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Book Review: Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noë

Review by Bruce Bower

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Alva Noë wants to knock the brain off its scientific pedestal, where it reigns as maestro of mind and king of consciousness. In his new book, the University of California, Berkeley philosopher offers an often thought-provoking explanation of why neuroscientists won’t make headway in understanding conscious experience until they drop their brain-
centric attitudes.

Noë rejects the traditional assumption that consciousness depends on the brain compiling sensory information to create its own internal pictures of the world — pictures bearing a tenuous relationship with what’s really out there. Consciousness doesn’t happen in the brain, like digestion happens in the gut, Noë argues. The brain is an equal player with the body and the environment. Interactions among all three allow an individual to understand the world and accomplish goals — from making a cup of coffee to designing a business plan for a coffee company.

This is not a new idea. Noë notes that fields such as philosophy, artificial intelligence and developmental psychology already take seriously the possibility that consciousness depends on actions taken and goals sought in context.

Marshaling recent findings, Noë outlines why his approach best explains how vision works, how people learn to speak native languages and why individuals experience various illusions of self-perception. His book may not change many neuroscientists’ minds, but it will likely get them thinking. -- Bruce Bower

Hill and Wang, 2009, 214 p., $25

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