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Hardcover | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780262032414 | 262 pp. | 6 x 9 in | August 1996
Paperback | $28.00 X | £19.95 | ISBN: 9780262531542 | 262 pp. | 6 x 9 in | March 1998

The Cerebral Code

Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind


The Cerebral Code is a new understanding of how Darwinian processes could operate in the brain to shape mental images in only seconds, starting with shuffled memories no better than the jumble of our nighttime dreams, but evolving into something of quality, such as a sentence to speak aloud. Jung said that dreaming goes on continuously but you can't see it when you are awake, just as you can't see the stars in the daylight because it is too bright. Calvin's is a theory for what goes on, hidden from view by the glare of waking mental operations, that produces our peculiarly human type of consciousness with its versatile intelligence.

As Piaget emphasized in 1929, intelligence is what we use when we don't know what to do, when we have to grope rather than using a standard response. Calvin tackles a mechanism for doing this exploration and improvement offline, as we think before we act or practice the art of good guessing.

Surprisingly, the subtitle's mosaics of the mind is not a literary metaphor. For the first time, it is a description of a mechanism of what appears to be an appropriate level of explanation for many mental phenomena, that of hexagonal mosaics of electrical activity that compete for territory in the association cortex of the brain. This two-dimensional mosaic is predicted to grow and dissolve much as the sugar crystals do in the bottom of a supersaturated glass of iced tea.

A Bradford Book

About the Author

William H. Calvin is Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. His books include The Cerebral Code (MIT Press, 1996).


“Calvin's single, simple purpose for The Cerebral Code is a propose a substantial hypothesis for how the human cerebral cortex might work. He suggests that the brain uses a selection algorithm, what he calls a 'Darwin Machine,' based upon small anatomical and physiological units, local spatiotemporal patterns of neuronal activity that should 'tile' regions of cortex with a hexagonal mosaic. Until this book, the concept of selection in the brain has not been so lausibly linked with real, empirically observable cellular structures and functions.”
David G. King, Anatomy, School of Medicine, and Zoology, College of Science Southern Illinois University
“This book is indeed of importance to specialists in the field, and is likely to be used as a source book for students to read in courses on the neural basis of cognition. Calvin proposes a model of a major part of cerebral cortical function and shows how it could apply to or 'explain' a number of examples of operations and cognitive achievements at various higher levels. The Cerebral Code is certainly original, readable, and of sound scholarship. It should appeal to an audience of professionals, students, and general readers.”
Theodore H. Bullock, Professor, Department of Neurosciences, University of California
“William Calvin writes with clarity and elegance about the brain. In an age when brain science is becoming increasingly fragmented and specialised Calvin is a rara avis... he provides a broad overview on the functions of the brain and a bold and novel conjecture about the most highly evolved - yet enigmatic of all biological organs - the human cerebral cortex.”
V.S. Ramachandran M.D., Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, UCSD
“Bill Calvin writes with elegance, economy, and authority. In The Cerebral Code, he has solidly embedded his ideas in experimental neurophysiology and neuropharmacology, deriving from his decades in the laboratory. He explores the ramifications of his insights into a wide range of cerebral functions, such as sleep, dreaming, awareness, problem solving, creative thinking, and the dynamics of nerve cell assemblies that make consciousness possible. Calvin has written primarily for his colleagues in neuroscience, as well as for lay readers. I believe he will achieve his aim, by recounting in adequate detail the basic concepts from which he is reasoning, and thereafter exploring ideas and issues that his reductionistically minded colleagues have largely ignored.”
Walter J. Freeman, Professor of the Graduate School, University of California at Berkeley
“[A] wide-ranging and innovative theory linking the neural structure of the cortex to thought, language, and consciousness.... stunningly thought provoking.”
Richard Cooper, The Times Higher Education Supplement