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Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness Paperback – Feb 2 2010

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1 edition (Feb. 2 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809016486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809016488
  • Product Dimensions: 13.9 x 1.7 x 20.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 204 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #107,261 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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 By Jerry A. Dykman on 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 34 reviews
61 of 62 people found the following review helpful
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.
69 of 84 people found the following review helpful
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
If you're really interested in this subject, find a more advanced book Feb. 6 2013
By Jack McKever - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I don't do the whole customer-review thing, but I'm doing it now because I feel it may preclude confusion on your part, as the potential purchaser. For the record, just in case Noë is the kind of writer who reads reviews of his books, I actually find his philosophy quite nice, and agree with most of his conclusions, and I love that he's working to carve out more space for first-person, phenomenological experience in our age of gnawing scientism. I'm not here to bash Alva Noë, nor his philosophy, and not even his conclusions in this specific work, but I didn't enjoy the book a whole lot. I'm here, basically, to bash the title and a few key little bits of glib subject matter, and to direct your attention, as the potential purchaser, toward more advanced an in-depth books. So bear with me.

To make it as easy as possible, I'll start with this: If you truly care about learning about cognitive science, investigating some of the scientific implications of phenomenology (which is a philosophical and not-strictly-scientific field), steer clear of this book. If you already know the basics of philosophy of mind, steer clear of this book. Not that the book is necessarily bad, but if you really value and want to learn about these things, you will find it a bit simplistic and insubstantial. You could try Noe's other books, and if you haven't already read it, you could try Thomas Nagel's "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" which is actually a 20-ish page essay, and a gem of an essay at that. Just Google it in quotes. You could also try Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who is a relatively accessible philosopher from whom Noë takes a great many cues.

This is the kind of book that opts for endnotes rather than footnotes, and which just gives page references for endnotes, rather than blocking the page up with superscript references to other texts you don't care about anyway. It's also the kind of book that makes liberal use of in-text exclamation points and cute phrases like "the snap, crackle, and pop of conscious experience." It makes things easy to read, but this comes at the expense of intellect. If you're brand new to the cognitive science trend, it means Noë wrote the book to serve as your introduction, and went out of his way to make it digestible, uncomplicated, and not especially academic. Basically, it's for beginners, and Noë wants to sell you his ideas in a non-intimidating way. This is fairly complicated stuff, after all, so there's no shame in starting with an accessible introduction. Again: not bad, but not for everyone.

There's also the title, specifically: the subtitle. "Lessons from the biology of consciousness" is somewhat misleading since this book isn't really about biology. It's about cognitive science, which is a new-ish hybrid of philosophy and neuroscience, neuroscience being, of course, a branch of biology. But since it's a branch with it's own specific name, I don't see a good reason not to use it. I have the sneaking suspicion that Noë (or, to be fair, maybe his more commercially-interested publisher) chose "biology of consciousness" over more specific terms like "neuroscience" or "cognitive science" as a way of selling the book to people who aren't sure what those terms mean, who might be intimidated by them, or who might scoff at them outright. This is, again, a nod to the beginner's market.

If you know your basics philosophy- or science-wise, the content of the book is more than a little misleading as well. It seems like a lot of what Noë does is construct Cartesian straw men and build arguments against them. No self-respecting neuroscientist actually thinks of the brain as a dualistic sort of computer or that it's operationally separate from its environment, and no self-respecting thinker takes Descartes seriously. Noë doesn't really need to convince anyone of these things, but his attempts to do so wind up with him making common-sense statements like "We couldn't [see] if we had no brain, but we couldn't do it if there were no objects, either." Another favorite of mine is: "What I am saying is that the question of consciousness arises for living beings," as if he needs to clarify whether or not the question of consciousness arises for non-living beings. Thanks, Noë.

The upshot: as a creative writer, I took several interesting points and applicable ideas from this book, but I wish I had gotten them from "Action in Perception" or "Varieties of Presence" instead.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Dr. Noë, Please Meet Dr. Bergson Dec 10 2013
By Stephen E. Robbins - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Noë sets out with great energy to convince us that, "Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make," in fact, something we do actively in our dynamic interaction with the world around us. It is this fact that explains why it has proven so difficult to create an explanation of the neural basis of consciousness. In this he works on dismantling the view that is it the brain that produces images of our environment - the brain being the sole author of what is commonly thought a "grand illusion." We are treated to interesting, sometimes great discussions of the actual conclusions we can draw from PET scan and fMRI technology, remarkable studies on vision, e.g., seeing ferrets with eyes wired to the brain's hearing areas, Bach-y-Rita's sensory substitution approach to getting the blind to see, Noë's (and O'Regan's) own thoughts on the critical role of action in vision. There is a bold and rare take down or at least re-evaluation of the otherwise worshiped importance of Hubel and Wiesel's findings on various cell classes oriented to different "features" of the world - a foundation of the idea that the brain is constructing the world from elementary features. Add to this a great reval of the notion of special (FFA) cells for recognizing faces, a thought provoking set of considerations on the critical role of habit in learning, skill and thought, and a nice trashing of the concept that the brain is simply creating a virtual reality.

All told, this is a very worthwhile read. Its prime weakness is yet in its main thesis. The character of our experience (visual, or auditory, or kinaesthetic...) it is argued (and strongly so), is not a function of the intrinsic character of the sensory stimulation (i.e., of the specific kinds of neurons stimulated) but in the way stimulation varies as a function of movement in relation to the environment. As I move around the table, the table transforms (in perspective) in a lawful way - the way an object in vision (not hearing) should. Implication 1: Connect up your neural net such that it responds lawfully to these transforms - you have vision of the external world. Note that in this conception there is nothing happening in the brain, obviously, that looks like the external world - the kitchen table, the coffee cup, the spoon stirring. Implication 2: We just need to be in relation to this external world, and miraculously, we get an image of it.

One sees pretty much the same theme in expositors of Gibson (with whom Noë is aligned), e.g., Barret (Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds), Chemero (Radical Embodied Cognitive Science). The first question which begs to be asked: why is this not a specification for a seeing robot? I doubt there is an answer against this. The fact is, the thesis cries for some mechanism, some physical principle which explains this: why, given this action relationship to the environment, is there now an image of the external world? To make this problem concretely clear quickly, I'm just going straight to this: Embed Noë (and Gibson for that matter) in Bergson. Bergson (Matter and Memory, 1896) presciently saw the universal field as a holographic field and the brain as effectively being a modulated reconstructive wave passing through (or resonating within) this field, and thus "specific to" a subset of the field, now, by this selective specification, an "image" of a (past) portion of the ever transforming field. This image is at a scale of time imposed by the brain's underlying dynamics - the fly in Noë's "environment" could be the "buzzing" being of normal scale, a being flapping its wings like a heron, or a crystalline ensemble of whirling particles. The selection principle for a subset out of the mass of holographic information is the relevance to the body's action, and to Bergson - deeply reflective of Noë's relation to action or Gibson's affordance concept - perception is "virtual action." In this holographic reconstructive wave model, where within the brain there are indeed no representations of the external world and no image being produced by or in the brain, we now have a concrete mechanism for explaining the origin of the image of the environment - not a mere abstraction about an "action relationship with the environment." Noë's notion of the proper relation of the external world to action (or Gibson's notion of the body/brain being directly "specific to" the environment) can only gain its needed coherence within some such framework.

To make Bergson's model coherent, one needs at least this: a model of time and motion different from that of the current, classic metaphysic of space and time, a different concept of the relation of mind to time, a different notion of memory (where experience is not stored in the brain), consideration of possible scales of time in perception - subjects to which Noë gives virtually no consideration. With these, we would indeed understand why Noë's specification per se could not produce a seeing robot. So, all in all, a great book, but this "active relationship with the world" conception, of which Noë is one of several proponents, struggles with these crying-to-be-answered gaps. It could be so much more powerful would these theorists pay attention to a thinker who was way ahead of them in 1896.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A disappointment Oct. 29 2013
By Robert A. Maclachlan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
The author is well informed about understandings of the mind offered by neuroscience and psychology, and is frequently delightfully plain spoken. Of course he cites evidence in a way that advances his Story, which is the nature of narrative. He does no great violence to the science, but consistently exaggerates the difference between his own views and those common in these areas of science. Unfortunately, he fails to make a connection between his detailed arguments and his overall claim about mind, and indeed fails to communicate with any clarity at all what his view of the mind is.

What does he really mean when he says that consciousness is a property of a person in the world rather than of an isolated brain? Does he believe, as Indian mystics do, that the universe is consciousness itself, and we just a small spark of that? My guess is no, he hasn't given any sign of tending toward non-physical explanations.

Does he mean, since he has defined consciousness as genuine experience of the world, that consciousness can only exist in the setting of person genuinely experiencing the world? Possibly, but that does seem trivially circular.

My suspicion is that the author has had vivid subjective experiences of the sort that Saul Bellow talks about in this quotation at the beginning of chapter 8:

"Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness-it feels so free! Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue. For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there.) At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything."

Perhaps Noë finds he cannot believe that this sort of experience is in any nontrivial way a consequence of synapses firing. In pursuing this insight, but still trying to use the rational methods of science, he has gone way out on a limb.

If this is so, then he is wise in not trying to pin himself down with words. Though quite likely the author would be offended by this claim, his methods are the methods of the guru, trying to infuse his understanding into the minds of his students by negation, analogy, and any other indirect technique, because mystical knowledge cannot withstand a frontal verbal assault. It would melt away into nothingness. Classifying such experiences as mystical is not the same as saying they are unreal (or illusions).

Should we say that the author has fallen for the illusion of consciousness? I agree with him in objecting to the term "illusion" as a description of the constructive, synthetic way that the mind understands experience. He seems to feel that he is understanding the world just fine, and if anything is bothering him, it is his frustration that almost everyone else who follows a physical approach is "out of their head" [or mind] in not seeing things as he does. If he wants to understand this disagreement, then I think he should spend more time pondering Level Confusion and Emergence.

Overall, I'd have to say I was disappointed. On first reading, I had noticed mostly where I agreed with his position, which was often, but on going back and rereading the areas I had tagged, I found that when he was making claims related to science, there was a pattern. He chose a starting point where it wasn't clear who actually held this position, and then ended up at a position that was entirely consistent both with science and with mind being a process that takes place within the brain. In other words, there was the form of a straw man argument. I also noticed considerable rhetorical spin that hadn't registered on my first reading.

It seems that this book wasn't written for me, but rather for people who have similar intuitions to the author: that there is "something more" than the mechanistic model of neuroscience offers. If you want an articulate confirmation of that sort of view, read this book.

You have to understand that I believe the normal function of Story is communicating our intuitions, so there is nothing improper with starting from an intuition and building a story around it. But in this case, I didn't get the author's intuition, and I saw very few places where he made a clear attempt to communicate what he did believe. When he addresses the central issue what he says either seems pretty obvious, or could only be true given some specialized use of language.

I wrote a longer version of this review with links and discussion of specific passages at [...]