Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

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Overview

What links conscious experience of pain, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Christof Koch has devoted much of his career to bridging the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the physics of the brain and phenomenal experience. This engaging book — part scientific overview, part memoir, part futurist speculation — describes Koch's search for an empirical explanation for consciousness. Koch recounts not only the birth of the modern science of consciousness but also the subterranean motivation for his quest — his instinctual (if "romantic") belief that life is meaningful.

Koch describes his own groundbreaking work with Francis Crick in the 1990s and 2000s and the gradual emergence of consciousness (once considered a "fringy" subject) as a legitimate topic for scientific investigation. Present at this paradigm shift were Koch and a handful of colleagues, including Ned Block, David Chalmers, Stanislas Dehaene, Giulio Tononi, Wolf Singer, and others. Aiding and abetting it were new techniques to listen in on the activity of individual nerve cells, clinical studies,and brain-imaging technologies that allowed safe and noninvasive study of the human brain in action.

Koch gives us stories from the front lines of modern research into the neurobiology of consciousness as well as his own reflections on a variety of topics, including the distinction between attention and awareness, the unconscious, how neurons respond to Homer Simpson, the physics and biology of free will, dogs, Der Ring des Nibelungen, sentient machines, the loss of his belief in a personal God, and sadness. All of them are signposts in the pursuit of his life's work — to uncover the roots of consciousness.

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Editorial Reviews

Science News
Koch weaves a vivid and poignant story, punctuated by fascinating characters and compelling science. The book will leave you with a small piece of Koch's own consciousness, plucked from his head and delivered into yours.
Nature - Robert Stickgold
... [D]efinitely worth reading.... I argued with Koch all the way through this book. And I loved every minute of it.
Chronicle of Higher Education
Pioneering consciousness studies requires a nimbly multiprocessing mind.

That Koch possesses one is apparent.

Times Higher Education - Anil Seth
Among the plethora of books on consciousness, this engaging blend of science, autobiography and honest self-reflection stands out. It combines a lucid description of the leading edge of consciousness science with a surprisingly personal and philosophical reflection of the author's life as one of its foremost authorities, shedding light on how scientists really think. Science writing at its best.
TimesHigher Education - Tristan Bekinschtein
... [T]he book offers good rides through the wild forest of the neuroscience of consciousness. Koch is fearless, and does not shrink from talking about phenomenology and qualia; he includes them and tries to formalise consciousness by linking it to direct brain signals or well-defined psychological constructs.
Choice

This new volume is attractive not only for the breadth and depth that is typical of
Koch's writing, but also for its highly accessible nature.... This important book serves as a subtle introduction to many of the driving questions of the discipline that may well significantly change people's understanding of human nature.

Choice
This new volume is attractive not only for the breadth and depth that is typical of Koch's writing, but also for its highly accessible nature.... This important book serves as a subtle introduction to many of the driving questions of the discipline that may well significantly change people's understanding of human nature.
From the Publisher
"Koch weaves a vivid and poignant story, punctuated by fascinating characters and compelling science. The book will leave you with a small piece of Koch's own consciousness,plucked from his head and delivered into yours." — Science News

"…[D]efinitely worth reading…I argued with Koch all the way through this book. And I loved every minute of it." — Robert Stickgold,Nature

"Pioneering consciousness studies requires a nimbly multiprocessing mind. ThatKoch possesses one is apparent."- Chronicle of Higher Education

"Among the plethora of books on consciousness, this engaging blend of science,autobiography and honest self-reflection stands out. It combines a lucid description of the leading edge of consciousness science with a surprisingly personal and philosophical reflection of the author's life as one of its foremost authorities, shedding light on how scientists really think.

Science writing at its best."-Anil Seth, Times HigherEducation

"…[T]he book offers good rides through the wild forest of the neuroscience of consciousness. Koch is fearless, and does not shrink from talking about phenomenology and qualia; he includes them and tries to formalise consciousness by linking it to direct brain signals or well-defined psychological constructs."—Tristan Bekinschtein,TimesHigher Education

"This new volume is attractive not only for the breadth and depth that is typical ofKoch's writing, but also for its highly accessible nature…This important book serves as a subtle introduction to many of the driving questions of the discipline that may well significantly change people's understanding of human nature." — H. Storl,Choice

Library Journal
Part memoir and part hard science, this latest by Koch (cognitive & behavioral biology, Caltech; The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach) describes how psychology, physics, and neurosurgery have contributed to the modern understanding of consciousness and unconsciousness. Koch discusses his work with the late Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, with whom he collaborated on locating the neural correlates of consciousness. Crick had a profound influence on Koch professionally, as a mentor, and personally, as a friend. Koch also shares his personal views on the differences between attention and awareness, the biology and physics of free will, and the unconscious. Included as well are descriptions of research studies on the neurobiology of consciousness, plus an extensive list of references. VERDICT Although some background in science would be helpful, none is necessary to read this book; Koch explains scientific phenomena in lay terms. An enlightening scientific memoir in which the author reveals his personal struggles as he attempts to uncover the truth about consciousness.—Tina Chan, SUNY Oswego Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262017497
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/9/2012
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 370,983
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Christof Koch is Professor of Biology and of Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He is the author of The Quest for Consciousness and other books.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Chapter 1 In which I introduce the ancient mind-body problem, explain why I am on a quest to use reason and empirical inquiry to solve it, acquaint you with Francis Crick, explain how he relates to this quest, make a confession, and end on a sad note 1

Chapter 2 In which I write about the wellsprings of my inner conflict between religion and reason, why I grew up wanting to be a scientist, why I wear a lapel pin of Professor Calculus, and how I acquired a second mentor late in life 11

Chapter 3 In which I explain why consciousness challenges the scientific view of the world, how consciousness can be investigated empirically with both feet firmly planted on the ground, why animals share consciousness with humans, and why self-consciousness is not as important as many people think it is 23

Chapter 4 In which you hear tales of scientist-magicians that make you look but not see, how they track the footprints of consciousness by peering into your skull, why you don't see with your eyes, and why attention and consciousness are not the same 41

Chapter 5 In which you learn from neurologists and neurosurgeons that some neurons care a great deal about celebrities, that cutting the cerebral cortex in two does not reduce consciousness by half, that color is leached from the world by the loss of a small cortical region, and that the destruction of a sugar cube-sized chunk of brain stem or thalamic tissue leaves you undead 59

Chapter 6 In which I defend two propositions that my younger self found nonsense-you are unaware of most of the things that go on in your head, and zombie agents control much of your life, even though you confidently believe that you are in charge 75

Chapter 7 In which I throw caution to the wind, bring up free will, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and what physics says about determinism, explain the impoverished ability of your mind to choose, show that your will lags behind your brain's decision, and that freedom is just another word for feeling 91

Chapter 8 In which I argue that consciousness is a fundamental property of complex things, rhapsodize about integrated information theory, how it explains many puzzling facts about consciousness and provides a blueprint for building sentient machines 113

Chapter 9 In which I outline an electromagnetic gadget to measure consciousness, describe efforts to harness the power of genetic engineering to track consciousness in mice, and find myself building cortical observatories 137

Chapter 10 In which I muse about final matters considered off-limits to polite scientific discourse: to wit, the relationship between science and religion, the existence of God, whether this God can intervene in the universe, the death of my mentor, and my recent tribulations 149

Notes 167

References 173

Index 179

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