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Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  945 ratings  ·  96 reviews
In which a scientist searches for an empirical explanation for phenomenal experience, spurred by his instinctual belief that life is meaningful.

What links conscious experience of pain, joy, color, and smell to bioelectrical activity in the brain? How can anything physical give rise to nonphysical, subjective, conscious states? Christof Koch has devoted much of his career t
Hardcover, 1st edition, 184 pages
Published March 9th 2012 by The MIT Press
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Start your review of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
After receiving the Nobel prize along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for the elegant description of the structure of our helical molecule, Francis Crick dedicated his life towards the studying of the mind. Although I knew this true genius dedicated his life on this, I haven't got the opportunity to read about his work on consciousness before, so I was really excited when I found this book the other day.

Consciousness is a fascinating memoir, written by Christof Koch, about his rese
Sep 11, 2012 rated it liked it
Here's a neuroscientist who wrote The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, trying to explain how brain can give rise to consciousness. It doesn't look like he's even managed to convince himself. While you can always find a "neural correlate" for any sensory or mental or emotional experience, it's still a puzzle how neural and synaptic activities result in subjective conscious experiences. It's what philosophers refer to as the Hard Problem. Invoking an ethereal soul to explain th ...more
India Marie Clamp
Nov 07, 2018 rated it really liked it

One cannot mention Koch without including Francis Crick---as they go together like Matzo and ball. Though too many to name here, the accolades of this author would fill a twelve-page CV. In brief, Koch taught at California Institute of Technology and elegantly vibrates our silvery web like tangle of the mind with the question, what is consciousness? He equates the brain to a psychic experience having a plus or minus one charge.

“Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood
Kelly Head
Dec 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Christoph Koch is one of the leading scientists studying consciousness at a fundamental level. He has studied under the brilliant Francis Crick, is the lead scientist at the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, and teaches at Cal Tech. A large portion of the book deals with the theory of a colleague of Koch's named Guilio Tononi. Tononi holds that consciousness is integrated information, a measurable property of causal systems that may exist in both biological and non-biological systems, e.g. compu ...more
Oct 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2012
I liked it very much. Some of it was very entertaining. In a few places, I just felt lost. An excellent discussion of free will, however, and that's a difficult topic. I'll probably reread that chapter.

My favorite paragraph:

"If we honestly seek a single, rational, and intellectually consistent view of the cosmos and everything iin it, we must abandon the classical view of the immortal soul. It is a view that is deeply embedded in our culture; it suffuses our songs, novels, movies, great buildin
Jul 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have debated the questions of human consciousness for a very long time. What is the difference between my brain and my mind? Are my thoughts simply epiphenomena arising glibly from the chemical soup of the grey matter behind my skull walls, or do they spring divinely from my eternal soul or from some sort of ethereal akashic records?

These are daunting issues, but Christof Koch is well-qualified to tackle them as a scientist who worked alongside one of th
Dec 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's very hard to categorise or summarise this book. It works as an introduction to the field of neuroscience - particularly to the concepts involved, as opposed to this-bit-of-brain-then-that-bit-of-brain - it also has elements of speculative science; memoir and philosophy. Perhaps most affectingly, however, it is a surprisingly emotional grappling from a man who knows than almost everyone about how the brain works, yet loses himself in grief and guilt just the same. A man who understands how f ...more
Aug 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.
-Rene Descartes

The subject of the book is an age old conundrum that has preoccupied scientists,philosophers and mystics alike for over many millenia- How does the water of biological tissue become the wine of conscious perception? How can the inanimate rumblings of neurons cause feelings as diverse as love, fear, anger or existential angst? Do lower life forms possess that same apparatus as us to perceiv
Dec 31, 2016 rated it liked it
I started reading this book because of my connection to the Allen Institute. This is more of an autobiography and memoir than actual details about his integrated information theory and his vision for the future. Koch admits he has a flamboyant personality and that certainly shows in his writing, which makes the book interesting to read, but sometimes hard to decode. He covers many popular neuroscience discoveries (like Jennifer Aniston neurons and the Libet experiments) that may be a boring revi ...more
Joseph Siegel
Dec 24, 2012 rated it liked it
Chapters 6,7,8 are five-star material. The book is too full of things like this: "in 1995, Francis and I published a manuscript in the international journal Nature...(Having your article appear in Nature is like having the premier gallery in New York or Paris display your art; it's a big deal.)" In the chapters not numbered 6,7, or 8, these punchable offenses so outweigh anything of note that I only can selectively recommend the book. I was looking for Ernst Mayr, and I got a middle-aged dude st ...more
Jun 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I was interested in this book because the title seemed appealing. I basically wanted to know the author's take on the 'Hard problem' of consciousness. Here, I was satisfied. Although a through reductionist, Koch admits the 'limit of reductionism' and claims that consciousness is something fundamentally different from matter and can never be fully reduced to matter. His attempt to gap the bridge between mind and matter is 'Integrated information theory', which is sort of a metaphysical theory wit ...more
Kunal Sen
May 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Another intriguing approach to explain consciousness as a physical phenomenon, and dismissal of the idea of a mind-body duality, or the idea of classical free-will. The only thing I found abrupt was the unjustified connection between quantum mechanics and unpredictability of many brain and other biological phenomenon. There are far more macroscopic ways to explain unpredictability based on regular chaos theory. Most biological systems are complex enough to display chaotic non-linear behavior, an ...more
David Wiik
Jan 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: finished-books
Listened to this :)

A great book that that does not contain that sort of self-indulgent Saganesque natural prose, despite its generic title.

Neuroscience has re-paradigmed consciousness research, snatching it from rationalistic philosophers.
Jun 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a powerful book brimming with fascinating insights into the author's quest to understand consciousness. Brilliant stuff, well-written and captivating. Loved it.
Jun 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfict
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Wow. What a rich, heady read! I appreciated how humble and down-to-earth Koch was throughout, emphasizing that we don't have all the answers (yet!). The most meaningful revelation was in the final chapter, which reminded me that having the capacity to contemplate humanity does not spare me from being one.
Nia Nymue
Apr 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
The writer is a passionate empiricist who strongly believes that the Hard Problem of Consciousness can be resolved through scientific means. He doesn't actually say how in this book, but he emphasises this belief several times.

The text is very easy to read and is peppered with the right amount of geeky humour that most people would appreciate. It's also well-structured and can be read even by those without any background knowledge in philosophy. One possible drawback to the book is the inclusion
Jan 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The book is oozing personality.

This is the most daring science book I've read since Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe. Yet Koch seems a man with a lot on his heart and little time.

It is a short tour de force through the scientific understanding of consciousness, a succinct presentation of his preferred hypothesis and how he plans to test it, and a brief confession about his motivations and beliefs for the future of consciousness, all in the form of confessional writing. Yup, it's a pretty
Derek Davis
Feb 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Though Koch presents a lot of solid scientific material here, the real heart of the book is the man himself and his outlooks on a series of questions that have haunted much of the history of philosophy and, more recently, science: What is consciousness, how does it work, does it require a spiritual explanation and presence or is it a mechanical construct of the human brain?

Koch, as a scientist of the modern age, not surprisingly leans heavily toward the idea that consciousness can emerge from t
Josh Oberman
Jun 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
To me, this is a very important book, less because of its content and more for its form. The book certainly serves as a useful and up-to-date introduction to consciousness studies from a leading scientist in the field, but its real force comes from the personal nature of the writing. Science, for good reason, is meant to be third-person, objective, and impersonal. But many scientists are themselves deeply driven to the work they do. Koch lays bear these deeper sides of scientific work and throug ...more
David Soltysik
Jul 29, 2013 rated it liked it
When I attended the Human Brain Mapping conference this year, I saw a man wearing red pants and a purple vest. I thought, what a character. He was later introduced as Christof Koch, a German-accented man with a flair to be different and the author of the book on consciousness I had recently began. Koch does a good job of introducing many concepts related to the study of consciousness, but this book is more autobiographical than didactic. I found his prose surprisingly but refreshingly honest. Sc ...more
Jun 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best reads in recent months. It covers thoughts about my favorite topic for lifetime: consciousness and the Brain!
The author gives a detailed view of how science has approached the problem, what theories are on plate. He also covers metaphysical aspects as well as a little bit of religious viewpoints. One of the most interesting parts was how quantum mechanics can change the way we consider free will or determinism in terms of human nature.
For a seeker about the human nature,
Dec 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Beautifully tragic in his personal life in belief and personal failings. Christof's perserverance in his philosophical and scentific quest for knowledge is worth admiring and given credit to. He has illuminated life's biggest questions on consciousness and with it, the inevitable slayer of that spark. A good insightful read.
Dec 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The question of what is "consciousness" has troubled philosophers for centuries. When I was an undergraduate in the philosophy department at UC Berkeley in the early 90s, John Searle was famously working on the issue --and guess what? He is still plugging away at it! And, it's not just philosophers either. Scientists also tackle the problem of reconciling a conscious, aware mind with a physical brain. According to them, consciousness emerges from chemistry and electricity in our brains. But how ...more
Jan 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
More than anything it was the title that prompted me to read this, which neatly encapsulates the major two ways I feel about consciousness and related topics. On the one hand, a materialist to the core (though whether I feel reductionist or non-reductionist changes from time to time), on the other hand someone who hears the call of notions defying his own materialistic positions, but despite finding them intriguing and fascinating, always falls back on those.

I also made me realize that it has be
Jason Pryde
Apr 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Woaaa...another unputdownable book about brain, mind and consciousness, written by the neuroscientist who worked closely with Francis Crick (Nobel Prize Winner; British molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist).

My favourite paragraphs:

The greatest of all existentialist puzzles is why there is anything rather than nothing. Surely, the most natural state of being—in the sense of assuming as little as possible—is emptiness. I don’t mean the empty space that has proved so fecund in the
Joseph Knecht
Aug 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
The main conviction of the author is that evolution breeds complexity, and complexity breeds consciousness. There isn't a specific neural region of the brain that creates the effects of consciousness, but rather it arises as a byproduct of neuronal connectivity. Just as a single molecule of H2O doesn't have wetness property, in similar fashion a single neuron doesn't have any consciousness. Consciousness arises from the interconnectivity of neural connections.

The big surprise for me was the fac
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The subject has often haunted me in the middle of countless contemplations about the big questions. Luckily a romantic reductionist could give me some insights and wisdom on it. As a neurologist who dedicated his career to focus on this very subject he explained some recent scientific findings arround the matter. But what I value the most is how Koch combines objective scientific views with his own subjective honest reflections. I find it beautiful how he, as a scientist, shares his personal vie ...more
Igor Clark
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
I think the only reason I felt I had to give it four stars rather than five is that it doesn't actually contain a fully comprehensive neuroscientific theory of consciousness. Which is kind of unreasonable of me. It's just that it's written in such a way that it almost leads you to expect one, even though you know in advance that won't be happening. Anyway there's a ton of interesting info, it's a good layman' state-of-the-nation on the topic, it's written well, and the last chapter is an unexpec ...more
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is an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness. He is the President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. From 1986 until 2013, he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

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“It was only as a mature man that I became mortal.
The visceral insight of my end came to me abruptly more than a dozen years ago. I had wasted an entire evening playing an addictive, firstperson shooter video game that belonged to my teenage son—running through eerily empty halls, flooded corridors, nightmarishly twisting tunnels, and empty plazas under a foreign sun, emptying my weapons at hordes of aliens pursuing me relentlessly. I went to bed late and, as always, fell asleep easily. I awoke abruptly a few hours later. Knowledge had turned to certainty
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