Author(s): Christof Koch
Social Sciences | No Category
In which a scientist searches for an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience, spurred by his instinctual belief that life is meaningful.
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, Der Ring des Nibelungen, 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.
“If you’re like me — and the fact that you’re reading a review of a book about consciousness in JUNE suggests that you might be — you’ve been down this road before. In fact, your bookshelves probably include a number of titles that could easily be mistaken for this one, at least at a glance. But here’s why I was motivated to write this review: I don’t believe I have ever read a book quite like this one before, at least not on this topic. Koch is like the Wizard of Oz only, in this case, he is eager to step out from behind the curtain. This is a deeply personal book written in such a way as to expose the author’s own vulnerabilities, intellectual and otherwise. This is the book that I wish Koch’s long-time intellectual partner, Francis Crick, would have written his own version of. Yet, I suspect that the reason Crick never did was because he believed he never should. This is perhaps what I appreciate most about this book. One gets a clear impression that Koch is very confident. But in writing this book we also see evidence of courage, and confidence and courage are not the same things”
Ian A. Harrington – Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Augustana College