Between the introduction and conclusion of the book, you won’t find an account of the science of instincts, a detailing of how they might interact or a model of how that interaction might bring about consciousness. Instead, you’ll find an eloquent history of the scientific study of consciousness. Gazzaniga traces the field from its philosophical roots in the 17th century through the age of early empirical thinking, modern neuroscience and neurological case studies, and even into the realm of quantum physics. After each historical narrative, he discusses the way each field has broadly influenced the way he thinks about mind and brain. What’s profound about Gazzaniga’s The Consciousness Instinct parallels what made Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis so special: It is a window into the mind of one of the greats. It is a rare opportunity to watch a scientific champion grapple with perhaps our most formidable mystery, juggling multiple fields of study, laying out his thinking, though raw and incomplete, so others may continue the work. For the rest of us in the neurosciences, struggling merely to balance on the shoulders of giants, we can only be grateful when one of those giants nudges us forward, to continue soul-searching, by taking a bit of time to gossip with us.
...the author displays a rare ability to combine breadth and depth of scientific learning with good, grounded philosophical judgment. As a result, The Consciousness Instinct could be the clearest and most compelling attempt to demystify the mind yet written ... Mr. Gazzaniga is very good at looking under the hood of consciousness to explain how its workings naturally follow from the ways in which the brain is organized. It is a hugely complex system with a layered, modular architecture, which enables it to 'efficiently process multiple types of information concurrently' ... he is almost certainly wrong in some details. But on all the main points, his instincts on consciousness are sound. Awareness is not the 'special sauce' that brings dumb biological processes to subjective life but an emergent property of immensely complex neurological processes. This does not so much eliminate the mystery of consciousness as make it no more or less mysterious than the ultimately inexplicable existence of the universe itself.
Nothing if not daring, Gazzaniga attempts a task that has long frustrated philosophers and scientists: namely, that of explaining human consciousness ... It will surprise readers how this seamless stream originates as disparate bubbles of consciousness instinctively welling up in the various regions of the brain. A rare opportunity to probe the frontiers of neurological inquiry.
The tour yields a couple of useful lessons. With theoretical biologist Howard Pattee, Gazzaniga emphasizes that we should resist the lure of the 'single-explanation fallacy' — the idea that one theory can cover everything, from our introspective sense of awareness down to the subatomic particles of brain tissue. Explanations, he asserts, should be thought of as context-dependent, just as light in quantum physics sometimes behaves like waves and sometimes like particles ... Gazzaniga defines consciousness as 'the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism' ... Nor is it straightforward to link consciousness to parts of the brain ... Gazzaniga ends by reflecting that the ultimate explanation for how mind emerges from meat might not prove 'warm and cuddly'. Instead, it might vie with quantum mechanics for sheer counter-intuitive weirdness, hovering 'way beyond our intuitions and imaginations'.
Referencing scientists and thinkers from William James to Niels Bohr to Steven Pinker, Gazzaniga explains how his theory works with the laws of physics and the latest neuroscience and also resonates with ideas put forth by pioneering philosophers. Because he uses straightforward language and contextualizes his research in familiar ideas, this is a book for readers of all ages who are intrigued by consciousness and how it works. As he has done in previous books, Gazzaniga easily draws readers into one of the most fascinating conversations taking place in modern science.
He...refreshingly grounds the work in real experimental data, revealing himself to be an intelligent mental explorer and master syncretist. Gazzaniga’s accessible, well-organized arguments are bound to provoke deep metathoughts, and readers should find his treatise delightful.