(Copyright © 2009)

If it is true that there is no little homunculus in our heads enjoying the passing parade, it is equally true that there is not even a parade. As for representations of a parade, there are a great many (on the order of at least a 100 in any given brain), all dealing with different aspects of the parade, but there is no one street corner or theater where the float of Humpty Dumpty, say, passes by drawn by six white horses in living Sense-Surround.

Mr. Dumpty is represented by action potentials, ions streaming through membrane channels, neurotransmitters flowing across synapses, some degree of synchrony between neurons firing in different brain modules, and so on, none of which can account for the representation (or illusion) of reality, much less for reality (the parade) in-and-of itself.

Yet we keep talking about the brain as an “information processor,” as if information from the world somehow gets into our heads and forms a representation that can be taken for the world itself. Ionic or chemical signals (suggestive of patterns of energy), yes; information, no. As for interpreting such signals, each and every brain is on its own in that regard. Those signals mean to us solely what our respective minds take them to mean. Our surroundings provide patterns of energy, we map our understanding of what they might mean on those patterns.

We interpret patterns of energy from our surroundings as clues to the situation we are in at the moment, then interpret that situation as meaningful from our point of view based on our investment in that situation. Which varies, depending on how we choose to regard it. Our minds deal in the currency of conjecture and speculation, not information (as if the meaning were determined beforehand by an unidentified agent who is not in our head).

Which is not what we commonly assume or even read in some neural science textbooks. It is easier to assume information enters the brain through the senses, is coded in terms of patterns of neural activity, and is magically “represented” in one form or another, then interpreted by the mind—interpreted to have the same meaning it had on the far side of any sensory apparatus, without giving an account of how such a miracle could happen.

Energy is not meaningful in and of itself. And it is energy, not information, that impinges on our senses. Interpretation requires a context—some sort of situation within which energy takes on meaning in reference to relationships characterizing that situation. And it is no easier for situations to enter consciousness through the senses than it is for information or “reality” to make the same journey. For us, situations exist in terms of relationships between traces of brain activity, which means we derive them from ionic and molecular flows in various modules in our heads. A pretty neat trick.

Yet everyday wisdom has it that there is a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the world and what goes on in the minds of those who live in the world. It would be far more accurate to reverse that depiction and say that the world has no existence other than that extended to it by the minds in which it lives. For the world, in fact, does live in us and not vice versa. When we die, our versions of the world also die. Based on a few selected patterns of energy flow impinging on our senses, we project our hypothesis that the world is in such-and-such a state onto those patterns—voila! the “real” world.

That is, contrary to our naive assumptions, the world reflects to us representation we concoct in our minds consistent with the few patterns of energy flow we take the trouble to interpret. What is real is the world in our heads, the subjective (meaningful) world that guides our behavior. That other (outer) world is largely a mystery to us. We inform it according to our preferences at the moment. Information flows outward as mapped onto energy flows which are inherently meaningless until interpreted; interpretation takes place in the mind (ours or others’), not the material world.

What I’m trying to get at is how we can seemingly rise above our own consciousness to observe ourselves interpreting the world through the medium of the energy flows in which we are immersed—and which we narrowly interpret to suit ourselves. That is, I’m out to show how Michael Gazzaniga’s postulate of the left-brain interpreter provides an explanation for a great deal of human behavior that causes so much trouble in a world we can’t see very clearly for what it is.

What I’m after is ways of doing better by that world than we have done up till now. Since the world conforms to our ideas of the world, doing better by ourselves means doing better by the world, and every one of its inhabitants. We’ve had it backwards all this time. It is time to straighten the world by straightening ourselves, an approach so ancient it seems almost new to us. I think we can do it.

 

 

(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.”

 

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