firing, the second one by firing activity in one and silence in the other, and so on). Ten neurons could encode 210, or about a thousand faces.... It has been calculated that less than one hundred neurons are sufficient to distinguish one out of thousands of faces in a robust manner. Considering that there are around 100,000 cells below a square millimeter of cortex, the potential representational capacity of any one cortical region is enormous." Given that the brain has about 100 billion neurons, consciousness is most likely an emergent property of these hierarchical and combinatoric neuronal connections. How, precisely, the NCC produce qualia remains to be explained, but Koch's scientific approach, in my opinion, is the only one that will solve the hard problem.
Michael Shermer writes the Skeptic column for Scientific American and is publisher of Skeptic and author of The Science of Good and Evil (Henry Holt and Company, 2004). --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New England Journal of Medicine
"Consciousness is the guarantor of all we hold to be human and precious. Its permanent loss is considered equivalent to death, even if the body persists in its vital signs." It is with this allusion to the permanent vegetative state that Gerald Edelman opens his latest book, Wider Than the Sky. Edelman aims to answer the question of how the firing of our neurons gives rise to conscious, subjective experiences -- or, as philosophers call it, "qualia." He hopes "to disenthrall those who believe the subject is exclusively metaphysical or necessarily mysterious." The title of the book comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson: "The Brain -- is wider than the Sky -- / For -- put them side by side -- / The one the other will contain" (circa 1862). Having laid the groundwork in his critically acclaimed books Neural Darwinism (1987), Topobiology (1988), Remembered Present (1990), Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992), and A Universe of Consciousness (2000, written with Giulio Tononi), Edelman here elegantly summarizes his thinking on consciousness. This is, as he calls it himself, a small book, but reading it requires a concentrated effort. Edelman sees his work as a completion of Charles Darwin's in the sense that he views consciousness as a product of evolution, and he cites the idea from Darwin's notebook (1838) that "he who understands baboon will do more toward metaphysics than Locke." Edelman emphasizes that a brain-based explanation of consciousness cannot and need not offer an "explanation that replicates or creates any particular conscious experience," in the same way that a theory that explains how a hurricane arises cannot create the experience of a hurricane or even get one wet "by description." For Edelman, a biologic theory of consciousness must rest on a global theory of the brain (a reference to Bernard Baars's Global Workspace Theory) and must strictly obey the principles of physics: "no spooky forces that contravene thermodynamics." He makes the distinction between primary and higher-order consciousness. Primary consciousness relates to being mentally aware of a scene, in what Edelman has coined the "remembered present" (a reference to William James's "specious present"). This could be compared to the form of consciousness associated with rapid-eye-movement sleep. Primary consciousness would have evolved as our species did (it remains unclear when), because it increased the chances of survival. According to Edelman, animals with primary consciousness experience qualia but are not conscious of being conscious. Only humans and, "to some minimal degree," higher primates would have a higher-order consciousness that permits them to have a social concept of the self and concepts of the past and the future. Higher consciousness in its most developed form, Edelman thinks, requires the acquisition of language. Edelman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his studies on the structure and diversity of antibodies (which established that the immune system works according to Darwinian principles), once again applies the theory of natural selection to his own theory of neuronal group selection, which he first proposed in 1978. Key to this hypothesis is the proposal that "reentry" is a central organizing principle that governs the functioning of our brains: the dynamic recursive signaling ("reentry") within the thalamocortical system (the "dynamic core") would give rise to our conscious perceptions. These core states change within hundreds of milliseconds as different circuits are activated by stimuli within our environment, our bodies, and our brains. Only some of these states are stable and thus become integrated, giving rise to the unitary property of consciousness. Similarly, memory is considered nonrepresentational and necessarily associative as a result of the interactions among massively degenerate networks. Edelman thinks that computer or machine models of consciousness will not work and that much of cognitive psychology is ill founded, since there are no functional states that can be uniquely equated with defined or coded computational states in individual brains and no processes that can be equated with the execution of algorithms. "A genuine glimpse into what consciousness is would be the scientific achievement, before which all past achievements would pale. But at present, psychology is in the condition of physics before Galileo," wrote William James in 1899. Edelman's hypotheses, even if they are still far from solving all of the detailed mechanistic problems related to the local operations of networks in the brain, give us such a glimpse. Together with the writings of other pioneers such as Francis Crick, this book has the great merit of offering testable hypotheses to the ever-increasing number of "consciousnologists." Steven Laureys, M.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2005 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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First, it is often difficult to grasp the forest for the trees. There are, for example, lots of really interesting, isolated, insights throughout the book. For example, Edelman argues that the brain is not like a computer partly because the inputs to the brain from the environment are not unambiguous (35). The brain has to constructively and creatively respond to the environment and the constructions or distinctions that survive are those that are selected based on pressures from the value systems (if I am understanding Edelman correctly). This means that there is a lot of room for individual variation, and it means that the brain is far more creative in its relation to the world than the computer model would suggest. Those are really interesting ideas. The problem is: I do not think Edelman does enough to connect them to his overall model of consciousness. Actually, I should say, he does not explain those connections clearly enough to be fully intelligible to the layperson.
Second, it is often difficult to grasp the trees for the forest. For example, I believe Edelman's primary thesis is that consciousness arises from the interactions between the thalamocortical system, the basal ganglia system, and the value systems. It is possible for the attentive reader to get that much, but Edelman does not, in my opinion, do a good enough job describing or explaining the details of how those three systems function, to allow the layperson to get a clear idea of how their interaction gives rise to consciousness. The value systems, for example, certainly play a huge role in Edelman's theory of consciousness, but he does not adequately explain what they are, and in the glossary that he provides the value systems are defined as "The constraining elements in a selectional system consisting in the brain of diffuse ascending systems such as the dopaminergic system, the cholinergic system, and the noradrenergic system" (180). All that the reader can gather from that definition is, 1) that the value systems are in some way the constraining elements in Edelman's neural darwinism (something like fitness) and 2) a list of the systems. It is difficult to get a really clear understanding of how they actually contribute to producing consciousness.
Now, I should admit that I am a layperson in the field of neuroscience. Philosophy is my field but I have recently become very interested in the philosophy of mind and problems relating to the origins of consciousness. I will say that the determined reader will be more than capable of getting a lot of interesting insights out of Edelman's book. They will also, probably, have a vague sense of Edelman's overall theory of the origins of consciousness, but, if the reader is like me, they will find it difficult to really speak intelligently about Edelman's theory after reading this book, and they probably will not come away with a really solid understanding of Edelman's theory. I think the book should have been about twice as long, with a lot more diagrams, which would have allowed Edelman to walk through the details of his theory in a step by step fashion. Perhaps he does that in his other books. Overall, I would definitely recommend reading Edelman if you are interested in problems relating to consciousness, and, if you have a fairly strong background in neuroscience, this book will probably be a breeze. However, if you do not have a strong background be prepared to work, and be prepared to be a little bit frustrated. I was particularly frustrated because I felt like I understood Edelman well enough to know that he was talking about the issues that I am most interested in, but I did not understand him well enough to know precisely what he was saying about them. I will be trying Edelman again after I have read more on the brain and, perhaps, my opinion will change.
The book, appropriately, opens with a poem by Emily Dickinson which describes the brain as "wider than the Sky," "deeper than the sea," and "just the weight of God." In this way Dr. Edelman affirms that to explain consciousness is no easy task, but it is nonetheless the task which he undertakes, and he mostly succeeds. The most basic premise on which Dr. Edelman's theory rests is that consciousness can be explained via scientific inquiry. He attempts to answer the question: "How can the firing of neurons give rise to subjective sensations, thoughts, and emotions?" The answer is framed for the lay reader, although at times the prose becomes dense and reads more like scholarly article than a book for a general audience. Still, the contents of the book are interesting enough to encourage the reader to push past the dense portions. The book provides an excellent overview of brain anatomy related to consciousness, connection and communication between different parts of the brain, the causality between the nervous system and consciousness, and the neurological differences between non-conscious activities and consciousness.
In the first brief chapter of the book, Dr. Edelman defines what he means by "consciousness" by outlining some of the key properties which his theory attempts to explain, such as that it is continuous, continually changing, not exhaustive, and integrative. Dr. Edelman also explains that consciousness as a process is the "dynamic accomplishment of the distributed activities of neurons in many different areas of the brain." This quote, indeed, is a very neat summary of his view and is representative of his writing style.
The first section of the book consists of a brief lesson on the anatomy of the brain focusing primarily on the thalamus, cortex, brain stem, basal ganglia and the various interactions between these regions. Special attention is focused on re-entrant pathways between the thalamus and cortex as Dr. Edelman asserts that it was the development of these connections that allowed the development of consciousness by allowing organisms to integrate present inputs from the environment with memory (neuronal memory) of past events and link the two via categorization. Additionally, Dr. Edelman explains Neural Darwinism (more specifically the theory of neuronal group selection, TNGS) which essentially states that due to the extreme variation in brain chemistry and pathways, a path must be selected, and the paths that are selected are based on value-systems from the brain stem. Essentially, neuronal or genetic memories of what is good and bad for the organism drive the selection of pathways via re-entrant pathways connecting the thalamus to the cortex. Thus, consciousness results from this never-ending selection of pathways at each instant in time driven by value-systems from the anterior brain. Dr. Edelman systematically explains this concept by linking the functions of the above-mentioned brain systems to Dr. Edelman's Theory of Neuronal Group Selection.
While most of the book focuses on primary consciousness and a thorough explanation thereof, the latter part is dedicated to explaining higher order consciousness. According to Dr. Edelman, "primary consciousness is the state of being mentally aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present." Conversely, higher order consciousness is "the ability to be conscious of being conscious, and it allows the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts and affections." Thus, only an organism with higher order consciousness has a concept of past and future and can plan accordingly. Dr. Edelman asserts that only humans and some higher primates (to a lesser degree) have higher order consciousness. Rather than really explaining a neurological basis for higher order consciousness, Dr. Edelman just states that like primary consciousness, it was evolved. He also hypothesizes that higher order consciousness probably stems from the ability to formulate language and develop a semantic system. Instead of delving into the highly interesting topics of identity and the mind-body problem as implied by the titles of his last two chapters, Dr. Edelman seems to avoid the titles of these chapters and really just summarizes his theory of consciousness.
Overall, Dr. Edelman accomplishes his goal of concisely and clearly explaining his theory of consciousness. However, it must be noted that some of the language in the book would be difficult for someone not accustomed to reading some scientific academic literature. Additionally, it can be vexing that Dr. Edelman does not seem to like recognizing other researchers' work within his text. Even his bibliography seems quite short given the range of information he covers. He seems to pose his theories and hypotheses as facts and does not recognize other biologically based theories of consciousness, which do exist. Additionally, he does not really address criticism of his theory. Still, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for an interesting and overall enjoyable account of a brilliant scientist's theory of one of the most interesting topics in philosophy, psychology, and now neurology.
consciousness, right up there A. Damasio's, T. Deacon's, & others , who've done serious
investigative work on the ultimate frontier: how the self, consciousness & related areas
evolve. As important, "Wider than the sky..." is generally reader friendly, tho' in some
parts focused attention is required to follow lines of reasoning & illustrations. Well worth
the reader's time in understanding the above subject area.
This is how Edelman begins chapter 10, but I believe it is a good quote to sum up the positive and negative aspects of this book in general.
I read and enjoyed his book. Parts were difficult and took a couple of reads. The difficult spots were usually cleared up by a rereading though and didn't diminish from a sense of hearing what he had to say and getting an impression of his view of consciousness.