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What is consciousness?


Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large for Seed Magazine. He's also written for The New Yorker, Nature, the Boston Globe and is a contributer to Radio Lab and Scientific American Mind. He's the author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist. His new book is How We Decide.

Out of Our Heads
Posted on: February 28, 2009 10:11 AM, by Jonah Lehrer

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who came to one of the events on my book tour, from Seattle to The Strand. Thank you for listening and for your questions. It's been such a deep pleasure to meet so many people interested in dopamine, Proust and Cheerios. Also, a sincere thank you to everyone who bought the book and helped put it on the New York Times Bestseller List.

On an entirely unrelated note, I've got a new review in the San Francisco Chronicle (long may it live!) on the philosopher Alva Noe's new book on consciousness. I really enjoyed the book, and see it as yet another demonstration that Richard Feynman was wrong when he famously quipped that "philosophers of science are to scientists as ornithologists are to birds".

The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes. On the one hand, scientists tell us that we are nothing but 3 pounds of electrical flesh inside the skull, a trillion synapses exchanging squirts of neurotransmitter.
And yet we feel like more than the sum of these cells. We feel self-conscious, endowed with a mind that experiences the taste of a peach, and the redness of red, and the thrill of romantic love. The question of how the brain creates the mind - how these subjective experiences emerge from a piece of pale gray meat - is one of the essential questions of modern science. And yet, despite decades of research, we aren't remotely close to an answer.

Alva Noë, a philosopher at UC Berkeley, argues that consciousness remains a mystery because we've been looking in the wrong place. In his provocative and lucid new book, Noë writes that scientists have been so eager to locate the mind in the brain that they've neglected to consider the possibility that our mind might not be inside our head.

Then where is it? Don't worry, Noë isn't an old-fashioned Cartesian dualist: He doesn't believe that our consciousness is some metaphysical gift from God. Instead, he suggests that who we are and what we know is inseparable from where we are and what we're doing: "Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own," Noë writes. "Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world. ... It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context."

Noë sells this audacious idea with a series of effective metaphors. For instance, he begins the book by comparing consciousness to a dollar bill. He notes that it would be silly to search for the physical correlates of "monetary value." After all, the meaning of money isn't in the paper, or the green ink, or the picture of George Washington. Instead, it exists in the institutions and practices that give the paper meaning. Similarly, our awareness of reality doesn't depend entirely on what's happening inside the brain, but is a side effect of how we, as individuals, interact with the wider world.