The Brain's Representational Power
On Consciousness and the Integration of Modalities
400 pp., 7 x 9 in, 81 b&w illus., 14 color plates
- Published: September 18, 2015
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: October 2, 2015
- Publisher: The MIT Press
A neuroscientifically informed theory arguing that the core of qualitative conscious experience arises from the integration of sensory and cognitive modalities.
Although science has made considerable progress in discovering the neural basis of cognitive processes, how consciousness arises remains elusive. In this book, Cyriel Pennartz analyzes which aspects of conscious experience can be peeled away to access its core: the “hardest” aspect, the relationship between brain processes and the subjective, qualitative nature of consciousness. Pennartz traces the problem back to its historical roots in the foundations of neuroscience and connects early ideas on sensory processing to contemporary computational neuroscience.
What can we learn from neural network models, and where do they fall short in bridging the gap between neural processes and conscious experience? Do neural models of cognition resemble inanimate systems, and how can this help us define requirements for conscious processing in the brain? These questions underlie Pennartz's examination of the brain's anatomy and neurophysiology. The perspective of his account is not limited to visual perception but broadened to include other sensory modalities and their integration. Formulating a representational theory of the neural basis of consciousness, Pennartz outlines properties that complex structures must express to process information consciously. This theoretical framework is constructed using empirical findings from neuropsychology and neuroscience as well as such theoretical arguments as the Cuneiform Room and the Wall Street Banker. Positing that qualitative experience is a multimodal and multilevel phenomenon at its very roots, Pennartz places this body of theory in the wider context of mind-brain philosophy, examining implications for our thinking about animal and robot consciousness.
This book offers an inspired and exceedingly well-informed account of consciousness that is grounded in experimental neuroscience and theoretical neurobiology. Based on the view of experience as a constructive process and a multilevel concept of the brain, it synthesizes a novel, coherent vision, producing fundamental insights in the relationships between the 'hard problem' of consciousness and multilevel explanations. In short, this is a compelling and infectious book: it left me testing its insights during the interrogation of my sensory world in daily life—long after it was placed it on the bookshelf, with other treasured texts.
Karl Friston, FRS, Professor of Neuroscience, University College London
Regardless of one's philosophical perspective on the scientific utility of the 'consciousness' idea, this book is an excellent and deeply thought through synthesis of our knowledge about how our brains integrate across space and time to construct their internal model of the world ('representations'), from which we make predictions that enable survival. I plan to adopt it as a primary text in my introductory graduate course on neural computation and coding.
Bruce L. McNaughton, AIHS Polaris Research Chair, Department of Neuroscience, University of Lethbridge; Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine