Waking up to the inner workings of our brains

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CONSCIOUSNESS: A USER’S GUIDE

Adam Zeman

Yale University Press, 18.95

"CONSCIOUSNESS is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon... Nothing worth reading has been written on it," wrote Stuart Sutherland. Try telling that to the army of philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists who have filled our bookshops with their efforts to explain the subjective quality of our experience. How is it, they ask, that a biological machine such as a human being can have the experience of dj vu or embarrassment? How can an inner world be built from the nuts and bolts of biology?

Philosophers have banged their heads against this particular brick wall for the best part of 3,000 years: can there really be anything new to say?

Adam Zeman, a consultant neurologist, believes there is. In this wonderfully informative study, he deals even-handedly with the various attempts to deny consciousness or explain it away, and argues that the best hopes for rethinking the question lie in the discoveries of modern neuroscience. There is no big theory here. For the most part he defers the traditional philosophical obsessions with whether computers can think, and concentrates instead on the neural correlates of consciousness in our particular biological machine.

What follows is an awe-inspiring tour of contemporary neuroscience. The book might not quite live up to its billing as a user’s guide to consciousness, but it is a pretty good user’s guide to the brain. Zeman’s clinical experience allows him to illustrate his arguments with Oliver Sacks-style anecdotes. But he’s no slouch on the philosophical debates either, and gives the clearest account of the varieties of dualism and physicalism that I have read for some time.

At times this fascinating story stumbles under the weight of its own ambition. In his search for a "theory of everything" (as he describes the modern holy grail of consciousness research), Zeman sometimes overdoes the ‘everything’. There are some bizarre digressions on the origins of life and the evolution of vision. At times he misjudges the lay-reader’s need for assistance with technicalities: some of the diagrams would baffle a professional.

These failings contribute to an occasional sense that the hugeness of Zeman’s task has overwhelmed him. Sometimes the book reads like a Shandean evasion of its own question: in some of the digressions, you feel that this book about consciousness has an unconscious that needs psychoanalysing. This is perhaps partly Zeman’s point: the traditional approaches have outlived their usefulness, and we would be wiser to focus on specific mechanisms in the brain rather than the ephemeral phenomena that Sutherland was so sceptical about. Zeman could have been bolder, but he has nevertheless produced an immensely valuable book.

Charles Fernyhough is a novelist and psychologist

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