wider than the sky

In late March, I commented on a review of Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman's new book, wider than the sky, the phenomenal gift of consciousness. The review got me fired up. "The brain is not a logically structured organ; these processes of connection resemble the processes of metaphor more than those of logic." That's my kind of science.

I ordered a copy from Amazon. "Highly readable," wrote Oliver Sachs on the back cover. "A good roadmap for the lay reader," said Francis Crick. said Amazon. I could hardly wait.

The first learnings:

Consciousness is a process, not a thing. (William James said it first.)

The human brain is the most complicated material object in the known universe. It weighs about three pounds. If the cortex were unfolded (it's gnarly), it would be the size of a table napkin. It contains 30 billion neurons and a billion synapses (connections).

There is one simple principle that governs how the brain works: it evolved; that is, it was not designed.

One of the most basic processes in higher brains is the ability to carry out perceptual categorization -- to "make sense" of the world.

Memory is the capacity to repeat or suppress a specific mental or physical act. It arises as a result of changes in synaptic efficacy (or synaptic strength) in circuits of neuronal groups. After such changes have occurred, they tend to favor the recruitment of certain of these circuits to yield re-enactment. (In other words, memories are not stored; they're made fresh every time.)

One extraordinary phenomenal feature of conscious experience is that normally it is all of a piece--it is unitary. Any experienced conscious moment simultaneously includes sensory intput, consequences of motor activity, imagery, emotions, fleeting memories, bodily sensations, and a peripheral fringe. In any ordinary circumstances it does not consist of "just this pencil with which I am writing," nor can I reduce it to that. Yet, at the same time, one unitary scene flows and transforms itself into another complex but also unitary scene.

The term quale referes to the particular experience of some property. (Plural of quale is qualia.) The experience of a conscious scene as unitary suggests the view that all conscious experiences are qualia. In this view, the separation of qualia into single, narrow feelings such as red, warm, and so forth, while thinkable and verbally describable, does not constitute a full recognition of the discriminations involved.

Degeneracy is the ability of structurally different elements of a system to perform the same function or yield the same output.

This degeneracy business confused me later on, when the sledding got heavy. For me, degenerate brings up images of grubby guys in the alley drinking sterno. In fact, at this point, I began to experience a phenomenon that I hadn't felt in several years. My eyes were scanning the pages but nothing was sticking in my head. I'd finish a page and have no idea what Edelman was talking about. Some sentences were so laden with five-syllable words that I simply gave up.

Edelman himself acknowledges that understanding his topic is not a slam-dunk.

I have stated in the Preface of this small book that my hope is to disenthrall those who believe that the subject of consciousness is exclusively metaphysical or necessarily mysterious. It is a Herculean task for consciousness studies to rid the stables of dualism, mysterianism, paranormal projections, and unnecesaary appeals to as yet poorly characterized properties at different material scales -- for example, quantum gravity. Some but not all of this task relates to the use of language. in this account, for example, I must answer to the accusation that I have sumitted to the paradoxes of epiphenonmenalism.

Okay, if you say so. Let's go on.

This functional cluster with its myriad of synamic reentrant interactions, occurring mainly, but not entirely, in the thalamocortical system, has been called the dynamic core. The dynamic core, with its millisecond-to-millisecond utilization of an extraordinary complex of neural circuits, is precisely the kind of complex neural organization necessary for the unitary yet differentiable properties of the conscious process. It has the reentrant structure capable of interrating or binding the activites of the various thalamic nuclei and the functionally segregated cortical regions to produce a unified scene.


A major portion of the basal ganglia, constituting input nuclei from the cortex, is the so-called striatum, which consists of the caudate nucleus and putamen. The remaining nuclei are the globus pallidus, the substantia nigra, and the subthalamic nucleus. The globus pallidus and one part of the substantia nigra make up the major output nuclei projecting to the thalamus. Their output may be looked upon in turn as the input to the dynamic thalamocortical core. In addition to the input to the striatum by the cerebral cortex, the intralaminar nuclei of the thalamus also project to the striatum....

I must have been out of the room when God passed out whichever collection of multiple intelligences is required to decipher this stuff.

Following a thirty-one page glossary and four pages of bibliographic references, the author concludes thusly:

If an insatiable reader wishes an even longer list of references, I refer him or her to David Chalmers's annotated complendium on the World Wide Web:


The exploding list of references speaks to the conclusion that the understanding of consciousness has a promising scientific future.

I arose from my bath. (That's where I do a lot of my reading.) I was frustrated.

  • Was it recognizing that in some areas, no matter how hard I concentrate, I'm just not equipped to receive the message? No, that's a lesson I learned long ago.

  • Was it because I'd paid 16 cents a page and jumped over half of them because they would have made about as much sense to me had they been written in Sanskrit? No, that's not it. You take chances. Sometimes they don't work out.

  • Was it disappointment in discovering that while Edelman has great scientific chops, he wasn't in the room when God handed out the good writing genes? Maybe a little.

When I reflect on it now, the philosophy of Don Norman cheers me on. My main takeaway from The Design of Everyday Things was that when something screws up, it's not necessarily your fault. You walk into the glass panel instead of the door next to it, that's the designer's fault, not yours. Edelman may have tried, but he didn't produce a book for the layman. wider than the sky is not a pop book like Robert Ornstein's The Psychology of Consciousness. (Most of Ornstein's readers probably got the message even though they were high as kites when reading.)

Posted by Jay Cross at April 11, 2004 12:56 AM | TrackBack

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