(Copyright © 2009)

Gerald M. Edelman gives us fresh ways of looking at, talking about, understanding, and appreciating both consciousness and its brain. The importance of these contributions cannot be overestimated. Nor can the difficulty of gaining access to them through his writings. It helps if you have advanced degrees in molecular, cellular, and neural biology. It’s not that he doesn’t write well, it’s more that his radical concepts are couched in so unfamiliar a vocabulary as to require a great many encounters in different contexts before their meanings begin to accrete in solid understanding. He includes glossaries in several of his books, but the entries are so bare-boned that they often raise more questions than they answer.

I tried the total-immersion approach, reading seven books in succession (in order of copyright date, 1978 to 2004), hoping that enlightenment would eventually descend from the skies. Which, in the last three works, by dribs and drabs, it began to. It showed up first in unconscious intuitions I became aware of after waking from a sound sleep. I am not sure how they got into me, but there they’d be at three in the morning as I roused from a bout of REM dreaming. I’d understand things I hadn’t grasped before going to bed. Understand is not the right word. More I’d have a feel for an aspect of consciousness I’d never fully appreciated before. By the end of the eighth book, I could entertain elaborate thoughts and images pertaining to consciousness—again, early in the morning—that previously would have been beyond me, or over my head. I credit Edelman as the source of these new ways of apprehending my own mind, and myself for having the will to stay with his challenging program of thinking out loud in a series of books until he got it right in the seventh one.

I am now in the awkward position of learning from my self-imposed program of study, while not being able to recommend a similar course to anyone else because so much depends on the will, stamina, and hunger of the student. It takes a committed autodidact (self-directed learner) to follow Edelman as closely as he deserves. He is clearly an autodidact himself, and to paraphrase the familiar saying, it takes one to fully appreciate another. As perpetual learners, autodidacts typically lose interest in a program of study once they have absorbed or automatized it. They love grappling with novel aspects of consciousness, not mastery of the old and familiar. Self-respecting autodidacts never rest on their laurels. They are driven to reinvent themselves time and again throughout the course of their lives. Consider the career of William James at Harvard, first as physiologist, then psychologist, and finally as philosopher.

Which is similar to the history of Gerald M. Edelman, distinguished recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his work on the immune system. A molecular and cellular structuralist, he has contributed to the understanding of antibodies, proteins, plant mitogens, cell surfaces, and now the biology of human consciousness. His contributions in this last field center on his theory of neuronal group selection, which sheds light on the origins and workings of both the human nervous system and the mind it gives rise to in a manner consistent with Darwinian principles.

To put these remarks in perspective, I will digress somewhat in giving a brief history of my own self-directed learning. During high school, I read both Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma on my own for reasons I can no longer remember. Both books spoke to my age and stage of development at the time. In college I put Crime and Punishment down as the sun was rising over the view of Harlem out the window, knowing I had been through a transformative experience. Ten years later, I stumbled on Thoreau’s Walden, which I don’t remember anyone recommending to me, and I went on to read almost every word he wrote, including, eventually, the two-volume Dover Journals. I still consider myself a late-blooming nineteenth-century man. Visual poet E.E. Cummings brought me into the twentieth century.  Later, in grad school, I spent two semesters with Sigmund Koch in a seminar reading one book, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi. That was the most gripping, challenging, and rewarding course I ever had in school. I took it as an elective, so the motivation was my own. Polanyi’s theme is learning to tell the difference between knowledge and opinion so that you know how you know what you think you know.

Now it’s Gerald M. Edelman who particularly speaks to my age and stage of development in spite of the near ineffability of much he is writing about. He came to his topic (consciousness) from intense study of the immune system, bringing his terminology with him, and when there are no suitable terms, inventing his own. Which makes it hard going for those heading from other directions. But all along the way I have sensed he was theorizing about my personal consciousness as well as his own, so I stuck with him.

Now I am reading an eighth Edelman book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006), which offers a summary of his theory of consciousness as a springboard to understanding human knowledge. The first four chapters offer an overview of his thinking on conscious-ness, leaving out details of the arduous, 28-year journey by which he derived it one step at a time. Here is how Edelman describes consciousness itself, the process he subsequently goes on to account for in theoretical terms:

In the awake conscious state, you experience a unitary scene composed variably of sensory responses—sight, sound, smell, and so on—as well as images, memories, feeling tones and emotions, a sense of willing or agency, a feeling of situatedness, and other aspects of awareness. Being conscious is a unitary experience in the sense that you cannot at any time become totally aware of just one thing to the complete exclusion of others. But you can direct your attention to various aspects of a less inclusive but still unitary scene. Within a short time, that scene will vary in one degree or another and, though still integrated, will become differentiated, yielding a new scene. The extraordinary fact is that the number of such privately experienced scenes is apparently limitless. The transitions seem to be conscious, and in their complete detail they are private, first-person subjective experiences (Second Nature, pages 13-14).

In the next sentence things get more complicated when he introduces the concept of intentionality: “Conscious states are often, but not always, about things or events, a property called intentionality” (page 14, my italics). And then goes on to summarize: “As human beings, we know what it is like to be conscious. Moreover, we are conscious of being conscious and can report on our experience” (page 14).

Which I think might lead some to oversimplify the nature of consciousness in that we frequently assume it is of some sort of world apart from ourselves, not recognizing it is the subjective doing of our own brains that underwrite the appearance in consciousness of any such world. To see something “with our own eyes” is no guarantee it actually happens as consciousness depicts it. Our minds are full of phantoms, vampires, ogres, aliens from other worlds, elves, Santas, and other characters we project onto the world as if they were not aspects of subjective consciousness and the bodies and brains which make it possible. It is a fundamental error to mistake phenomena in consciousness for the world as it is—for reality. The sounds of music and colors of art are in us, not the world, which in turn consists of sources, sinks, and patterns of energy that our brains and minds transform into the “objects and events” we are conscious of. It requires another indirect or imaginative transformation to locate them in an outer world.

It is good to remember that language and intentionality refer to concepts and appearances in consciousness, and these map onto the world very much as processes in the brain map onto consciousness. We live at least doubly removed from the so-called real world, so intentionality, in being “about things or events,” makes no claim that they actually exist in any other context than awareness itself. We know this from watching “movies” made from a succession of still images, and the many optical illusions and magic tricks that similarly “fool the eye.”

Which is my way of warning readers to beware of succinct distillations such as even Gerald Edelman might give of his work. When the unfamiliar terms crop up, as inevitably they must in writings about consciousness, we are asked to give the author the benefit of the doubt—particularly when the words flow easily and seem to make sense. Key terms in Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection include reentry, degeneracy, perceptual categorization, global mappings, dynamic core, phenomenal transform, qualia, among others.

Reentry [to take one example] is the ongoing recur-sive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feed-back, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it simulta-neously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (Wider than the Sky, 2004, pages 39-40).

As Edelman and Giulio Tononi detail “reentry” in an earlier work (A Universe of Consciousness, Basic Books, 2000):

Reentry plays the central role in our consciousness model, for it is reentry that assures the integration that is essential to the creation of a scene in primary consciousness. Integration can best be illustrated by considering exactly how functionally segregated maps in the cerebral cortex may operate coherently together even though there is no superordinate map or logically determined program. . . . The organi-zation of the cerebral cortex is such that even within a single modality, for example, vision, there is a multitude of specialized or functionally segregated maps devoted to different submodalities—color, movement, and form. Despite this diversity, we are aware of a coherent perceptual scene. When we see such a scene, we are not aware of colors, move-ments, and forms separately and independently, but bind the color with the shape and the movement into recognizable objects. Our ability to act coher-ently in the presence of diverse, often conflicting, sensory stimuli requires a process of neural inter-action across many levels of organization without any superordinate map to guide the process. This is the so-called binding problem: How can a set of diverse and functionally segregated maps cohere without a higher-order controller? . . . Binding can occur as a result of reentry across brain maps that establishes short-term temporal correlations and synchrony among the activities of widely spaced neuronal groups in different maps. As a result, neurons in these groups fire at the same time. Thus, reentry correlates a large number of dynamic circuits in space and time. . . . This binding principle, made possible by reentry, is repeated across many levels of brain organization and plays a central role in mechanisms leading to consciousness (pages 106-107).

The tradeoffs between explicit details and broad summations in the different works of Gerald M. Edelman makes it difficult to recommend one particular work as representing his thought in its most cogent form. To those highly motivated to under-stand consciousness, I can at best recommend a selection of three of Edelman’s books:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagina-tion (Basic Books, 2000). This work assembles in readable form the details on which the theory of neuronal group selection rests.

Edelman, Gerald M., Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2004). This summary presents the theory in its clearest form.

Edelman, Gerald M., Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006). The theory is here applied to gain fresh insight into the issue of human knowledge.

I strongly urge any readers with the will to do so to read them in the order given, from detailed account to more general overview. Five other books I have read in addition to those listed above:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Vernon B. Mountcastle, The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-Selective Theory of Higher Brain Function (The MIT Press, 1978; reprinted 1982).

Edelman, Gerald M., Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (HarperCollins Publishers, Basic Books, 1988).

Edelman, Gerald M., The Remembered Present: A Biological theory of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1989).

Edelman, Gerald M., Bright Air, Brilliant fire: On the Matter of Mind (Basic Books, 1992).

Edelman, Gerald M., and Jean-Pierre Changeux, editors, The Brain (Transaction Publishers, 2001).

I have yet to read:

Edelman, Gerald M., Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (Basic Books, 1987).

Medial View of Brain-96

 

 

 

(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.”

 

¦