June 10, 2020

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Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
by Christof Koch.
MIT Press, 2012 (i-xii, 181 pages)

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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-

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-

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-

note = "A habitual misperception is that science first rigorously defines the phenomena it studies, then uncovers the principles that govern them. Historically, progress in science is made without precise, axiomatic formulations. (page 33)

note = "Scientists work with malleable, ad hoc definitions that they adapt as better knowledge becomes available. Such working definitions guide discussion and experimentation and permit different research communities to interact, enabling progress." (page 33)

note = "ln this spirit, let me offer four definitions of consciousness. Like the Buddhist fable of the blind men, each describing different aspects of the same elephant, each captures an important facet of consciousness, with none of them painting a complete picture:" (page 33)
    [1] "A commonsense definition equates consciousness with our inner, mental life. Consciousness begins when we wake up in the morning and continues throughout the day until we fall into a dreamless sleep. Consciousness is present when we dream but is exiled during deep sleep, anesthesia, and coma. And it is permanently gone in death. Ecclesiastes (in the Christian Holy Bible) had it right: 'For the living know that they shall die but the dead know not anything'." (page 33)

    [2] "A behavioral definition of consciousness is a checklist of actions or behaviors that would certify as conscious any organism that could do one or more of them. Emergency room personnel quickly assess the severity of a head injury using the Glasgow Coma Score. It assigns a number to a patient's ability to control his or her eyes, limbs, and voice. A combined score of 3 corresponds to coma, and a 15 marks the patient as fully conscious. Intermediate values correspond to partial impairment." (page 33)

    [3] "A neuronal definition of consciousness specifies the minimal physiologic mechanisms required for any one conscious sensation. Medical clinicians know, for example, that if the brainstem is impaired, consciousness is dramatically reduced and may be absent altogether, leading to a vegetative state. (page 34)

    Another condition necessary for any one specific conscious sensation is an active and functioning cortico-thalamic complex. This complex includes, first and foremost, the neocortex and the closely allied thalamus underneath it." (page 34)

    [4] "The philosophical definition is that 'consciousness is what it is like to feel something.' What it feels like to have a specific experience can only be known by the organism having the experience. This what-it-feels-like-from-within perspective expresses the principal, irreducible trait of phenomenal awareness; namely, to experience something, anything!" (page34)
"None of these four definitions is foundational. None describes in unequivocal terms what it takes for any system to be conscious. But, for practical purposes, the behavioral and neuronal definitions are the most useful." (page 34)

"Ask most people what they believe to be the defining feature of consciousness and most will point to self-awareness. To be conscious of yourself, to worry about your child's illness, to wonder why you feel despondent or why a person may have provoked your jealousy is taken to be the pinnacle of sentience." (page 36)

"People with widespread degeneration of the front of the cerebral cortex have substantial cognitive, executive, emotional, and planning deficits, coupled with a lack of insight into their abysmal condition. Yet their perceptual abilities are usually preserved. They see, hear, and smell, and are aware of their percepts." (page 38)

"Self-consciousness is part and parcel of consciousness. It is a special form of awareness that is not concerned with the external world, but is directed at internal states, reflections about them, and reflections upon such reflections. (page 38)

This recursiveness makes it a peculiarly powerful mode of thinking." (page 38)

"Another singular human trait is speech. True language enables Homo sapiens to represent, manipulate, and disseminate arbitrary symbols and concepts. (pages 38-39)

The primacy of language for most aspects of civilized life has given rise to a belief among philosophers, linguists, and [humanists] that consciousness is impossible without language." (page 39)

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-

"Discovering and characterizing the neural correlates of consciousness by homing in on the relevant neuronal circuits" is the focus of contemporary brain research, expecially research on vision. (page 44)

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-

6) In which I defend two propositions that my younger self found nonsense: [1] You are unaware of most of the things that go on in your head, and [2] Zombie agents control much of your life, even though you confidently believe that you are in charge. (75-

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-

8) In which I argue that consciousness is a fundamental property of complex things, rhapsodize about Integrated Information Theory ["ITT"], how it explains many puzzling facts about consciousness and provides a blueprint for building sentient machines. (113-

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-

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-


INDEX (179-

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR = Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He is the leader of a large-scale effort to build brain observatories to map, analyze and understand the brain of mice and humans. His new book is "Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist" (MIT Press). Also he has written a text book called "The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach" and other books. He is a neuroscientist best known for his studies and writings, which explore the basis of consciousness. He started his own quest by working with the famous molecular biologist Francis Crick more than a quarter of a century ago (Crick & Koch 1990). Christof trained as a physicist and he was a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology for 27 years.

Christof is a frequent public speaker and writes a regular column for Scientific American and/or Scientific American Mind. He is married and is an outspoken advocate of the advantages of being a vegetarian. He lives in Seattle and loves big dogs (his current canine companion is a Bernese Mountain Dog) and rowing in Lake Washington as well as climbing and biking.

SUMMARY = This engaging book --- part scientific overview, part memoir, part futurist speculation --- describes Christof Koch's search for an empirical explanation for consciousness.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = 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. 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 and his instinctual belief that life is meaningful. The book is an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience to discover the roots of consciousness.

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LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = 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 Library.

CHOICE REVIEW = Those familiar with the neuroscientific literature are no strangers to the works of Koch (California Inst. of Technology). He firmly established his position in neuroscience via earlier work with Francis Crick, and later with the publication of The Quest for Consciousness). 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. Not shirking detail or development, Koch explores such issues as the nature of self-consciousness and why it may be overrated; how attention and consciousness differ; a demythologized account of freedom of the will; the unusual nature of "concept neurons"; and finally, how it is that the subjective nature of experience can be reconciled with an objective understanding thereof.

In addition to making such hefty topics easily accessible, Koch considers the costs associated with the enormous success of recent neuroscientific research --- costs to one's sense of self, belief in God, and perhaps even one's traditional way of life. 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. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers. H. Storl Augustana College (IL)

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