Note: I’m consolidating book reviews into Wot-a-Jot. This review was completed in January, 2006
Author: Jay Ingram
Scotchneat Rating: 4 cortexes and 3 million neurons
With over 20 years in pop-science, Jay Ingram has a real knack for combining the two. At best, the real-world examples make complex biochemical processes more accessible to laypeople (the experience of “peachness”, or examples of qualia, say); at worst, they verge on slightly condescending and predictable hooks into the subject matter (the whole introduction, say).
Based on Ingram’s say-so (which I’ll take for well founded), serious, experiment-based consciousness research is really in its infancy–around 20 years or so. Studying consciousness, or the mindness of the “mind”, is often an exercise in sideways glances and inferred processes. Think about it: I will say I am conscious, I know I am “me”, but I also know that there is a myriad of biochemical processes going on in all parts of my body that are the hard science of what “me” is. And yet? And yet the biochemical does not explain the mindness or the ephemeral. Ingram discusses the possibility that the mind is actually a separate entity, perhaps a non-physical entity, separate from consciousness. This approach is known as “dualism”.
As with much of science, we resort to analogy and metaphor by way of explanation for these things. In this case, one can choose to see it as a “theatre of the mind” where only a few key ‘actors’ or foci are on the stage at any one time (active consciousness) while myriads of other potential foci wait in the wings. The audience in this case is our subjectivity, and possibly other foci. There is also the concept of the homunculus – a little ‘man’ in our brains that is complete and whole in control of the processes we conceive to be our self. Based on the title of the book, seems fair to say that Ingram goes for the former. And in fact, when I saw him speak on this topic, he used the stage he was on to demonstrate it.
Dreaming: Consciousness At Work or ?
From everything that the research on dreams and dreaming has shown, it is a definite that dreaming is a “conscious” process. But it is one that is operating without sensory input. Seems a simple statement, but it was a pause for me. I think it’s fair common knowledge that humans suffer physically and psychologically without dreams; ergo, there’s some good reason for them. But in this case it’s consciousness at work for itself, not us, since we aren’t using it, per se, to interact with the world (which is actually the product of sensory input and our “mindness” that creates our subjective experience).
Ingram includes a whole chapter on dreams. One interesting bit is that dreaming doesn’t seem to achieve full adult form, characterized by complex levels and a more negative tone, until we are about 12 years old. As Ingram asks, why or what needs to be there before we can dream fully, since full adult active consciousness seems to be in place by 4 or 5 years old.
Neurochemically, the contrasts between active consciousness and dreaming are striking. When active, the frontal areas of the brain–those responsible for “self-reflection, time-keeping, abstract thinking, logical decision making and memory retrieval” (226) are to the fore. When dreaming, they are not reactivated with the cascade of neuron activity that signals the onset of REM. Things are still pretty jiggy at this point though, as chemicals are on the
go, and some areas of the brain that don’t normally turn on together get turned on, and vision and emotion circuits are also active. But without sensory input, what is all of this for, exactly? Ingram gives a few ideas as to what that might be. His preferred explanation is “rehearsal” – i.e. we can plan out events or potential challenges (physical, emotional, veiled in Freudian symbols) and are able to determine courses of action. This explanation works nicely if you want to understand dreams as an evolutionary advantage as well.
That Consciousness? Not So Smart.
One theme that comes through very clearly in this book is just how inadequate consciousness is. Joking aside, it really is the case anecdotally that conscious is what gets in the way of the unconscious. Example: when you reach for a cup of coffee, how does your hand know the right “width” to open the fingers to, to grasp the cup just right? In explaining it to someone, you would probably talk about thinking or measuring or something. But the studies show your unconscious and hand already “know” what to do. Any thinking that goes on is really just subjectivity taking the credit. An intriguing experiment showed that the unconscious processing in the brain (or at least processing at some level below what we “think”) can know and recognize meanings of words flashed so quickly that subjects won’t even acknowledge that they saw a word.
Split-Brain Research = Wow.
Maybe it the cog psych student in me, but I find this stuff fascinating. I was glad to see Ingram dispel some of the left brain/right brain myths – we are able to do some language processing on the right side, for example, dependent on when a split might occur, our own development and so on. Having said that, the overwhelming dominance of the left side of the brain for language processing makes for some interesting results. Can’t really analyse dream content because LS kicks in before we can “tell” it or “explain” it. LS and RS can “see” different things – as indicated by what the hands do in split-brain research (so we can process two different things – and how do we decide what the prime is?) It’s also possible to have the LS and RS fight.
There’s a lot more information in the book, and I it was a good read, if a “light” read. This isn’t the book for you if you want stats and long latin words. I also like that Ingram is not afraid to go cross-body, so to speak. Perhaps because he is not a fully enculturated member of the scientific community, he sees fit to enlace science with literature, philosophy and folk wisdom in his writing–a more wholesome approach to any attempt at understanding something, if you ask me.
1. Describe the itchiness of itchy in a way that your toaster will understand.
2. Split your brain or have a friend do it for you. Ask both of your hands
to write down what you want to be when you grow up.
3. Conduct dream experiments on yourself or a loved one and record the results
in a dream journal (or poke the loved one when you see their eyelids moving-their
body should be ‘frozen’, so it will be all kinds of fun). Try a weird cheese
just before bed. Play talk radio while you sleep. Sleep facing the wrong way.