Reflection 54: Books about Consciousness

January 23, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The human mind comes to us in a plain wrapper without a users’ manual or even a Help button. Well-meaning others try to show us how it works, yet it takes a lifetime of experiential trial and error to figure out how to use even its most basic routines effectively. And on our deathbeds, many of us will regret we didn’t do more with it when we had the chance.

 

Which need not be the case any longer. Brain science is a booming industry, with research reports issued daily. Even 25 years ago, I had access to a journal on brain research that was issued every week in a volume half-an-inch thick. Which meant that knowledge about consciousness and the mind was beginning to spread among scientists trained to speak the specialized language of neuroscience. Popular books followed in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Now the presses hardly stop rolling between books about the mind written in (more or less) everyday English.

 

Terminology about the brain can be daunting at first encounter, but after the reader becomes familiar with the brainstem, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, motor areas, primary sensory processing areas, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, neurons, and neurotransmitters, along with other parts of the brain—that is after you get acquainted with the workings of your own mind—you find it is fascinating stuff and begin to catch on.

 

My blog is intended as a bridge between the technical literature and those who take using their minds seriously because they want to improve the richness of their experience and enjoyment of their own mental processes. To make headway in such endeavors, it is always best to touch base with the professionals responsible for our current understanding of mind and brain.

 

Visiting books on the mind and its brain is like taking a trip to a foreign land: you’ve got to learn new routes and place names, and pick up enough phrases to get by. If you want to do it thoroughly, it’s like learning a new language. If you just want the two-week tour, you can get along with a lesser commitment.

 

So here are a few suggestions about books you might want to read or delve into. They range from popular treatments to technical reference books, with a middle level of serious books about aspects of neuroscience, including, especially, consciousness. To different degrees, all are challenging, but that is always the price we must pay if we want to improve our understanding of ourselves and our world.

 

Caveat: This is by no means a complete list. These are books I have read, marked up, and am personally acquainted with. I welcome suggestions of other books to add to these few.

 

 

Popular Books About Mind and Brain

 

Carter, Rita. Mapping the Mind. University of California Press, 1999, 224 pages. Carter, a medical journalist, has produced a smart, coffee-table book about the mind, with, as you’d expect, glossy illustrations. The book is written from the popular angle of what people are likely to be interested in (an approach that sells books) rather than what scientists have to say about mind and brain. This is a good conversation piece, the kind of book I enjoy leafing through back to front.

 

Doidge, Norman, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Viking, 2007, 427 pages. Doidge deals with the practical application of neuroscience to the lives of people with real problems. His book puts you on the forefront of human understanding right away, as seen through the eyes of selected beneficiaries of modern research. If you want to test the waters, this might be a good place to start.

 

Jourdain, Robert, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. Harper Collins, 1997, 377 pages. (Added to list March 6, 2009.) Where Daniel Levitin (see below) draws examples from jazz and popular music, Robert Jourdain works more within a classical frame of reference. A science writer, he is also a composer himself, and plays piano. Living in the two worlds of science and music, he is highly skilled and motivated in building bridges between the two. This book takes as much concentration as playing the violin; the understanding it provides is well worth the trouble. I am no musician but found this book fascinating because of the insights it provides on both ends of the bridge.

 

Lehrer, Jonah, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 242 pages. This book deals not so much with the brain as with discovery, which is about bringing new information into consciousness. Lehrer contrasts the methods of artists and scientists, showing through specific examples how artists opened up new territory, and scientists subsequently fleshed out the details.

 

Levitin, Daniel, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume/Penguin, 2006, 322 pages. (Added to list Jan. 31, 2009.) I am neither a musician nor a scientist, but I love this book because of the insights it provides into one of humanity’s most compelling—and revealing—passions. You will learn a great deal about music, why you like it, and about the role it plays in your innermost being. Christof Koch (below) informs us about the visual brain; Daniel Levitin does something similar for the auditory brain (as does Robert Jourdain, see above).

 

Luria, A. R., The Mind of a Mnemonist. Translated from the Russian by Lynn Solataroff. Foreword by Jerome S. Bruner. Harvard University Press, 1968, 160 pages. This is the tale of a memory artist who could recall vast quantities of information with ease, and retain it for the rest of his life. Which might not appear to be a problem until you realize how cluttered his mind became because he had scant ability to generalize that information in the form of concepts requiring less storage space. Luria is one of the pioneers of research into the mind.

 

Ramachandran, V.S., and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. Harper, Perennial, HarperCollins, 1998, 328 pages. This book of adventures is as exciting as those of Mr. Holmes. Not about crime, it is about disclosing the hidden and often surprising organization of the brain. This is as entertaining as learning can get.

 

 

Introductory Books About Mind and Brain

 

Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt, A Harvest Book, 1999, 385 pages. This book explains in eloquent terms how consciousness extends the reach of the unconscious autonomic nervous system into the varied and unprecedented predicaments hominids got themselves into as they evolved into humans. It provides great insight into the workings of the mind.

 

Koch, Christof, The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Foreword by Francis Crick. Roberts and Company, 2004, 429 pages. Koch’s true quest is for visual consciousness, because that is the sensory modality he is most familiar with. If he hadn’t limited his topic, the book would have been three times as long. As it is, it’s a wonderful book, showing not only how the visual mind works (which we are all interested in), but how scientists have figured that out.

 

Konner, Melvin, The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. Henry Holt, A Holt Paperback, 2002, 540 pages. This book has more information per page than most books you will read, all presented with a poetic flair. If you are versed in genetics, physiology, neuroscience, and philosophy, the words will flow into your mind. If you are not a polymath, you’re in for rough sledding through beautiful terrain.

 

LeDoux, Joseph, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. Simon and Schuster Paperback, 1996, 384 pages. LeDoux writes clearly about research into the brain without getting overly-technical. He truly wants to find out what is going on during the experience of emotions, and uses a variety of avenues to reach that understanding. He focuses on fear and anxiety because that has been his research specialty. He has a way of making the reader feel she is on the leading edge of getting to know the emotional centers of the brain and how they work.

 

LeDoux, Joseph, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Viking, 2002, 406 pages. The wiring of the brain is just a metaphor; LeDoux takes the reader beyond art to an actual understanding of how neural connections are made, what they accomplish, and why they are significant to you and me. On the way, you learn a great deal about how thoughts can make things happen through the agency of consciousness.

 

 

Technical Reference Books on Neuroscience

 

Gazzaniga, Michael S., Editor-in-Chief, The New Cognitive Neurosciences. The MIT Press, 2000, 1419 pages. Here displayed in full view is the broad array of modern research on the brain written by those in the know—the researchers themselves. This book is more for scientists than laypersons. But because everything is laid out in detail in one place, this is my favorite among the books listed here. A great book for browsing, I regard it as an explore-it-yourself book on any aspect of consciousness.

 

Kandel, Eric R., James H. Schwartz, and Thomas M. Jessell, Editors, Principles of Neural Science. McGraw-Hill, 2000, 1414 pages. College texts have come a long way since I was in school. This book excels in its organization, clear illustrations, and concise text. If I could redo my education, this is where I would start. This tome is more about the underpinnings of consciousness and behavior than about consciousness itself. In effect, it provides a prologue to the understanding of consciousness. It leads up to and ends on this note: “We are optimistic that future cognitive neural scientists will identify the neurons involved and characterize the mechanisms by which consciousness is produced.”

 

¦

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Reflection 54: Books about Consciousness”

  1. gene franck said

    I thought I would begin with something that seemingly
    could relate to me as an artist and person so I ordered
    Jonah Lehrer’s ” Proust Was a Neuroscientist” especially since
    his “Swans Way” has a permanent place on the shelve in my
    bedroom.

    Gene

  2. Steve Perrin said

    Good choice. Lehrer’s book is a collection of eight essays devoted to Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, and virginia Woolf. That’s a good spectrum of minds to begin with. Happy reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: