Hodder and Stoughton 456pp, £19.99 ISBN 0 340 80909 4
Naturalism.org, March 2006
“Do you want to know the major players in consciousness studies and their pet theories? Want a taste of the brain science behind the theories, and their intellectual history? Want first-person exercises that make the weirdness of consciousness palpable? Want the full catastrophe of the mind-body problem … It’s all here with lots of graphics, sidebars, cartoons – a very diverting and detailed survey that conveys a lot of science and philosophy in its historical and cultural.” Tom Clark Full Review
Journal of Consciousness Studies, July 2005
“… an easy read … it has clearly set the standard for similar future texts on this most contentious yet exciting of subjects.” Tim Calton in JCS
American Scientist, September 2004 “… a page-turner”
“Whatever your preconceived notions of “self,” Blackmore’s book will surely get you thinking—wherever and whatever “you” may be.” Full review in AS.
Scientific American, March 2004 “…her delightful introduction …”
“Presented as a textbook, it is so highly engaging that I recommend it for general readers, too.” Extract.
Science and Consciousness Review January 2004 “A delightful compendium”
“If I were an undergrad, I would love it! Or a grad student….. Actually, as a professor, I love it!”
Full review in SRC
Times Higher Education Supplement 28 November 2003 Full review.
“… towers over its competitors… I cannot see how this book could be substantially improved.”
Focus, September 2003 “Book of the Month” “… how science books should be written.”
Leeds Student, “a great tool for opening up the mind” “should empower … anyone who is really interested in answering the only questions of any importance in life.” Full review
SciMed Reviews, “the style of the book lays down a challenge to the reader: to enter perplexity …Her urgent sense of enquiry coupled with a scientific mentality allows her to range freely across a complex landscape that is ‘consciousness studies’. And she carries this off in the manner most appealing to any student: she is always engaging you.” Full review
Review of Consciousness: An Introduction by Susan Blackmore
Times Higher Education Supplement 28 November 2003
Reviewed by Greg Davis
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 have 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 27 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 represented. 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 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 a lecturer in experimental psychology, University of Cambridge.
Reproduced with permission.
Review of Consciousness: An Introduction by Susan Blackmore
Reprinted by permission from Nature 426, 604 (11 December)
Copyright 2003 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
The two faces of consciousness
Ilya Farber is in the Department of Philosophy, George Washington University, Washington DC 20052, USA
Consciousness: An Introduction
by Susan Blackmore
Hodder and Stoughton: 2003. 544 pp. £19.99
Oxford University Press: 2003. 460 pp. $39.95 (pbk), $79 (hbk)
The study of consciousness being rather broad, its more science-oriented practitioners quickly become adept at glancing through promising-looking new books to discern whether they partake a little too much of the ‘cosmic’. This isn’t usually difficult, but Susan Blackmore’s new book almost seems to have been intentionally designed to thwart such attempts at classification. Consciousness: An Introduction is clearly intended and marketed as a college-level textbook, but it sports a cover that is dominated by a glowing humanoid outline festooned with chakra-like circles and reaching ecstatically towards some sort of celestial radiance.
A glance through the copious figures initially reveals a reassuring profusion of brains and graphs and experimental protocols, but in the final quarter of the book these give way to buddhas, drug-induced visions and floating spirits. Even the usually reliable strategy of investigating the author’s credentials just generates new puzzles. A search through Blackmore’s oeuvre turns up near-death experiences and memes, a book on testing your psychic powers and a chapter on why parapsychology tells us nothing about consciousness. For decades she described herself as a hopeful and open-minded investigator of psychic phenomena, but was all the while on the board of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, and in 2001 she announced the end of her involvement in such studies. It is easy to imagine potential readers or teachers giving up in bafflement, unable to figure out just what kind of book this is.
That would be a shame, though, because Blackmore has in fact written a truly excellent textbook. Two years ago she gave up her university position to work on this project full-time, and the attention shows. The book’s 27 detailed chapters cover every major aspect of consciousness, and Blackmore reveals herself to be a careful and judicious researcher: the central figures and theories of most chapters are familiar, but they are presented with unusually careful attention to details of argumentation and evidence, rather than being reduced to the sort of simple iconic positions that fuel most ‘battle of ideas’ texts. Many lesser-known authors and positions are also introduced, and some of the most interesting ones receive extended treatment. The book is nearly encyclopaedic in its comprehensiveness, but the discussion is carefully structured: ideas appear not as individual items to be memorized, but as steps in an integrated, multifaceted process of investigation.
The book does have a bit of a split personality, seeming at times like a guidebook to self-discovery and at others like a primer on recondite academic disputes. It soon becomes clear, however, that this bipolar character is strategic. The chattier bits (full of second-person questions and exhortations) provide excitement and motivation, and encourage students to adopt an engaged, reflective approach to the material, whereas the more scholarly parts delve unapologetically and at length into the details of particular theories and problems. This double structure should make the book accessible and attractive to a wide range of readers.
There are a few notable problems. One is an unfortunate tendency for favourite authors, such as Daniel Dennett and Benjamin Libet, to crop up again and again in different contexts, sometimes in place of others who would arguably be more relevant. Blackmore draws on a wide variety of philosophically engaged scientists (including Francis Crick, Antonio Damasio, Ray Jackendoff, Vilayanur Ramachandran and Francisco Varela), but is much less careful with scientifically engaged philosophers, often letting Dennett stand in for the whole pack. This is most problematic in the chapters on neuroscience, where one would have liked to see more coverage of the specific proposals of philosophers who specialize in the topic, such as Patricia and Paul Churchland, Kathleen Akins, Ned Block, Owen Flanagan and Thomas Metzinger. Blackmore, an experienced author of popular-science books, often uses the journalist’s technique of using individual scholars as symbolic representatives of broader positions, a practice that is less appropriate in the academic context and only exacerbates the above problems. The later chapters on parapsychology, hallucinatory states and meditative spiritual traditions are also less successful than the rest; Blackmore’s combination of expertise and scepticism makes her an ideal ‘tour guide’ for such realms, but ultimately these chapters establish little and do not seem to connect with the ideas developed in the earlier sections.
Ultimately, this remains a very satisfying book. It could serve well as a core text for courses in philosophy, psychology and related disciplines, and would provide useful context for other, more discipline-specific texts. Its broad scope and clear explanations also make it an excellent choice for independent study. It’s a shame about the cover, though. This might seem a petty complaint, but considering that academic respect for the study of consciousness is still grudging and probational, such matters of appearance are not trivial. I’ll be using Consciousness in my course next semester, but I’ll also be passing out a nice selection of book covers on the first day of class.
Reproduced with permission from the author.
The Major Unsolved Problem in Biology:
Three books try to explain consciousness
Scientific American. March 2004
Extract from review by Michael Shermer
The body of literature attempting to solve this problem is extensive, and getting one’s mind around the field is a herculean task successfully executed by psychologist Susan Blackmore in her delightful introduction, Consciousness. Presented as a textbook, it is so highly engaging that I recommend it for general readers, too. In many ways, the book is structured like a brain, with loads of independent modules (boxes and sidebars featuring profiles, concepts and activities) tied together by a flowing narrative and integrated into a conceptual whole…. Dualists hold that qualia are separate from physical objects in the world and that mind is more than brain. Materialists contend that qualia are ultimately explicable through the activities of neurons and that mind and brain are one. Blackmore, uniquely qualified to assess all comers (she sports multihued hair, is a devotee of meditation, and studies altered states of consciousness), allows the myriad theorists to make their case (including her own meme-centered theory) so that you can be the judge.
(with the author’s permission)
Review of Consciousness: An Introduction by Susan Blackmore
In American Scientist Vol. 92 No. 5 September-October 2004 p 468
How is it that mere matter can experience a sad thought, the color blue or the taste of a cheese-and-pepperoni pizza? Questions of this sort are central to the scientific explanation of consciousness, which author Susan Blackmore explores in Consciousness: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, $39.95, paper). Ostensibly written as a college text, Blackmore’s book turns out to be a page-turner. It repeatedly evokes unsettling moments of reflection as the reader is introduced to ideas that bump up against the ceiling of human understanding. Indeed, as Blackmore explains, “mysterians” such as the British philosopher Colin McGinn argue that human beings are “cognitively closed” to the problem: We don’t have the right kind of brain to solve it, just as a dog cannot comprehend a poem. Others, including the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, believe that we’ve misconstrued consciousness itself and that we must really explain how it comes to seem that there is actual phenomenology. According to Dennett, there is no “Cartesian theater”-the place where “I” am inside “my” mind or brain (see cartoon above). Whatever your preconceived notions of “self,” Blackmore’s book will surely get you thinking – wherever and whatever “you” may be. M.S.
Focus – Book of the Month – September 2003
Consciousness: An Introduction
Susan Blackmore (Hodder & Stoughton £14.99)
We may think that the way we think is obvious and doesn’t need thinking about. But in fact we know less about how we think than we’d like to think we do. In this colourful and enjoyable book, psychologist Susan Blackmore tackles the basics of consciousness head-on. But unlike other science books which talk at you in the vain hope that you’ll read and remember some of the ideas, Blackmore’s title concentrates on the theory and practice of consciousness by asking you to do some thinking yourself.
Because we know so distressingly little about our minds, there are no absolute definitive answers here. Instead Blackmore makes a point of asking all the most important questions, and mentioning all the most important people in the mind-expanding field of consciousness studies. And she does it with style and flair. Her trademark terrier-like scepticism has been reined in, and the book is much less of a partisan materialist polemic than seasoned Blackmore-watchers might have expected. It’s also a success visually, with eye-catching illustrations and designs, and slightly lateral cartoons.
The content ranges far and wide over every part of the subject, from the basics of perception to the confusing problem of whether or not we experience anything at all. And what the word ‘experience’ really means. The Hard Problem, as it’s known among consciousness philosophers and researchers in artificial intelligence, is about trying to decide whether our experience is real at all, or whether the sense of self that makes us aware of our place in the Universe is actually just a convenient illusion.
Blackmore could have turned these musings into a long and turgid trudge through the current swamp-like state of non-understanding that the subject is lost in. Instead she invites you as the reader to join in the speculations by taking part in various illustrative activities. These provide far more insight than words and references ever could on their own. There are also some interesting and not entirely expected digressions into the nature of religious and mystical experience.
There’s really very little to criticise here. This book can be read by anyone at any level of interest, from the most casual browser to the full-time psychology professional. The fact that it’s hands-on – or rather, brain-on – makes it a rare treat for people who like to think about things and ask questions. And there are enough references to keep the intrigued amused for years. If Blackmore hasn’t been able to provide any ultimate explanations, it’s because none are available yet. That minor frustration aside, this is a good example of how science books should be written.
***** Richard Wentk
First published in Focus Magazine, September 2003, p 92
reproduced with permission.
Review of Consciousness: An Introduction by Susan Blackmore
Reviewed in Juice – Leeds Student Magazine October 2003
‘A mind bending voyage into your own brain’
I sit here writing this article and am conscious of the fact that God may be causing me to write it. I suppose it could equally be the devil, or a purple pony with tiny pig’s heads for legs, but that’s something I won’t know until I am dead. Susan Blackmore’s fascinating book about all aspects of consciousness will have you pondering, pontificating and postulating until you pop your clogs and find out for sure.
The book has sprung from a series of lectures that Blackmore has carried out and contains all the latest research in the field. There is something exciting about the fact that Blackmore has written this in order to come closer to her own understanding of consciousness- it is completely fresh and open. In fact, Blackmore has made the book so intriguing because, despite being very chunky in itself, much of the work is left to the reader. From the outset, Blackmore presents the topic as a puzzle, for which she is merely providing the pieces. If you like to be presented with lists of incontrovertible facts and satisfying, all-end-tied conclusions then you will find this enormously frustrating. If, however, you enjoy detective work then this ultimate mystery casebook will be perfect.
The book has been carefully constructed to make the complicated subject matter palatable, with nine sections covering the important areas, and each section split into three chapters. The book is essentially a text-book which could be used for a taught course. The paraphernalia associated with such books (i.e. exercise and cartoons) that are usually insanely annoying, are actually really helpful in providing a counterbalance to the often overwhelming profundity of the text. There are twenty-seven profiles of philosophers , psychologists (including Buddha) which help to give faces and origins to the multitudinous strands of conflicting thought. While Blackmore is essentially informing us that it is very likely that we are all zombies who delude ourselves into a belief of our own unique existence, she does it in the most relaxed, friendly manner that the self-examination she inspires is more fun than frightening. Early on in the text she does warn that ‘studying consciousness will change you life’, but although the moment I realised I was a zombie was more than I’d bargained for, Blackmore shows that living with a constant awareness of consciousness’ workings and a persistent need to understand it can feel more authentic than turning a blind eye to existence’s mysteries. While the messages may not always be easy to digest Blackmore clearly revels in her pursuit of the truth behind consciousness and her open, inquisitive style is infectious.
Along the way Blackmore asks whether the brain contains something of a substance other than that of the physical world, whether a machine could ever possibly obtain this quality, what it is like to be an animal and whether you are conscious right now. She offers an alternative for God in the evolutionary algorithm and show the drift of current thought, its conflicts and what it needs to progress.
Although this book doesn’t offer solid answers, it is a great tool for opening up the mind to new interpretations and different ways of explaining life. It is a book that should empower not only those who are taking part in philosophy/psychology courses, but also anyone who is really interested in answering the only questions of any importance in life. Alternatively ask Westlife.
(Permission sought – please contact me if you know whom to ask!)