The Quest for Consciousness

By Christof Koch, 2004, 429 pages, partial text, amazon

People know Francis Crick as one on the discoverers of the DNA structure. What they usualy do not know is that for the rest of his life he was pondering another, maybe even more exciting, problem: the question of consciousness. Where does it originate? What is that awareness inside our heads? Is it unique to humans? Christof Koch was one of his close collaborators in this endeavour and even though he is listed as a sole author of this book, he writes it in terms of “we, Francis and I”.

Obviously, Crick and Koch are not the only people who have been thinking about this question. For thousands of years, everybody has been to some extent, with no definitive answers (yet). To no surprise, the book does not provide answers either. It raises even more questions, but also offers a lot of suggestions and an extensive commented reference list to publications in this area of neuroscience.

What Koch has been looking for, are the neuronal correlates of consciousness – minimal set of neuronal events jointly sufficient for a specific conscious state. Did he find them? Not yet. But as he says:

We live at a unique point in the history of science. The technology to discover and characterize how subjective mind emerges out of the objective brain is within reach. The next years will prove decisive.

Even though the book does get “technical” at some points, it is still highly readable also for people not trained in neuroscience. Good way to read it might be to start with a fictional interview with the author in the last chapter which summarizes his ideas, then read the rest of the book and then return to the interview once more.

There are some things that I do not like about Koch’s lines of tought, there are some others which I can accept, but are still somewhat disturbing (especially his idea of the nonconscious homunculus in our heads who percieves the world through senses, thinks, plans and carries out voluntary actions while our consciousness is a mere reflection of all this) but despite these (actually, maybe partially because of these) the book is worth reading and thinking about.

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