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Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist [Format Kindle]

Christof Koch
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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. This engaging book -- part scientific overview, part memoir, part futurist speculation -- describes Koch's search for an empirical explanation for consciousness. 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, <I>Der Ring des Nibelungen</I>, 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 -- to uncover the roots of consciousness.

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5.0 étoiles sur 5 Essentiel 14 juin 2013
Par belfont
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
Au cours de ces dix chapitres écrits dans une langue simple, claire et concise, Christof Koch évoque son parcours intellectuel, sa collaboration avec Francis Crick, et leurs recherches sur le fonctionnement du cerveau et sur l'élaboration de la conscience. Chemin faisant, l'auteur expose les questions auxquelles les philosophes et les scientifiques essayent de répondre depuis des siècles au sujet de la nature de la conscience et des différents niveaux de l'inconscient humain, ou animal.
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3.0 étoiles sur 5 A gem on consciousness but buried within a chatty memoir that disappoints 1 mai 2012
Par Sam Johnson - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
This book is really more an attempt at memoir than about consciousness as you might have surmised by its subtitle, "Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist." But that is how the book fails. It's hard to tell what the author intended here (although I have a notion). There are really three intertwined threads. One focuses on the study of consciousness and in this regard it's worth reading for the general reader or philosopher. It provides a generally interesting account of research and thought of what's been happening in the field over the last 30 years or so. The problem is that these nuggets are buried within a narrative of the author's life and also secondly the author's relationship with Francis Crick. The result is a very chatty book that is not necessarily very interesting. The parts on Francis Crick are fulsome references (the author is quite rightly enamored of his friendship with but annoyingly refers to him as Francis) to various ideas that they cogitated together. Now mind you Francis Crick would seem to be a fascinating figure well worth the subject of a book in its own right but Koch is no Boswell nor should you expect a research scientist to be one. So unfortunately the parts on Francis Crick are not fascinating anecdotes that bring him back to life as one would have liked but just serve to get in the way of what you're trying to read which is about the new breakthroughs in Consciousness. Here Koch does a pretty good job of summarizing. I read the book for Kochs one tantalizing hypothesis that consciousness does not arise out of or ride on top of matter as an epiphenomenom, but is part of the very fabric of reality itself. It is omnipresent in all matter down to the tiniest particles. Right on I thought, I've got to read this book. Unfortunately this is just a small part of the book. Perhaps because this idea is heretical and really verges on mysticism the author felt it important to retreat into memoir and bury the science which in truth is very hypothetical. That way he can exculpate himself from criticism which I'm sure will be fierce within the scientific community. Alas the memoir fails(hell I don't think I could do any better with my life). It does give an excellent description of the types of research going on to explore the nature of consciousness and for this it well worth reading. I hope if the author takes up writing again he will focus on his intriguing idea and bring as much science as he can with his gift of clarity, knowing that we are decades if not centuries away from proving what intuitively seems to be right answer to one of the most mysterious questions to puzzle a self aware man, the root of his consciousness.

As a coda to my review. I note that Koch has a written a previous book more focused on the science of Consciousness, entitled The Quest for Consciousness, which I fully intend to read though I suspect it delves less into the more mystical aspects of his hypothesis. Knowing this now it seems even clearer that this book is intended to be a memoir in the vein of Craig Venter's A Life Decoded. Of course Koch's veiled references to St. Augustine's Confessions not mention that great romantic Rousseau would still leave us in a quandry. The difficulty here is that the technique and language of memoir and confession are different from that of a scientist. The science in this book is great. Clear concise explanations for the non scientist, but it is just this matter of factness which of course is fatal to a memoir which wants to explore man's battle with God, the Universe, infidelity and all the poetry and madness which is part of life. At any rate it's a bold attempt by a scientist. The closest success to this type of endeavor by a scientist would be Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele, but then that book is all poetry, lies, and evasion.
23 internautes sur 25 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A Brilliant Book Penned by a Tormented Mind 19 juin 2012
Par Kim M. Clark OD - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
A brilliant, intelligent book tainted, perhaps, by a tenebrous soliloquy better suited for an autobiography. That said, Koch's background in philosophy, physics, and biology (a PhD in biophysics), and his command of the neurosciences, makes Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist an informative and rewarding study.

Consciousness is among the top two or three books I've read in the last year (and I choose my books and authors carefully). His skill as a writer and his ability to tease from the evidence the salient particulars is laudable. Christof is to be credited for articulating the reasons why physicists are eminently qualified to lead the discussion on brain states and brain activities which help explain the neural correlates and integrating circuits responsible for consciousness. His rhetorical and reasoning abilities are on par with Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens. Koch is not just another intellectual.

With relative ease, he dismantles Descartes' substance dualism, reminding us that "If the mind is truly ephemeral, ineffable, like a ghost or a spirit, it can't interact with the physical universe. It can't be seen, heard, or felt. And it certainly can't make your brain do anything." Other insightful pearls include, but are not limited to:

* "Every phenomenal, subjective state is caused by a particular physical mechanism in the brain."
* Why it is we "look, but don't see."
* How afferent data and sensory referrals are "heavily edited before they become part of the neural correlates of consciousness."
* "Consciousness does not arise from regions but from highly networked neurons within and across regions.... It is critical to understand how this tremendous diversity of actors ... contributes to the genesis of qualia."
* "Nervous systems, like anything else, obey the laws of quantum mechanics."
* Reviewing the research of neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet, Koch reminds us that "The beginning of the readiness potential precedes the conscious decision to move by at least half a second....The brain acts before the mind decides!" Brain-imaging studies have largely upheld Libet's conclusions. Such a foundation allows Koch to segue into a rich and productive discussion of Free Will. "The feeling of agency is no more responsible for the actual decision than thunder for the lightning stroke.... But even if your feeling of willing an action didn't actually cause it, do no forget that it is still your brain that took the action, not somebody else's. It is just not your conscious mind that did so." He goes on to say that "the brain decides well before the mind does; the conscious experience of willing a simple act - the sensation of agency or authorship - is secondary to the actual cause."
* Koch argues that consciousness is a "fundamental property of complex [systems]." Observing the sweet innocence and playful banter of his beloved dog Nosy was all the proof he needed that she, too, was conscious and experiencing. (See pp. 115ff for details.) "We are all nature's children; all of us experience life."
* As to David Chalmer's views of the Hard and Easy Problems of consciousness: "Don't be taken in by philosophical grandstanding and proclamations that the Hard Problem of consciousness will always remain with us. Philosophers deal in belief systems, simple logic, and opinions, not in natural laws and facts. They ask interesting questions and pose charming and challenging dilemmas, but they have a mediocre historical record of prognostication." When it comes to the power of science, Koch affectionately recalls something his intellectual father Francis Crick intoned: "It is very rash to say that things are beyond the scope of science." Christof insists that "There is no reason why we should not ultimately understand how the phenomenal mind fits into the physical world."

But no sooner does Koch bemoan the "lengthy, unsolicited cogitations" that clutter his mailbox, and which fail to include "hard-won neurologic and scientific knowledge" and page 165 happens! With palpable conviction, Koch announces: "I do believe that some deep and elemental organizing principle created the universe and set it in motion for a purpose I cannot comprehend." (My jaw will be seen to hit the carpet below.)

Oy vey, Christof! Where's the "hard-won scientific knowledge" in that confession? Should we not, in the words of Hume, proportion our beliefs to the evidence? Recall that from your own lips fell these instructive words: "Science remains humanity's most reliable, cumulative, and objective method for comprehending reality.... [It] is far better than any alternative in its ability to understand, predict, and manipulate reality. Because science is so good at figuring out the world around us, it should also help us to explain the world within us."

With respect, it's likely that existential angst amid a maelstrom of turbulent emotion will explain Koch's quixotic teleology. Taking a page from his own manuscript: "I continue to be amazed by the ability of highly educated and intelligent people to fool themselves."

His beliefs and convictions, however sincere, explain nothing. At the very least, Christof's proposal leads to infinite regress. To accept the reality of this "organizing principle" requires that we account for its origins. And where in the data is such organizational information to be found? What is it you've identified that others have missed?

Perhaps, Koch's obnubilated judgment is best explained by any of the following crises listed in his book:

* Death of infant daughter Elisabeth.
* Death of his dog Nosy, whom Christof adored. I couldn't help but weep when I read the moving account of her euthanasia: "[The vet] injected her with a large dose of barbiturate while she was resting trustingly in my arms, licking me gently, until her brave heart stopped. It was quick, it was painless - albeit profoundly sad - and it was the right thing to do. I hope that when my time comes, somebody will render me the same service." Ditto, Christof.
* Death of his beloved friend, mentor, collaborator, and intellectual father Francis Crick, whose passing left "a gaping hole in [his] life."
* The "gut-wrenching certainty" that he, too, was going to die.
* His precious children becoming adults and going off to college, leaving Christof an "empty nester." As he lamented, "I missed them more than anything else."
* Abandoning his wife Edith - the same woman he credits for keeping him "grounded for close to three decades. She enabled [him] to develop fully as a professor and a scientist. She put her career on hold for many years to raise [their] children into the healthy, smart, resourceful, responsible, and beautiful adults that they are today." Sounds like a pretty remarkable woman to me. Then again, maybe Edith wasn't the problem. I suspect that somewhere in Christof's pain will be found a measure of self-absorption - a theory I'm prepared to recant in proportion to the evidence.
* "I am a solitary planet ... wandering in the silent spaces between the stars." Hmm. My suspicions may be correct after all.

But it's Koch's understanding and command of the subject and science of consciousness (not his failings as a husband or as a human) that prompted me to buy the book, and which compels me to recommend it to all persons looking to better appreciate the beauty and complexity of Consciousness.
30 internautes sur 35 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 I give it three stars, but could have made it five stars if it were not for... 15 juillet 2012
Par O. R. Pagan - Publié sur
Dr. Koch is a biophysicist by training who works primarily in computational neuroscience, with special interest in consciousness; he is also well-published, papers- and book-wise. Not surprisingly, he is one of the more recognizable names in consciousness research. For that reason, I had really high hopes for this book.

In all honesty, I really liked the book, even though I was often frustrated while reading it. At times, I felt like going "Right on!!!!!" and yet at some other times, I was wondering "What the **** is he talking about?"

Briefly, this book is essentially three books in one: (1) An overview of the actual scientific quest to understand consciousness through his own research and the research of others, (2) A series of candid personal memories and (3) A series of "educated speculations" on the nature of things and how it all began. When reading the book, it became very distracting to go from one frame of mind to the other. I often asked myself, "Ok, which book am I reading now?"

Nonetheless, his style is fluid and witty; he was also able to explain complex ideas in simple terms, which is the mark of someone who actually knows what he is talking about. That is why it was so puzzling to me when I read things like the following (his words are between brackets, followed by my comments; these are only representative examples):

*Page 19: "...evolutionary theory is open-ended and not predictive." What? No!

*Page 43 (referring to cerebellar damage): "...your perceptions and memories are not affected much, if at all." Nope! It is well-established that the cerebellum possesses cognitive and perceptual roles.

*Page 120: "You and I find ourselves in a cosmos in which any and all systems of interacting parts possess some measure of sentience". I believe that this sentence would have made more sense if it would have said " of interacting parts of a certain minimal complexity..." A bicycle is a system of interacting parts, but is no sentient in any sense of the word.

*Page 120: "Human consciousness is much more rarified than canine consciousness because the human brain has more than twenty times more neurons than the brain of a dog and is more heavily networked." This implies (unless rarified is not the word he is looking for) that the consciousness of a dog is more "concentrated" than a human's. Enough said.

I have to say that other reviewers have commented on his tendency of referring to Francis Crick (of DNA fame) as "Francis" throughout the book. I, for one, can't blame him. If I were a personal friend and collaborator of such a great scientist I would do that too.

In summary, with a little bit of more work, he would have been able to get three individual books, each one with a coherent theme & topic, and I would have bought each one.
22 internautes sur 28 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A wonderful and heartfelt exposition 4 avril 2012
Par Abel Molina - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
In times of crisis, we reflect about everything that we know, or rather that we think that we know, both about the world and ourselves. And when you know a lot, the outcome of those reflections can be very beautiful and interesting. This is such a case, a wonderful exposition of the current scientific understanding of the human condition, particularly centered about consciousness. I don't think this book can be matched by any of the similar books that discuss in an informal way how humans have used science to study the world and our perspective of it, what science tells us about what the future can be, and other "weird stuff". It also avoids the pitfall of falling into pretentiousness, and the cultural references are particularly priceless, all the way from Eminem to Teilhard de Chardin, passing through The Master and Margarita.
23 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Searingly Brilliant Book on Consciousness! 30 avril 2012
Par Jan Hardenbergh - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
Christof Koch's Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist is the best book I've read in years. If you want to understand consciousness, this is the book for you. It is much kinder and gentler than the author's 2004 tome, The Quest for Consciousness, 429 pages, 1.7 footnotes per page, 100 pages for glossary, references and index. You need a knife & fork to read Quest. There are no footnotes in Confessions and a mere 15 pages of chapter notes, references and index. If you want to delve deeper, those 15 pages have plenty of pointers. This means that a key assertion - we are not conscious of the highest levels of cognition (i.e. decision making) - might just appear in support of the larger point he is making about free will. While other key experiments are brought into the narrative and fully explained, such as Libet's experiment showing that the brain's initiation of an action happens before we are conscious of deciding to act.

That this book uses Mr. Koch's personal journey for the context of his life's work does not diminish the academic rigor of the presentation. His story does not intrude into the exposition of the neuroscience, except for occasional fun anecdotes of meetings of competitive scientist and discussion of his tribe. In a very real sense, his story is the story of the scientific study of consciousness. When he first used physics to understand the biology of nerve cells he "was quarantined". He is now at Cal Tech and Chief Science Office at AIBS with this working model:
"Biology is about unheard-of complexity and specificity at the molecular-cellular level. Chemistry made no progress when matter was conceived to be a mixture of the four Greek classical elements of earth, water, air and fire. And so it is with consciousness. Phenomenal experience does not arise from active or silent brain regions but from the ceaseless formation and dissolution of coalitions of neurons whose complexity and representational capacity is the ultimate substrate of our most intimate thoughts."

Where his own story takes a broader brush is where it is the story of all humans, even if particulars of how we ask the big questions differ. And big questions are raised. Why do we have this gift of consciousness? Is it an evolutionary advantage or is it a byproduct - confabulatory cheesecake - a powerless narrator trying to take credit for and rationalizing decisions that are being made by the animal it is riding. This is the question of Free Will. My own easier question is "Do we have control of our conscious thought?" Concede the dorsal pathway, the limbic system and other overrides of consciousness. Consider the mind in a contemplative moment, free of biological or emotional urges. If one the above mentioned coalitions of neurons can linger or influence the next winning coalition, then we ultimately have free will, IMHO.

Another big question/theme this book cogitates is Dualism. The best early definition by Descartes is that the brain and body obey the laws of physics, but the mind transcends the material world. The problem dualism must resolve is how the nonmaterial mind can effect the physical brain. Many mechanisms have been tried, from the pineal gland to quantum mechanics, but, Koch concedes that Physicalism/materialism rules the day and that makes things simple, but "impoverished". Perhaps I am missing something, but, if the brain has 1000 different types of neurons and dozens if not hundreds of little functional engines as well as a many, many massive feedback loops, do we need a supernatural mind?

I'm glad Christof Koch does not like poverty. He argues that consciousness is a fundamental property of complex things - mind expanding! I am sure I will not do this justice, but, I love skating on the thin ice. A possible mechanism for consciousness as a property is Guilio Tononi's Integrated Information theory. There are two axioms: consciousness 1) reduces entropy and 2) is highly integrated - a conscious state cannot be subdivided. The theory is that the amount of integration is a measure of consciousness. Then there is some math, so, it has to be right :-). There is the fun notion that each different conscious state can be represented as a very high dimensional polygon (polytope). From there Koch goes to panpsychism - that everything has consciousness to some degree as measured by its integrated information. The fewer possible states, the lower the consciousness. A relevant aside from the book, today's New York Times discusses peer reviewed research (Rumor has it, PloS ONE) that shows that "plants are able to perceive and respond to stress ... of their neighbors" - more than a vegetative state? The terminus for panpsychism is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Noosphere, which I will oversimplify to mean a global consciousness in which all conscious beings participate. While Cristof Koch is not pushing these as accepted theories, he proposes that some mechanism for this notion of consciousness is possible. He ends the chapter with a plea for humility, pointing out that dark matter was only "discovered" 2 decades ago. Anyone that can take me from Claude Shannon to Teilhard de Chardin in eight coherent pages has my vote!

As you can plainly see by "looking inside" at the Table of Contents, I have only served up a slice of this very rich pie - and as often happens with that first piece - I messed it up getting it onto the plate. I blame it on my enthusiasm for the author, who also has a column in SciAm Mind and fascination with the subject matter, of which I believe he is the leading authority. Let me end with a quote that you do not see in every book on neuroscience: "The conclusion of this experiment, that the words you hear or use shape your behavior, would not be news to my grandmother, who always preached that tipping, bringing small gifts, and being polite pays off in unknown ways."
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