(Copyright © 2009)

My personal brand of consciousness is the ongoing engagement between me and whatever phenomena serve as objects of my attention. My consciousness belongs to me and no other; it is of something else, what I call images or phenomena. Phenomena are not likenesses or representations of the world so much as they are products of the interaction between my brain and the world. The world I live in—my proprietary world of consciousness—is made up of me as subject and various phenomena as objects of current attention. So right from the start my world appears divided into two realms, subject and object, attender and the attended to, what William James called “the me” and “the not-me.”

Yet I would say that both subject and object are products of one and the same consciousness, so there’s only my view of me and my view of the world, which are not at all the same as myself and the world considered objectively. Objective self and objective world are constructs I build in my mind on the basis of the cumulative experience of phenomena available to me over a lifetime. So I live—as each one of us lives—in a unified world of personal consciousness without borders or divisions—the one and only world of our personal consciousness. That other world, the supposedly “real” or outside world, can only be a matter of inference and fleeting conjecture. Without doubt it is there, but what we can know of it is restricted to what the phenomenal versions in our minds say it is, which is a very intimate kind of hearsay, so not wholly reliable to say the least. James, for instance, says this in his chapter on Attention in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. (Page 402.)

Unedited by consciousness, the “utter chaos” of the outer world would overwhelm us. So in reducing that world to phenomena, consciousness saves the day.

Every one knows [James goes on] what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. (Page 403-404.)

But phenomena, I would say, are more drastically altered than merely being selected by our faculty of attention seems to suggest. Perception guided by personal interest and selective attention performs a major overhaul and rebuilding job in cutting the world down to a size we can deal with. Nothing about a phenomenon is as it might be in the world. Energy in the visible spectrum is reduced to a restricted palette of colors, wholly dismissing ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, along with X-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, and the many other orders of energetic radiation impinging on us wholly undetected and unappreciated. By the time phenomena emerge in consciousness, the larger portion of energy in the universe has gone missing. What little makes it through our perceptual apparatus to become a phenomenon in the language of consciousness is transmogrified into something other than what it is on its own. The upshot being, in James’ words:

Suffice it meanwhile that each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit. (Page 424.)

Which opens the way for me now to stride up to the mike and make my point. Living in worlds of our own making as we do, we typically direct our attention as if upon the mysterious world itself while, in truth, all we have to go on are the very phenomena we create for our personal use. I mean to suggest in this post—and in my blog as a whole—that a wholly different understanding of the lives we lead results from taking responsibility for our own seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting as represented in personal consciousness in order to, 1) better understand ourselves as makers of our own worlds, and 2) relate more effectively to others who devote their lives to doing exactly the same thing on the basis of their unique take on the world they actually inhabit in personal consciousness.

That is, as long as we give all credit (and blame) to the world for the lives we lead, we are trapped in the illusion that we can know the real world as it is in-and-of itself, when that world is a complete mystery to us. We make better use of our lives, and the lives of those around us, by living life as the great artwork we make of it—the work we are creating for ourselves at this instant in a universe we can only dimly comprehend. The miracle of consciousness—directed at its own foibles and achievements as it is—is that it is wholly self-reflexive. It is turned on itself, not the world. All we have to work with is the phenomena in our own minds. These phenomena are precisely what we should try to grasp in meaningful terms in order to live our lives with as much compassion and understanding as we are able. 

I have gotten to the point where I can say such things with a straight face after confronting my consciousness on a daily basis for thirty years now, and posting ten-months’ findings to this blog. These ideas are not sold in stores or written in books. Trouble is, we are living out ideas formulated by Aristotle and furthered by the church and academia for over 2,000 years. It is next to impossible to question the basic assumptions on which our schooling is founded, the same assumptions suporting the natural attitude by which we gaze on the world and believe we are seeing what is actually there without intervention from any sensory apparatus coming between ourselves and the scene we think of as before us when it is actually in us the whole time.

In the 20th century, behavioral psychologists, wanting to believe we were all automatons controlled by our environments, made an enemy of consciousness and denied it had any influence on behavior. Now cognitive neuroscientists are saying our brains work like computers, and information processing is the key to the mind. Others have viewed the mind as a clockwork, steam engine, hologram—whatever the going metaphor. And generations of students believe what they are currently being told in class, and dedicate their lives to spreading their views, just as theologians spread theirs as higher capital-T Truth accessible solely to prophets and holy men.

The revolution in how we view consciousness is upon us, just as the Reformation in religious thinking was made possible by invention of the printing press that made possible distribution of sacred texts translated into the language people could interpret for themselves without aid from any intervening priesthood. Subsequent invention of paper, pencil, typewriter, and computer continued the advance of informed interpretation of phenomena. Now the Internet has the potential of ushering in a new revolution in the understanding of consciousness itself by enabling people to get their minds together so they can compare experiences without interference from established institutions having to approve the interaction beforehand. In its current stage of development, FaceBook tends to be light and breezy because people are striving to make good impressions instead of using it as a tool for greater understanding of themselves and their friends. Blogosphere, ditto, everyone out to show how insightful their commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries really are. I’m a blogger, I should know.

Except, my whole thrust is to be true to my personal consciousness as one sample of what consciousness can be about. In posting to my blog 142 times, I have come to see that intentionality—the consciousness of objects—can be broken down into consciousness of situations, projects, goals, judgments, problems, priorities, issues, novel experiences, anxieties, interpretations, and so on. These are samples of what makes consciousness sit up and pay attention—what evolution has made us as subjects concerned about in order to act as meaningfully and effectively as we can. Which is no different from what human life is largely about.

It struck me this morning that relationships based on what actually occupies our attention rather than what we claim in order to make a good impression is the way to build compassionate relationships based on truth and reality, not personal mythology.

We don’t need to prove our merit or our worth by buying stuff, impressing others, going to fancy schools, sprinkling certain in-words throughout our conversations—that is, by pretending we are something that, under our clothing and our skins, we inherently are not. Good-by UPS trucks, big box stores, advertising, publicity, investments, banks—all those good things we rely on to create the illusion we are something other than what we are. So much for the economy devoted to shoring up pretense and illusion. So much for politicians pandering to their constituencies on the basis of identities they assume for the sake of making a good impression. The Internet has the potential of bypassing all this superstructure created by so-called civilized institutions. Of enabling people to get together on the basis of the searches they conduct to find out who they are and what they can do in this life—the one life they have to enjoy, or not.

What many cultures have found and we often overlook is that human happiness depends on relating to others in order that we do things together, cooperatively, not in competition. I am not talking altruism here, or self-righteousness. I am talking about me being me and you being you—providing a strong basis for getting together on a workable basis, not using each other to advance our respective unspoken agendas.

There are too many problems in the world to waste time in hot pursuit of illusions. That is what got us where we are today. We need to cut through all that and finally get to the point—which consciousness itself will reveal if we attend to it. Self-reflexive consciousness is not the same thing as staring at your navel. Consciousness, it turns out, is the source of all we can learn in this life and all wisdom. Your navel is just a scar to confirm you got your start inside another person who shared joint responsibility for your conception and birth. Got it. Move on. Inside, not outside. To the font of all experience, our personal consciousness, controlled by personal attention, controlled by personal passions and interests, controlled by the will to live as only we are able—by being fully ourselves. Believe me, consciousness-watching is a learned skill that takes well over ten-thousand hours to get good at. I am not suggesting we quit the race and party; I am suggestion we get down to work appropriate to our gifts.

Let’s agree to attend to life as it is given to us, not to the illusion of life presented to us by others. Let’s make use of our primary asset in living a life—personal consciousness. Accepting that as wholly our doing will tell us who we are, warts and all. Knowing who we are, we can relate on the solid ground of being ourselves without pretending to be anyone else. True learning and discovery await us inside, not outside. Especially not in any institution dedicated to selling illusions for profit. Consciousness is ours to use (or not) in understanding ourselves; the choice is ours. And the same for those around us understanding themselves. Relationships based on shared understanding are the way of the future. In the past we have dedicated ourselves to tearing down the Earth for the sake of fictitious benefits. Now we can build ourselves up to be worthy of the Earth that has provided for us all along.

Two Skiers

 

Advertisements

Reflection 131: Feedback

July 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Three posts ago (Reflection 128: Woody Allen Consciousness), I dealt with four aspects of consciousness in which (through introspection) I claimed to see anxiety as a common feature, and the amygdala as playing an implicit role in that anxiety. I sent a copy of that post to Joseph LeDoux, leading authority on emotional consciousness (whom I had quoted), and in return he sent me a short note, and the draft of a manuscript he’d written on emotional coloration of consciousness. LeDoux’s reply read:

Thanks for the note. Interesting ideas. But my view is that the amygdala [is] not really involved in conscious fear or anxiety, at least not directly. The arousal that it generates contributes but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable. I’m attaching something that came out last year in a book called Frontiers of Consciousness (Ox U Press). The attached is an unedited version of the ms, but is basically what was published. Thanks again. Joe

Talk about anxiety, I was anxious upon reading the note, and even more anxious upon reading the attached chapter, which amounted to a complete review of emotional consciousness, citing 351 sources from the relevant literature. LeDoux was generous in dubbing my subjective ideas “interesting,” but there was no question he had the peer-reviewed facts on his side. Still, I felt the reason I sent the post to an expert in the field held true: there was a place in consciousness studies for introspection as a supplement to animal research, philosophical musings, functional imaging, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, the arts, and any other human activity shedding light on the mind. I’d said in my initial email that introspection and basic brain research were tunneling into the same mountain from opposites sides, hoping to meet in the middle, or by a different metaphor:

In addition to studies of neural substrates of consciousness, I firmly see a need for a sandwich approach which will inform such studies by coming from above—not from the substrate but the real item itself—because I think consciousness, as an emergent property, will never be found in the neurons themselves because that’s not where it lives. So that’s what I blog about, for whatever it’s worth.

Having read LeDoux’s chapter three times now, I am impressed both by the amount of research that has been done—and the amount that still lies ahead. In truth, much of what we know today about emotional consciousness is based on informed yet conjectural interpretations of basic research. The field rests largely on claims and arguments. A close reading reveals phrases such as “are believed to be,” “are often considered,” “may be,” “might be thought of as,” “my proposal is,” “I will argue that,” “is likely to,” “probably occurs,” “much debate exists,” “perhaps,” and so on. Knowledge is harder to come by than we commonly suppose. The essence of science (that is, of knowing) is doubt and skepticism, which is why on-going research is so necessary. Current knowing invariably rests on a flurry of assumptions, beliefs, and conditional assertions. Only when the flurry dissipates does knowledge stiffen into certainty—always an illusion to fill the break until flurries fly again.

Science, like religion and philosophy, is an edifice in need of constant maintenance. My image is of a juggler whirling Indian clubs in the air, dropping one here or there, picking up others, diligently striving, balancing, laboring, watching, paying careful attention, always appearing the same yet never quite the same two cycles in a row. In a moment of laxity, the clubs spill in a heap—until gathered and set in motion with renewed vigilance. Such is every human endeavor. Such is medicine, the stock market, technology, the Internet, blogging, and consciousness itself—the ultimate human endeavor.

I juggle my consciousness as best I can, as you juggle yours. Taken together we form a spectacle of jugglers whirling our clubs en masse while knowing distraction or exhaustion or simply missing a beat will make us drop one or more. We can’t keep going forever. Sooner or later. . . . What, me anxious?

But back to emotional consciousness. Essentially, it is whatever aspect of mind we pay attention to that bears emotional overtones expressing how we feel at the time. In picturing the amygdala responsible for feelings of anxiety, I am the arch-conjuror reaching farther than I have any right to on the basis of evidence—but reaching anyway because that is my nature. If I don’t reach farther today than yesterday, what’s the point of going on? Done reaching, I am finished. Where’s the adventure in that?

I sent my 128th post to Joseph LeDoux because I felt I had made a discovery—that anxiety is behind a large part of consciousness. I have claimed that consciousness is given us to solve novel problems that evolution has no leverage on, and anxiety is what turns a situation into a problem. Anxiety is a sign we are invested in a particular situation and care about the outcome. Interpreting the phenomenal situation is a problem if we want to get it right. Adopting the right idiom of consciousness in addressing the situation is a problem in itself reflected in how we present ourselves to the world. And lastly, applying an appropriate elixir (or fudge factor) in order to fit our way of thinking to the situation is a forth-order problem. All involving anxiety because we’re not sure of ourselves or the outcome we desire. And implicating the amygdala as the neural seat of emotional consciousness, so I claimed—which is where I overreached myself. In correcting me by saying, “The arousal that it generates contributes [to feelings of anxiety] but the amygdala itself seems to be non-introspectable,” LeDoux is asserting the position he took in Synaptic Self where he wrote:

While individual brain regions and networks make distinct contributions to the processes that together constitute anxiety, anxiety itself is best thought of as a property of the overall circuitry rather than of specific brain regions (Viking, 2002, page 290).

In his chapter in Frontiers of Consciousness, LeDoux makes it clear: “Amygdala processing in humans occurs unconsciously.” Summarizing, “Indeed, amygdala processing meets most of the principles of automaticity—that is it is independent of attention and awareness.” So, like Hamlet sensing a presence behind the curtain in the queen’s bedroom but not knowing it is Polonius, I had no way of identifying the amygdala as the source of the anxiety associated with problem-solving in self-examined consciousness. As part of a network, the amygdala itself is not subject to introspection.

I stand corrected. Which I take to be a demonstration of cooperation between neuroscientists on one hand and us introspectors on the other.

Putting Heads Together

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Symbols are concrete sensory images keyed to or connoting abstract notions, concepts, feelings, or ideas in consciousness.  They differ from signs which denote something equally concrete, as animal tracks bear a one-to-one connection with the feet of the creatures that made them. Understanding signs, symbols, emblems, insignia, etc. requires a grasp of the situations in which they are likely to appear. In different cultures, one and the same symbol may refer to two entirely different situations, and so open onto a divergence of interpretations. Think upon the dual (constructive and destructive) nature of fire, water, wind, and sunlight, for example.

When I was in third grade, my friend Norman Stauffer went to the New York World’s Fair with his folks. Teacher asked him 1939 World Fair--Symbol of Progress to tell the class about his trip. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the surge of envy I felt because he had gone and I hadn’t. The fair was about the world of tomorrow—the neatest thing my budding mind could imagine. Science and progress! Those  were magic words to me then. The Symbol of Progressfamous Trilon and Perisphere in the poster symbolized the spirit of the new era I was going to grow up in. Norman knew more about my future than I did because he’d been there and seen it. We stayed fast friends through the war, doing everything we could to bring that future into our lives by reading up on science, discovery, and new inventions.

Symbols are allusions in one sensory modality or another to conBaltimore Oriolesceptions beyond themselves. The playing of the national anthem is a symbol to sports fans that waiting is over and play is about to begin, with overtones of heightened anticipation and local pride. Secret handclasps  symbolize shared attitudes and assumptions. Salt air is a sign the sea is VFW Buddy Poppynear, and perhaps a symbol of a vacation mentality. The scent of perfume can be a symbolic invitation to stay near and engage. Buddy Poppies remind us each Memorial Day of the debt we owe those who have fought and died in our name.

Attitudes and feelings are important aspects of symbPure Poisonol consciousness. During election campaigns, we have strong reactions to pointed displays of donkeys and  elephants, which in other contexts might not rouse us at all. It’s not that symbols are loaded so much as that we are loaded and primedJapanese Navy  for action. Think of national flags and the burning thereof, old school emblems, military insignias including rising suns and swastikas, stars and crescents, burning crosses, valentines, shamrocks, mortarboards, jack-o’-lanterns, and the many other symbols that seem to move us one way or another when in truth it is we who give rise to our own emotions.

Wearing our hearts on our sleeves, shoulders, chests, hats, or bumpers is a way of posting important dimensions of our Go Gators! consciousness for all to see. Imagine a U.S. politician not sporting Old Glory in his lapel—he is certainly exposed and practically naked. I once contributed to the Union of Concerned Scientists and received a butterfly decal acknowledging my membership.  I put it onRed Sox Fan my car window—and have kept it there for seven years without a follow-up donation as a kind of declaration of support because that’s the kind of guy I am—or want to be know as—I can’t tell the difference. Anyway, it’s deliberate on my part. Like choosing to wear a baseball cap (brim to the fore to shade my eyes) instead of a cowboy hat, beret, Greek fisherman’s cap, or other headgear. Symbolic designs on underwear and tattoos are meant to be appreciated by the select audience that discovers them.

Whether it’s flying a flag, buying a hat or a car, or sending a greeting card, everything we do makes a statement about the Celtic Cross personal values leading us to put cash on the line (or even go into debt). All of us are master symbolists, though few have formally studied the discipline. Declaring our insides on the outside is big business—like billboard advertising. Where would the fashion, automobile, travel, or sports Peace Symbol industries be if we were truly meek and humble? No, we want to be known to the world! Translating consciousness into personal appearances and lifestyles is a high art. If we want to conform to the group, it shows in our behavior; if we are rebels, that shows as well; if we want to be invisible and draw no attention at all, even that shows up in how we symbolize our conscious insides on the outside.  

Neuroscientists believe the most direct route to understanding the fine-grained logic of consciousness is to study the brain. The Face of England But people don’t live in their brains, they live in bodies, clothing, possessions, housing, neighborhoods, jobs, recreations, societies at large, and natural environs. I strongly recommend complementing neuroscience with studies of how we externalize ourselves in the symbols and language we choose to represent the complex mix of our conscious (and even unconscious) states. There is no way of telling how we interpret the symbols we surround ourselves with except by asking for introspective reports. And even that is not a sure thing because of the shaky nature of self-declarations. But I am a firm believer that everything we say and do has meaCupid--Symbol of Lovening and significance if looked at the right way in the right light. What is most apt to disrupt self-reporting is the habitual bias and attitude of those receiving the gift of reviewing how another sees herself. The give-and-take of dialogue and follow-up questions can often clear up doubts, uncertainties, and misunderstandings.

A more ineffable difficulty in interpreting symbols is that no two of us are likely to be in the same situation at the same time, so the meanings we find in symbols are not directly transferable Opposites in Unityfrom one mind to another because the set and context of those minds are different. Which may lead researchers to feel they must re-interpret what they are told, intending to discern true meanings, but often substituting their own misunderstanding for their subject’s firsthand account. Freud frequently found meanings in patients’ word choices or typographical errors that fit his scheme of analysis, but did violence to the integrity of the verbatim self-reports, as well as to what the good doctor might have learned from them had he listened.

How symbols are intended and how they are taken are  different matters in different minds. To understand symbols, the best we can do is look to our attachments by asking ourselves what we see in them. As a photographer all my life, every image I put out is a picture or symbol of the state of my mind at the time. The Pix page at the head of this blog opens onto a compound portrait of my inner self. If you care to know, that’s who I am. Part of who I am—to myself at least.

Metaphorical states form the medium of symbol consciousness. Everything we notice is a reflection of one aspect of who we are. Different situations draw out different facets of consciousness, coupling different symbols with newSymbol of Plenty meanings, some having slight connection to the ones we are familiar with. Our public asks us to be one person going by one name, but we shine with different colors depending on the light radiating from our current situation, so are a host of different persons. Is a diamond inconsistent for revealing different hues in different facets? No, that is exactly what we expect of a diamond. And as author of this blog, what I expect of myself. It is precisely that variety that keeps me going, posting new blogs as they occur to me because today I am a new person, requiring new symbols adequate to the challenge of trying to represent who I am.

Daisy-72

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In grad school I got into consciousness through the portal of metaphor. I’d been studying phenomenology, hermeneutics, and meaning, noticing that in everyday speech words and phrases seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere—the rote or unconscious mind—but that metaphors emerged often in novel situations requiring conscious attention to details.

 

Since I.A. Richards’ treatment in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), metaphor had been seen to consist of two terms, the first anchoring the figure to a word or phrase in conventional usage (the tenor or target), the second to concrete details implied by a second term (the vehicle or source) directly transferred to the first without resorting to an overt framework of comparison.

 

By way of example, NPR host Robert Siegel spoke of the idea of creating a federally-funded bank to buy up bad debts as “this Yucca Mountain of securities,” where the “bad” bank was the tenor of the metaphor informed by the vehicle Yucca Mountain of securities (All Things Considered, Jan. 28, 2009, 5:00 p.m. segment). The implied comparison is between repositories for bad debts and radioactive waste, respectively.

 

In another example, Ted Solotaroff wrote of having to deal with his sense of the editor’s intimidating “presence” in getting started on a piece for Partisan Review:

 

There followed a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again, hoping for a pass through the mountains to suddenly open” (“Adventures in Editing,” The Nation, Feb. 9, 2009, p. 31).

 

A pass through the mountains is the vehicle he uses to depict the hoped-for resolution to the sense of futility blocking his way, the phrase a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again serving as the tenor of this particular metaphor.

 

As a grad student, my insight was that the tenor tended to be abstract and conceptual in nature while the vehicle was relatively more concrete or sensory. Metaphor, then, conveys sensory qualities of the vehicle to the more conceptual tenor, bringing out specific features pertaining to the occasion that might be missed in everyday usage. The vehicle, that is, is meant to enliven or flesh-out the tenor. As always, the intended meaning must be appropriate to the speech occasion or the metaphor might break the flow by drawing attention to itself as strained or overly-theatrical.

 

Years after grad school, I find I am still the same person, concerned as ever with the workings of the mind. But now I don’t read articles on research into mind and brain so much as consult the turnings of my own consciousness, ever on the lookout for surprising twists that might reveal something about the only mind I can know from the inside and how it works.

 

That method is called introspection—looking within. Because there is no way to verify claims based upon it, most scientists warn against it. At best it is taken as anecdotal evidence, which places it on a par with hearsay. One voice in the wilderness announces its truth, to which the wilderness replies, So what? Well, there are two kinds of truth: Big-T Truth is based on statistical evidence gathered from all quarters in all times; little-t truth is more humble in pertaining to a specific instance in one place at one time. But there is nothing to say that little-t truth might not crack a door to Truth on a larger scale.

 

I haven’t heard anyone else claim that metaphor balances an abstract conceptual part (tenor) with a concrete sensory part (vehicle), the two together providing a more compelling experience than either taken by itself—yet that is my claim as based on personal observation. Twenty-five years later, it still rings little-t true to me. And it is that hooking-up of two different aspects of mind that led me to look more carefully into the one sample of consciousness available to me. Wilderness, this is Steve calling. You know, Steve from planet Earth. One tiny blog in a great big Blogosphere.

 

When spontaneous language loses its novel, figurative quality, it becomes “literal” and appears to mean what it says. But we have simply forgotten the metaphorical base of many everyday terms, assuming they blossomed thus in the Garden of Eden, the same then as now. But meanings evolve over time, words and their usage evolve, languages evolve. Give Beowulf a look if you don’t believe, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

 

Neuroscience now treats the brain literally as a computer, where earlier researchers might have regarded it as a hydraulic system, clockwork, switchboard, or hologram. In the brain-as-computer metaphor, the brain is the tenor receiving the vehicle’s thrust, which in this case causes it to be seen as a kind of programmable machine, a hardware network with a software mind.

 

There is humor in this formulation when we think how recently it was that the metaphor went the other way round and computers were billed as “electronic brains.” There is no approach to the unknown other than through the known. When computers were novel, we saw them as brains; now that we know all about computers, we generalize that term to the vastly more complex and mysterious lump of protoplasm, the brain itself.

 

Before Richards, it was common to refer to the vehicle alone as the figure or metaphor, thereby masking the mutual interaction between vehicle and tenor. Modern understanding of metaphor frees us from that error. Or should, if we truly appreciate the myriad ever-changing feedback and feed-forward—that is, interactive—electro-chemical networks we think of collectively as the human brain.

 

If metaphor can be said to have a moral, in this case it is that there is more than one way to picture a brain, or, brains are seldom what they seem.

 

¦

 

 

(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.”

 

¦