The problem of consciousness may just be a semantic one. The brain absorbs a sea of sensory input, the tiniest fraction of which reaches the shore of our awareness. We pay attention to what is most novel, most necessary at the time. At its most reductive, the word consciousness refers to the synchronized firing of neurons across multiple areas of the brain, the mental experience of attending.
But should consciousness be summed up simply by its subsconscious mechanism? I would prefer a more imaginative answer.
After his father undergoes brain surgery and slips into a coma, Howard Akler begins to reflect on the complicated texture of consciousness. During the long months that follow, Akler confronts the unknowable nature of another person’s life, as well as the struggles within his own unpredictable mind. With echoes of Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Men of Action treads the line between memoir and meditation, and is at once elegiac, spare and profoundly intimate.
In the tradition of Oliver Sacks, a tour of the latest neuroscience of schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, ecstatic epilepsy, Cotard’s syndrome, out-of-body experiences, and other disorders—revealing the awesome power of the human sense of self from a master of science journalism
Anil Ananthaswamy’s extensive in-depth interviews venture into the lives of individuals who offer perspectives that will change how you think about who you are. These individuals all lost some part of what we think of as our self, but they then offer remarkable, sometimes heart-wrenching insights into what remains. One man cut off his own leg. Another became one with the universe.
We are learning about the self at a level of detail that Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) could never have imagined. Recent research into Alzheimer’s illuminates how memory creates your narrative self by using the same part of your brain for your past as for your future. But wait, those afflicted with Cotard’s syndrome think they are already dead; in a way, they believe that “I think therefore I am not.” Who—or what—can say that? Neuroscience has identified specific regions of the brain that, when they misfire, can cause the self to move back and forth between the body and a doppelgänger, or to leave the body entirely. So where in the brain, or mind, or body, is the self actually located? As Ananthaswamy elegantly reports, neuroscientists themselves now see that the elusive sense of self is both everywhere and nowhere in the human brain.
In this book, Kristina Musholt offers a novel theory of self-consciousness, understood as the ability to think about oneself. Traditionally, self-consciousness has been central to many philosophical theories. More recently, it has become the focus of empirical investigation in psychology and neuroscience. Musholt draws both on philosophical considerations and on insights from the empirical sciences to offer a new account of self-consciousness — the ability to think about ourselves that is at the core of what makes us human.
Examining theories of nonconceptual content developed in recent work in the philosophy of cognition, Musholt proposes a model for the gradual transition from self-related information implicit in the nonconceptual content of perception and other forms of experience to the explicit representation of the self in conceptual thought. A crucial part of this model is an analysis of the relationship between self-consciousness and intersubjectivity. Self-consciousness and awareness of others, Musholt argues, are two sides of the same coin.
After surveying the philosophical problem of self-consciousness, the notion of nonconceptual content, and various proposals for the existence of nonconceptual self-consciousness, Musholt argues for a non-self-representationalist theory, according to which the self is not part of the representational content of perception and bodily awareness but part of the mode of presentation. She distinguishes between implicitly self-related information and explicit self-representation, and describes the transitions from the former to the latter as arising from a complex process of self–other differentiation. By this account, both self-consciousness and intersubjectivity develop in parallel.
Dreams, conceived as conscious experience or phenomenal states during sleep, offer an important contrast condition for theories of consciousness and the self. Yet, although there is a wealth of empirical research on sleep and dreaming, its potential contribution to consciousness research and philosophy of mind is largely overlooked. This might be due, in part, to a lack of conceptual clarity and an underlying disagreement about the nature of the phenomenon of dreaming itself. In Dreaming, Jennifer Windt lays the groundwork for solving this problem. She develops a conceptual framework describing not only what it means to say that dreams are conscious experiences but also how to locate dreams relative to such concepts as perception, hallucination, and imagination, as well as thinking, knowledge, belief, deception, and self-consciousness.
Arguing that a conceptual framework must be not only conceptually sound but also phenomenologically plausible and carefully informed by neuroscientific research, Windt integrates her review of philosophical work on dreaming, both historical and contemporary, with a survey of the most important empirical findings. This allows her to work toward a systematic and comprehensive new theoretical understanding of dreaming informed by a critical reading of contemporary research findings. Windt’s account demonstrates that a philosophical analysis of the concept of dreaming can provide an important enrichment and extension to the conceptual repertoire of discussions of consciousness and the self and raises new questions for future research.
Beyond the Subjectivity Trap challenges the paradigm of the hard problem of consciousness by contesting the relevance and primacy of human thought. By tracing the evolved egocentricity of the ‘I’ as an entrapping limitation on our thinking the book argues that once the Subjectivity Trap is understood and escaped we can appreciate the non-existence of the mind–body divide, the pure functionality of the brain, and the limitlessness of our potential.