Review of

Brainstorming: Views and Interviews on the Mind by Shaun Gallagher
Imprint Academic 2008, 276 pp., £ 17.95, $34.90 ISBN 9 781845 400231

Journal of Consciousness Studies, 17 1-2, 229-31
(Note. This is the version submitted. It may have been edited before publication)

This book is “an unorthodox but very accessible introduction to certain themes that cut across the philosophy of mind and psychology”, “I did not write this book, I constructed it.”. This is how Shaun Gallagher describes his book in its introduction. And he’s right. It is unorthodox, and is put together in the most curious fashion. Interviews with scientists and philosophers, some transcribed from recorded talks, and some reconstructed largely from memory or from written materials, are mixed in with Gallagher’s own discussions of topics concerning mind and consciousness.

Sometimes this works very well; sometimes it does not.

On the plus side there are interviews that come to life so well that I can imagine the people talking as they unfold. Gallagher goes to a lecture by Francis Crick in Cambridge along with Tony Marcel. At the reception afterwards they talk with mathematician Roger Penrose and then move on to the local pub to drink Adnams beer (one of those rich, warm, real ales of the region), and then finally Tony has to drive Gallagher to Stansted airport (ghastly place) and the interview takes place over the noise of the traffic on the motorway, and between security and flight announcements at the airport.

Despite these distractions the result is an illuminating discussion of how Marcel’s distinctions between awareness and phenomenology, or between the personal and the subpersonal level, relate to Chalmers distinction between the easy and the hard problems, and to Ned Block’s distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness. If none of this leads to any deeper understanding of consciousness, it can at least illuminate what some of the great theorists believe about it.

Another enjoyable exchange occurs when Gallagher tries to understand what Marc Jeannerod meant by a statement in his 1997 book The Cognitive Neuroscience of Action that awareness does not depend on a given particular neural system to appear, but is an attribute related to particular behavioural strategies. Jeannerod explains that he was comparing two experiments by Castiello. In the first experiment the target is moved just as the person starts to move his hand towards it, and in this case the motor system adjusts and corrects the grasp well before the person is aware of that the target has moved. In the second experiment the apparent size of the target is changed so that the shape of the grip has to be changed, and this adjustment takes longer, with the result that the correction is made very close to the time the person becomes aware of the change. From this comparison it seems that the time to consciousness is invariant. Or – as Gallagher then puts it – there is a delay in subjective awareness of the change that remains invariant across the two situations, even though the time to the motor response changes.

This exchange never really resolves the point about “different behavioural strategies” but even on the simpler points about timing I was left wanting to shout – why are you just accepting all this? Can’t you be more critical? Jeannerod uses the phrases “the time of consciousness” and “the time to consciousness” as though it is meaningful to imagine a time at which neural processes “come into consciousness”. Gallagher himself says that “some movement is so fast that our consciousness has to play catch up” (p 244). What does this mean? Is he imagining a Cartesian theatre into which neural processes have to come to be magically transformed into conscious events? Are they both assuming that there is a time at which experiences “become conscious” as well as a time at which neural events happen? If so I wish they’d explained more clearly just what they did mean, but Gallagher does not say, and slips quickly on into the topic of willed intentions.

Here he talks to Chris Frith about Libet’s and Wegner’s experiments, and about distortions of willed action in schizophrenia. Frith has long worked with schizophrenics and explains that they have no difficulty responding to external cues but have great difficulty acting spontaneously. His investigations of these differences led him to experiments in which subjects have to choose which of two fingers to lift, a task which is associated with activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. He and his colleagues then explored whether this activity is a result of the choice or of demands on memory and showed that it was in fact associated with making a deliberate choice. Gallagher asks him about will in moral contexts and, rather touchingly, Frith discusses his own struggles with carrying out actions he really does not want to do, such as making a difficult phone call. In such situations he separates out the decision from the action by telling himself “I’m going to do this exactly at 2 o’clock” (p 249) then the clock is the external cue and the action follows automatically.

The book ends with Gallagher’s thoughts on freedom, responsibility, and our ability to thwart the brain. Here he provides a discussion with Christof Koch who lucidly explains the conflict between our sense of having conscious free will and the causal closedness of the universe. Koch argues that searching for the neural correlates of the conscious feeling of agency will have significant consequences for ethics, and even give rise to a new conception of what it is to be human. But Gallagher does not effectively take up the challenges Koch presents. Indeed he claims that “We are still faced with the problem of making free will consistent with the idea that the brain does its work before we become aware of it.” and suggests that if we take a longer timeframe for decisions then there is “plenty of room for conscious components that are more than accessories after the fact.” (p 255). In other words, he wants to retain everyday notions of free will and consciousness, in spite of all these illuminating discussions, and sees nothing wrong with talking about our brain doing some work before “we” become consciously aware of it. It is by ignoring these difficulties that he manages to end up concluding that the conscious sense of free will is “a real force” affecting action, making it free, and bestowing responsibility.