A feast for the mind

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An introduction to the concept of mind provides plenty of food for thought.

Exploring Consciousness/Consciousness

University of California Press/Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 2002. 319 pp. $34.95, £20

What makes a successful dinner party? The guests? The food? The conversation? I am sure that Rita Carter would host a wonderful party — at least judging by her books. She is an award-winning scientific journalist and author who conveys a real sense of excitement and fascination with her subject matter. She would certainly know what to put on the menu, who should be on the guest list, and how to guide the conversation into interesting areas. However, few would confuse a dinner-party conversation with an academic seminar, and Exploring Consciousness should not be confused with an academic text. It is instead an entertaining introduction to a complex subject, written in a lively and accessible manner, and is likely to capture the imagination of a non-specialist audience.

Machinery of the mind: how the mind works, and what consciousness is, remain open to speculation.

Those who have already encountered Carter's earlier book Mapping the Mind (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999) will have some idea of what to expect in style if not in content: a simplified but up-to-date summary of a difficult and controversial topic, embedded in glorious graphics and packaged in a lush coffee-table volume. Some readers may take issue with Carter's short-cuts: her tendency to report some speculation as fact, her lack of theoretical sophistication, and her tendency to gloss over some difficult areas of debate (What is a concept? How do language, perception and bodily awareness contribute towards a grounding of our experience?). But given the breadth of the material, substantial simplification is acceptable.

Exploring Consciousness does not have a strictly linear structure. There are numerous inserts in the main text, including brief essays from researchers and theoreticians, explanations of technical points, and descriptions of clinical phenomena. This innovative style worked well for Mapping the Mind but here it can occasionally distract the reader from Carter's attempts to develop her own thesis. The volume is almost crying out for electronic publication with a hyperlinked structure complete with animations and other multimedia aids.

As a conventional text, the organization of Exploring Consciousness accurately mirrors the fleeting focus and shifting perspectives that characterize our phenomenal awareness — and the many transient fashions of consciousness research. In its present format, the book lends itself well to coffee-table or bathroom reading: it is possible to dip into the volume and feel satisfied by the refreshment. There are sufficient tasty morsels within to please the intellectual grazer. But the volume is less suited to those seeking a tightly structured statement of position or the sustained development of an argument.

The sheer scope of Carter's project is stunning and she handles her material with style and confidence, addressing a broad range of topics in the space of a few hundred pages. These range from an outline of historical and contemporary philosophical views on the relationship between brain and mind, through to discussions of the grounding problem, emotion and cognition, the nature of self, and the theory of mind — as well as some weird stuff at the outer limits of scientific enquiry, such as altered states and religious experiences.

The book does contain some impressive pictures of brain scans, but it is far from being a revised edition of Mapping the Mind. In Exploring Consciousness, high-tech science plays a subsidiary role to the thorny theoretical issues. Carter uses illustrations from the imaging literature to explain some aspects of current thinking (such as the neural bases of emotion), but this book is more concerned with conceptual matters than with stunning pictures of the working brain.

Carter grapples with the unreliable nature of introspection, draws analogies between zombies and computational models of brain function, and considers the possibility that consciousness may be an epiphenomenon without any survival value. I find the balance between technology and debate much more satisfactory here than in Carter's earlier book. Her approach and understanding seem to have matured, and localization of function is presented as one strand of evidence rather than as the ultimate solution to knotty abstract problems.

Consciousness has been a particularly fashionable area of enquiry for the past decade, and in this time some 30,000 articles have addressed themselves to the topic. But sadly, as this book makes clear, there is still no agreement either on the phenomena themselves or on the appropriate way to tackle them. Is consciousness the last gasp of cartesian dualism and a conceptual error, possibly reflecting our cultural predilection for a ghost in the machinery of the mind? Is it an adjective rather than a noun, describing the quality of experience rather than a distinct process or experiential context? Or were the behaviourists correct in putting the 'hard problem' of consciousness on one side in order to deal with the supposedly tractable problems of learning and responding? We are said to be waiting for a new Einstein to put consciousness on a secure theoretical footing, but the job is still vacant.

Carter is to be congratulated for her clear journalistic exposition of some key ideas and for avoiding pomposity and arrogance. The volume works, and although it is not a textbook, I shall certainly be recommending it to my second-year undergraduate students as a provocative source of ideas and an entrée into a difficult area. I shall also continue to enjoy the book myself. Good fare deserves digestion at leisure.

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McCarthy, R. A feast for the mind. Nature 419, 17–18 (2002) doi:10.1038/419017a

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