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The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

The River of Consciousness (original 2017; edition 2018)

by Oliver Sacks (Author)

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Title:The River of Consciousness
Authors:Oliver Sacks (Author)
Info:Vintage (2018), Edition: Reprint, 256 pages
Collections:Your library

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The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks (2017)



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The River of Consciousness consists of ten essays by the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks. In a simple and engaging style, the author takes us on a tour of the river of consciousness: its sources, tributaries and estuaries. He interleaves the journey with reflections on the great scientific pioneers who first mapped out different features of the landscape: Darwin, Freud, Pauling and a host of other key scientists. The book is deceptively simple and it can be read at many levels: a history of neuroscience, an exploration of the relationship between psychology and neurology or, in the broadest sense, an essay on the phenomenology of mind.

Although the collection was published posthumously, the author was responsible for the arrangement of the material. This is important because there is a loose structure to the work that implicitly reveals the author's overarching view of consciousness. The first essay, Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, explores stimulus-response mechanisms in plants. The third essay, Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms, moves further up the evolutionary tree and examines “simple” neural mechanisms. Eventually, after a review of the latest work on individual human consciousness, the final essay is a sketch of collective human consciousness as expressed in the history of science: Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science. By its very structure, the work is an oblique phenomenology of consciousness.

Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers is something of a revisionist essay on Darwin as it concentrates on his later work. After the Origin, Darwin published numerous detailed botanical studies:
Insectivorous Plants 1875
The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom 1876
The Power of Movement in Plants 1880
The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms 1881
If the Origin painted the argument in broad brushstrokes, these later works put evolutionary mechanisms under the microscope. They provide a mass of detailed empirical evidence for evolution and Darwin saw this as key to the ideological debate. He wrote to his friend Asa Gray at Harvard: “ no one else has perceived that my chief interest in my orchids book has been that it was a 'flank movement' on the enemy”. The other dimension to these works, and the one that Oliver Sacks is most anxious to seize upon, is Darwin's eagerness to blur the divisions between the plant world and the animal world. As he points out: “Plants and animals, we know now, share 70% of their DNA”(page 25). The essay ends on an elegiac note in which Sacks echoes his hero's sentiments: “I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness, and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life”.

The second essay, Speed, discusses the internal clock of consciousness. Sacks draws on his clinical practice to describe the extremes of disordered temporal processing. In discussing Parkinson's: “With disorders of the time scale there seems to be almost no limit to the degree of slowing that can occur, and the speeding up of movement sometimes seems constrained only by the physical limits of articulation.” But, to the patient, the passage of time seems quite normal. While postencephalitic Parkinsonism produces movement of glacial slowness, Tourette's leads to rapid accelerations. Sacks ends the essay by pointing out the neural correlates of these temporal pathologies: “Lesions in the cortex tend to produce “simple” deficits like loss of color vision or the ability to recognize letters or numbers. In contrast, lesions in the regulatory system of the subcortex which control movement, tempo...undermine control and stability...” Although Sacks does not do so, it is hard to resist the metaphor of a computer clock that is required to synchronize the processing of data. Without this capability that can be no intelligence.

The third essay, Sentience: The Mental Lives of Worms and Plants, discusses the evolution of increasingly complex neural machinery. While plants exhibit a number of stimulus-response mechanisms, the electrochemical signalling in plants is relatively slow as it depends on calcium ion channels. A key distinguishing feature of animal life is the speed of messaging: “Speed requires ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally, think.” Sacks also indirectly indicates a correlation between consciousness and its neural substrate simply by enumerating the number of neurons of different organisms:
Aplysia (the subject of Eric Kandel's work on memory) has 20,000 neurons
Bees have up to a million nerve cells
A mouse has between 75 and 100 million
Cephalopods have up to half a billion

Like all the other essays in the book, the fourth essay, The Other Road: Freud as a Neurologist can be read at several levels. It is, in part, the story of Freud's journey from biology to psychology. But it is also a more general sketch of the history of neuroscience: from phrenology to the localizationist theories of Broca and Meynert, and, finally, to the more dynamic, evolutionary views of the late 20th century. Sacks sees Freud as a pivotal figure in this transition: “Since the last third of the twentieth century, the whole tenor of neurology and neuroscience has been moving to such a dynamic and constructional view of the brain, in a sense that even at the most elementary levels – as, for example, the filling in of a blind spot...the brain constructs a plausible hypothesis or pattern.” According to Sacks, Freud's dissatisfaction with the localization movement led him to a very similar view of the functioning of the brain. And finally, Sacks sees in this view a possible bridge between psychology and neuroscience: “we see a hint of how the seemingly disparate universes – the universes of human meaning and of natural science – may come together.”

The fifth essay, The Fallibility of Memory, is a further reflection on the dynamic and constructional view of mind: but this time in connection with memory. He examines the issue of the malleability of memory across a range of different manifestations: false memories, repressed memories and implanted memories. As Sacks points out: “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections.”

Mishearings, the short sixth essay, continues the theme. Sacks documents cases (many from personal experience) in which the listener “fills in” the blanks when they have not heard something properly. He sees this as part of our basic neural machinery and not necessarily connected to any deeper psychological process: “Collecting mishearings over the past few years without any explicit selection or bias, I am forced to think that Freud underestimated the power of neural mechanisms, combined with the open and unpredictable nature of language, to generate mishearings that are irrelevant both in terms of context and of subconscious motivation.”

At no point in the book does Oliver Sacks discuss Artificial Intelligence. The omission is undoubtedly deliberate. He avoids the slippery slopes of conjectural comparisons and he limits his explorations to the more solid ground of empirical psychology. Thus, in the seventh essay, The Creative Self, there are no excursions into the possibilities of AI as a vehicle for creative intelligence. Instead, there is a sketch, from a psychological perspective, of the gestation of new ideas. Oliver Sacks sees three preconditions for creativity:
1. A period of imitation in which existing ides and forms (in art) are fully assimilated.
2. A period of unconscious incubation
3. And, lastly, “a special audacity or subversiveness to strike out in a new direction” (p140)
In order to illustrate his point about the unconscious incubation of new ideas, he refers to a couple of episodes in the life of Henri Poincare in which the solution to a particularly intractable problem only came to him when he “forgot” the problem and attended to something completely different. While this essay is mainly concerned with the psychology of creativity, there is, in the final paragraph, a conjecture that we may, some day, find a neural correlate for creative processes.

The eight essay, A General Feeling of Disorder, examines the connection between the autonomic system's maintenance of homeostasis and an individual's subjective feeling of well being. The autonomic nervous system normally operates below the horizon of consciousness. However, when homeostasis is upset, as in the case of an illness, a consciousness of ill-being is produced. Conversely, recovery from an illness can produce an extreme sense of well-being. The essay is particularly poignant because his observations are based on his own struggle with cancer.

In the ninth essay, The River of Consciousness, the central theme of the book is discussed directly: the apparently seamless quality of consciousness. The first part of the essay explores the theme with reference to our perception of motion. The ability of the brain to fuse “snapshots” into a perception of continuous motion had been discussed extensively since William James (as Sacks points out, zoetropes were very popular in Victorian households). Sacks draws on his clinical experience to explore a related phenomenon: motion blindness. The discussion of motion is the vehicle for introducing a deeper topic: “we do not merely calculate movement as a robot might; we perceive it. We perceive motion, just as we perceive color or depth as a unique qualitative experience...” In other words, the qualia of consciousness.

And this takes us back to the scientific question: is it possible to discover the neural correlates of consciousness? Very recently, technology has provided us with two powerful tools:
1. Functional MRI's allow us to view the interactions of hundreds of neurons
2. Computerized neural modeling allows us to simulate the behavior of much larger groups of neurons
In parallel to this empirical work there appears to be emerging a new conceptual framework for understanding consciousness. Sacks refers to the work of Gerald M. Edelman in the 1980's (The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness) and ends with a lengthy discussion of the 2003 paper by Crick and Koch: A Framework for Consciouness. Consciousness, in this view, is a “threshold activity”. A group of neurons need to fire repeatedly for a given time period . Further, this group needs to engage other groups in order to form a coalition: “Finally, the activity of a coalition, or coalition of coalitions, if it to reach consciousness must not only cross a threshold of intensity but also be held there for a certain time – roughly a hundred milliseconds. This is the duration of a perceptual moment.”

This essay is exploratory. We do not yet have a scientific theory of consciousness. But, for the first time in history, the basic building blocks for such a theory are present. Oliver Sacks has given us a tantalizing glimpse of the possibilities that await us.

When we talk about consciousness we usually mean the individual subjective experience of consciousness. The first nine essays explore the evolution of this kind of consciousness, starting with with most primitive forms of sentience and culminating in human subjective consciousness. But the river of consciousness does not end there. The objectification of mind is instantiated in the history of thought. The last essay, Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science, explores some of the similarities between individual subjective creativity and the progress of scientific inquiry. The essay picks up a theme that the author explored in The Creative Self. But now the process of intellectual gestation is explored as a cultural and historical phenomenon. In the same way that we can expect to find neural correlates for consciousness, so we can imagine individual subjective consciousness as a correlate for the history of science. This idea is explored with reference to a very specific theme: that of ideas that do not gain acceptance into the mainstream of science because they are “premature”. He offers multiple examples of discoveries that were no incorporated into the canon of science because the dominant paradigms could not accommodate them:
1. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift in 1915
2. Oswald Avery's discovery of DNA in 1944 - “a discovery totally overlooked because no one could yet appreciate its importance.”
3. Herschel's essay on ocular migraines (of especial interest to Oliver Sacks because that was the area of his early research).
4. Etc etc
The process by which ideas enter the broader framework of science resembles the manner in which ideas emerge in consciousness: “It is not enough to apprehend something, to “get” something in a flash. The mind must be able to accommodate it, to retain it. The first barrier lies in allowing oneself to encounter new ideas, to create a mental space, a category with potential connection – and then to bring these ideas into full and stable consciousness, to give them conceptual form, holding them in mind even if they contradict one's existing beliefs, or categories. This process of accommodation, of spaciousness of mind, is crucial in determining whether an idea or discovery will take hold and bear fruit or whether it will be forgotten, fade and die without issue”. Ideas that do not establish themselves are the cultural equivalent of scotoma: a lacuna in the history of thought. ( )
  fernig | Jan 16, 2019 |
A last harvest of papers by Oliver Sacks published by his friends after his death in August 2015. The death is foreshadowed in one of the essays, 'A General Feeling of Disorder', which relates an episode in his treatment for liver cancer, earlier in the same year. His own case, as so often in earlier books and essays, provided grounds for reflections on homeostasis, the core feeling of 'how one is' when one is in a state of normal well being and the disorders of consciousness when homeostasis is disrupted. The essays on Darwin are affectionate in their discussion of the books he wrote after the 'Origin of Species' on plants and worms. In 'Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms', Sacks explores the thesis that consciousness is a continuum, exhibited across the range of living things in their responsive adaptation to changes in external circumstances, regardless of fundamental differences in biochemistry. His essay on 'The Fallibility of Memory', which deals with the familiar instances of confabulation and unconscious plagiarism is of particular interest for an unresolved puzzle about memory that only appears in a passing footnote. In the essay, Sacks relates his own experience of a confabulated childhood memory that appears in his autobiographical 'Uncle Tungsten'. He wrote of two bombing raids on London in 1940-41. The second memory, of an incendiary bomb, was particularly vivid. The first memory was real, the second confabulated for Sacks was informed after publication that had been evacuated from London when that bomb fell. Sacks had unconsciously appropriated an account of the bombing from graphic description in a letter written by an older brother that enthralled him as a child. The implanted 'memory' of the second bomb was no less vivid than the first. But the footnote does suggest an intriguing difference between the true and the false memories. In the first memory, Sacks 'sees' the scene through the eyes of the frightened seven-year old he was in 1940. In the second, false memory Sacks visualises the scene 'from different angles' as if he were a disembodied spectator. That may not or may not be a reliable way of distinguishing true memories from confabulation; Sacks does not speculate about that. But the anecdote and footnote do suggest a strange bifurcation of memory in which we can on occasion seem to see ourselves from the outside, as a participant in events, whilst on others we seem to be centered in a camera-eye recall of past events.

'The River of Consciousness' is probably not the best of Oliver Sacks' books to begin with. The many allusions to his earlier books make this a collection to be enjoyed as a renewal of interests and reminiscence, rather than the opportunity for a first encounter. ( )
  Pauntley | Dec 31, 2018 |
Beschrijvende casuïstiek sierde neuroloog Oliver Sacks bij leven. De patiënten die hij tegenkwam in zijn praktijk en visites, plus beroemde gevallen van neurologische stoornissen uit de 19e en 20e eeuw vormden de inspiratie voor veel van zijn boeken. Als nalatenschap, voorbij The Last Interview, is een aantal essays gebundeld over thema's als de (ervaren) snelheid van tijd, evolutie, herinnering, plagiaat, imitereen en naäpen, bewustzijn van mens, dier en plant, en ervaringen. De studies laten zien dat de belangstelling van Sacks veel breder was dan neurologie. Chemie was zijn eerste liefde, onder biologen voelt hij zich ook thuis. Aan het eind van het boek zoomt hij nog verder uit, zich verwonderend over wetenschappelijke doorbraken en herontdekkingen van inzichten die soms eeuwen geleden al gedaan zijn en vervolgens zijn 'vergeten'.

De rivier van het bewustzijn neemt je mee naar de onderzoeken van Charles Darwin, de verrassende jonge jaren van Sigmund Freud, inzichten in een bewustzijn en leervermogen bij planten en zelfs eencellige organismen. Tourette en Parkinson, de rol van L-dopa (bekende stof voor lezers van Ontwaken in verbijstering of publiek van de verfilming in Awakenings, Hellen Keller tot jonge kunststudenten die in het Louvre imiteren. Er valt nog veel te ontdekken voor wetenschappers. Dank aan Otto Biersma en Luud Dorresteyn voor de soepele vertaling van The River of Consciousness dat Oliver Sacks twee weken voor zijn dood in augustus 2015 ter publicatie had overgedragen. Een leerzame erfenis. ( )
  hjvanderklis | Nov 28, 2018 |
Not a particularly coherent book- and not particularly about consciousness at all- some parts are but others are about creativity and scientific or medical discoveries. A lot of it reads like a history book (and not even just on psychology- but a history of other scientific discoveries and theories) rather than his typical case histories or pop psyc books. ( )
  nheredia05 | Jun 12, 2018 |
Musing on various topics, particularly about how the mind works. Usual Sack's stuff. ( )
  ghefferon | May 1, 2018 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385352565, Hardcover)

From the best-selling author of Gratitude, On the Move, and Musicophilia, a collection of essays that displays Oliver Sacks's passionate engagement with the most compelling and seminal ideas of human endeavor: evolution, creativity, memory, time, consciousness, and experience.

Oliver Sacks, a scientist and a storyteller, is beloved by readers for the extraordinary neurological case histories (Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars) in which he introduced and explored many now familiar disorders--autism, Tourette's syndrome, face blindness, savant syndrome. He was also a memoirist who wrote with honesty and humor about the remarkable and strange encounters and experiences that shaped him (Uncle Tungsten, On the Move, Gratitude). Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 28 Mar 2017 20:32:40 -0400)

"Two weeks before his death, Oliver Sacks outlined the contents of The River of Consciousness, the last book he would oversee. The best-selling author of On the Move, Musicophilia, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks is known for his illuminating case histories about people living with neurological conditions at the far borderlands of human experience. But his grasp of science was not restricted to neuroscience or medicine; he was fascinated by the issues, ideas, and questions of all the sciences. That wide-ranging expertise and passion informs the perspective of this book, in which he interrogates the nature not only of human experience but of all life. In The River of Consciousness, Dr. Sacks takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and calls upon his great scientific and creative heroes--above all, Darwin, Freud, and William James. For Sacks, these thinkers were constant companions from an early age; the questions they explored--the meaning of evolution, the roots of creativity, and the nature of consciousness--lie at the heart of science and of this book. The River of Consciousness demonstrates Sacks's unparalleled ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless endeavor to understand what makes us human."--Dust jacket flap.… (more)

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