September 14, 2020

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Exploring the complexity
of brain, mind, and self

by Paul L. Nunez.
Prometheus Books,
2016 (350 pages)

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PREFACE (9-12)


This book addresses both the 'easy' and 'hard' problems of consciousness. The hard problem is the question: "How can subjective experience arise from activity in the brain?" It is arguably the greatest question in science.

Nunez uses carefully chosen analogues and metaphors instead of equations in the body of the book. He asks: What do we know?; What do we only think we know?; and What can we perhaps never know?

Using human social networks as a metaphor, the author explains how brain behavior can be compared with the collective behavior of large-scale global systems. Emergent global systems that interact and form relationships with lower levels of organization and the surrounding environment provide useful models for complex brain functions.

Does the brain create the mind? Or is Mind already out there? Nunez lets you decide.



4) STATES OF MIND (109-137)

note = "Consciousness presents itself as a continuous range of mental states from full alertness and comprehension, through the medical states of disorientation, delirium, loss of meaningful communication, and even the absence of movement in response to painful stimuli. Immediate issues of practical concern include assessment of the consciousness in severely ill, comatose, or anesthetized patients and how to treat impaired consciousness." (page 111)


Definitions of Consciousness: This book assumes that people view human consciousness as one of the following:
    1) Nothing but a byproduct of sensory, motor, and memory information processing, essentially saying that the hard problem is just an illusion;

    2) Something mystical that lies beyond scientific purview, implying that the hard problem is just too hard for us deal with;

    3) Explained by flaky ideas, pseudo quantum mechanics, or appeals to fuzzy theology.
Nevertheless, Nunez regards the brain as a "complex dynamic system of waves of electrical activity interacting at different rhythms and phases to process and filter information, to learn from experience, and to operate at an unconscious, pre-conscious, and conscious level."

Practically, consciousness can be assessed only by observing a person's arousal and responsiveness.

"All proposed definitions of consciousness are circular, suggesting that consciousness may be a fundamental property in the sense that electric charge is fundamental. One plausible definition of consciousness is 'the state of awareness of an external environment or of something within oneself; the ability to experience or feel.' Despite the difficulty with definition, consciousness is now considered to be a legitimate research topic in psychology and neuroscience." (page 135)

Consciousness involves "distributed dynamic patterns... essential to healthy mental functions" that include the two major cortical speech centers, Wernicke's area and Broca's area. (page 137)






GLOSSARY (331-344)
    Action potentials = Electrical signals that that travel along axons

    Alzheimer's disease




    Artificial intelligence (AI)



    Axon = the output fibers from neurons that end in synapses

    Binding problem

    Bottom-up interactions

    Brain rhythm

    Broca's area

    Brodmann region

    Callosal axons = Nerve fibers that connect the two brain hemispheres through the corpus callosom

    Cell assembly = A group of neurons acting as a single system over some time interval, essentially a "neural network" defined broadly

    Christmas-tree brain = A metaphorical tree with lights corresponding to active brain regions

    Circular causality = The combined bottom-up and top-down interactions across spatial scales

    Classical physics = Everything known about the physical world before 1905

    Coma = an unconscious state in which one cannot be awakened or respond to stimuli

    Connectome = The brain's wiring diagram over some range of spatial scales

    Consciousness = The state of awareness of an external environment or of something within oneself. The ability to experience or feel at some level. may or may not include self-awareness

    Consciousness signals

    Correlation = A predictive relationship between two variables

    Cortico-cortical column (CCC)

    Cortico-cortical fibers = The white matter axons that interconnect different parts of the cerebral cortex to itself

    Cybernetics = The scientific study of control and communication in animal or machine

    Dementia (senility) = A broad category of diseases that cause long-term reductions in thinking and memory abilities

    Determinism = A range of positions in which future events are fully or mostly determined by current conditions

    Dualism = The view that the mental and physical realms are distinct and separate aspects of reality

    Easy problem of consciousness = Finding relationships between states of mind and various molecular, chemical, metabolic, or other measures of brain activity called "signatures of consciousness"

    Emergence = The process of creating new large-scale features through the actions of smaller entities that do not possess these features in isolation


    Epistemology = A measure of the ways knowledge is acquired

    Free will = Our ability to make our own free choices with minimal constraint by deterministic influences

    Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)

    Global coherence

    Global workspace model

    Hard problem of consciousness = The deep mystery of explaining consciousness and self-awareness

    Hertz (Hz)

    Hormones = Chemical messengers that carry signals through the blood from the endocrine system to other cells in the body

    Inhibitory post-synaptic potential = A membrane change in a target neuron induced by a neurotransmitter, thereby making it more difficult for the target neuron to fire its own action potential

    Metaphor = a system that has some properties that remind us of a different system, a weaker relationship than an analogue

    Motor cortex = the region of the cerebral cortex that involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movementsl

    Myelination of an axon = the process by which special white matter cells wrap around an axon and increase the propogation speed of the axon action potential

    Neuron = Nerve cells that transmit signals to different parts of the brain and body



    Ontology = the ultimate nature of reality

    Perception = the awareness of something through the senses

    Preconscious = unconscious activity that that directly influences conscious behavior

    Prefrontal cortex = the front part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex

    Pyramidal cell = the most populous cortical neuron that is shaped like a tall tree with many "branches" (dendrites) and an extensive "root system" (axons)

    Reuptake = the reabsorption of a neurotransmitter into the pre-synaptic neuron

    Schizophrenia = an illness that causes severe mental disturbances

    Signatures of consciousness = In general use, consciousness correlates. In other words, any brain measurement reliably correlated with mental activity. In more-specific use, brain measurements that clearly distinguish conscious from unconscious experiences

    Somatosensory cortex = a cortical region reacting to sensory input from the skin, including touch, pain, and temperature stimuli

    Spatial scales = levels of organization

    Synapse = The end of an axon where neurotransmitters are stored and released

    Thought experiment = a mental process that considers the experimental consequences of some new idea


    Top-down interaction =
    the influence of large and emergent systems on smaller-scale systems

    Unconscious = Brain activity that lacks conscious awareness but may rise to the level of the pre-conscious

    Vetetive state (VS)


    Wernicke's area = a major language-understanding region located near the intersection of the temporal and parietal lobes

    White matter [Glial Cells] = The brain layer just below the cerebral cortex, consisting mostly of axons connecting different cortical locations to each other
NOTES (345-364)

INDEX (365-374)

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Paul L. Nunez is Emeritus Professor at Tulane University and heads a small consulting business (Cognitive Dissonance, LLC) that engages in brain physics and cognitive science research, mostly with the Cognitive Science Department at the University of California at Irvine. He has authored three technical books: Electric Fields of the Brain: The Neurophysics of EEG, 1981 (2nd edition with Ramesh Srinivasan of UCI, 2006) and Neocortical Dynamics and Human EEG Rhythms, 1995. Professor Nunez holds a Ph.D. in engineering physics and NIH-sponsored postdoctoral training in the neurosciences, both from the University of California at San Diego. Early in his career he held several positions in private industry, working on such disparate projects as spacecraft guidance, plasma instabilities, and controlled fusion.

This new book involves ideas from philosophy, religion, ethics, neuroscience, physics, engineering, and cosmology with personal stories and a little humor for enjoyable reading. What do we know, what do we only think we know, and what can we perhaps never know? Does the brain create the mind? Or is Mind already out there. The book lets you decide.

Professor Nunez has written about 100 scientific journal articles on EEG and related aspects of Complex Systems as well as many sections or chapters of edited books. A few of his more recent works are found in the following books: Multiscale Analysis and Nonlinear Dynamics: From Genes to the Brain, 2013 (Pesenson); Brain Computer Interfaces for Communication and Control, 2012 (Wolpaw); Encyclopedia of Behavioral Science, 2012 (Ramachandran); Quantitative EEG Analysis: Methods and Applications, 2009 (Tong and Thakor); Handbook of Brain Connectivity, 2007 (Jirsa and McIntosh); Encyclopedia of Nonlinear Science, 2005 (Scott); Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, 2004 (Adelman and Smith); Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, 2002 (Ramachandran); Analysis of Physiological Brain Functioning, 1999 (Uhl). Nunez was awarded the 2011 Pierre Gloor Award by the American Clinical Neurophysiological Society for his contributions to clinical research. He currently writes regular blog posts for Psychology Today (

Video on-line: PL Nunez, Neural models and their connections to experiments: A friendly reminder that fancy mathematics can never trump physical or biological principles. Brain Connectivity Workshop, Berlin, June 1-4, 2010. See regular Psychology Today blog posts on consciousness, for example, Brain Dynamic Patterns and the Mind. At what organizational level is consciousness "encoded?"

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Nunez's new book was published by Prometheus Books in November, 2016. This new book extends the ideas presented in the 2010 book, but softens the technical content to appeal to a broader audience. The equations in the 2010 book were replaced in the 2016 book by carefully chosen analogues and metaphors.

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This new addition of Nunez's 2010 book explains in layperson's terms a new approach to studying consciousness based on a partnership between neuroscientists and complexity scientists. The author, a physicist turned neuroscientist, outlines essential features of this partnership. The new science goes well beyond traditional cognitive science and simple neural networks, which are often the focus in artificial intelligence research. It involves many fields including neuroscience, artificial intelligence, physics, cognitive science, and psychiatry.

What causes autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease? How does our unconscious influence our actions? As the author shows, these important questions can be viewed in a new light when neuroscientists and complexity scientists work together. This cross-disciplinary approach also offers fresh insights into the major unsolved challenge of our age: the origin of self-awareness. Do minds emerge from brains? Or is something more involved?

Using human "social networks" as a metaphor, the author explains how brain behavior can be compared with the collective behavior of large-scale global systems. Emergent global systems that interact and form relationships with lower levels of organization and the surrounding environment provide useful models for complex brain functions.

By blending lucid explanations with illuminating analogies, this book offers the general reader a window into the latest exciting developments in brain research.

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[1] The question of consciousness — how subjective experience can arise from activity in the brain — is arguably the greatest question in science, so much so that it's become well known simply as the 'hard problem' ... Making explorations of this question accessible to a general audience is a hard problem in itself, but Paul Nunez manages to do just that. – The Lancet Neurology.

[2] It is rare to encounter such a readable and yet deep exploration of the nature of consciousness. The new book, New Science of Consciousness, draws on some of the most fascinating findings in fields as diverse as neuroscience, quantum mechanics, relativity, complexity theory, and the role of information as the fundamental underpinning of physical reality. Nunez demonstrates that the materialistic reductionist approach frequently used to dismiss or trivialize the 'hard problem' of consciousness is fundamentally flawed. He goes on to propose a fascinating and altogether more plausible 'multiscale conjecture' that opens the possibility of consciousness being encoded at multiple spatial and temporal scales of brain function and structure. A profound yet lucid contribution to one of the deepest questions facing science: the nature of consciousness." – Richard Silberstein, PhD, Professor Emeritus at Swinburne University, Melbourne, and chairman of Neuro-Insight.

[3] In the humble and highly illuminating manner of a master of several disciplines, Nunez shares his life's work on the relation between the dynamic (multiscale) patterns of the brain and mental states. His synthesis culminates in an enticing conjecture linking the physical and mental worlds that the 'new science' of consciousness ignores at its peril. – J. A. Scott Kelso, PhD, Creech Chair in Science, Florida Atlantic University, and professor of computational neuroscience, Ulster University.

[4] How does our conscious mental life arise in conjunction with neurophysiological processes going on in our brains? That vital question is the central target of this fine book, which is authored by one of the principal architects of contemporary brain theory and written in an engaging and informed style accessible to anyone who wants to get a general picture of what's going on in this rapidly emerging field--by which I mean not only what's already more or less agreed upon scientifically but also the potentially revolutionary new ideas that are just now coming over the horizon. Strongly recommended! – Edward F. Kelly, PhD, lead author of Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism.

[5] While consciousness remains one of the great-unsolved mysteries, there is a way to build a foundation of facts on which to base some reasonable theories as to its origin. Dr. Nunez refines his approach by first breaking things down into two distinct problems. The Easy Problem involves measuring the brain using established methods (EEG's, MRI's, et al.) and searching for relationships with our thoughts and behaviors. One caveat -modern physics warns us that some kinds of information are fundamentally unknowable, as in the "shadow world" of quantum mechanics. The Hard Problem, according to the author, involves first seeking the origins ofconsciousness itself, and then explaining all this to a non-scientist! How is it that 100 billion little nerve cells somehow give rise to consciousness? Analogies offer some assistance here, and a convenient example is human social systems. Brains, like culture, work top down and influences can come from both inside and outside; the process could be called "neuron sociology." It is in this latter quest for an explanation of consciousness that the scientist begins to flirt with his inner philosopher. – PW Smith, PhD, Blog Critics (online).

[6] What is consciousness? How is it that we are self-aware? "Do minds emerge from brains? Or is something more involved?" In his book, The New Science of Consciousness, brain research consultant and professor emeritus from Tulane University, Paul Nunez, does his best to answer these questions, specifically looking to science for what it can offer on both the "easy" and "hard" questions of consciousness. The book attempts to make the science of consciousness accessible and is a good choice for readers who are interested in the science that underlies consciousness studies.

Nunez understands that there is more to consciousness studies than strict science and discusses this tension at length, working to heal the divide between science and philosophy in this field. Even if consciousness emerges from brain complexity as believed by most scientists, the very existence of the phenomenon of self-awareness remains a deep mystery." – Constance Scharff PhD, New York Journal of Books (online).

[7] One of 8 science books you should read this fall.

[8] A thoroughly engaging, fascinating, and lively tour of the relationship between physics, complexity, and the mind. Challenging, innovative, and thought-provoking." – Todd E Feinberg, MD, coauthor of The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience.

[9] Nunez applies a mixture of philosophy and science to tackle the fundamental problem in neuroscience--consciousness and how the brain works to create mind. The thought-provoking book will open many readers' eyes to the new appreciation of the brain as a complex dynamic system of waves of electrical activity interacting at different rhythms and phases to process and filter information, to learn from experience, and to operate at an unconscious, pre-conscious, and conscious level. – R. Douglas Fields, PhD, neuroscientist and author of The Other Brain and Why We Snap.

[10] Paul L. Nunez is a leading expert on brain dynamics, particularly on the mechanisms of EEG generation. This volume is an impressive compendium of major current topics in physics, neuroscience, and cognitive science. From this foundation, Nunez attempts to build a link between the physical and mental worlds by adding consciousness to the unsolved problems of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. – György Buzsaki, PhD, author of Rhythms of the Brain.


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