Magazine article Times Higher Education

Consider the Mind in the Mirror

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Consider the Mind in the Mirror

Article excerpt

Tristan Bekinschtein takes a trip with the Che Guevara of cognitive neuroscience.

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

By Christof Koch

MIT Press, 184pp, Pounds 17.95

ISBN 9780262017497 Published 27 April 2012

When I began to study biology, James Watson and Francis Crick were heroes: they revealed to the world the DNA double helix, a structural explanation of how life goes on. And they became my heroes, too. But what they unravelled was history; for me, consciousness was the contemporary topic.

I did not believe it was possible to study consciousness experimentally until I read an article by Crick and Christof Koch in Nature in 1995. For me and the other neuroscientists-to-be of my generation, it was a scientific revelation. I was in my first year at university and was suddenly confronted with the idea that I could do experiments to understand consciousness. Crick represented the brave old scientist who was not afraid of jumping to a hitherto non-existent field to ask the most exciting questions; but Koch represented the new blood, the kamikaze defying both the scientific community and the philosophers. He was the Che Guevara of cognitive neuroscience who went on to become a highly influential "mainstream" (yet nevertheless original) figure.

At the time, neuroscientists assured us that consciousness was not suitable for scientific experimentation; it was an armchair thought- experiment enterprise for philosophers. But on the other side of town, philosophers were clear: "Real experiments do not address consciousness; experiments can never get to the core of the problem - the 'hard problem', how mind becomes matter, is intractable."

This book is about Koch and his trip through consciousness. A personal account, it is easily the most autobiographical book on consciousness "out in the wild", and the approach is well chosen for it makes the subject engaging. Koch is bold and clear and blunt. He has always been clear in his ideas, or at least clear in expressing them, and blunt in defending them, abrupt and frank. This book reads like that: like having a talk with Christof in a bar, early on in the evening when there is still no music. Afterwards, doubtless he will make everybody dance.

Confessions is in stark contrast to Koch's previous book, 2004's The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, in which he gave a detailed account of the state of the neuroscience of consciousness, using a thoroughly scholarly approach. Confessions is exactly the opposite: these are confessions from the bottom of his heart - which, we cannot help but note, is in his brain, since the heart is not necessary or sufficient for conscious awareness. …

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