This year I’ve found myself reading a bunch of books about the mind, the brain, and the nature of the self. For some reason I’m reading them all in parallel, picking one or the other depending on how I’m feeling on any given day, which is probably why I haven’t actually finished any of them yet. I’m loving them all, in different ways. I could probably do with spending more time talking to people about all this stuff, as well, which is one reason I’m posting this now rather than waiting till I’ve finished the books to write about them (although I will probably do that, too).
Here are a few words about what’s in the Mind/Brain section of the towering pile on my bedside table right now… Does anyone else have any thoughts about any of these, or interest in discussing them?
- Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to tackling this book; I’ve known for a long time that Dennett is a very compelling, interesting writer and thinker. I had the feeling that his thoughts about how the mind works have a lot of overlap with my own, but until this year I’d only ever read a few of the essays from his collection ‘Brainstorms’, which is excellent if somewhat repetitious. What surprised me when I finally picked this up was what an entertaining writer he is.
- I am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
I first met Hofstadter’s magnum opus, Gödel, Escher, Bach, when I was a kid – I was probably about twelve years old. I was enchanted, and I it may well have had a more profound influence on my thinking than any other single book, but in spite of that I could never finish it. It’s so much fun to dip into, especially the dialogues; but then its mathematical excursions are so involved, it can be hard to stay with it to the next flight of fancy without feeling like you’re either breaking your head or skimming too much. His later book covers much of the same ground – about the meaning of meaning, and how such a thing could possibly emerge from constituents that seem to obey the mathematical rules of physics – while avoiding most of those pitfalls. It’s dense, but never overwhelmingly so, and it’s just whimsical enough to make you smile without getting waylaid.
- The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio
Damasio is a medical doctor and neurologist by training, and more than any of the other books I have been reading, this one is grounded in science, particularly the study of the human brain. His approach to thinking rightly takes in the whole body, though – he is very concerned with the importance of looking at the whole organism if we want to understand thought, the nature of the self, and particularly emotions. What I find odd is that he has essentially written a whole book about embodied cognition in a book which doesn’t list that term or embodiment in its index; he does briefly name-check Francesco Varela and Maturana, but rather a lot of the time he seems to be writing as if he hasn’t noticed that anybody has ever had similar ideas. His science is impeccable, but I’m thrown by his lack of engagement with existing philosophy. Then again, this is a short book – much the shortest of these four – and I know that some people switch off the moment they see the word ‘phenomenology’.
- Mind in Life, by Evan Thompson
This is probably the least accessible of the books in my stack, but still, the writing is lucid and uses no more jargon than it needs. This book was conceived as a follow-up to Thompson’s book with Varela and Eleanor Rosch, ‘The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience’, which I haven’t read. Thompson is rounding up relevant thoughts from all over science and philosophy, in order to put together a strong case for thinking about the mind as something arising from life; not something unique to the human brain, but a process naturally arising from and involving any organism – and also, in some sense, extending beyond it. It’s a grand project, and my sense is that it’s a very worthwhile one. This is a pretty fat book, though, written very clearly but without a great deal of levity, so I’m relying on sheer fascination value to carry me through. I think it will.