What links conscious experience of pain, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Christof Koch has devoted much of his career to bridging the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the physics of the brain and phenomenal experience. This engaging book—part scientific overview, part memoir, part futurist speculation—describes Koch's search for an empirical explanation for consciousness. Koch recounts not only the birth of the modern science of consciousness but also the subterranean motivation for his quest—his instinctual (if "romantic") belief that life is meaningful.
Koch describes his own groundbreaking work with Francis Crick in the 1990s and 2000s and the gradual emergence of consciousness (once considered a "fringy" subject) as a legitimate topic for scientific investigation. Present at this paradigm shift were Koch and a handful of colleagues, including Ned Block, David Chalmers, Stanislas Dehaene, Giulio Tononi, Wolf Singer, and others. Aiding and abetting it were new techniques to listen in on the activity of individual nerve cells, clinical studies, and brain-imaging technologies that allowed safe and noninvasive study of the human brain in action.
Koch gives us stories from the front lines of modern research into the neurobiology of consciousness as well as his own reflections on a variety of topics, including the distinction between attention and awareness, the unconscious, how neurons respond to Homer Simpson, the physics and biology of free will, dogs, Der Ring des Nibelungen, sentient machines, the loss of his belief in a personal God, and sadness. All of them are signposts in the pursuit of his life’s work—to uncover the roots of consciousness.
About the Author
Christof Koch is Professor of Biology and of Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He is the author of The Quest for Consciousness and other books.
“Koch weaves a vivid and poignant story, punctuated by fascinating characters and compelling science. The book will leave you with a small piece of Koch's own consciousness, plucked from his head and delivered into yours.”—Science News
“... [D]efinitely worth reading.... I argued with Koch all the way through this book. And I loved every minute of it.”—Robert Stickgold, Nature
“Pioneering consciousness studies requires a nimbly multiprocessing mind. That Koch possesses one is apparent.”—Chronicle of Higher Education
“Among the plethora of books on consciousness, this engaging blend of science, autobiography and honest self-reflection stands out. It combines a lucid description of the leading edge of consciousness science with a surprisingly personal and philosophical reflection of the author's life as one of its foremost authorities, shedding light on how scientists really think. Science writing at its best.”—Anil Seth, Times Higher Education
“... [T]he book offers good rides through the wild forest of the neuroscience of consciousness. Koch is fearless, and does not shrink from talking about phenomenology and qualia; he includes them and tries to formalise consciousness by linking it to direct brain signals or well-defined psychological constructs.”—Tristan Bekinschtein, Times Higher Education
“This new volume is attractive not only for the breadth and depth that is typical of Koch's writing, but also for its highly accessible nature.... This important book serves as a subtle introduction to many of the driving questions of the discipline that may well significantly change people's understanding of human nature.”—Choice
“With this masterful narrative of his life and science, Christof Koch has done for neuroscience what James D. Watson did for biology in his classic work The Double Helix. At once engaging, informing, and enlightening, Consciousness should be read by every student and scientist of the mind, along with general readers who would like to know how science really works and how scientists really think—and feel—when they engage the world with their experimental tools. Destined to takes its place as a timeless masterpiece in the history of science.”
—Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine; author of The Believing Brain
“This is a strikingly charming and enlightening—and even moving—report from the front lines of the neurobiology of consciousness from one of our foremost authorities. It is a lucid account of the latest ideas about consciousness science together with their philosophical underpinnings, all in the context of a highly personal, emotional and intellectual autobiography that features to an extent that surprised me, Christof Koch's journey of rejection of religion and discovery of meaning in the universe.”
—Ned Block, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, New York University
“This is the book Christof Koch was born to write. An exuberant blend of science, wit, wisdom and autobiography, it brings the subject to life and shows why Koch has had such a profound influence on this exciting area of neuroscience.”
—Geraint Rees, Director, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, London
Honorable Mention, 2012 American Publishers Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in Biomedicine and Neuroscience, presented by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers
CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2012