The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning
by Daniel Bor .
Basic Books, 2012 ($27.99)

Memorize this string of letters: CSB ICR AAI CTA. Now try this one: ABC CIA IRS TSA. Both contain the same 12 letters, but most people find the second far easier to remember because the letters form known acronyms. This process—known as chunking—lies at the root of conscious thought and enables us to “build pyramids of knowledge” in our minds, says neuroscientist Bor.

In his new book, The Ravenous Brain, Bor takes on the biggest mystery of modern neuroscience: consciousness. Drawing on research published in the past 20 years, including some of his own, he presents a fresh view of consciousness in which chunking is its essential function. He contends that human consciousness evolved to help us learn by extracting relevant information from our surroundings and organizing it into meaningful patterns. According to several studies, we can be aware of no more than four items at any time; chunking is key because it allows us to compress data so we can maximize the information we gather. Multiple objects, sights, sounds, smells and feelings can be grouped together to give rise to a scene or memory. For instance, when chunked, the aroma of buttered popcorn, high-pitched laughter and wood-paneled floors may bring you back to sleepovers at a childhood friend's house.

As we incorporate more knowledge over time, we learn to execute new tasks and make associations with little or no conscious effort. Ultimately this ability helps us navigate the world better, maximize our chances of survival, and drive human innovation in art, literature and science.

Bor manages to pack a great deal of information—perhaps too much—into a small book. He presents a sweeping overview of how the brain evolved, from the primordial soup to present day, and argues that consciousness could actually be generated in nonbiological substrates such as computers.

Although Bor touts his theory of consciousness as “controversial,” much of what he discusses is common sense. The idea that the function of consciousness is to draw our attention to, and make sense of, salient stimuli seems intuitive. True, his theory cannot be put to the test, but it does add an intriguing perspective to our growing understanding of how the human mind works.