From Brains to Consciousness:
Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind

Steven Rose (editor)

Penguin 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
The essays in From Brains to Consciousness progress — or, some will say, regress — from straight science to attempts to connect that science with philosophical concepts such as consciousness. The latter are not overly successful, demonstrating the extent of the gulf that still separates science and philosophy in this area. If vague or unconvincing, however, they are nevertheless thought-provoking.

The collection opens with two general essays on neurobiology (by John Parnavelas) and neurochemistry (by Trevor Robbins). On more specific topics, Larry R. Squire writes about memory and brain localisation, Tim Bliss about long term potentiation and the chemical basis for memory, and A. David Smith about aging and mental decline. These are all accessible introductions for the lay reader.

Moving onto more controversial topics, Richard Bentall looks at psychiatric classification and diagnosis and argues that there will never be a theory of schizophrenia. In the other direction Tim Crow lurches from a vague argument for a biological basis to "the schizophrenia mutation" and then attempts to tie together schizophrenia, language, and hemispherical asymmetry with specific genes. (Given Rose's antipathy to this kind of sociobiology, I wonder if he didn't include such an extreme example deliberately.)

Five essays attempt, in different ways, to connect neurobiology with consciousness. Roger Penrose offers his usual fare, mixing confusions about computability with speculative physics and arbitrary biochemistry to argue that no computer can understand. Richard Gregory argues that qualia are triggered by real-time afferent signals in order to distinguish them from memories ("flagging the present"). For Igor Aleksandr, a key component of consciousness is "iconic learning" in neural nets; for Susan Greenfield, a critical factor is the number of neurons corralled at any one time; and for Wolf Singer, consciousness and qualia have a social or cultural origin and can not, therefore, be understood as emergent properties of an isolated brain.

From Brains to Consciousness concludes with an essay by Mary Midgley that places consciousness in a broader epistemological framework, arguing for a diversity of approaches — "one world, but a big one".

September 1999

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%T From Brains to Consciousness
%S Essays on the New Sciences of the Mind
%E Rose, Steven
%I Penguin
%D 1998
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0713991674
%P x,278pp