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

Your brain is a three-pound hunk of grayish jelly. Your mind hosts a stream of thoughts and sensations. Despite recent advances in neuroscience, we don’t know how to get from one to the other: we still can’t explain the mind in terms of the brain. Some believe that if we keep studying the brain with the tools we have, we will eventually work up to the conscious mind. Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, is not so optimistic. In Out of Our Heads, his first book for a popular audience, he argues that we have been looking for consciousness in the wrong place.

“Consciousness does not happen in the brain,” Noë claims. But his position is not as extreme as it sounds. The point is not that neural states are irrelevant to our experience but that if we are ever to understand the nature of conscious awareness we will have to consider more than just our “wet, sticky, meat-slab brains.” The sense of consciousness, according to Noë, is the ongoing product of a wide-ranging interaction between the body of a living creature and the world it inhabits. The brain is only part of this story.

It’s a fair point, if not one that will be entirely surprising to biologists. As Noë showed convincingly in a previous book—Action in Perception (MIT Press, 2004)—we do not passively absorb data from our eyes and ears, as a camera or a microphone would, but rather scan and probe our environments so we can act on them. It is a long way, however, from this view of perception to a coherent theory of consciousness.

Noë has a gift for condensing the literature on how we perceive and interact with the world. Yet he seems unable to build from these studies a convincing account of what consciousness is. Rather the book is an exercise in skepticism and criticism, much of it warranted. The problem is that where Noë clears away stale ideas, he offers little of substance to replace them. One comes away from the book without a definitive example of a conscious state that would require more than a brain.

Despite these problems, Noë’s main point holds: if we want to understand the conscious mind, we will need to take a wider view of the whole organism interacting with its environment. One could imagine many researchers nodding their heads. The crucial issue, not emphasized by Noë, is that it is exceptionally hard to tease out how our surroundings and our own actions shape the way we perceive the world. That challenge, rather than a lack of curiosity or imagination, could be why there has been so little work on the subject.