Flex your mind and reach a higher plane

November 28, 2003

One day, all consciousness textbooks will be made this way. Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction , is an invaluable addition to the area of consciousness research. It is balanced, scholarly and yet student-friendly: no undergraduate course on consciousness should be without it. This glowing recommendation has not come easily: I consider myself to have been an unwilling convert to the merits of the book.

As an undergraduate I first encountered consciousness in a department headed by Stuart Sutherland. In his Dictionary of Psychology , he claimed that as regards consciousness, "nothing worth reading has been written on it". Were he alive today, I am sure he would find cause to moderate his views. However, his taunt still holds true for a significant proportion of books on consciousness, which are still notoriously variable in scope and quality. Blackmore's book provides the ideal map through the quagmire of wasted time that consciousness literature can be.

Even the best consciousness books tend to be blighted by a tension between conflicting goals: to give a balanced and wide-ranging introduction to this complex and diverse field, and to propose solutions to issues in consciousness research. In the end, this tension arises only because of the desire of authors and publishers alike to address expert and lay audiences within the same text. The obvious solution, which has been liberally utilised in other areas of scientific endeavour, is to create purpose-built course texts that do not emphasise any single theoretical stance over another. To my knowledge, Blackmore is the first to apply this simple principle to consciousness research in a textbook, and she does so very effectively.

One further aspect of the book that delighted and surprised me was the inclusion of consciousness "exercises". These are not as bizarre as they might sound, and provide the reader with a range of basic but valuable insights. The underlying message in each case is that the contents of our awareness at any given moment are not as easily accessible as we might intuitively think. If we want to study how conscious experience relates to physical, observable events, we need to describe, as accurately as possible, what we perceive and when. Many recent studies in cognitive neuroscience have demonstrated that human brains are poorly set up to do this and, being aware of this limitation, this text is a great step in the right direction.

Another clever move on Blackmore's part is the inclusion of photos and vignettes on major personalities in the field. At first this irritated me, as we are already in enough danger of creating a cult of personality in this area of research. However, on further reflection, I have to acknowledge that these names, faces and stories provide an excellent mnemonic strategy and make the book more entertaining for its target undergraduate audience. This emphasis on personality also provides a useful distraction from the big problem faced by research on this topic: many questions are asked, but few are answered.

Some gripes. Four chapters out of are devoted to subjects that I would consider to be of peripheral importance in a course on consciousness. These are not topics that form the basis of discussions among philosophers and do not really merit the amount of space they receive in the book. The two main culprits are the last two chapters, on Buddhism and meditation. They seem to represent something of a blind spot for Blackmore, whose normally sharp eye for relevance loses its focus. This aside, the book is pretty much in perfect balance. The areas of research that Blackmore does cover, she covers well, but there is still a great deal more relevant research out there that is more deserving of space in her excellent book than Buddhism or meditation.

Perhaps, on the other hand, this is simply a matter of personal taste. I am a cognitive neuroscientist with no interest in Buddhism. Therefore, for the book to be perfectly tailored to the sort of course I would run, there would be several more chapters on perception and the brain, with Buddhism and meditation squeezed into a single "Other stuff you might like to know" chapter. This said, I would not consider running any such course without using Blackmore's book as the core text. This book will prove to be the benchmark by which future consciousness-course texts are judged.

An explicit design choice, discussed in the preface, is that each section of the book can be read in isolation. This has obvious advantages, both for the casual reader and for course organisers. However, when reading more than one section at a time, this style becomes somewhat disconcerting: there is little or no sense of theme or smooth progression between sections. This might be remedied by adding linking segments at the end of each section, to give the reader a smoother transfer from one section to another, without compromising the essential independence of the information in a section.

If there is any bias in the book, it is found whenever Blackmore encounters dualism. Here, unusually, a slightly emotional response pervades her discussions. For example, in the vignettes on dualist philosophers, the subtext "but alas he then was taken ill with dualism" always bubbles beneath the surface. This is a pity, and quite unnecessary as the arguments for and against dualism are clearly presented. Blackmore should simply let the readers decide for themselves, a strategy she employs effectively and even-handedly throughout the rest of the book.

Despite its rather unassuming title, Consciousness: An Introduction towers over its competitors. It is a timely addition to the field, and I am excited about its huge potential to introduce a wide range of scientists to this topic. Apart from the rather minor concerns I have expressed, I cannot see how this book could be substantially improved. It represents a major contribution to teaching in this area of research.

Greg Davis is lecturer in experimental psychology, University of Cambridge.

Consciousness: An introduction. First edition

Author - Susan Blackmore
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Pages - 459
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 340 80909 4

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