July 19, 2019

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How the New Science of
Consciousness Explains Our
Insatiable Search for Meaning.

by Daniel Bor.
Basic Books, 2012 (326 pages).

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2) A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BRAIN — Evolution and the science of thought (35-77)

3) THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG — Unconscious limits (79-108)

4) PAY ATTENTION TO THAT PATTERN! Conscious contents (109-156)

5) THE BRAIN'S EXPERIENCE OF A ROSE — Neuroscience of awareness (157-194)

[1] Quit while you're ahead? (157-158)

[2] My conscious mind is my conscious brain (158-159)

[3] Opening the floodgates (159-162)

[4] Blindsight patients leading you up a blind alley (162-164)

[5] Visual highways toward consciousness (164-168)

[6] Scanning consciousness as candles become faces (168-171)

[7] Patients and the prefrontal parietal network's official job (171-174)

[8] Consciousness shrinking to a small point (174-176)

[9] Brain-scanning the prefrontal parietal network (176-178)

note: Now it is thought by brain researchers that working memory, attention, long-term memory, mental arithmetic, reasoning and so on, are not independent mental processes. In other words, almost all types of thought and memory are linked. (176-177)

note: use top two paragraphs to summarize (177)

[10] The prefrontal parietal network, consciousness, and chunking (178-184)

[11] Harmonious experiences (184-186)

[12] Consciousness, in theory (186-193)

note: use bottom paragraph on 186 and top paragraph on 187 (186-187)

note: use Tononi's theory of "information integration" (192-193)

note: comment at bottom of 192 about Tononi's brave new scientific theory of philosophical problem of subjectivity based on science (192-193)

[13] Explaining experiences (193-194)

note: use bottom of 193 to indicate:
    "The blind struggle for survival and reproduction is a pressure to gather information."
It is this delicate dance between genes and the cultural environment that is the source of your brainpower. (193)

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SEE INSERT PICTURES --- 9 brain illustrations or ("figures") are inserted between pages 158 and 159

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6) BEING BIRD-BRAINED IS NOT AN INSULT — Uncovering alien consciousness (195-220)

7) LIVING ON THE FRAGILE EDGE OF AWARENESS — Profound brain damage and disorders of consciousness (221-234)

8) CONSCIOUSNESS SQUEEZED, STRETCHED, AND SHRUNK — Mental illness as abnormal awareness (235-264)

EPILOGUE — A delicious life (265-271)



ILLUSTRATION CREDITS --- Nine figures are inserted between pages 158-159 (307)

INDEX (309-326)
    Brain (310-311)
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AUTHOR NOTE = Daniel Bor is a research fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and the Department of Informatics at the University of Sussex, UK. He previously spent more than a decade working as a cognitive neuroscientist in the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. Bor lives in Cambridge, England.

SUMMARY = Writing in a lively, personal voice, neuroscientist Bor explains recent revelations in the study of human consciousness in terms accessible to most general readers, gently leading the reader through increasingly complex material and integrating personal stories of his father's stroke and his wife's bipolar disorder. Formerly a graduate student of philosophy, Bor now abandons the philosophical perspective of consciousness in favor of the neuroscience perspective. In addition to synthesizing his own original research with other new research and theory, he describes the latest hope for treating brain injury and mental illness and recommends techniques such as brain training and meditation to remain sharp and stress-free.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Consciousness is our gateway to experience: it enables us to recognize Van Gogh's starry skies, be enraptured by Beethoven's Fifth, and stand in awe of a snowcapped mountain. Yet consciousness is subjective, personal, and famously difficult to examine: philosophers have for centuries declared this mental entity so mysterious as to be impenetrable to science.

In the book, neuroscientist Daniel Bor departs sharply from this historical view, and builds on the latest research to propose a new model for how consciousness works. He argues that this brain-based faculty evolved as an accelerated knowledge gathering tool. Consciousness is effectively an idea factory—that choice mental space dedicated to innovation, a key component of which is the discovery of deep structures within the contents of our awareness.

"This model explains our brains' ravenous appetite for information—and in particular, its constant search for meaningful patterns."

Why, for instance, after all of our physical needs have been met, do we recreationally solve crossword or Sudoku puzzles? Such behavior may appear biologically wasteful, but, according to Bor, this search for structure can yield immense evolutionary benefits — it led our ancestors to discover fire and farming, pushed modern society to forge ahead in science and technology, and guides each one of us to understand and control the world around us. But the sheer innovative power of human consciousness carries with it the heavy cost of mental fragility.

Bor discusses the medical implications of his theory of consciousness, and what it means for the origins and treatment of psychiatric ailments, including attention-deficit disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression, and autism. All mental illnesses, he argues, can be reformulated as disorders of consciousness — a perspective that opens up new avenues of treatment for alleviating mental suffering.
    "A controversial view of consciousness, This book links cognition to creativity in an ingenious solution to one of science's biggest mysteries."
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PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW = Human consciousness, as described by Bor, a neuroscientist and research fellow at the University of Sussex, is an evolutionary outgrowth of the brain's search for information and uncovering patterns in the world around us. He argues compellingly that this confers an evolutionary advantage and that "it evolved, like almost everything else in nature, in an incremental way."

Bor goes on to explain the mechanisms the brain uses to increase its efficacy at this task, focusing most on the concept of chunking, or finding ways to bring coherence to a large amount of data.

Though others have capably presented the relationship between brain and mind, and the functions of various portions of the brain, Bor does it so effectively that the material remains fresh. He explores how our brains differ both from computer programs and from other animals (such as apes, crows, and octopi) that are also self-aware.
    "Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world."
Bor balances neuroscience with comparative biology, and philosophy with psychology while writing in a fully engaging conversational style. Agent: Peter Tallack, the Science Factory (U.K.).

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[1] New Scientist = In the book, Bor takes us on a tour of the fascinating world of consciousness research ... Bor's engaging and knowledgeable prose, liberally sprinkled with personal vignettes and coupled with a knack for explaining complex concepts in everyday language, make this a book well worth reading."

[2] Scientific American Mind = Bor manages to pack a great deal of information… into a small book. He presents a sweeping overview of how the brain evolved, from the primordial soup to present day, and argues that consciousness could actually be generated in nonbiological substrates such as computers ... An intriguing perspective to our growing understanding of how the human mind works."

[3] Nature = "As scientific enterprises go, cracking consciousness is up there with deciphering dark matter. Neuroscientist Daniel Bor dives into the conundrum with relish ... Intriguing arguments abound."

[4] Science News = "Bor's knack for bolstering personal examples with laboratory studies makes this a thought-provoking read. His ideas are tantalizing."

[5] Times Higher Education Supplement = The book offers a meaningful explanation of what we do in trying to find meaning in everything. And what we do mentally (in other words, cerebrally) is what we are: conscious — too conscious — beings. The book's theoretical claims have the potential to escape the popular science box and enter the real world of wet cognitive neuroscience. I hope it happens, and I hope Bor writes more books."

[6] Kirkus Reviews = "[A] lively look at what research is revealing about consciousness and a view of some of the ethical implications of recent findings about the brain's ‘ravenous appetite for wisdom' . . . Bor keeps general readers in mind, making challenging subject matter entertaining by peppering his narrative with personal anecdotes, imaginative thought experiments and probing research studies . . . An enthusiastic report from the front lines of cognitive science designed to pique the interest of nonscientists."

[7] Publishers Weekly = "Though others have capably presented the relationship between brain and mind, and the functions of various portions of the brain, Bor does it so effectively that the material remains fresh . . . Bor balances neuroscience with comparative biology, and philosophy with psychology while writing in a fully engaging conversational style."

[8] John Duncan (Medical Research Council, Cambridge, and author of How Intelligence Happens) = "In his presentation of the modern science of consciousness, Daniel Bor is luminous, charming and at the same time deep and original. He is that rare combination — a genuine scientist who knows his stuff and a writer in love with words."

[9] Simon Baron-Cohen (Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge, and author of the book, the Science of Evil) = "Daniel Bor takes on the most challenging of topics, the nature of conscious experience, bringing to bear his unique combination of personal motivation (from having witnessed the psychologically disabling effects of his father's stroke), his deep knowledge of philosophy, and his everyday experience as a cognitive neuroscientist. In so doing, he brings consciousness down to earth, taking it apart to make it scientifically tractable. He has provided a valuable service to those in the separate fields of philosophy and neuroscience by his highly readable integration of these fields."

[10] Chris Frith (Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology, Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, and author of Making up the Mind) = "Reading books about the science of consciousness I am often left with the feeling that our mental life is some kind of unnecessary froth that arises by magic. This book is refreshingly different. Here, at last, consciousness is seen in the light of evolution and is treated as something that is intensely practical and useful."

[11] Elaine Fox (Professor of Psychology, University of Essex, and author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain) = "Weaving the personal and the scientific, The Ravenous Brain is a wonderful exposé of the science behind our consciousness."

[12] Adrian Owen (Professor, The Brain and Mind Institute, University of Western Ontario0 = "Bor serves up the real science as effortlessly as he describes his own experiences and thoughts. If you've ever thought about consciousness, then you'll love this account of the ‘hard problem' in all its guises. And if you've never thought about consciousness, then this is where you should start."

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[1] Review by Warren R. Grayson (September 24, 2012) = One of the best books in Neuroscience. With the release of so many books on the brain, consciousness, and neuroscience these days, it is a bit difficult to decide which one to choose. That said, this is definitely one of my top picks; there are three main reasons why I would recommend this book by Daniel Bor.

First, the writing is superb. Secondly, Bor did an excellent job of hitting the high points in the long history of Philosophy of Mind. Thirdly, I really admired the due regard Bor has given to Evolution and the critical role that evolution has played in shaping the way our brain really works. I believe this book is surely an all-around top pick when contrasted with several books on the brain, such as: Thinking, Fast and Slow, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, or Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions.

Below are some of my favorite quotes:

(a) "This book is shamelessly about the science of consciousness. Every chapter except this one [Chapter 1] will explore the evolutionary background and psychological and neural mechanisms of our own experiences. But questions about the relationship between the mind and body have been fiercely debated in philosophical circles for well over two thousand years. In fact, only in the past two decades has there been a clearly visible consciousness research field. It would therefore be remiss of me in a book on consciousness to ignore the major philosophical debates, which are such a well-established ancestral influence of consciousness science. I will firmly assert, however, that these philosophical arguments, which rely so heavily on abstract logic for ammunition, as they neglect the scientific enterprise, provide very limited insights into consciousness, and can be positively misleading."

(b) "The similarities between the scientific method and biological evolution are surprisingly close because of the common underlying theme of information. The scientific method is concerned with data almost by definition. But perhaps not so obvious is the fact that the progression of scientific thinking is an evolutionary process: a preexisting idea mutates unexpectedly into a profound new theory, which captures something deep about the world, and gathers popularity, but always in competition with an array of differing hypotheses. It will continue to survive only if the proponents of rival theories fail to explain the world more accurately or to convince the minds of the collective scientific community to bank on their ideas instead. In this way, various species of useful potential information about our universe may emerge, thrive, and eventually die out, as if they were real biological species. A more surprising notion is that all life is itself an implicit scientific enterprise, albeit one that cares only for information relevant to survival and reproduction, rather than anything whatsoever that is intriguing about the wider universe . . . The main thesis of this book is that consciousness simply is a certain kind of processing of information, especially information that is useful, that captures some pattern to the world."

(c) "Instead, a more parsimonious way to describe evolution may be that it is an active competition of ideas for survival, with those concepts more accurately capturing relevant details of the world being more likely to persist. This is a deliberate overgeneralization - such a definition would include fields such as the scientific enterprise and capitalism. Crucially, though, for biological evolution, although this perspective shares the assertion with the selfish-gene position that organisms may just be stepping stones for something more central to persist through time, this ideas-centric definition places no limits on the domain in which evolution works, potentially applying to any level at which ideas compete."

(d) "The more accurately we represent the structures of the universe, the more control we gain over the environment and ourselves. This is true both in terms of scientists, research, and technology and from an evolutionary point of view. Both have benefitted from the invention of incredibly powerful hypothesis testers. In humans, the connection between scientific research and our fundamental intellectual qualities seems so similar as to be trivial, but we came in the first place to these incredible mental faculties precisely because of evolution favoring accurate information processing, almost by definition, ever since the first proto-life creatures emerged in the oceans."

In summary, this is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it, if you are even remotely interested in the human brain and what makes us conscious creatures, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It really is outstanding. This book has Amazon's "Search Inside" feature and many pages of this book are available for preview. Please take advantage of this and review the table of contents and browse through the available pages. I have read a lot of books on human psychology, the brain, and neuroscience, and without question this is one of my favorites. The writing is excellent and the author provides a good overview of how science has begun to identify the way brains produce consciousness. The ideas within are well supported and the author builds a fairly compelling argument. You simply will not go wrong with this book.

[2] Review by Ninakix = I adored this book. It is a really clever, insightful exploration of consciousness. You can tell that the book was written not by a science journalist, but by an actual brain scientist. The quality of that thinking was reflected in the way that the book was not shy about jumping into a range of problematic issues such as: What is consciousness? Are other animals conscious? Can computers become conscious? Is there such a thing as free will?, and Are our brains separate from our bodies?

The book does not side with one particular theory of consciousness above or beyond other options. The book is dense, but not in the writing as much as the way that serious thinking about this topic requires a kind of mental gymnastics. Still, it was captivating and insightful during the whole way through. It was never boring.


Daniel Bor


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