BOOK REVEIW / What's the matter with mind?: 'Bright Air, Brilliant Fire' - Gerald Edelman: Allen Lane, 20 pounds

We wear our thinking caps on the inside. The part that sets us apart, the cerebral cortex, is a quarter-inch-thick rind covering three pounds of brain. We incline, however, to a more elegant image of ourselves: consciousness is founded in a unifying

sense of self. Each of us has a single point of view, and we like to imagine the self as having a nucleus or focus. Descartes identified the pineal gland as the interface between mind and brain. Nowadays, a typical lay thinker might conjure up a mental cartoon of a control room full of screens. Of course, this demands a controller.

Gerald Edelman is hardly the first neuroscientist to point out the absurdity of the 'homunculus' model: nothing is explained by postulating that a little man sits inside the head interpreting information from the outside world, since another homunculus is required to interpret his interpretations, and so on ad infinitum. Nor is he the first thinker to ridicule those who feel the need to mystify consciousness - in 1949, Gilbert Ryle used the inspired image of the 'ghost in the machine' to illustrate the Cartesian error of separating matter and mind.

But such is the power of the sense of self, and the sense that consciousness is an ineffable mystery, that challenges to the materialist orthodoxy of neuroscience are almost guaranteed a good press. One example is Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, which suggested that the explanation of consciousness may lie in quantum physics.

Edelman mounts a heavy-calibre counterblast on behalf of the belief that mind is solely a product of matter, acting according to 'normal' physical laws. Furthermore, he predicts, the mind will become increasingly amenable to scientific description. Building on ideas expounded in three previous books, the Nobel laureate argues that the brain can only be understood if treated as a product of evolution. Rather than genes, however, he emphasises selective pressures that act on groups of neurons as

each individual nervous system develops - 'neural Darwinism'. With a million billion connections in the cortex, the scope for uniqueness is beyond imagination.

Information from the outside world (and from other parts of the organism) is represented as maps made up of arrays of neurons. The cortex might be seen as a sort of atlas in which the maps compare notes, and thereby generate a collective awareness. One drawback of the map metaphor, however, is that it encourages a false sense of simplicity - as does any metaphor involving human constructs, including mental ones. The brain, Edelman warns, is more like a jungle than a computer.

This applies to so-called 'neural net' computing, which is not greatly like real neural networks. It also implies that modern cognitive science, despite its ascendancy, is a castle in the clouds. Abstraction is deviation, Edelman maintains; psychology must be rooted in biology. In fact, he looks forward to a scientific globe dominated by two superpowers, physics and neuroscience, the latter incorporating psychology. The book is dedicated not only to Darwin but also to Freud, the 'biologist of the

mind'.

A notable target of Edelman's assault on cognitivism is the idea that the human brain incorporates a dedicated device for acquiring language, which inducts children into a community of speech. Edelman argues, contrary to Noam Chomsky, that language does not enjoy a status separate from the rest of cognition: a child can make sense of things before it can speak.

At times, making sense of this particular text requires a daunting degree of cortical organisation. To a scientist, the kind of writing entailed in a book for a lay readership probably seems like free verse, but there nearly always remains a gulf of

language to be bridged. Some scientists adopt an unconvincing folksiness; Edelman is more like a scoutmaster leading his callow charges on an Outward Bound course, commiserating briskly about its rigours.

His prose is cogent, profound and authoritative, but somewhat short on legitimate ways to ease comprehension, such as illustrative examples. Still, Edelman does note the importance of metaphor in mental activity, as the imagination projects a map from one domain onto a map from another, and gains insight through the comparison. The more the maps are of familiar territory, the happier a general readership becomes.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine