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Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  578 ratings  ·  85 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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3.78  · 
Rating details
 ·  578 ratings  ·  85 reviews

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Jan 26, 2014 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
Aug 09, 2013 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
Jun 17, 2013 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
ashley c
Something about her style of writing just rubs me the wrong way. Too many exclamation marks, especially used to end sentences that is making a point to prove she's right and if you're not agreeing with her you're wrong.
Steven Williams
Oct 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
In this book Patricia S. Churchland claims that the brain is responsible for the identity we call the self, not some soul stuff or any other stuff. She starts by not fully understanding why people have a problem with this view of the self. After this she goes on explain what neuroscience has to say on a range of issues that where once thought to be the properties of souls.

She explores what neuroscience has to say about the self, an afterlife, and morality. She then explores sex, aggression, viol
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
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
Michael S
Oct 05, 2013 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 20, 2013 rated it did not like it
Misses the self as a structural construction. Brainless.
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
Jun 24, 2014 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
Feb 09, 2014 marked it as abandoned-dnf  ·  review of another edition
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 found the lack of focus (OMG, the tangents were all over the place) and the en
Apr 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2014, kindle
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
Mar 24, 2013 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
Fred Forbes
Apr 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
"I am my brain, soul and all" is the central premise of this book and her observations pretty well back up that assertion. An interesting journey through current issues in neuroscience but written for the lay audience in entertaining fashion. Want to treat your brain to an interesting discussion of what is consciousness, identity, mind and free will? How do genetics and evolution impact the traits that humans exhibit? Grab a copy and you will be well rewarded.
Richard Cytowic
Jun 22, 2013 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.
John Mulholland
This book was not what I expected. As a psychology read it was good,I was looking for a Neurology approach to the brain.
Cathy Bogart
A good book - but more of an integration with cognitive science would have enhanced it. Also, the description of the P300 waveform in the last chapter was not totally accurate - the P300 does not occur when presented with an "unexpected stimulus." It occurs in response to a target stimulus presented in the midst of random stimuli - typically when the target stimulus occurs about 20% of the time. In the earlier research, in which I was a contributor, the P300 was thought to be a neurological mark ...more
Feb 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very accessible for those who are not versed in philosophy or neuroscience. I found it tedious for that reason, but overall it was good. She provides a good debunking of Cartesian dualism, so anyone who still subscribes to dualism should read this :)
It doesn't seem like she puts forth any new arguments in this book, it's more a synthesis of others' work on how the concept of self and personhood is generated neurally. Very light read.
Henriette A
Aug 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Was hoping for much more of a focus on philosophy, set in the context of cognitive neuroscience. In fact, this book is more of an introduction to cognitive neuroscience with a dash of philosophical ideas. The author's writing style was not very engaging to me, and the host of childhood anecdotes and tangential metaphors downright bored me by about chapter 5.
Oct 06, 2014 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
Srav Chag
Sep 06, 2017 rated it did not like it
Regurgitated ideas of evolution.
Jan 25, 2014 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
Josh Friedlander
Posits that thought is purely a physical phenomenon, and talks about some of the more interesting aspects of neuroscience. Churchland's folksy, cheerful style focuses on down to earth topics, dispensing with the dualists early on and then just accusing them of being anti-science. I found parts of this interesting, but I'm not sure if it was the most efficient way to learn about the topic.

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

Apr 11, 2014 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
Nov 10, 2013 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
Apr 06, 2014 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
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
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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
“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.” 7 likes
“Why doesn’t the brain make it self-evident that it is doing all these things? “Oh, by the way, it is me, Brainsy—in here in your head. I am what allows you to maintain balance and chew your food; I am the reason you fall asleep or fall in love.” Nothing in the ancient environment of brain evolution would select for brains that could reveal themselves thus. Similarly, there is nothing in our current environment to select for kidneys or livers that announce their existence and modus operandi. They just work the way they evolved to work.” 2 likes
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