- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: W W Norton; 1 edition (June 27 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393323196
- ISBN-13: 978-0393323191
- Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 2.5 x 20.8 cm
- Shipping Weight: 503 g
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #455,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Mind So Rare Paperback – Jun 27 2002
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Many scientists have denied any evolutionary significance to human consciousness, dismissing it as illusory smoke dancing above the fire of real neurochemistry. But Donald sees in consciousness the very key to understanding how humankind developed. After assaulting (with great panache) the arguments commonly deployed to remove it from the research agenda, Donald presents a natural history for consciousness, focusing particularly on its astonishing and clearly unique complexity among human beings-- Why does the human brain so closely resemble those of other primates yet so dramatically outstrip them in capacity? How does the mind endow the ego center with autonomy and a narrative autobiography? In his sophisticated conception of a multilayered consciousness drawing much of its power from its cultural matrix, Donald bids fair to reset the terms for evolutionary psychology. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Donald transcends the simplistic claims of Evolutionary Psychology,...offering a true Darwinian perspective on the evolution of consciousness. -- Philip Lieberman
The most significant contribution yet to the rapidly growing literature of minds, brains, and consciousness. -- Steven Rose
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Apart form these confusions in the reading by Donald of the literature, there is also his idea that short-term memory and capacity limitations are not helpful concepts. Consciousness, Donald says, is more of an intermediate term phenomenon. (Does Donald then equate consciousness with memory, and if so, is this contradictory? THink of hippocampal lesioned patients, who though consicous, can only function in intervals of seconds, before forgetting that period). His confusion I think, rests in his conception of short term memory. He argues that human consicousnes takes place in temporal units of many minutes and hours, like in the following of a converation, and since WM is of the order of seconds, this cannot be the whole story. But it is not clear to me that one could not explain Donalds "intermediate term" consciousness by alluding to WM plus some sort of reactivation by top-down processes.
To me the strongest part of the book is where Donald argues that not only humans are conscious. Consicousness emerged in stages, with different characteristics and abilities, and there is no good reason to deny it to many mamals. Humans and primates, are in a diferent class altogether. They have a group of executive abilities that make consciousness more interesting. He proposes three levels, binding, working memory, intermediate and long term control. Binding is perceptual consciousness, the coherent representation of objects, and is probably the basic form of awareness, present in many species. Working memory is extends binding in time, and is probably characteristic of primates and select mamals. Intermediate control is episodic, executive, and extends consciousness considerably, in place probably in social mamals. Here one could see that Donald fals prey of his own primary objections. He objects to consicousness being identified with working memory, language, or sensation alone, but he seems to say consicousness is all of these things together. This is not extremely self-consistent.
Next comes Donalds major point. That human consicousness is not just that. THere is more, and that is the fact that we are not just brains, but brains in culture, and that culture and language expand consciousness into the human kind we enjoy. That is, we compute symbolically, but also analogically, we are "hybrid minds". Donald lists pre-requisites of this deep enculturation. There is extended executive function, superplasticity in cortex, the evolution of asssociation areas in cortex, voluntary access to memory, and an extended working memory. This, along with the influence of culture and language, is human consicousness.
Enculturation, is to Donald essential, as can be seen in the last chapters of the book that recapitulate the ideas of his former book "Origins of the Modern Mind", about the three stages of cognitive evolution of mimesis, episodic ability and invention of symbolic comunication and external storage. This is a different matter from consicousness altogether, that proposes how the human cognitive architecture evolved. It is a very intreresting theory, that Donald at the end uses to structure his ideas on consciousness.
Donalds book is very thought provoking, but has some very questionable claims (For example, he says there are no projections from association cortex to sensory cortex, which is wrong, or that neural networks might be consicous but not serial computers, even though neural nets are implemented on the latter, being comitted to the strange position that in a computer the software might be consicous, but not the computer itself) probably due to his strange reading of the literature. He critiques models of consciousness as essentially misleading, but not noticing that it is because other theorists concentrate on primary, sensory and access consicousness, not the whole of human consciousness with its exeptional range of characteristics. He also forgets about emotions and their role on creating the self and consciousness, as well as the role of sub cortical structures, like MRT, thalamus, etc.) By concentrating on HUMAN consciousness, he only partially explains this elusive phenomenon, not giving even hints about the nature of phenomenal consciousness, and only very abstractly proposing testable hypotheses, a fatal flaw in my view for any science-inclined book.
But things we do in daily life clearly require us to track things much more numerous and much longer than could possibly be accomplished by "seven plus or minus two" chunks, even with clever strategies for grouping things. Donald uses this to argue that conscious processes are very real and not to be ignored, and do play a central role in human intelligence.
Donald unflinchingly takes on the likes of "hardliners" such as Dan Dennett who argue that there is no central "meaner," no self, no little person in our heads observing the stream of consciousness in a Cartesian theater. He points out that the drafts we generate in our minds are not at all arbitrary competitors for dominance, but are distinctly related to goals and expectations. Most insightfully, he argues that discounting the role of conscious processes has dire implications for social and political philosophy and how we view human responsibility for our own actions.
In my view, Donald makes the excellent point for yet poorly understood intermediate term memory mechanisms very convincingly. I was completely persuaded that this is something we need to study to understand human abilities, and that "hardliners" views have some weaknesses I hadn't considered seriously before. He does make one rhetorical twist, though, that confused and sometimes annoyed me until I figured it out. He argues convincingly that we should retain the ideas of executive processes, goals, schema, and expectations, and how they influence thinking. The mind is organized in a central and domain general way for many critical things, rather than being completly modular and the result of bottom-up processing by independent functional agents.
I bought his argument here from fairly early in this excellent book. But then he also consistently equates this kind of organization with what other people call "consciousness," without making it clear at first. So you start wondering why he is calling all sorts of things "conscious" when clearly we
don't notice them !
Most strikingly, in reviewing the research on subliminal effects, he considers them conscious, even though they are seemingly by definition, not ! That is where I discovered that he is relating conscious processes to goal direction and selective attention, not to "noticing." "Noticing" per se actually has very little to do with anyghing in this book. This was a difficult conceptual turn for me, but may be a profound idea. It preserves the idea of consciousness as the selective goal-oriented use of attention to organize the activity of the mind, but doesn't attempt to explain phenomenal awareness per se. His idea of the substrate of consciousness is a neccessary but not sufficient basis for "noticing." The emphasis here is on how we select things to focus our resources on, rather than how phenomenal experience arises. This shift of emphasis allows him to make short work of some of the paradoxical ideas of the hardliners, without trying to tackle the "hard questions" of consciousness directly.
In a way, Merlin Donald takes on the role toward the study of the human mind that Gould, Lewontin, and Rose take toward the study of human evolution. He tries valiantly to bring us back from what he sees as the brink of an awful and unwarranted reductionism. The reductionism of mind to unconscious computation, he points out, threatens the very foundation of our political and economic ideas around freedom and individual responsibility.
Remarkably enough, I think his argument often succeeds.
One of the reasons his argument succeeds is that he makes a very clear distinction between limited consciousness and non-existent consciousness, a line that gets blurred by some philosophers in the process of trying to explain subjective experience in terms of neurons.
Donald describes the difference that makes a difference, that human beings can select their own goals and adjust their own priorities because their nervous system is patterned by a symbolic web of culture to form a distributed cognitive network. Going directly against the modern trend of evolutionary psychology in explaining away awareness as an artifact of functional computational modules, the author argues that human minds do have one very important distinction from other primate minds, a unique additional capacity for consciousness that evolved from the unique conditions of human evolution. The human mind is not, he suggests, simply the result f emergent qualities of an arbitrarily complex neural network. That would be too glib an explanation, and wouldn't explain why sensory nets are aware and not motor nets.
This book seems to be a manifesto of sorts toward a new view of the mind that incorporates what we know about the self and goal-directed domain-independent behavior rather than explaining away these important aspects of human mental function.
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