Meaning in the Brain

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The title "The Ravenous Brain" refers to the human's insatiable appetite for finding structure in information. Daniel Bor is a neuroscientist, and his contention is that the main purpose of consciousness is to search for and discover those structured chunks of information within working memory, so that they can then be used efficiently and automatically, with minimal further input from concsciousness. In other words, the purpose of consciousness is to find structures, so that in the future the information can be used unconsciously.

Daniel Bor has written a book that is very approachable by the layman. The book is almost devoid of all the jargon that tends to complicate other books about science. Bor has some rather extended analogies that might simplify some of the ideas--but some of these analogies just go too far, and tend to obfuscate these ideas. For example, Bor writes about scientists who balance conservatism against creativity. He discusses this for quite a while, before making the analogy with organisms who reproduce offspring with slight modifications, some of which are useful innovations, while others are likely to be harmful.

Bor sneaks some mild humor into the book, which is very much appreciated, and is never too much to become distracting from the main thrust of the book. He inserts some of his personal experiences in an fMRI machine, which give the book a nice touch. He also includes some anecdotes that are quite humorous, or even incredible. For instance, the story about the mathematician Norbert Wiener, who was completely scatter-brained. He lost the slip of paper on which his new home address was written. He went to his old home, and asked a little girl if she knew where he had moved. The girl answered, "That's okay, Daddy. Mummy sent me to fetch you."

One of the most interesting portions of the book is the description of how memories in the brain are not localized, but are distributed in the strengths of connections between neurons. Bor describes why this distribution of memories is actually required by evolution--there is no other way for the retention of memories to have evolved.

Bor relates a number of psychology studies. Most of them are very interesting, and I've previously encountered very few of them in my reading. I consider that to be a good thing, as many of the recent set of "pop psychology" books tend to repeat the same old set of studies.

Bor mentions how some people have have asserted that quantum mechanics is somehow responsible for consciousness. The argument is something like "consciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics is mysterious, so quantum mechanics must explain consciousness." This type of argument is not very convincing, and Bor suggests that the mechanism for consciousness is to be found in some of the more recent theories. These theories all have to do with the exchange of information across a dense network.

There are some fascinating anecdotes about scientific studies of animals. One of Aesop's fables involves a crow that finds a pitcher full of water. It can't fit its beak into the pitcher's opening. Then it decides to drop lots of pebbles into the pitcher, raising the water level to where it can drink. Some experimenters tried a very similar setup for some rooks, and it turned out that the rooks actually performed a similar feat! And chimps were able to do something very similar, in order to raise the water level in a container, to get some food.

Another fascinating section of the book deals with mental syndromes and illnesses. Bor contends that some of these illnesses are related to a reduced state of consciousness. Victims have a reduced working memory. Some drugs may help with this, but recent research finds that certain types of memory exercises may help even more.

I recommend this book for those who are interested in neuroscience, but do not have the desire to learn a new language filled with jargon. This book is well written, has a nice personal touch, and is chock full of fascinating ideas.


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