The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning

An exploration of the dark side of the neuroscience force leaves Tristan Bekinschtein hungry for more

September 6, 2012

Ah, the infinite well of our interpretations of the simplest things...isn't it precisely that capacity to think and overthink that gets us into trouble? But it is also what allows us to solve the great mysteries of the world and the Universe. Dan Bor explores this idea in this, his opera prima. And I like it: I like The Ravenous Brain because it offers a meaningful explanation of what we do in trying to find meaning in everything. And what we do mentally (in other words, cerebrally) is what we are: conscious - too conscious - beings.

The idea that the brain is constantly looking for meaning and trying to extract patterns is not new. You may remember it from the film A Beautiful Mind, the biopic of mathematician John Nash, which covered his genius years at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1940s and 1950s, and the subsequent onset of his mental illness. Decades ago, suffering from schizophrenia was a much more difficult experience (not that it is particularly easy today, of course). There were none of the recently developed drug treatments, no strategies or clear guidelines, and treatments were aggressive assaults that often extended to inducing coma by insulin shock. That was a real loss of consciousness.

The picture painted in the movie is one in which Nash finds patterns and generates abstract "chunks" (a key concept in Bor's book) from doodles and scribbles on his wall, in his efforts to crack an enemy code. The link to some of the ideas introduced in this book comes from the lack of control of attention and working memory in schizophrenic patients who cannot differentiate real patterns from imaginary ones. Hallucinations, delusions: they are things that come in handy if you are a cryptographer, when you need to see structures where others cannot in order to develop mental algorithms and break the hidden spell. But this comes at a huge cost in the real - mathematically unprotected - life. In that life, you need to use your consciousness and "chunk" (compress in a meaningful manner) information using your working memory, and find patterns that allow you to interact with other human beings, understanding what they say, what they might think and what you think.

In schizophrenia, these processes do not have appropriate boundaries: it is, after all, a pathology of consciousness. That view is advanced here in the chapter "Consciousness Squeezed, Stretched, and Shrunk: Mental Illness as Abnormal Awareness". And Bor claims that another condition, autism (or, more precisely, autism spectrum disorders) can also be treated as a disorder of consciousness. But fear not, readers, I will not be talking about Rain Man. Moreover, I will say no more than that Bor conceptualises autism as an overabundance of awareness, and that all the symptoms are the patient's way of dealing with this supercharged consciousness.

Before I carry on using cinematography to exemplify Bor's concepts, I must talk about his character, his writing and his circumstances. I was biased when I opened The Ravenous Brain: I had already met and liked Bor when he was a University of Cambridge postdoc and I was a visiting PhD student from Buenos Aires. I thought he was a bit shy but concise and sharp when making a scientific remark or posing a question in a talk. At that time he was developing his ideas on attention, working memory and chunking through experiments with Adrian Owen and John Duncan, two heavyweights in cognitive neuroscience. What consciousness is, as explained by working memory and chunking, is at the core of this book - and I hope I am not spoiling the fun by telling you that the girl is really a boy in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game.

Chunking, for Bor a key aspect of human consciousness, is the compression of data: the conscious data you hold in your working memory not as a series of individual items but as a linked whole. For example, Orion the Hunter, shining in the sky on a lovely night in December (in the Northern hemisphere, at least) is easily recognisable, but it does not occupy seven items (stars) of your working memory when you see it and try to remember it. It is actually a chunk: it is only one thing, a pattern that you create from memory and bring back when you see it again. You are unlikely to be able to hold in your working memory all of Orion's stars and their positions, and there is no need to. As it is a chunk, you do not even know how many stars spatially delineate the chunk: three for the belt, of course, and a few for the legs, a few for the torso and head, and maybe a couple for the objects he holds in his hands.

Bor's decision to turn to consciousness - the dark side of the neuroscience force - is not something most senior scholars would advise a young scientist from "proper" cognitive neuroscience to do. But Bor's background is apparent when he argues that consciousness is a theoretical construct (like memory or attention) that needs to be studied scientifically using the tools of neuroscience, both neurophysiological and psychological. He also covers a good bit of philosophical ground, but not too much, he asserts, because most philosophical arguments rely on intuition and should be used not as endpoints but rather as the inspiration for scientific investigations.

And yes, this is a well-written book. As a non-native English speaker, I learn with every book I read, and in this one I appreciated the pleasure of discovering unexpected words that really embody the concept being described. However, I must say it took me a few pages to warm up: once I got the idea in the first chapter, I had to muddle through parts of chapter 2. Perhaps for a purist in evolution theory like me, the idea of "ideas in the DNA and RNA" does not really work. But the link between patterns, predictive models of the brain and consciousness caught my attention in the same chapter, and from there I took a very pleasurable neuroscience ride through chapters 3 to 8 and the epilogue.

In the chapter "The Brain's Experience of a Rose: Neuroscience of Awareness", Bor rapidly paints the wall of cognition with what are arguably the three main theories of consciousness that have been circulating over the past few years. One is from Victor Lamme, which proposes that when the different areas of the brain talk back to each other sufficiently, consciousness arises. Another is Stanislas Dehaene's, which posits that when incoming information from perceptual areas reaches the thalamus and prefrontal cortex in the brain, it ignites the information sharing needed for conscious processes. Finally there is Giulio Tononi's hypothesis, in which consciousness is quantifiable and corresponds to a system's capacity to integrate information. I suspect Bor leans in some ways towards Tononi, although I think he is also very much in line with Dehaene's psychological and physiological developments. And if he inspires some labs to explicitly test the limits of consciousness, including chunking, The Ravenous Brain's theoretical claims have the potential to escape the popular science box and enter the real world of wet cognitive neuroscience.

I hope it happens. And I hope Bor writes more books, since my feeling is that he resembles a good young wine: strong and full of flavour. As he ages, the depth and complexity will come.

The Author

Daniel Bor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, having moved there in 2010 from the University of Cambridge. The centre "is one of the few places in the world dedicated to this field. Its interdisciplinarity - combining mathematical and computational modelling with psychology, neuroimaging and clinical work - seemed the best, most exciting approach to try to crack the mystery of consciousness," he says.

"I was intensely excited by and curious about the scientific aspects of the world from a very young age, and was drawn to physics early on," Bor recalls. "From age 6 or 7 I would save up questions - How do we know light speed isn't infinite as it appears to us? When will the Sun die? - until I met up with the science half of my family (my uncle, aunt and paternal grandfather were all physicists). Even before I said hello, I would ask all my questions. They would clearly and patiently answer, but more questions would always be generated.

"In my late teens, though, trying to decide what to study at university, I concluded that physics was a little dry and impersonal, and I could also ask fundamental questions - for instance, what consciousness is - via psychology."

Bor studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Oxford, switching to cognitive neuroscience for his PhD at Cambridge. "The apparent logical crispness and intellectual games of (Western) philosophy appealed greatly to me as an undergraduate but I was also frustrated by the vagueness behind the surface in some topics. It was clear to me that understanding the mind could only fully occur if you understood the brain," he says.

Of his almae matres, Bor, who lives in Cambridge with his wife and child, says: "I have a larger soft spot for Oxford, but probably because it was my first burst of true independence. Cambridge and Oxford are about as similar as two universities can be but, especially with a toddler in my life, I appreciate the greater number of open green spaces - and playgrounds - of Cambridge."

The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning

By Daniel Bor Perseus

352pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780465020478

Published 13 September 2012

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