Magic, Mystery or Mechanism

Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness
by Daniel C. Dennett. MIT Press, 2005 ($28)

Consciousness puzzles scientists and philosophers as much as it baffles the rest of us. Elusive, enigmatic, and difficult to define and probe, consciousness has a peculiar quality that rouses people to insist that somehow it differs from the rest of the physical world and that there is something unique about each person's subjective experience.

Enter Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who directs the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In his provocative book, he explores several hot debates over whether consciousness can ever be explained--such as our inability to objectively study subjective experiences or "qualia," the impenetrable properties of sensations. Despite our stubborn feelings that consciousness involves something extra--a spirit, soul, miracle or magic--Dennett contends that consciousness is no more than an intriguing but inadequately explained aspect of neural activity.

“Consciousness is often celebrated as a mystery,” he writes. “I think this tradition is not just a mistake, but a serious obstacle to ongoing scientific research that can explain consciousness, just as deeply and completely as it can explain other natural phenomena:
metabolism, reproduction, continental drift, light, gravity and so on.” Like a persuasive magic show, consciousness fools us into believing that the brain’s seamless illusion is real, even though consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon.

To make his point, Dennett works through various thought experiments. One involves imagining a “perfect zombie” that exactly replicates a person’s perceptual and neural processes. Should there be any real difference between the zombie and the conscious
person, he wonders? He also attacks the claim that a mechanistic theory of consciousness could not explain such a difference, if it existed. Another thought experiment involves imagining Martian scientists studying human consciousness. In principle, he says, Martians should be able to observe and inspect the mechanisms underlying earthly conscious experiences and, in some sense, grasp what it is like to be human. In time, Dennett believes people will realize that “third-person methods of the natural sciences suffice to investigate consciousness as completely as any phenomenon in nature can be investigated.” Like vitalism—the 18thcentury belief that some inexplicable force animates living creatures—consciousness will ultimately yield to scientific explanation. —Richard Lipkin

Making Himself Happy

Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment                                                               by Gregory Berns. Henry Holt and Company, 2005 ($24)

Gregory Berns believes that the striatum, a tiny bit of tissue in the lower brain, holds the key to satisfaction in life. Berns, who teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, is interested in what motivates people to seek out novel experiences as a way to achieve satisfaction—a process, he says, controlled by the striatum.

Yet it is surprising and disappointing that such a prolific researcher and author of scholarly articles has chosen to entertain readers with exploits rather than science. Only a few short sections of Satisfaction focus on his own work, so we get little understanding of how neuroscience is done. Explaining brain anatomy, chemistry and psychology to a general audience is a huge challenge—and one Berns does not really meet. Each chapter has a few pages of hard science but then describes at length a visit by Berns to an exotic location or an event that illustrates how people strive to meet extreme challenges as a way of attaining satisfaction.

In one chapter, Berns flies to the Sierra Nevadas to observe ultramarathoners run for hours over mountain trails, which he then uses to write about brain metabolism and exhaustion. His other trips—to a volcano in Iceland and to a sadism and masochism club near his home in Atlanta, for example—follow the same pattern. These jaunts reach a high (or low) point when he ends up in a Long Island, N.Y., kitchen, his feet immersed in warm lemon juice and fennel, waiting for a chocolate cake to come out of the oven—as the chef reads Jorge Luis Borges’s poetry to him in Spanish.

The final chapter is somewhat embarrassing. Berns confesses that while he has “jetted around” he has left his wife at home with “few sources of adult stimulation” and two toddlers. In addition, he complains that their sex life has become “routine.” He finds a solution in the “sexual crucible,” a program developed by a Colorado marital therapist. The result is a night of lovemaking that pleases him in a way that he equates with an ultramarathoner’s high. Some readers may fall in love with Berns’s quests for novelty; others may find no satisfaction here. —Jonathan Beard

The Hard Problem

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human
by Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Press, 2005 ($22

The question “What is consciousness?” provokes all kinds of responses, ranging from jokes about psychedelic drugs to brow-furrowing discourses on life’s meaning. Nearly everyone has an opinion, despite the lack of meaningful data
explaining the phenomenon.

Susan Blackmore posed this question to 21 leading scientists and philosophers who study consciousness for a living, compiling their responses into lively, though slightly repetitive, Q&A interviews. In each case, Blackmore asks, What’s the problem with consciousness? Why does it differ from other targets of scientifi c inquiry? Several thinkers insist that it does not and that researchers will fare better when they treat consciousness like anything else in nature. Others assert that consciousness is fundamentally different,
constituting something extra beyond the ordinary physical world. Says David Chalmers, an Australian mathematician- turned-philosopher: “The heart of the science of consciousness is trying to understand the first-person perspective”— to explain subjective experiences objectively.

In grappling with what neuroscientists call the “hard” problem—the struggle to explain
how neural processes create subjective experiences—the experts are long on theories but
short on answers. Nearly all agree that classical dualism doesn’t work—that the mind and
brain cannot be made of distinct substances. Many refer instead to the neural correlates of consciousness, the neural activity present during a person’s conscious experience.

Blackmore queries the thinkers on such issues as life after death, the self and free will. Most say they do not believe in extracorporeal survival, in contrast with 55 percent of U.S. residents. Most also agree that scientific evidence does not support the notion of free will, despite the gripping feeling that it exists. And because the search for the source of a conscious “I” in the brain has turned up empty, the existence of a distinct self seems remote, although subjective awareness suggests each person needs a self
to experience consciousness.

Blackmore also asks the researchers why they chose to study consciousness and how doing so has affected their lives. Several refer to a fascination with altered states of
consciousness prompted by drugs, meditation, dreams or anesthesia. Many abandoned fruitful research careers in other areas to pursue the Holy C. Perhaps the most extreme
case is that of Francis Crick, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize by decoding DNA’s structure and then at age 60 turned his attention to consciousness work for a quarter of
a century. Crick’s interview by Blackmore was his last; he died shortly thereafter, in July 2004. —Richard Lipkin

Brain Disease as Mental Slavery

72 Hour Hold
by Bebe Moore Campbell. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005 ($24.95)

“Hell, being black is hard enough.... Please don’t add crazy.” So writes Bebe Moore Campbell in her compelling new novel that confronts two taboo subjects in the African-
American community: mental disorder and homosexuality. The book is named for the three-day maximum period that a mentally ill adult can be legally held in a public health
facility if she demonstrates a danger to herself or others. The novel tells the story of Keri Whitmore, a successful black businesswoman struggling to care for a teenage daughter with bipolar disorder, which causes radical mood swings between mania and depression.

The fictional prose is not meant to offer an inside look at brain disease. Rather it presents a brutally honest and devastating account of a mother’s love and the desperate degree to which she will go to rescue her child from mental illness. In doing so, Campbell exposes the woeful inadequacies of our current public health care system in treating such patients and introduces the novel’s greatest value: its insight into the challenges faced by people who must care for such loved ones.

Nevertheless, this noble effort is undermined when Campbell invokes slavery to convey the horrors of mental illness. Though poignant, the comparison seems forced, relying on overwrought passages about whipping posts and slave auctions. The metaphor clouds the novel’s purpose, especially since the author seems to decide, by the end, that the best way to deal with a family member’s brain disease is through acceptance rather than emancipation. The same cannot be said of slavery. Campbell also draws parallels between brain disorders and homosexuality to suggest that both issues must be dealt with more openly. Her point that both are unfairly stigmatized is overshadowed by the unsavory
implication that being gay is a malady somehow akin to mental illness.

The novel offers important lessons to family members about caring for the self and seeking the support of others. And yet Campbell’s main character is overly ambitious, much like the book itself. Keri seems more like a wonder-mom with an endless supply of time, energy and patience than a desperate mother on the brink of collapse. She not only
cares for her manic daughter but runs her thriving business, strokes the ego of her workaholic ex-husband, counsels her boyfriend’s gay son and advises a drug-addicted ex-prostitute. Then again, Campbell has taken on ambitious aims, which she accomplishes with some success despite the novel’s distractions. —Jeanne Hamming