In Search of Memory

A few weeks ago, I read Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory. It was different from the books that I normally post about here, as it is an autobiography with the emergence of modern neurobiology woven in, rather than an argument for this or that perspective. But I am a neurobiologist at heart and an aspiring scientist at the very beginning of my career, so I couldn’t resist:

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Eric Kandel won the nobel prize in the year 2000 for his pioneering work on the molecular mechanisms of memory formation and storage. In this book, Kandel lays down the path of his life, professional and otherwise, from his earliest days in Vienna, just before World War II, up through his acceptance of the nobel prize in Stockholm, just a few years ago. His book will be of interest to biologists, philosophers, psychologists and laymen alike. The material is presented in the order that it was first discovered and assumes no prior knowledge, leaving no bars to entry for this exciting journey. All the same, weathered experimentalists will surely enjoy the ride that is the birth of this new science, from single-cell recordings in hippocampal cells, to the neural networks of Aplysia, to the beginnings of the differentiation of  the neural substrates for unconscious vs conscious information processing.

And a fun fact for those who are, like me, still trying to break into this field: What was Eric Kandel, nobel laureate in biology, studying in his Junior year of college? None other than Northern European History. He didn’t set foot in a lab until medical school, when he was entranced by the promises of psychoanalytic theory. I think we’ll be ok.

Finally, for those of you who wonder what I am doing when I am not reading or writing about consciousness (or wonder why I post so scarcely now!), I am now excitedly spending the majority of my time in the BRAIN Lab at Washington University in St. Louis on a summer research fellowship studying up on neurogenetics (i.e., how genetic variation influences how our brains respond to our environment and modulates risk for psychopathology). Check us out!

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[Off Topic] A Scanner Darkly

[This is going to be a little different than the books I normally recommend on here, but I think that it will be worth your time.]

I recently finished Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, and I highly recommend it. Keep in mind that I rarely read fiction books, so if I can get myself to finish it, then it’s really something that I enjoyed a great deal.

The book takes you on a trip through the eyes of Bob Arctor, a drug addict and undercover narcotics agent, as he deals with the illicit drug Substance D. To avoid too much in the way of spoilers, I’ll pique your neuroscientific interests with the following, and leave it at that:

Substance D doesn’t just alter the mind, it splits it in two…

Conversations on Consciousness

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Since the spring semester is now in full swing, it has been increasingly difficult for me to devote the necessary time to a full-length treatment of consciousness as I would like. This in mind, I picked up a copy of Susan Blackmore’s Conversations on Consciousness the other day, and I have not regretted it. It serves as an informal introduction to several competing theories and views on the scientific study of the brain and conscious experience. The set-up of the book is simple: interviews with the researchers/philosophers themselves explaining their theories in their own, colloquial way. Add to this a few questions on free will and the fate of consciousness after death, and you get twenty of the most interesting conversations that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. They allow, among other things, the chance to see these researchers as actual people, and not simply as objective reporters of experimental results as happens far too often.

I have only one complaint about the book, which you may have guessed given the author, Susan Blackmore. Put simply, Blackmore endorses a few very fringe (and some, myself included, would say absurd) ideas about the nature of consciousness. Normally, this would not be an issue—everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and I often disagree with the authors that I read. The complaint comes, however, in the questions that Blackmore chooses to ask her interviewees. The book is accompanied by the sub-script, “What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What it Means to be Human.” At times, though, it seems like it would read more accurately as, “What the Best Minds Think about My Ideas about the Brain, Free Will, and What it Means to be Human.” This is not over-riding, and most of the time the book stays true to its stated purpose (I thank the interviewees for most of this, they do a good job sticking to what they believe are the real issues), but it is, at times, distracting. It is not enough to knock this down as a great book, well worth reading, but it is something that should be noted, nonetheless.

I would like to give this five out of five stars—it was great fun to read—but the above complaint makes me unable to do so. That said, I would give the interviewees five out of five stars and Blackmore four out of five stars, so let’s say that the book as a whole gets four and a half out of five stars.

The Rediscovery of the Mind

I finished reading Searle’s The Rediscovery of the Mind last week, and it was quite an exciting read, to say the least. In a field full of confusing, frustrating, and downright baffling theories and assertions, a little bit of no-nonsense pseudo-polemic writing can be a breath of fresh air, and this book is just that.

At it’s heart, this book is an argument for Searle’s own theory of mind: Biological Naturalism, which can be summed up as saying that the brain, under the right conditions, gives rise to conscious experience in the same way that water, under the right conditions, gives rise to liquidity. Even more fundamentally, however, Searle uses this book to remind us all of what we are really doing when we propose theories of mind, hopefully in a way that helps us realize the obvious mistakes we make all too often.

Searle closes the book with a near perfect set of guidelines, which I have re-printed below, because, even if you aren’t able to read the book in its entirety, I think that you should consider them:

In spite of our modern arrogance about how much we know, in spite of the assurance and universality of our science, where the mind is concerned we are characteristically confused and in disagreement. Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, we grasp onto some alleged feature and pronounce it the essence of the mental. ‘There are invisible sentences in there!’ (the language of thought). ‘There is a computer program in there!’ (cognitivism). ‘There are only causal relations in there!’ (functionalism). ‘There is nothing in there!’ (eliminativism). And so, depressingly, on.

Just as bad, we let our research methods dictate the subject matter, rather than the converse. Like the drunk who loses his car keys in the dark bushes but looks for them under the streetlight, ‘because the light is better here,’ we try to find out how humans might resemble our computational models rather than trying to figure out how the conscious human mind actually works. I am frequently asked, ‘But how could you study consciousness scientifically? How could there be a theory?”

I do not believe there is any simple or single path to the rediscovery of the mind. Some rough guidelines are:

First, we ought to stop saying things that are obviously false. The serious acceptance of this maxim might revolutionize the study of the mind.

Second, we ought to keep reminding ourselves of what we know for sure. For example, we know for sue that inside our skulls there is a brain, sometimes it is conscious, and brain processes cause consciousness in all its forms.

Third, we ought to keep asking ourselves what actual facts in the world are supposed to correspond to the claims we make about the mind. It does not mater whether ‘true’ means corresponds to the facts, because ‘corresponds to the facts’ does mean corresponds to the facts, and any discipline that aims to describe the world is aims for this correspondence. If you keep asking yourself this question in the light of the knowledge that the brain is the only thing in there, and the brain causes consciousness, I believe you will come up with the results I have reached in this chapter, and indeed many of the results I have come up with in this book.

But that is only to take a first step on the road back to the mind. A fourth and final guideline is that we need to rediscover the social character of the mind.

If this closing passage appeals to you, I would recommend that you read this book in its entirety. I certainly found it well worth the effort (and it is an effort). Five out of five stars—I’ll be revisiting this many times.

Minds, Brains and Science

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John Searle’s Minds, Brains and Science is a collection of the six Reith Lectures that he gave in 1984 on the relation between our conscious, meaningful, phenomenal experiences and the backdrop of nonconscious, meaningless, objective physical reality against which all of the former inevitably play out. Essentially, the problem is this: We experience things, but everywhere else we look in the universe, we do not see experiences. How do we explain this seemingly trivial fact and make consciousness fit in with everything else we know?

This is inevitably a question that he is unable to provide a clear answer for, but, nonetheless, this was a successful, and worthwhile, work. The lectures were intended for a lay audience, so they are largely non-technical, but as far as I can tell, none of the necessary content was lost. Searle is still able to explicate each of the sub-problems and arguments very well. He manages to minimize caricaturing his opponents while simultaneously keeping the focus on what, he thinks, are the real issues. All the while, he manages to introduce several new ideas. His remarks on the social sciences and the freedom of the will are especially noteworthy.

In its entirety, the read comes down to less than a hundred pages, making it a perfect introduction to the problem at large. At the same time, it retains enough depth to catch the eye of even the most weathered philosopher-scientist—and for that, I give it five out of five stars.

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christof Koch’s autobiographical work Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is just that: his confessions relating to his career, and why he does what he does. I’m going to keep this review short, since this book is not primarily about his own theories. Instead, he takes this book as a chance for him to drop his professional guise and explain why, deep down, he believes certain facts about the universe to be the way that they are. He does not pretend to have pristine motives, or that he only ever disagrees with other researchers based purely on an objective, reflective foundation. He states very clearly his most fundamental beliefs about the topic at hand. He talks, quite honestly, about his lifelong struggle with religion, about his relationship with Francis Crick, about his love of dogs—about anything and everything that he thinks is relevant to, as before, why he does what he does.

For anyone fed up with the sterility and impersonal nature of research on consciousness, this will be a long-needed breath of fresh air. It will be especially useful, I think, for those partaking, or aspiring to partake, in the great quest for consciousness themselves. In particular for those still aspiring, it may be nice to see, explicitly, that a larger-than-life researcher, decades into his own quest, still has some of the same doubts and moments of personal struggle that you may be faced with ever too frequently. Of note, this same researcher who spent 30 some years of life searching for a truly “reductive” explanation of consciousness endorses in this book, quite clearly, property dualism. Take that as you will.

Five out of five stars, one of my new personal favorites. Be sure to check out the cover art, it’s quite impressive.

The Conscious Mind

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David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind is an interesting turn in the search for a fundamental theory of mind. It may come as a surprise that a fundamentally dualist approach underlies a current, academic theory. That said, this book, as has been noted elsewhere, can be divided into two more or less self-contained sections. The first section offers a firm refutation of the reductive materialistic approach that seems to dominate the field. The second section represents Chalmers’ attempt to propose his own foundations for a new theory that does not rely on the false assumptions of reductive materialism.

The first section relies on five key arguments, two of which I will comment on here.

The first of these is the (in)famous argument from philosophical zombies. This argument is based on a thought-experiment in which one conceives of an identical copy of a human being, except that this copy does not actually experience anything. That is, there is nothing that it is like to be this copy. From the outside, it certainly appears conscious, and would even say that it is conscious upon inquiry; nonetheless, it would lack anything that would recognizably be a conscious mind from the first-person. The point about this argument, that is often overlooked, I believe, is that it only seeks to refute logical supervenience, not the more familiar natural supervenience. Logical supervienence suggests that a higher-level property is fully entailed by lower-level properties. Natural supervenience suggests merely a lawful connection between lower-level properties and higher-level properties. In another way, logical supervenience implies that, given the lower-level facts, the higher-level facts could not have been any other way, in any possible world. Natural supervenience, on the other hand, leaves this possibility open. For example, it is perfectly reasonable to assert that the law of gravity could have been different from what it is. In another possible world, with all the same physical facts, an object on an equivalent earth might accelerate in free fall at 15 meters per second squared, instead of 9.8 meters per second squared, as it would on our earth. The full force of this argument, then, only says that the physical facts alone do not explain conscious experience, there are further fundamental laws that we need to call upon (laws that Chalmers later calls “psychophysical”). This argument alone can be seen as a sufficient refutation of reductive materialism, since the latter does not assert any further fundamental laws.

The second argument, which I personally find more indicative of the problem, comes from asymmetric epistemology, which I have previously remarked on in altered form. At its most simple, this argument relies on the fundamental difference between physical and phenomenal explanation: that the former is done in the third-person, while the latter is done in the first-person. Even if we knew all the physical facts about the universe, we would not be in a position to postulate experiences being associated with any objects. We could certainly claim that some organisms claimed to be conscious, but this would be indirect evidence at best. This, I think, is the most fundamental argument against reductive materialism because, as I’ve asked before, given this asymmetry, why would we ever expect a materialistic account to reveal consciousness to us?

Now, on to the second part. This part concerns itself with the construction of a theory of consciousness that is free of the influence of materialism. At its heart, this theory differs insofar that it postulates phenomenal experience as a fundamental concept, much as mass-energy and space-time are fundamental in the physical sciences. However, Chalmers tries to distance this view from panpsychism, which states that everything is conscious (however, he later admits that this possibility is not too unreasonable, or even unlikely). The most individuating idea presented is his principle of organizational invariance, which states that any copy of a conscious being, with the same abstract causal structure, will have qualitatively identical phenomenal experiences. In short, his theory could be seen as a sort of non-reductive functionalism that relies on experience as a fundamental. Experience is ubiquitous, then, but only as long as the appropriate causal relations are in place. What counts as appropriate causal relations remains to be seen.

The remainder of the second part is less convincing, but is useful nonetheless as an intellectual enterprise. That said, his treatment of the interpretation of quantum physics leaves much to be desired.

All in all, this book was more than worth the time I invested in it. Even if his theories turn out to be false, they will be no less pivotal in our quest for understanding one of the most puzzling, mysterious, and all around frustrating aspects of life. As Chalmers himself states from the outset, “If some ideas in this book are useful to others in constructing a better theory, the attempt will have been worthwhile.” As for me, I think that his sentiment has been affirmed.

Five out of five stars, recommended to any and all who seek a better understanding of their conscious experiences.

Self Comes to Mind

Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind is a modern retake on the biological basis, or neural correlates, of consciousness. The foundational, and in my estimation most important, idea in this new work is the functional role of homeostasis and its emergent role in creating the biological value of life regulation—which he says is the most fundamental value, with all higher-level values being traced, directly or indirectly, back to it in some way. As the organism grows in complexity to the point of possessing a brain, they are able to construct maps of the body in order to monitor homeostatic ranges, among other things. Eventually, these maps come to be able to correspond to events and ideas rather than simply the organism itself (his concept of convergence-divergence zones is crucial here, and I suspect it will come to be foundational in studies of further NCCs). As the title suggests, Damasio suggests that the turning point in the evolution from mere mind to conscious mind comes when a coherent protagonist, or self process, is added to the mix. This centering self process allows the organism to better adapt to its environment, plan ahead, and eventually, reflect on itself in more abstract terms.

Damasio takes one chapter aside to speak specifically to the issue of Qualia, and provides some tenable arguments for relating his proposed biological mechanisms to the phenomenal experiences discussed elsewhere, though the arguments are in no way complete. This may be of interest to those with a philosophical bent.

tl;dr, and in summary: this is a bold book, worth reading for anyone interested in learning more about the biological basis of consciousness. It is complex in its ideas, but simple enough to be understood at a basic level with even the most basic of understandings of brain science (the appendix provides a sufficient background in brain architecture for the purposes of the book).