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Out Of Our Heads [Paperback]

Alva Noe
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 2 2010
Alva Noë is one of a new breed—part philosopher, part cognitive scientist, part neuroscientist—who are radically altering the study of consciousness by asking difficult questions and pointing out obvious flaws in the current science. In Out of Our Heads, he restates and reexamines the problem of consciousness, and then proposes a startling solution: do away with the two-hundred-year-old paradigm that places consciousness within the confines of the brain.

 

Our culture is obsessed with the brain—how it perceives; how it remembers; how it determines our intelligence, our morality, our likes and our dislikes. It’s widely believed that consciousness itself, that Holy Grail of science and philosophy, will soon be given a neural explanation. And yet, after decades of research, only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious—how it gives rise to sensation, feeling, and subjectivity—has emerged unchallenged: we don’t have a clue.

 

In this inventive work, Noë suggests that rather than being something that happens inside us, consciousness is something we do. Debunking an outmoded philosophy that holds the scientific study of consciousness captive, Out of Our Heads is a fresh attempt at understanding our minds and how we interact with the world around us.


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“Provocative and lucid . . . Certainly, many of the scientists cited by Noë would disagree with his interpretations, but that’s part of what makes this book so important: It’s an audacious retelling of the standard story, an exploration of the mind that questions some of our most cherished assumptions about what the mind is.” —Jonah Lehrer, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Noë is an alluring writer.” —Ruth Levy Guyer, The Washington Post
 
“Noë’s conversational style is gentle, attentive and easygoing. But, in true philosopher fashion, he also picks his words deliberately, as if stepping off the path of right thinking would result in some tragic plummet into the abyss of illogic.” —Gordy Slack, Salon
 
“I found Out of Our Heads to be a refreshingly clear, well-written, and satisfyingly slim book that reveals serious limitations in the mainstream academic approach to studying the nature of consciousness.” —Dean Radin, Shift
 
“As a neurologist, confronted every day by questions of mind, self, consciousness, and their basis, I find Alva Noë’s concepts—that consciousness is an organismic and not just a cerebral quality, that it is embodied in actions and not just isolated bits of brain—both astounding and convincing. Out of Our Heads is a book that should be read by everyone who thinks about thinking.” —Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center
 
“A provocative and insightful book that will force experts and students alike to reconsider their grasp of current orthodoxy. Out of Our Heads is a vivid, clear, and very knowledgeable critique of some of the main ideas in cognitive science, and those of us who disagree with some of its main conclusions have our work cut out for us.” —Daniel C. Dennett, Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University
 
“This book blows a breath of fresh air into the debates about consciousness and the brain. You are not your brain; you are your body, brain, and world dynamically intertwined. Consciousness is not a solo performance by the brain; it’s a partner dance our living bodies enact in concert with the world. If you think the brain is the beginning and end of the story about consciousness, you need to get out of your head and read this book!” —Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto
 
“As colorful and hard-hitting as its title suggests, Out of Our Heads is an important and provocative work that challenges some of the deepest assumptions guiding the contemporary scientific study of conscious experience.” —Andy Clark, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, Edinburgh University
 
“Alva Noë makes a powerful and persuasive case for the view that a several-centuries-old picture of the mind as an entity ‘inside the head’ has misled both lay and scientific thought about the nature of consciousness and, more broadly, the nature of the mind-world relation. Ranging over topics in philosophy, psychology, and neurology, the chapters of this book combine sophistication and availability to a general reader. His alternative to the misleading picture is nontrivial, and while his views are sure to be controversial, most of what he says is true, and all of it is original and important to think about.” —Hilary Putnam, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University
 
“Readers interested in how science can intersect with and profit from philosophy will find much food for thought in Noë’s groundbreaking study.” —Publishers Weekly
 
“Illuminating . . . An invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes’ famous maxim, ‘I think, therefore I am.’” Carl Hays, Booklist

About the Author

Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Science. His previous book, Action in Perception, was published in 2004.

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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of our heads April 3 2009
Format:Hardcover
This book hails from philosphy and so discusses and argues for
a proper definition of consciousness. Science asks what it is, philosphy asks how we should think about it. It is not to be thought of as electro-chemical impulses in the brain, but an an integral and essential entity made up of perception, interpretation, (memory, emotion and reason)determined largely by our environment. Even conjoined twins have a distinct consciousness, because of context. The word context appears late in the book; it might better have appeared in the beginning.
A very good portrayal of our awareness, but leaving out the three- dimensional aspects of body soul AND spirit. Spirit fills the gap and makes humans whole.
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Amazon.com: 3.1 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An accessible and compelling exploration of the extended mind March 30 2009
By Todd I. Stark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The mind is more than what the brain is doing. The idea isn't new, but it often gets too little respect. Perhaps because people think it implies something supernatural, or perhaps because it just seems weird, but it is a very respectable argument and in Alva Noe's hands, a powerful one.

We often take for granted in brain science that the mind is implemented by things happening inside the skull. That goes against the growing findings that perception is an active process of exploration that depends on our contact with the real world and the skills we possess for navigating its structure. This book takes on the significant challenge of bringing that difficult idea accessibly and non-technically into the popular mind and I think he does an excellent job.

Although Noe doesn't talk about it specifically, Ruth Millikan makes a good related argument that substance categories are really skills. We know substances by our skills for finding and identifying them over and over, not through their intrinsic properties. Noe approaches perception in much the same way. We know the world by interacting with it, not by (or in addition to?) simulating it with detailed models inside our head.

Noe goes a step further and points out how some concepts just don't make from a detached viewpoint, so we are often forced to destroy the phenomena of consciousness, reducing them to something else, in order to study them dispassionately. This is a tough sell, I think, to habitual materialists, but he doesn't rely too heavily on it.

The implication Noe emphasizes is that consciousness is a process involving interaction of the nervous system with the world, not (just) something that is lighting up inside our neural nets. The distinction is sometimes more subtle that Noe acknowledges. He approves of Gibson's ecological theory of perception, but doesn't address the equally important work on expectancy and hypothesis testing approaches to perception, such as Richard Gregory's ideas and the experimental work done around them.

He is probably right that much of our basic perception relies heavily on active engagement with the world, but then some of it, to me, clearly doesn't. He does a good job showing limits to the feature detection approach to vision (doesn't it beg the question to say that features are "built up" toward pictures in the brain?), but doesn't have an alternate explanation for the elaborate architecture of columns and receptor fields and their activity in dreaming and imagination that seem to support at least some version of the mental representation concept in some kinds of mental activity. It seems in places that Noe acknowledges this sort of work but considers it an impoverished-perceptual or non-perceptual kind of mental activity.

Other than the excellent writing and clear arguments, the best part of this book is the skillful use of various findings regarding phantom limbs, sensory illusions, and inattention phenomena to illustrate the empirical implications of a mind extended beyond the brain case. Even if you don't buy the full externalist argument in all its details, it's hard to read those examples and not have a little light go off in your head and think "oh, so that's what he means by the mind being outside the brain!" That's a mark of good writing.

Noe mentions but does not dwell on the role played by philosopher J Merleau-Ponty in many of these ideas, and his work is worth exploring as well. A good non-technical intro in keeping with the spirit of Noe's book is: Merleau-ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed).

This book is a good read, a relatively quick read, and very thought provoking.
56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "You are not your brain." March 8 2009
By Found Highways - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Or, to use another of philosopher Alva No's metaphors, "consciousness is more like dancing than it is digestion." Consciousness is something we do, not something we have. Our awareness of ourselves isn't inside our brains, but in the interaction of our brains with the world around us.

One of the ideas that No insists on is that our "theory of mind" (the awareness that other people, like us, are conscious) is practical, not theoretical.

No says, "I cannot both trust and love you and also wonder whether, in fact, you are alive in thought and feeling." To put it another way, No quotes Louis Armstrong on how to define jazz: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna know."

To see something's mind, "we need to turn our attention to the way brain, body, and world together maintain living consciousness."

Using language as an indicator of consciousness, No may just be reaching for effect when he says that "talking is more like barking than it is anything like what the linguists have in mind." He compares using language to chimpanzee grooming behavior or sheepdogs barking while herding sheep. But linguists often talk about speech's "phatic" or social function (see How Language Works by David Crystal), and one of the first language teachers I had (a Hungarian who taught Russian and Swahili) said one of the main purposes of language was to acknowledge other people's existence. I was too nave to realize I was getting a lesson in linguistics.

No has two "political" goals in this book. One is to "shake up the cognitive science establishment" and the other is to show "that science and humanistic styles of thinking must engage each other."

I don't know if No will be successful with the first goal, but he succeeded with the second. Out of Our Heads is clear and entertaining, and shows how philosophy and biology can work together to explain human behavior, as well as why they should.
60 of 74 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing But Flawed Aug. 17 2009
By Robert W. Sawyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I appreciate Noe's expansive view of the conditions of human experience, and his battle against simplistic reductionism. Materialist-minded neuroscientists, like many specialists, overstate the significance of their own research, and in a psychiatric context can do more harm than good.

But Noe's single-minded focus on the role of active engagement in everyday-life phenomenology leads him to overstate his own case.

It isn't clear, for example, why an organism's active engagement with its environment, a precondition for normal perception, should count toward a definitive account of "consciousness", while model-building neural activity in the brain shouldn't, unless you're simply assuming about consciousness what you wish to prove, i.e., that it isn't in any way its neurological correlates.

Noe also goes too far in his insistence on environmental engagement as a necessary precondition for consciousness. One of his own examples - patients with locked-in syndrome - brings this out. While Noe uses such cases of radical immobility to argue for the unreliability of brain scans, such cases also clearly illustrate consciousness can exist in a state approaching that of a brain in a vat. (It's not much of stretch to imagine the body functions that support the brain in such tragic cases being replaced with artificial supports, presumably with the patient continuing to remain aware despite no outward sign of consciousness.)

The brain is far from the whole story of consciousness, which can be studied from multiple historical, biological and humanist perspectives, all of which shed light on its development and nature. But Noe's insistence that consciousness requires present active engagement with the world is either an overstatement or a re-definition by fiat.
103 of 138 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Noe the obscure Aug. 17 2009
By John L. Kubie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I found the summary of neuroscience simplistic and the "new" ideas about consciousness obscure. First, I'm a neuroscientist and I know no neuroscientist who think that the current state of fMRI and PET scans are the holy grail. These are important tools with important limitations.

Second, I don't see how a sensori-motor conception of behavior eliminates the brain. This seems like a retread of reductionist behaviorism.

While I agree with the general thrust of embodied consciousness -- observing how an organism interacts with the environment, rather than passively receives information from the environment -- is generally correct, this does not eliminate the brain, nor the wide variety of approaches that brain scientist use. It makes the project more challenging and interesting.

Finally, try as I might, I don't understand how Noe defines consciousness. It seems like hand-waving. And, like virtually every other attempt to explain first-person consciousness, it either denies its existence (unlikely) or performs magic.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Individualism considered July 10 2010
By J. Walsh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Noe's ideas are a good start on breaking the peculiar Western need to locate consciousness in a particular physical place. If I understand correctly, he locates "mind" in the interactions of the brain with the world.

My own sense, and I don't have it well developed, is that we need to go further out, and begin to see mind as including what Durkheim called "social facts". I doubt it will happen soon, due to our delusions of atomism in the social world. We seem to be stuck with the idea that each of us is, say, a pool ball, complete with mind and brain, and that we bounce around, hitting the cushions or each other, and have no enduring connections with any. Noe makes a start toward working out the goofiness of that view.
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