“Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain. . .”

“Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness” is the title of a new book by Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley, that was published last month.  According to a review by Jonah Lehrer in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, the book touches on a number of themes I’m interested in: the mind/brain problem and neuroplasticity.

Some interesting excerpts from Lehrer’s review:

The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes. On the one hand, scientists tell us that we are nothing but 3 pounds of electrical flesh inside the skull, a trillion synapses exchanging squirts of neurotransmitter.

And yet we feel like more than the sum of these cells. We feel self-conscious, endowed with a mind that experiences the taste of a peach, and the redness of red, and the thrill of romantic love. The question of how the brain creates the mind – how these subjective experiences emerge from a piece of pale gray meat – is one of the essential questions of modern science. And yet, despite decades of research, we aren’t remotely close to an answer.

[. . .] consciousness remains a mystery because we’ve been looking in the wrong place. In his provocative and lucid new book, Noë writes that scientists have been so eager to locate the mind in the brain that they’ve neglected to consider the possibility that our mind might not be inside our head.

[. . .] he suggests that who we are and what we know is inseparable from where we are and what we’re doing: “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own,” Noë writes. “Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world. … It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.”

[. . .] he begins the book by comparing consciousness to a dollar bill. He notes that it would be silly to search for the physical correlates of “monetary value.” After all, the meaning of money isn’t in the paper, or the green ink, or the picture of George Washington. Instead, it exists in the institutions and practices that give the paper meaning. Similarly, our awareness of reality doesn’t depend entirely on what’s happening inside the brain, but is a side effect of how we, as individuals, interact with the wider world.

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