BOOK REVIEW: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch

Review by Laura Sanders

There’s a famous quip circulated among writers: The craft is easy. You just sit down at your desk and open a vein. In his latest book, Koch does one better. He pries off his skull, splits open his brain and invites the reader in.

What’s inside is fascinating. Through scenes from his life as a wandering child, an ambitious young researcher and an erudite professor, Koch describes his compulsion to discover the roots of consciousness.

The book is a testament to the power of the subjective. Koch lays bare his most profound losses, confronts his mortality and describes his wildest ideas all in the confessional style of St. Augustine.

One of his chief confessions: At heart, Koch is a romantic who sees a world brimming with meaning. This deeply philosophical view anchors the book, which includes quotes from Haruki Murakami, Oscar Wilde and Dante.

Also near Koch’s heart, though, is the seemingly contrary scientific desire to untangle the incredibly complex questions of consciousness — what it is, who has it and why. In his wide-ranging discussion of the latest brain science, Koch points out examples of experiments that provide some clues. His crisp descriptions of science capture the essence without a trace of puffed-up jargon.

Along the way, Koch discusses free will (which he calls a “scholarly minefield” before charging straight in); animal consciousness (he no longer eats mammals or birds); and how religion fits into his view of the universe (he has gradually lost his Catholic faith).

Koch weaves a vivid and poignant story, punctuated by fascinating characters and compelling science. The book will leave you with a small piece of Koch’s own consciousness, plucked from his head and delivered into yours.

MIT Press, 2012, 184 p., $24.95