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Lit Review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

A truncated version of this post first appeared in issue 14 of The Neurotransmitter

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Christof Koch

MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2012

Bart: What is the mind?  Is it just a system of impulses or is it… something tangible?

Homer: Relax.  What is mind?  No matter.  What is matter?  Never mind!

– The Simpsons, “Good Night,” 1987.

The nature of the mind is a philosophical topic as old as philosophy itself.  Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and other historical thinkers shared ideas about the mind that remain influential today.  Many of these ideas laid the foundation of modern neuroscience, as scientists established that the mind is a product of the brain.  To understand the mind we must therefore understand the brain, and this has proven to be one of the greatest challenges science has ever encountered.

There was intense debate late into the twentieth century about whether it was even possible to study the physical relationship between the mind and the brain.  Out of this debate emerged a new problem dealing with consciousness: what must happen in the brain for our awareness of the world to arise?  And more importantly, why do these internal brain events cause us to experience the world around us?  This so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness attracted scientists from the burgeoning field of cognitive neuroscience in the 1980s and 90s, with Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology among them.  While working closely with his friend and mentor Francis Crick—the co-discoverer of the double helical structure of DNA—Koch became one of the pioneering neuroscientists in the study of consciousness during a time when most considered it a fringe subject.  In his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, Koch offers a personal account of his life’s work and his goal of understanding the origins of the mind.

The opening chapters of Consciousness relay some anecdotes that helped shape Koch’s scientific quest.  Here he manages to portray himself as someone many in science can relate to: an earnest, romantic nerd.  The content of some passages may border on the mundane, but the tone of Koch’s writing is kept refreshingly personal, reminding readers he is a flesh-and-blood creature with real motives and desires.  These chapters are indeed a large reason for the book’s subtitle Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.  Koch’s “confession” is that he was drawn to the study of consciousness by his desire to justify his instinctual belief that life is meaningful. “By giving the study of consciousness my all and failing in this endeavor, I was going to demonstrate to my own satisfaction that science is inadequate to the task of fully understanding the nature of the mind-body divide.”  He concludes his confession with an enticing spoiler: “In the end, this is not how it turned out.”

Religion played a very influential role in motivating Koch to become a scientist, and he emphasizes its importance to his childhood in the book’s endearingly candid second chapter.  The liberal, though devout, Catholic tradition in which he was raised provided a framework for fulfilling his curiosity about the natural world that was both intuitive and comforting.  But as Koch grew older it became more difficult for him to reconcile his religious beliefs with the naturalistic stance of his profession.  He admits to an internal conflict between faith and reason that persisted well into his career, and was resolved only in recent years by abandoning his belief in God.  However, a pervasive theme in Consciousness is Koch’s view that there must be something grander in the laws of the universe that science has not yet fully illuminated.  He projects a sense that his religious conviction is not quite fully lost, and whatever remnant he retains is in part driving his research.  As he says, “I lost my childhood faith, yet I’ve never lost my abiding faith that everything is as it should be!  I feel deep in my bones that the universe has meaning that we can realize.”

Despite his apparent reluctance to fully divorce himself from his Catholic background, Koch is still foremost a scientist and demands evidence.  “Let the conversation turn to consciousness, and everybody chimes in, on the assumption that they are all entitled to their own pet theory in the absence of pertinent facts.  Nothing could be further from the truth,” he forcefully asserts, as if to reassure wary, scientifically minded readers.  The central argument Koch makes is that modern neuroscience now possesses the tools to investigate consciousness, therefore elevating its status from fringe or pseudoscience into a legitimate scientific field of inquiry. Koch’s and Crick’s own research focus is in what they termed the “neural correlates of consciousness”—the minimum neuronal activity sufficient to generate a specific conscious percept—and they probed the primary visual pathway in search of these.  He makes it clear, however, that they are far from the only scientists at work.  Much attention is given to Naotsugu Tsuchiya’s work with fMRI and the technique of continuous flash suppression.  Later chapters describe case studies by neurologists on peculiar perceptual defects like prosopagnosia (face-blindness) and akinetopsia (motion-blindness), as well as the brain’s subconscious “zombie agents” that control much of our lives from beyond our awareness.  The discussion of consciousness progresses from practical to theoretical when Koch introduces neuroscientist Giulio Tononi and his Integrated Information Theory, praising it as the most promising fundamental theory of consciousness yet.

Perhaps the most fascinating parts of Consciousness are in its seventh chapter, in which Koch “throws caution to the wind” and expounds upon one of the more abstract concepts to emerge with the study of the mind: free will.  The question of whether humans are truly agents of free will has tormented philosophers for centuries.  The intuitive answer to most is of course we have free will, meaning the power to behave and make decisions of our own volition.  René Descartes was a strong proponent of this view, as was Koch as a younger man.  Remarkably, data from modern neuroscience refute this classical notion of free will.  Koch points to the work of physiologist Benjamin Libet, who famously showed that EEG can detect activity in the motor cortex, called a readiness potential, up to half a second before a person feels the decision to initiate a movement.  Further compelling work by psychologist David Wegner seemed to confirm these results, and convinced Koch to adopt a new position on free will.  Nevertheless, he stops short of believing that behavior is fully determined by physical laws using what some readers may consider specious reasoning.  He cites the chaotic orbit of Pluto, which makes it impossible to predict its future position along its orbit, along with the quantum uncertainty principle as proof that natural laws are inadequate to account for all human behavior.  What Koch does not mention is that Pluto’s orbit is chaotic largely because its tiny mass (in relation to the other planets of the Solar System) precludes it from clearing its orbit, leaving it forever vulnerable to the perturbations of as-yet unseen, distant objects.   Nor does he offer any insight into whether quantum indeterminacy does or does not measurably affect behavior.  Even so, Koch is by no means a minority figure as a prominent holder of a compatibilist view of free will (Daniel Dennett readily comes to mind), and his thoughtful treatment of the subject is among the best qualities of Consciousness.

Koch’s discussions of the science avoid sounding pedantic and mostly tie into the theme that small chunks of gray and white matter are responsible for encoding very specific pieces of conscious content.  Readers lacking an introduction to basic neuroscience may struggle with these segments of the book, but Koch lucidly conveys the significance of these discoveries to his target audience, with a palpable sense of excitement.  One shortcoming of the book, however, is the deficiency of new perspective Koch offers with respect to the science he describes.  It often seems as though the opinions he expresses are non-committal or incipient, especially toward his personal feelings on the relationship between science and religion, but this may simply be his inner scientist revealing itself to readers.  Broaching subjects as personal as these, considered off-limits to formal scientific discourse, certainly requires a degree of bravery, just as embarking on a quest to understand the nature of consciousness once did.  On this topic, Koch is perfectly clear: thanks to the tools of modern neuroscience, we are much further along in the study of consciousness than Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Homer Simpson ever were.  Overall, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is an engaging, succinct introduction to the study of the mind by someone who should be easily relatable to many young scientists and students of neuroscience.