The mystery of the mind is a beautiful one with depths far from completely explored. Due to the lack of sufficient tech, it seems we know about as much of consciousness as we do of the deep ocean or space. However the tech has come a long way and results are slowly trickling in giving experts a better understanding of Consciousness. Even though our knowledge of it is shallow you will not come away from this book feeling like there wasn't much to learn. On the contrary, you'll learn enough about the competing theories to believe you're able to form your own opinion on the matter share it with your uncle at the next family gathering. Harris does a great job of clarifying and explaining the expanded frontier to curious newbies. I never felt confused or bored while reading this book. A common flaw in the Science genre. Just excited. You can tell, as a science editor, Harris has a unique position to see all the competing theories objectively. It makes for a fantastic lesson of the minds' inner workings.
🚀This Book in 3 Bullets
A science editor takes a broader look into the mysteries of consciousness in an effort to answer 2 questions:
In a system that we know has conscious experiences (the human brain), what evidence of consciousness can we detect from the outside? &
Is consciousness essential to our behavior?
*She defines consciousness "An organism is conscious if there is something that it's like to be that organism" Pg.5
Harris challenges normal views of consciousness, asking the reader to open up to ideas that might go against conventional thought. She shows us that consciousness is not only a human characteristic and there are many reasons to think it could be present in everything. We often pair consciousness with thinking (the internal voice) however that's probably only because we have language and may not relate to consciousness being present. We discover that there is no current answer to question#1 and there may never be one and the answer to #2 is NO, there are many circumstances where it is not essential to the behavior of a human.
There are two leading theories on the frontiers of consciousness that she narrows in on:
Theory of Emergence is conventional and is explained by consciousness emerging from biological evolution at some point in our history - basically that there's a point in evolution in which animals obtain consciousness. This means that there may be animals, plants or bacteria on Earth that don't have consciousness but this naturally begs for further questioning... Like when does it emerge, how would we know when it emerges and why, if other animals have sensory inputs (like touch, sight, etc.), would they not have a focus of experience for those inputs.
Panpsychism which is the more taboo theory but also may be the dark horse (and seems like Annaka's favorite) that explains that all matter has consciousness. It gets a little weird when we begin thinking of metal, wood, and particles as having a form of consciousness however it's strengthened by the Theory of Emergence's inability to prove the 3 questions posed. Plus, if one opens up to it, it seems to fit the current understanding of consciousness better than any other. Harris warns us not to run away to much with this theory though, which could be easy to do. Saying everything has consciousness may only extend to a focus of sensations provided by sensory inputs which means there has to be inputs... so your dining table isn't plotting against you in the way you might think. My fascination with this theory is it's consequences to how we think about plants. Would we treat plants closer to animals if we knew they experienced external sensations in a similar way?
🕵️♀️Who Should Read It?
I think this book would be great to anyone. It's a beginners guide into something we can all relate to and its implications will make everyone second guess their reality. It's a fun read and at 110 pages, very easy to commit to the finish.
📜Book Summary & Lessons
Consciousness doesn't appear to emerge only in in the frontal lobes, instead it begins at the stem of the brain and develops alongside our evolution. All evidence suggests it was there from the beginning.
Umwelt - A term created by Jacob Von Uexkull (1909) to describe a given experience to any particular animal based on it's senses used to navigate it's environment.
The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining why any physical state is conscious rather than nonconscious. It is the problem of explaining why there is “something it is like” for a subject in conscious experience, why conscious mental states “light up” and directly appear to the subject.
Our brain is always creating logic to ascribe reason to our perceptions, actions and emotions.
The term Qualia refers to the "experiential qualities of consciousness that we can label, such as what it's like to see the colour blue or feel something blue"
“Our experience of consciousness is so intrinsic to who we are, we rarely notice that something mysterious is going on. Consciousness is experience itself, and it is therefore easy to miss the profound question staring us in the face in each moment: Why would any collection of matter in the universe be conscious?” Pg. 3
"Thinking about consciousness can spark the same kind of pleasure we get from contemplating the nature of time or the origin of matter, invoking a deep curiosity about ourselves and the world around us." Pg. 3
“Why do certain configurations of matter cause that matter to light up with awareness?”
The best definition of consciousness "An organism is conscious if there is something that it's like to be that organism" Pg.5
"Sure, consciousness is a matter of matter - what else could it be, since that's what we are - but still, the fact that some hunks of matter have an inner life... is unlike any other properties of matter we have yet encountered, much less accounted for. The laws of matter in motion can produce this, all this? Suddenly, matter wakes up and takes in the world? Pg. 7 (Quoted from Rebecca Goldstein - The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Solitude of the Poet)
"Your Perception of reality is the end result of fancy editing tricks: the brain hides the difference in arrival times. How? What it serves up as reality is actually a delayed version. Your brain collects up all the information from the senses before it decides upon a story of what happens... The strange consequence of all this is that you live in the past. By the time you think the moment occurs, it's already long gone. To synchronize the incoming information from the senses, the cost is that our conscious awareness lags behind the physical world." Pg. 26 (Quoted from David Eagleman - The Brain: The Story of You)
"We believe consciousness provides us with freewill but this is more of an illusion. In reality we are unable to choose what we Will and therefore are a victim of the source of the Will" Pg. 29
"We are often blind to the complex array of forces at play in the behavior taking place around us. One can't help but wonder what's truly driving our own desires & personality traits." Pg. 40
“being on the earth doesn’t separate us from the rest of the universe; indeed, we are and have always been in outer space.”
"It seems to me more fruitful to think of consciousness not as something with sharp edges that is suddenly arrived at once one reaches the very top of mental functioning, but as a process that is gradual, rather than all or nothing, and begins low down in the brain... Consciousness is not a bird, as it often seems to be in the literature - hovering, detached, coming in at the top level and alighting on the brain somewhere in the frontal lobes - but a tree, its roots deep inside us." Pg. 61 (Quoted from Iain McGilchrist - The Master and His Emissary)
"If you take a more conceptual approach to consciousness, the evidence suggests there are many more systems that have consciousness - possibly all animals, all unicellular bacteria, and at some level maybe even individual cells that have an autonomous existence. We might be surrounded by consiousness everwhere and find it in places where we don't expect it because our intuition says we'll only see it in people and maybe monkeys and also dogs and cats. But we know our intuition is fallible, which is why we need science to tell us what the actual state of the universe is." Pg. 76 (Quoted from Christof Koch in an interview)
"So if it's plausible that worms or bacteria (or thermostats!) are accompanied by some level of consciousness, however minimal and unlike our own experience, why not follow the same logic when it comes to organs in the body? ...(in the field of neuroscience) It is considered a risk to one's reputation to suggest that consciousness might exist outside the brain." Pg. 79-80
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