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Out of Our Heads

Out of Our Heads

Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness

by Alva Noe

  • Reviewed by Dean Radin, PhD on June 1, 2009

    In his latest book, Alva Noë,a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, says that a widely held assumption in the cognitive and neurosciences—that consciousness is generated solely by the brain—is wrong. This reductionist idea was at the core of Nobel laureate Francis Crick’s book on consciousness, The Astonishing Hypothesis, where he (now) famously wrote, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” This mainstream, neobehaviorist stance has been accepted as self-evident by most academic cognitive and neuroscientists involved in consciousness studies. The seductive power of this paradigm is seen in how fMRI and EEG studies are portrayed in both the scientific and popular press—as exercises in the “reverse engineering” of brain circuits that hope to decipher everything from consciousness, to empathy, wisdom, religious feelings, intuition, and the placebo effect. this rising tide of brain-activated technologies—computer interfaces that monitor and decode brain activity—reinforces the idea that the “mechanical processes” of brain activity equal thoughts which equal consciousness.

    In Out of Our Heads, Noë argues an alternative view, that we are not our brain, that the “brain is not the thing inside of you that makes you conscious because, in fact, there is no thing inside of you that makes you conscious.” In short, that consciousness is not a computational mechanism associated with neural activity. “The brain is essential for our lives, physiology, health, and experience,” he says, “but the idea that it is the whole story, or even the key to understanding the story, is not a scientific conclusion. It’s a prejudice. Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, the body, and the world. Trying to understand consciousness in neural terms alone is like trying to understand a car driving down the road only in terms of its engine. It’s bad philosophy masquerading as science.”

    The subtitle of Nöe’s book, “…lessons from the biology of consciousness,” affirms the organic, holistic perspective that evolutionary biology assumes. Nöe chips away at the “brain equals consciousness” assumption in each of the book’s chapters as he examines the challenges of understanding conscious experience. From a purely objective, coolly detached, classical physics-oriented perspective, experience is exceedingly difficult to explain, but from a biological perspective, it becomes more graspable. The former views organisms as a mechanistic collection of separate biochemical processes, while the latter views organisms as an integrated wholewith interests, needs, and a point of view, embedded in an environment. The former does not require consciousness at all, while the latter recognizes, as Noë puts it, “at least incipient mindfulness.” He considers how consciousness might arise in the brain, how consciousness extends beyond the body (but not in the “noetic sense”), why a purely intellectual approach to understanding the intellect is doomed to failure, the fallacy of the idea that our sentient and sapient life is a brain-constructed illusion, and so on. As the foundational assumptions underpinning a neuroscientific explanation for the origins of consciousness crumble one by one, we are led to the titular conclusion: We are out of our heads, meaning that consciousness is not solely due to brain activity but a set of intimate relationships extended and distributed among brain, body, and environment.

    Noë ends with the hope that while an embodied, organic approach to understanding consciousness is still far from mainstream in some disciplines, it is catching on in philosophy and robotics. “The study of consciousness should be a cross-disciplinary field,” he says, “behavioral science, math, linguistics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and philosophy—these all make contributions. . . If we expand our idea of the machinery of mind to include the body and the world, whole new ways of thinking about and explaining consciousness come into view.”

    From the noetic sciences perspective, this is a healthy step in the right direction. Readers of Shift know that there is plenty of experiential and empirical evidence indicating that consciousness is not localized inside the brain. Perhaps Noë studiously avoided the challenge of noetic experiences in his discussion because that would have made his already radical proposal too uncomfortable for the mainstream to digest. Nonetheless, I found Out of Our Heads to be a refreshingly clear, well-written, and satisfyingly slim book that reveals serious limitations in the mainstream academic approach to studying the nature of consciousness.

    Review published in Shift magazine

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