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See Inside March 2009

Scientific American Reviews: Why You Are Not Your Brain

Also: books on monks and monkeys and miraculous anticipation

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness
by Alva Noë. Hill and Wang, 2009

Alva No, a University of California, Berkeley, philosopher and cognitive scientist, argues that after decades of concerted effort on the part of neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers "only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious ... has emerged unchallenged: we don't have a clue." The reason we have been unable to explain the neural basis of consciousness, he says, is that it does not take place in the brain. Consciousness is not something that happens inside us but something we achieve it is more like dancing than it is like the digestive process. To understand consciousness the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us we need to look at a larger system of which the brain is only one element. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body and world. "You are not your brain. The brain, rather, is part of what you are."

Manipulative Monkeys: The Capuchins of Lomas Barbudal
by Susan Perry, with Joseph H. Manson. Harvard University Press, 2008

Looking for a good species in which to investigate the evolution of intelligence, Susan Perry and her husband, Joseph H. Manson, primatologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, came upon the capuchins. These New World monkeys have brains larger for their body size than any primate except humans, and since 1990 the couple has followed the lives of four generations of capuchins in a Costa Rican rain forest. The monkeys' tonsured head and striking cowl grant them a vague resemblance to the monks for whom they were named. Their world may be almost as structured and ritualistic. Not only do they interact in byzantine ways, but they evince an excellent understanding of who is friends with whom and under what circumstances. Much of their considerable intellectual creativity is expressed through devising unique rituals for testing and maintaining friendships, including sticking their fingers up one another's noses and forming totem poles of up to four monkeys piled high to frighten enemies. The book is immense fun to read, as Perry melds tales of the rigors of rain forest research with surprising revelations about these complex creatures.

Is God A Mathematician?
by Mario Livio. Simon & Schuster, 2009

For centuries, mathematicians have been uncannily accurate in predicting the physical world. Astrophysicist Mario Livio tries to explain why. In a book with a question for the title, it is hard to resist quoting an entire paragraph of questions, but in response to what you are wondering, yes, Livio provides answers as well.

Excerpt: "The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics creates many intriguing puzzles: Does mathematics have an existence that is entirely independent of the human mind? In other words, are we merely discovering mathematical verities, just as astronomers discover previously unknown galaxies? Or, is mathematics nothing but a human invention? If mathematics indeed exists in some abstract fairyland, what is the relation between this mystical world and physical reality? How does the human brain, with its known limitations, gain access to such an immutable world, outside of space and time? On the other hand, if mathematics is merely a human invention and it has no existence outside our minds, how can we explain the fact that the invention of so many mathematical truths miraculously anticipated questions about the cosmos and human life not even posed until many centuries later?"

This article was originally published with the title "Monks and monkeysYou are not your brainMiraculous anticipation?."

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