Although the author, Michael S. Gazzaniga, is new to me, he's actually a
well-known neuroscientist and author of a number of other popularizing
books on brainy topics. As usual, I can't quite remember why I put this
on my things-to-read list, but it's one of those "big question" topics
I'm interested in, in my usual dilettantish mode. Professor Gazzaniga is
currently at UCSB, but he's been all over. (Thanks to the University
Near Here's library, who scored the book from Dartmouth. Keeping them on
their toes this summer.)
His task here is (obviously, from the title) to explain how we, you and
I, can possibly be "conscious", when all that's going on inside us is
chemistry, and also some electricity. There's an initial discussion of
the history of speculation on the topic, going all the way back to
Aristotle, on up through Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, James, and the like.
Gazzaniga, fortunately, is comfortable with the philosophical arguments.
But he nicely mixes in current research (including his own) in cognitive
psychology and neurophysiology.
Way back in the 1960s he worked with Roger Sperry at Caltech, on the
famous split-brain experiments. It turns out (as with so many things)
that sometimes the easiest way to discover interesting things about how
the brain works, is to look at what happens when it's not working
that well: when, through injury or disease, some parts are
malfunctioning, or not working at all.
His interesting observation: even in cases of severe brain damage, one's
consciousness still functions. Sometimes far different than normal, but
never really absent. This indicates that it's a property more or less
distributed throughout the brain, not localized to any one area.
Gazzaniga finds it useful to think of the brain as having a
(conceptually) layered architecture. Since I'm a computer
ex-geek, I naturally analogized this to the OSI stack model, with
high-level (application) layers, medium-level (e.g. driver) levels, and low-level
(e.g. hardware) layers. Each layer doesn't have to "know" anything about
the functionality of the layers below and above; there just has to be
some sort of communication protocol.
Another important concept is modularity: brain-parts that do some
sort of well-defined task; these can also have internal layers. Again,
the key points are independence, and relative ignorance.
Interestingly, the book then veers into insights provided by quantum
mechanics, which brought me back to my physics-major days. Gazzaniga
analogizes the wave/particle duality of elementary particles, and the correspondence principle to life
itself. Well, I'm not sure whether this is meant to be an analogy, or if
he's saying that there's something quantum-like causing brain
consciousness. Anyway, intriguing.
All this goes to argue (as you probably guessed from the title) is that
consciousness is an instinct, like fear, hunger, lust, etc. Yeah, maybe.
I expected there to be some more stuff about "free will" in this book,
as it seems (to me anyhow) to be tied together with consciousness. But I
see he has another book on that specific topic. So I might check
that out someday.