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Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain

3.83  ·  Rating Details  ·  451 Ratings  ·  72 Reviews
A trailblazing philosopher’s exploration of the latest brain science—and its ethical and practical implications.
What happens when we accept that everything we feel and think stems not from an immaterial spirit but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? In this thought-provoking narrative—drawn from professional expertise as well as personal life experiences—t
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published July 22nd 2013 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Aug 09, 2013 John rated it it was amazing
Debunks dualism. The brain is all there is, there is no separate mind=soul. Consciousness is not a gift to humans but present to some extent in all creatures, at least all mammals. The physical structure of the brain is well-understood enough to make this assertion. When we die, we're dead. The immortal soul (mind) is a convenient metaphor. These are the argument of this book, and for me they seem quite irrefutable. There's a lot of work to do to figure out exactly how consciousness works, but s ...more
Sep 16, 2014 Kristina rated it it was ok
Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain by Patricia S. Churchland is about 25% interesting and 75% tedious. It is not the “fascinating excursion into neuroscience and philosophy” promised by a review in Publisher’s Weekly. Churchland also does not write in a “lively, down-to-earth style.” She is not an accomplished wordsmith and her awkward phrasing and piling on of technical, scientific language transformed even the most interesting sections into mind-numbing tedium.

Overall, Churchland (a neurophil
Jul 04, 2013 Brandon rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Psychologists, Philosophers, Neuroscientists
Disclaimer: This is the same review I posted on Amazon under the username The Professor.

Being a young aspiring experimental psychology graduate with a minor in philosophy, I find the work of Patricia Churchland refreshing. A philosopher who actively works in the psychological sciences!? Astounding! About time philosophers with questions about the mind actually look to the experimental results instead of philosophizing in an office chair (no disrespect, most philosophers are brilliant and ask in
Apr 26, 2015 Gary rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The best understanding comes about by talking about what we know. There is no explanatory power in invoking the supernatural when trying to explain anything including the problem of consciousness. The idea of a soul to explain consciousness adds nothing to our understanding. This book looks at how we no longer need the Cartesian duality of the mind and the brain in order to explain how we think.

This book looks at the 'hard problem' of consciousness and goes about systematically explaining why it
Peter Mcloughlin
In this accessible and deeply personal book Patricia Churchland explores the intersection of Neuroscience, Philosophy and her life experience. Here she forgoes the jargon and academic terms of this fascinating subject area and uses stories from her life experience to illustrate the nature of the brain, consciousness, the status of dualism and souls, life after death and near death experiences, the unconsciousness and ways the brain weaves together a self and works in the world. In a friendly an ...more
Joshua Stein
I should say that I really enjoy Pat Churchland; she's been a huge influence on me as a philosopher and writer. Because of that, I must admit that I really enjoyed this book. It's part memoir and part introduction to her philosophical views, and seeing the relationship between those two things. For those who are interested in Pat Churchland as a person, and want insight into her mind, ignore the rest of this review and consider this an enthusiastic recommendation and five star review.

As a piece
May 04, 2014 Antonia rated it it was amazing
Excellent in both content and the style. I most enjoyed the chapters detailing the neural processes that underlie consciousness. Churchland takes issue with both those who claim that consciousness has been explained and those who say it can never be explained. She conveys a good sense of the complexity involved, but believes that piece by piece, much more will be learned in time. Consider how far we've come in the past 50 years. She’s very down to earth, yet a graceful and lucid writer, and not ...more
Nov 10, 2015 Stefanos rated it really liked it
Books like touching a nerve are difficult to find.It touches on a hard-to-access topic, full of technical jargon and many sensitive issues and yet, manages to be surprisingly comprehensible, highly educative on a wide range of topics, respectful on delicate matters and all in all a very entertaining read.The main subject is the science of the brain and how the three-pound mass of jelly (as Ramachandran likes to put it) was engineered by evolution and how it makes us who we are.Patricia Chrurchla ...more
Aug 02, 2013 Joyita rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned
This book covers a vast spectrum of complex topics pertaining to the brain in a gracefully lucid fashion. While the workings of the brain are still poorly understood, the findings of the last 50 years or so add up to something substantial. Churchland discusses topics like consciousness, hidden cognition, sex, agreession, morality and more from a neuroscientific perspective, with frequent detours to the realms of philosophy. Overall this is a most enjoyable read. On a different note, her musings ...more

Touching a Nerve is an aptly book by Patricia Churchland, which uses current neuroscience research to answer deep philosophical questions, such as “Is there a soul?” “Where does morality come from?” “Are humans inherently aggressive?” and “What is consciousness?” She draws heavily from her experience growing up in a farm in rural Canada to relate to the audience and soften the blow of what is essentially a deliberate debunking of ideas espoused by religion regarding the soul, morality, death, fr

Nazbanou Nozari
This is not a bad book if you're still a believer in the Cartesian dualism, or simply a believer in some sort of non-materialistic soul that is separate from matter. Then it gives you a nice overview of a number of interesting psychological and neural phenomena and shows that you can really do without a metaphysical soul. However, if you expect something beyond that, such as a unique and brilliant philosophical perspective from one of the most renowned contemporary philosophers then you will be ...more
Headley Mist
Jan 28, 2015 Headley Mist rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If asked to sum up the book I'd say, that the author is trying to prove that there is no soul.

Chapter by chapter, memory to emotion, conscience to speech.

The question, however, remains - to whom? Scientifically minded need no proof, the believers do not care for scientific arguments.

All that reminds me a bit of the early Soviet public lectures on the possibility of life existing on Mars and there being no God in the sky, because Yuri Gagarin hadn't seen him. As if somebody who worked on his mis
Oct 06, 2014 Herve rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As an introduction to this book about the brain, I will quote another recent read - Time Reborn by Lee Smolin): “By the problem of consciousness I mean that if I describe you in all the languages physical and biological sciences make available to us, I leave something out. Your brain is a vast and highly interconnected network of roughly 100 billion cells, each of which is itself a complex system running on controlled chains of chemical reactions. I could describe this in as much detail as I wan ...more
Apr 11, 2014 Chuck rated it liked it
Touching a Nerve is a decent primer on cognitive science, although its biological chapters seem more sophisticated than its philosophical chapters (this is a bit surprising, given that the author is a trained philosopher who has published many technical papers). Here, Patricia Churchland lays out a "reductionist" view of human beings that views them as purely physical organisms, devoid of (non-physical) souls.

In studying the mind/brain, perhaps the most perplexing questions are these: "What is c
Apr 06, 2014 Rob rated it really liked it
I wouldn't recommend this for everyone--if you're a neuroscience geek (I'm trying to make "neurd" a thing) and also are interested in philosophy, I think you'll find this book interesting. For example the author describes the biological/evolutionary basis for morality, e.g., how traits like empathy and caring for your offspring provided evolutionary advantages, and can be traced to biological features in the brain. These concepts are therefore universal among cultures. On the other hand, the aut ...more
It starts off well but slowly turns into another accumulation of findings from neuroscience research on consciousness, aggression, free will etc. Since I have already read on these topics online, there wasn't much new material to enjoy. Perhaps some of the synapses related to these facts were strengthened in my brain but I never felt excited. This might have something to do with the writing style also which is rather dry. There is so much that can be said on free will and consciousness but Churc ...more
Richard Cytowic
Jul 22, 2013 Richard Cytowic rated it it was amazing
This book is a very readable exposition of the idea of (non)-self, written for lay people. If you want some neuroscience-based books, find something else, e.g. Damasio, Metzinger, Panksepp, Ramachandran.
Michael S
Jan 26, 2014 Michael S rated it did not like it
Could not get through as it is so poorly written. Senseless and profuse similes. Random exclamations. Fundamental misunderstanding of punctuation. Methinks her brain no workie.
Sep 18, 2013 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was not what I expected. As a psychology read it was good,I was looking for a Neurology approach to the brain.
Timothy Finucane
Dec 08, 2014 Timothy Finucane rated it it was amazing

This is an excellent narrative exploring both the science and philosophy behind the current realms of neuroscience and the brain. It deftly lays bare the arguments for dualism and shows why reductionism does not in any way make the experiences of the brain any less enjoyable or insightful just because the underlying causes and mechanisms are brought into the light. The title alludes to the fact that though many of the modern discoveries in brain science may be hard to take for many people, in ti

Sep 20, 2013 Eugéne rated it did not like it
Misses the self as a structural construction. Brainless.
Nov 13, 2014 Angie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I started this book, I wrote: Thus far (Chapter 1), this book is just what I had hoped, neuroPHILOSOPHY, not just another brain book. I hope this continues!
I was a bit disappointed. There is much more science here than philosophy. It's a good book that shows what we have been learning about the brain and how science can help address some of our big philosophical questions, but it stopped there. Churchland makes some interesting philosophical observations along the way but does not delve int
Jan 03, 2016 Yaaresse marked it as abandoned-dnf  ·  review of another edition
49 Page Rule invoked (although I really got to about page 80 before giving up.)

Saw the author on The Colbert Report, so knew her position on "self" being completely electrical/chemical quantifiable response and that she doesn't believe there is a non-quantifiable part of human existence. Still, I thought it might be interesting to see what neurobiologists have learned lately about our gray matter in spite of not agreeing with her POV. I might have gotten through that aspect of the book, but fo
May 20, 2014 David rated it really liked it
Having read a number of books about cognitive sciences (usually on more constrained topics than this one), I've seen some good and some bad. Touching a Nerve is one of the better ones, but it still suffers a few painful drawbacks that necessitate caveats in suggesting it to other readers.

Churchland is not exactly a bad author. Her use of folksy wisdom gained growing up on a farm as backing for her "neurophilosophy" is a bit questionable, but generally speaking, the examples and explanations are
Nov 10, 2013 Nuri rated it really liked it
l've read Churchland's previous Braintrust, Brain-wise and Neurophilosophy for a course I was takIng, and while I learned one thing or another from each, I've felt with al three that the focus, more precisely the reasons for writing, the claims made, and the ways to go about demonstrating/supporting those were not clear, at times spending too much of the book on a seemingly-not-central field or, say, the role of progesterone etc.

First things first, despite occasional figures that elaborate on br
Kirsten Tautfest
Mar 22, 2014 Kirsten Tautfest rated it it was amazing
Listened to the version. There are chapters that had me enthralled and even got my boss listening when she came into the office when I had it on. Worth reading as an audio book, or as a real book where you can go back and highlight. She's a professor of philosophy, but writes accessibly, even when she is talking about the biology of the brain.
Read for the Northern Oklahoma Freethinkers book discussion group (meetup group).
The book that introduced me to neurophilosophy.
The subject matter is something I've thought about, but never read about. Of course I've learned the basics about the brain in my school science class, but never as it relates to philosophy and sense of self.

It debunks the existence of a soul, which I pretty much didn't need debunking for.

On the one hand, it's meant for the layman. It's sprinkled with personal stories and makes for a more personal read.
On the other hand, it's only a little bit inte
Dec 21, 2014 David rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology, philosophy
Ms. Churchland takes the latest finding of neurobiology and examines them in reference to epistemology. She explains how the brain works in relation to the self. She even makes an attempt to explain how consciousness works. One thing I found interesting is how the brain identifies the self having it's own thoughts, so we don't confuse our thoughts with possible thoughts from aliens.
Tselin Nyai
"Neuro" philosophy - is that even a legitimate science???? If this had been written by a neuroscientist, that would be another story altogether. Philosophers are notorious for twisting the facts. Nihilism (which rejects moral values and religious beliefs), is presented in beginning college classes, AND is one of the first to be refuted.
Instead, I would suggest reading the book "Brain Wars" by Dr. Mario Beauregard, a REAL neuroscientist!!! - a far better use of one's time.
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Patricia Smith Churchland (born July 16, 1943 in Oliver, British Columbia, Canada) is a Canadian-American philosopher working at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) since 1984. She is currently a professor at the UCSD Philosophy Department, an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and an associate of the Computational Neuroscience Laboratory (Sejnowski Lab) at ...more
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“My caution kicks in when I encounter either one of two sorts of dramatic theories: those that claim to have found the secret of consciousness, and those that claim that the brain mechanisms for consciousness can never be found.” 5 likes
“You became conscious of precisely what you unconsciously intended to say only when you said it. You modify your speech depending on wether you are talking to child, a colleague, a student, or a dean. Not consiously, most probably. Paradoxically, speech is usually considered the case of conscious behavior - behavior for which we hold people responsoble. Certainly, it require consciousness: you cannot have a conversation while in deep sleep or in coma. Nevertheless, the activities that organize your speech output are not conscious activities. Speaking is a highly skilled business, relyling on uncounscious knowledge of precisely what to say and how.” 1 likes
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