Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

MIT Press
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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.

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About the author

Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following twenty-seven years as a Professor at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press), The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, and other books.

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Additional Information

Publisher
MIT Press
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Published on
Mar 9, 2012
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Pages
200
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ISBN
9780262301039
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Language
English
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Genres
Science / Cognitive Science
Science / Life Sciences / Neuroscience
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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A neuroscientifically informed theory arguing that the core of qualitative conscious experience arises from the integration of sensory and cognitive modalities.

Although science has made considerable progress in discovering the neural basis of cognitive processes, how consciousness arises remains elusive. In this book, Cyriel Pennartz analyzes which aspects of conscious experience can be peeled away to access its core: the “hardest” aspect, the relationship between brain processes and the subjective, qualitative nature of consciousness. Pennartz traces the problem back to its historical roots in the foundations of neuroscience and connects early ideas on sensory processing to contemporary computational neuroscience.

What can we learn from neural network models, and where do they fall short in bridging the gap between neural processes and conscious experience? Do neural models of cognition resemble inanimate systems, and how can this help us define requirements for conscious processing in the brain? These questions underlie Pennartz's examination of the brain's anatomy and neurophysiology. The perspective of his account is not limited to visual perception but broadened to include other sensory modalities and their integration. Formulating a representational theory of the neural basis of consciousness, Pennartz outlines properties that complex structures must express to process information consciously. This theoretical framework is constructed using empirical findings from neuropsychology and neuroscience as well as such theoretical arguments as the Cuneiform Room and the Wall Street Banker. Positing that qualitative experience is a multimodal and multilevel phenomenon at its very roots, Pennartz places this body of theory in the wider context of mind-brain philosophy, examining implications for our thinking about animal and robot consciousness.

An argument that consciousness, more widespread than previously assumed, is the feeling of being alive, not a type of computation or a clever hack.

In The Feeling of Life Itself, Christof Koch offers a straightforward definition of consciousness as any subjective experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted—the feeling of being alive.

Psychologists study which cognitive operations underpin a given conscious perception. Neuroscientists track the neural correlates of consciousness in the brain, the organ of the mind. But why the brain and not, say, the liver? How can the brain, three pounds of highly excitable matter, a piece of furniture in the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as any other piece, give rise to subjective experience? Koch argues that what is needed to answer these questions is a quantitative theory that starts with experience and proceeds to the brain. In The Feeling of Life Itself, Koch outlines such a theory, based on integrated information.

Koch describes how the theory explains many facts about the neurology of consciousness and how it has been used to build a clinically useful consciousness meter. The theory predicts that many, and perhaps all, animals experience the sights and sounds of life; consciousness is much more widespread than conventionally assumed. Contrary to received wisdom, however, Koch argues that programmable computers will not have consciousness. Even a perfect software model of the brain is not conscious. Its simulation is fake consciousness. Consciousness is not a special type of computation—it is not a clever hack. Consciousness is about being.

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“One of the most important books I’ve ever read—an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” – Bill Gates

“Hans Rosling tells the story of ‘the secret silent miracle of human progress’ as only he can. But Factfulness does much more than that. It also explains why progress is so often secret and silent and teaches readers how to see it clearly.” —Melinda Gates

"Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases." - Former U.S. President Barack Obama

Factfulness: The stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.

When asked simple questions about global trends—what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school—we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective—from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse).

Our problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases.

It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.

Inspiring and revelatory, filled with lively anecdotes and moving stories, Factfulness is an urgent and essential book that will change the way you see the world and empower you to respond to the crises and opportunities of the future.

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“This book is my last battle in my life-long mission to fight devastating ignorance...Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software, an energetic learning style and a Swedish bayonet for sword-swallowing. It wasn’t enough. But I hope this book will be.” Hans Rosling, February 2017.

Neural network research often builds on the fiction that neurons are simple linear threshold units, completely neglecting the highly dynamic and complex nature of synapses, dendrites, and voltage-dependent ionic currents. Biophysics of Computation: Information Processing in Single Neurons challenges this notion, using richly detailed experimental and theoretical findings from cellular biophysics to explain the repertoire of computational functions available to single neurons. The author shows how individual nerve cells can multiply, integrate, or delay synaptic inputs and how information can be encoded in the voltage across the membrane, in the intracellular calcium concentration, or in the timing of individual spikes. Key topics covered include the linear cable equation; cable theory as applied to passive dendritic trees and dendritic spines; chemical and electrical synapses and how to treat them from a computational point of view; nonlinear interactions of synaptic input in passive and active dendritic trees; the Hodgkin-Huxley model of action potential generation and propagation; phase space analysis; linking stochastic ionic channels to membrane-dependent currents; calcium- and potassium-currents and their role in information processing; the role of diffusion, buffering and binding of calcium, and other messenger systems in information processing and storage; short- and long-term models of synaptic plasticity; simplified models of single cells; stochastic aspects of neuronal firing; the nature of the neuronal code; and unconventional models of sub-cellular computation. Biophysics of Computation: Information Processing in Single Neurons serves as an ideal text for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in cellular biophysics, computational neuroscience, and neural networks, and will appeal to students and professionals in neuroscience, electrical and computer engineering, and physics.
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