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Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness

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A concise, elegant, and thought-provoking exploration of the mystery of consciousness and the functioning of the brain.

Despite decades of research, remarkable imagery, and insights from a range of scientific and medical disciplines, the human brain remains largely unexplored. Consciousness has eluded explanation.

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness offers a brilliant overview of the state of modern consciousness research in twenty brief, revealing chapters. Neuroscientist and author Patrick House describes complex concepts in accessible terms, weaving brain science, technology, gaming, analogy, and philosophy into a tapestry that illuminates how the brain works and what enables consciousness. This remarkable book fosters a sense of mystery and wonder about the strangeness of the relationship between our inner selves and our environment.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2022

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About the author

Patrick House

1 book40 followers
PATRICK HOUSE is a neuroscientist and writer. His scientific research focuses on the neuroscience of free will and how mind-control parasites alter their host’s behavior. He writes about science, technology and culture for The New Yorker.com and Slate. He has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 74 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,296 reviews120k followers
November 25, 2022
The brain…is a thrift-store bin of evolutionary hacks Russian-dolled into a watery, salty piñata we call a head.
…consciousness is not something passed on or recycled--like single molecules of water, which are retained as they move about the earth as ice, water, or dew--from one living creature to the next…instead consciousness should be grown from “scratch” with only a few well-timed molecular parts from plans laid out. It is not drawn from a recycled tap of special kinds of cells or dredged from the vein of free will. No, the darn thing grows. From its own rules. All by itself. And we have no idea how or why.
When I was still a programmer it was necessary to understand the many characteristics of, and rules about using, the objects that we would place on the screen in an application. Under what conditions did one appear? Physical dimensions, like width and height. Does it have a borderline around it? How wide is that line? Does it have a background color? How about a foreground color? Can it display images, text, both? Where does it get its information, keyboard entry, internal calculation? and on and on and on. Fairly simple and straightforward once one knows how it works. But consider the human brain, with billions of neurons, and a nearly infinite possible range of interactions among them. Somehow, within that biological organ, there is a thing we refer to as consciousness. We are who and what we are, and saying so, thinking so, makes us conscious, at the very least. But how did this gelatinous, gross substance, come to develop awareness of self? And just what is consciousness, anyway?

Patrick House - image from Attention Fwd ->

Patrick House, a Ph.D. neuroscientist, researcher and writer, offers a wide range of looks at what consciousness might be, mostly by looking at details of the brain. How do the characteristics of zombie food come to be, and how do they combine to create something far greater than a tasty meal for the hungry dead? He looks at many of the currently popular ideas that try to get a handle on the fog that is consciousness.
The book is a collection of possible mechanisms, histories, observations, data, and theories of consciousness told nineteen different ways, as translations of a few moments described in a one-page scientific paper in Nature, published in 1998, titled “Electric Current Stimulates Laughter.” The idea is an homage to a short book of poetry and criticism, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which takes the poem “Deer Park” by Wang Wei and analyzes nineteen different translations of it in the centuries since it was originally written.
He points out more than once that our brains did not emerge in an instant, all sparkling, from the build-a-brain factory. They evolved, from the very first living cell, so at each step of the evolutionary ladder, whatever traits favored survival and reproduction became dominant, pushing prior adaptations into the DNA equivalent of attic storage. Some of the accretion of the prior adaptations may vanish over time, but bags of the stuff are still lying about.

In tracing how our brains evolved, He points out qualities, like the brain’s need for cadence, and timekeeping, shows that language and action are comparable products of the brain and reports on how speech arose from systems that governed movement. He looks at the brain’s mission of preventing our bodies from losing 1.5 degrees of internal temperature, at how we map out the sensate terrain around us, and at the significance of size in brain complexity.

Imagery runs rampant. There is a chapter on the pinball machine as an appropriate metaphor for consciousness. It was a TILT for me. But ineffective chapters like that one are rare, and can be quickly forgotten when the next chapter offers another fascinating perspective, and bit of evolutionary vision. Another, more effective image, was scientists looking for “surface features” of the brain that might tell us where consciousness lies, like geologists surveying terrain to identify likely ore locations.

Throughout the book House refers to a patient, referred to as Anna, who, while having neurosurgery, had her brain poked in various locations by the surgeon, testing out the function of different parts of her gray matter, prompting some unexpected results. Grounding much of the discussion in the experience of an actual person helped make the material more digestible.

As I read, questions kept popping up like synapses flashing a signal to the next synapse. First of all is a definition of consciousness. What is it? How is it defined? Probably the most we can hope for is to infer its existence from externalities, in the same way that astrophysicists can infer the presence of a black hole by measuring the light coming from nearby objects, without ever being able to actually see the black hole, itself. Is there a measurable range of consciousness? Is entity #1 more or less conscious than entity #2. (Man, that is one seriously self-aware tree) How might we measure such a thing? This is actually addressed in one of the chapters. I would have been interested in more on consciousness in the world of Artificial Intelligence. If programmers put together a sufficient volume of code, with a vast array of memory and data, might there be a possibility of self-awareness? What would it take?

For an item on an electronic screen, one can find out the specific characteristics that comprise it. And with that knowledge, check against a list of possible items it might be. It might be a text-box, or a drop-down menu, or a check-box, a button that triggers an action when clicked. But with the brain, while we can compile a considerable list of characteristics, there is not really a list against we can check those things to arrive at a clear conclusion. Oh yeah, any entity, biological or electronic, that possesses at least some number of certain core characteristics, can be considered to be conscious. Nope, it does not work that way.

I found by the end of the book that I had learned a fair bit about how brains evolved, which is always a wonderful experience, but was as uncertain at the end as at the beginning about just what consciousness is. I expect that House shares that leaning, to at least some degree.
There is no one such thing as “consciousness,” and the attempt to study it as a singular phenomenon will go nowhere.
But he does suggest that consciousness exists as a range of experiences rather than as a singular entity with firmly defined borders. It is a fascinating read, even if the core definition is lacking. One thing is for sure, it is brain candy of the first order whether you are self-aware or not.

And just for fun, for next week’s class, be prepared to discuss the difference between consciousness and the mind.

Review posted – October 29, 2022

Publication date – September 22, 2022

I received an ARE of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on my site, Coot’s Reviews. Stop by and say Hi!

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the House’s personal, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
-----Wang Wei - Deer Park
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,923 reviews1,258 followers
October 1, 2022
Philosophy of the mind has always been one of my favourite realms of philosophy. I love thinking about how we think. About why we think. Consciousness, sentience, intelligence—how did these traits evolve? How do they even work? Patrick House explores Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness (literally what it says on the tin) and tries to address these questions. As he admits in the introduction, he doesn’t have all the answers—none of us do—but he has a lot of fun mulling over some of the theories that are out there. However, I didn’t have as much fun reading this book.

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing the eARC!

I’m not going to attempt to summarize the nineteen ways. Some of them are a little out there, a little difficult for me to conceptualize let alone express. Basically, each chapter is a different way of explaining or examining consciousness. In all of these chapters, House relates these ideas back to a single study, published in Nature, in which electric current applied to a teenage girl’s brain during surgery stimulated laughter. He tries to apply elements of the chapter’s theory or lens for viewing consciousness to the study to see what we might learn.

Something I loved from the beginning of this book is House’s enthusiasm for and wonder about consciousness. He states that neuroscience is at a stage right now similar to how physics was, say, four hundred years ago. I thought that was a really interesting and apt analogy. Despite all our scientific progress in the last century or so, we really have so far to go in our understanding of the brain—and I’m not talking about that myth that we only use ten percent of it! If you stop and think about it, as House points out in his introduction, it’s wild that non-living matter (amino acids) can somehow come together to form life, and that in turn, we are somehow conscious and actually give birth to other organisms that develop their own, distinct consciousness.

So in this respect, House does a great job at communicating his appreciation for diverse views on consciousness. Each chapter reads in some ways like a revelation, and I think many readers will appreciate how he unpacks these various ideas and challenges us to think about consciousness differently.

Unfortunately, I think my expectations for the book weren’t aligned with what this book actually is. I was hoping for a book that was grounded a bit more in scientific theories, whereas House gives us a lot of philosophy. While the theories House has chosen to present here are all grounded in some type of scientific research, this book is less about explaining the whys and hows of that research and more about describing the consequent theory in a very poetic way. Like I said, I don’t mind philosophy—it just isn’t what I was expecting here.

I don’t want to damn this book with faint praise, because I really do think there is an audience out there for it. This book just wasn’t right for me at this time.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Laura.
350 reviews7 followers
July 20, 2022
Thank you to the publisher for an ARC to review!

This book caused me a slight existential crisis. But now I’m thinking about existential crises and if they’re just a brain simulation to prepare myself for something in the future. Or maybe it’s a brain simulation to understand the past. I don’t know - and this book is a lovely ode to the not knowing.

Divided into 19 essays, each one tackles a different way to understand why we have consciousness at all. Science still doesn’t know why it exists or how it even works or where it’s even stored. That, followed by the knowledge that science also doesn’t know why we dream, was enough to make me melt into a puddle of self-doubt. But in a good way. In a “it’s okay to admit what you don’t know because the truth is out there and it’s not coming in your lifetime but holy crap isn’t existence amazing” kind of way.

I couldn’t read this book in one sitting. For me, the chapters were concise but dense at times. The endnotes absolutely add to the reading of this book, so don’t skip those as you read the essays.

One thing that slightly bothered me is that most chapters brought up Anna - the person who laughed while her brain was being prodded with an electrical probe during surgery. It felt super repetitive if reading multiple chapters at once. After a few essays, I actually turned to the appendix and read the original paper about Anna just so I could have more context.

This was an amazing read but it didn’t leave me with this “wow” feeling (like I did after reading An Immense World by Ed Yong). But for anyone who loves science books (or just wants to dip their toes in the metaphorical water), this is one you can’t pass up!
Profile Image for Meow558.
100 reviews2 followers
July 29, 2022
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness by Patrick House is a new book about what consciousness is.
In this book, House writes 19 essays about consciousness. He discusses how it works and how little we know. Most of these essays have analogies, such as comparing consciousness to a pinball machine.
I found this book interesting. There is a lot of information, and House clearly did a lot of research. There is also a lot of information not connected to consciousness, for example, in the pinball chapter he goes over the entire history of the pinball machine.
Unfortunately, this also got annoying after a while. I think these tangents were long winded at times, and it felt like a significant amount of these essays were about developing the analogy, rather than focusing on the actual subject matter. Also, most of the essays mention a girl called Anna, who laughed during a procedure because a part of her brain got shocked. I understand that this was a breakthrough, an important development, but I wish it was mentioned less and other experiments mentioned more. Lastly, many of the chapters were harder to read. House says that he tried to make this book as understandable as possible, and sometimes he succeeded. But there were many parts that went over my head.
I would recommend this book to people who learn best through analogies, and who have a little knowledge of neuroscience already.
Thank you to St. Martin's Press for this ARC on NetGalley.
Profile Image for Darcia Helle.
Author 30 books697 followers
November 16, 2022
This book isn't at all what I expected.

I love neuroscience, and I've read a lot about how the brain works in regards to thoughts and behaviors. I expected this book to be that sort of thing. It's not.

The author was inspired by a poem written 1200+ years ago that has since been translated nineteen different ways. And so, this book is nineteen different ways of "translating" a one-page scientific paper published in 1998 about a teenage girl's brain surgery. That's the entire focus, from a neuroscience perspective, at least.

These short pieces aren't science at all. They're philosophical, maybe. Explorative, yes. Definitely odd.

One chapter compares consciousness to pinball machines. We spend a whole lot of time learning about the machines, with a comparably tiny amount on consciousness.

And so it goes.

The writing feels pretentious and convoluted to the point of being meaningless. Reading it gave me a headache.

*Thank you (and apologies) to St. Martin's Press for the free copy.*
Profile Image for Blake Boles.
Author 7 books50 followers
July 26, 2022
Not many science books are intensely funny. This is one! Patrick's many analogies helped me—someone with basic science background but only a teeny-weeny bit of brain/neuro awareness—to better grasp what we call "consciousness." But mostly, I laughed a lot. My salta piñata thanks him.
Profile Image for Matt Kelland.
1,470 reviews2 followers
July 31, 2022
The Median Price of a Thrift-Store Bin of Evolutionary Hacks Russian-Dolled into a Watery, Salty Piñata We Call A Head

If that chapter title alone doesn’t intrigue you, you probably shouldn’t bother with this book. And if you’re looking for a detailed scientific exploration of how the brain works, read Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst instead. But if you’re looking for unusual, thought-provoking, almost poetical musings about what consciousness is, then this is definitely the book for you.

House takes a unique approach to his topic, inspired by a book of translations of a Chinese poem. (Many very different translations, each capturing a different part of the essence of the original.)

He takes one single phenomenon - the ability to make someone laugh by stimulating specific parts of their brain - and then looks at what’s going on in nineteen different ways, presenting different theories of consciousness. The result is not a coherent, homogenous explanation of consciousness. On the contrary, it’s messy, sometimes contradictory, and occasionally confusing. But that’s what makes this book so illuminating. The truth is, we don’t really know how the brain works, how we think, or what consciousness is. We have a lot of ideas which are partially right (to the best of our knowledge, but they will almost certainly be proved wrong at some point), but we don’t actually have any definitive answers.

House makes us think about these different perspectives on consciousness. What’s the difference between human thought and AI? What can human brains teach us about AI, and what can AI teach us about human brains? What’s biological in origin, what’s electrical, and what’s social? What do we mean by self? Or reality, come to that? These are all valid discussions, sometimes covering the same ground, but often offering unique insights into who we are as individuals and as a species.

It's a fairly quick, easy read. It's not too heavy on the science, and it's written with humor. I'd recommend reading a chapter a day, then putting it aside to consider how to assimilate that with everything that's gone before.

I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Cindy.
148 reviews56 followers
December 19, 2022
I'm sorry, DNF
This is like trying to explain quantum mechanics using interpretive dance.
Profile Image for Alex Dibona.
45 reviews1 follower
July 26, 2022
I have never understood philosophers who wish to ask, why is there something rather than nothing because surely, the better question is why does it "feel" like anything to be something? Science does not have an answer and has not made any progress on this question. Scientists however, have quite a bit to say on the topic. The book has to keep nineteen balls in the air and it does admirably. The book will be accessible to one who already knows a lot or who wishes to know a lot about the subject. Patrick House has does a wonderful job of making the question of being interesting interesting itself.
Profile Image for Terri (BooklyMatters).
493 reviews1 follower
August 26, 2022
A fascinating, multi-layered look at the “hard” problem of consciousness, which this reader found totally and absolutely mesmerizing. (My own consciousness working hard to keep up, expanding with the extraordinarily-sweeping insights of this author).

Taking an unusual approach, the author, a neuroscientist, considers one true-to-life scenario - the stimulation of a patients brain during surgery with an electric wand, and the sudden invocation of not only laughter, but the accompanying feeling of joy and mirth.

As our patient, Anna, laughs, the author provides nineteen different views, that in some cases encompass aspects of the “what ” has happened (the “easy” problem in the brain, which has to do with neurons and their sparked electrical charges in brain-specific areas), but also touch on the “why” - which is an infinitely more interesting problem.

What is it, this generated feeling, sense of self, and awareness that we call consciousness, and where does it come from? Does it have a physical substrate in the brain (and if so, where is it located?). If it is not physically rooted, is it but a simulation, or an imagined story told by the brain to aid in the efficient use of its resources? A side effect of a volume of intelligent brain activity or simply the movement of thoughts, generated as the brain predicts and plans enormous configurations of possibilities.

Exhuastively and brilliantly detailed, the author provides a sweeping look at life, beginning with development from single cells to bordered multi-celled organisms, relying on proton-pumps and the magic of bio-chemistry to power individual cells. This development paves the way for all biological development, from cell respiration, to ATP production, to the eventual development of the action potential (electric charge) that allows a single neuron to direct an external muscle cell, or a group of firing neurons to activate an entire preprogrammed sequence of coordinated movements or thoughts in the brain.

In various scenarios, the author explains (metaphorically and beautifully capturing complex scientific phenomena) this orchestration by the brain, which ties together all living creatures, as we are all built of the same stuff - yet only some of which could be called conscious.

A question that, at the end of the day, may actually not be answerable - for can we really determine what consciousness is through the efforts of consciousness itself? (Mathematicians would say not).

(Perhaps most fascinating of all is the foray into microtubules and the mysteries of quantum mechanics - which no-one really understands, and so may form the best foundation of all to eventually “solve” this profoundly-indeterminate puzzle.)

I loved this book - found the questions it raised mind-altering, and the explanations provided wonderful and illuminating food for thought.

A great big thank you to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for an ARC of this book.
All thoughts presented are my own.
July 30, 2022
I won this book from St. Martin's Press and enjoyed reading it. The chapters are short but very dense. I read the book twice to try and comprehend the information and the second time I took notes as if I was a student. This book could be used as a textbook in a consciousness course. A key take away for me from the book is that the brain and consciousness may or may not be the same thing. Patrick House is a great story teller and teacher and each chapter is a pleasant surprise. He adds anecdotes from his own life which adds to the richness of the book.
Profile Image for Lucy Bruemmer.
39 reviews
June 2, 2023
This book had an interesting style as every chapter was based on the same initial story of a girl during brain surgery. It provided 19 different philosophical explanations for why she felt joy when her brain was stimulated with an electrode and why she invented a reason for where this joy came from. I thought that the author did a great job for the most part, but I think that some chapters could have been simplified. It made me think a lot about how to define consciousness and whether or not we even want to. I liked the idea of consciousness being a necessary product of evolution through natural selection. Something that came about because it ended up being beneficial for survival and reproduction.
95 reviews1 follower
April 5, 2023
What an incredibly disappointing read and totally squandered opportunity. Rather than leverage his experience and expertise as a neuroscientist to summarize, compare and contrast 19 different views of consciousness, House attempts (unsuccessfully) to try different narrative techniques to, I don't know, push the boundaries of his writing skills? This is the main issue.... House isn't a very good writer. So rather than experiment with literary devices, why not just stick with what you know?

Immensely frustrating, poorly written, confusing, and repetitive. Adding "I meant for it to be like that" in the introduction seems like an afterthought and frankly, a shoddy excuse for poor writing that it feels the publisher required to include rather than take the correct action, which would be to *not* publish it.

1.5/5. Not as bad as my other 1-star ratings but not as good as my 2-star ratings.
Profile Image for Jens Hieber.
308 reviews5 followers
April 21, 2023
Quite informative and very interesting at times. Using the approach of having multiple ways of explaining consciousness was interesting, though at times a few pieces were repetitive as House reused them in subsequent chapters. It wasn't dense, but not exactly zippy either.
Profile Image for Katie.
369 reviews
December 27, 2022
This book is wild. It’s kind of all over the place, but that’s kind of the point. Love the concept and the content. You do have to read it carefully to pick up the nuance and spend a little time contemplating what you’ve read. I don’t doubt my educational background helped me make it all click, and the writing style is very poetic in a way that can be challenging to parse sometimes. But I kept stopping to look stuff up and get more details and excitedly tell my husband about how MICROTUBULES ARE THE SECRET OF CONSCIOUSNESS (maybe), so if that’s not an endorsement I don’t know what is. Brains, man!! Wild!!!
Profile Image for Samudyatha.
69 reviews7 followers
January 3, 2023
Patrick House gives me an infinite number of ways to think about consciousness as opposed to the 19 that he states.

It is only right that a book that deals with the conscious mind should be so poetic!
Profile Image for B. Rule.
809 reviews23 followers
January 19, 2023
This is certainly an original approach to the subject, although that's not necessarily a good thing. House's allusive, elliptical style makes for engaging reading at times. He knows how to spin a story, and his novel formulations of certain problems can be striking. Some of the chapters are brilliant metaphorical explorations of what consciousness means, and all of them are short enough that even the duds scud by briskly.

House shuns the lingo of neuroscience, which both makes the work feel accessible, but also obscures meaning. I was usually able to pick out the theory he was referencing (IIT, panpsychism, Orch OR, etc.) due to prior reading in the field, but I'd be pretty annoyed if this were my first foray into popular neuroscience/consciousness studies. You would come away knowing next to nothing about the state of the science. That's not really his focus, which seems to be enkindling a sense of curiosity about the workings of the mind. But really that purpose could be better served with at least some common guideposts to the field.

My other major complaint is the repetition found in this slender volume. Sure, a case study of inducing laughter in an epileptic teenager (A.K., or "Anna" here) through electrode stimulation of the left superior frontal gyrus is the nucleating element for House's ruminations, so it makes sense that it pops up over and over. But each time it does, it's without any acknowledgment that we've discussed it before. It's like talking to an amnesiac, or reading a book stitched together from a bunch of articles without any editing.... Further, that's not the only culprit. You'll grow especially tired of a bit about dropping a bowling ball and a pigeon from the Tower of Pisa.

It's hard to determine the success of House's project. You can certainly learn more from other volumes by people like Damasio, Koch, Sapolsky, Gazzaniga, et al. I suppose this is more of a literary endeavor, but plenty of the writing is clunky stuff (which House himself even lampshades at one point, and rightly so-- that chapter on huts as metaphors for cells... eesh). I suppose the most charitable metric on which to gauge the book is sensawunda: House is pretty good at making the familiar feel strange, which is the beginning of all philosophy and science. I don't regret reading this one, even though it left me scratching my head a bit. Pick it up only after you've dipped a toe into the waters of popular neuroscience elsewhere.
Profile Image for Bonny.
751 reviews26 followers
July 27, 2022
Nineteen ways of Looking at Consciousness is a difficult book for me to rate. I had originally hoped that Patrick House might shed some light on my understanding of consciousness, but that's not what this book is meant to do. He does a good job of writing about something that can't be defined by science and that he and other scientists don't fully understand. In one of the first essays, he writes about a case in which a woman was undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. At one point, the surgeons touched a part of the brain that made her laugh. What does this mean? I don't know, but House returns to this several times. In other essays, he compares consciousness to a pinball machine, and in another one, he compares it to a bowl with 86 billion fish. I think the book might be better appreciated by a different audience, one with more knowledge of neurology, philosophy, and maybe imagination about the possibilities of consciousness than I possess.

Thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book.
Profile Image for Julie.
7 reviews2 followers
September 14, 2022
I won an ARC of this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I've been interested in the subject of consciousness since watching the movie "Somewhere in Time," but so little is known about it in a non-medical sense. This book presents very well explained facts and theories about how consciousness operates, where it is stored, and why it exists, drawn from various fields of science, medicine, and other areas, often using easily relatable analogies and sly humor. It offers quite a lot of food for thought, while simultaneously helping to explain that thought's existence. I highly recommend this book!
Profile Image for Lenoire.
982 reviews32 followers
December 14, 2022
The book focuses on exploring consciousness from the scientific, medical, and philosophical lens. I normally don't read non fiction books but, I thought this would be an interesting read. The book started off okay but, then it got a bit confusing and I felt my eyes glaze over. I felt that the book was a bit dense and not concise as mentioned. The book tries too hard to come off as eloquent and poetic. Instead, some of the titles of the chapters seem like a bunch of nonsensical words put together. Ultimately, I gave up half way through the book and decided to read something else.
253 reviews
October 21, 2022
this was not my book. all the chapters were too convoluted with metaphors and anecdotes that made little sense to me. in the end, i still do not get the point of writing this book, since we did not summarize any concrete ideas.
Profile Image for Jacob Williams.
445 reviews7 followers
April 16, 2023
Named in homage to Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, this book contains 19 short essays on consciousness. Ostensibly, a single experiment—the case of a patient who was artificially induced to laugh during brain surgery—serves as a common touchpoint to unify the essays, but I'm not sure how successful it is in shedding light on that case or consciousness in general. House is a clever writer, but because the ideas are presented in the form of poetic prose rather than precise argument, it's difficult for me to get a clear sense of what the questions are, what the proposed answers are, and how those answers are to be assessed. What I took away from the book instead is a menagerie of little facts:

- There's evidence that people having lucid dreams experience subjective time at the same rate as when they're awake—"their subjective, incepted time...not only has a time keeping device but that it may be the same one we always use".
- A study found that some people who played the game Dinner Date came to believe the events of the game had happened to them.
- There are cells in the brain that "overlay a regular, repeating, triangular grid" (and "maybe this is also behind the remarkable effectiveness of 'memory palace' tricks").
- What happens when "you cordon off each eye by placing a divider between them ... and show each eye a different image"? "People ... report viewing ... usually every few seconds, an alternation back and forth between the two images."
- On schizophrenia: "The number one nongenetic risk factor for schizophrenia is migrancy; many of the other risks involve being born in or living in urban environments, and there is a Tolstoy effect, where moving to a rural area can remove the increase in risk."
- Neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Leong, who was interviewed in the book, had approximately 1/4 of his brain's neurons removed and believed his personality and abilities were largely unchanged.
- Pinball goes back further in history than I would have guessed. (...the second chapter is mostly a history of pinball.)
- There's a spinning restaurant in Norway that sounds pretty awesome.
- The emperor Nero appointed someone to be his "arbiter of elegance", which is definitely a contender for coolest job title ever.

Profile Image for DeAnna Knippling.
Author 162 books259 followers
August 14, 2022
I received an advance copy of this title from the publisher.

I managed to expect something other than the book I received, despite the author and publisher telling me exactly what they were giving me, so I'll state it more directly here: this isn't a cohesive book about how to look at consciousness, but nineteen essentially separate essays about how curious it is to look at consciousness, no matter *how* you look at it.

You won't be reading a popular science book that gives an overview of the subject of consciousness and which makes you feel better informed about the subject. The subject of consciousness is a WILD one, full of contradictions and paradoxes. This is a book exploring the questions about consciousness, not providing answers.

That being said, I wished the chapters were longer and the essays more fleshed out.--I wanted more details on the questions being asked. But I think that also means that the questions hooked me as written, so...let's just say your mileage may vary. I found each chapter an appetite whetter rather than a full meal. The last chapter, tying everything together, was a bit weak at first (I don't really need all the chapter names listed!), but ended very well, identifying a core question about consciousness in a unique way.

This book didn't do what I stubbornly expected it to do, but it did ask lots of very nice questions in the pursuit of looking at consciousness, as promised. A solid book, despite being a lot of odd, loose, short essays.

Recommended if you like Oliver Sacks, of course, and are interested in All Things Perception & Consciousness. Not recommended if you want a straightforward overview :)

October 11, 2022
Thank you for St. Martin's Press for the copy (won in a giveaway).

2.5 Stars

It took me so long to finish this book, because I didn't want to pick it up again. It is not because it is not interesting, the writing and how the information is presented is really confusing.

This book is supposed to be accessible to everyone, the problem is that the author loses himself into explanations. Each chapter covers a different way on how consciousness (the fact of being conscious of something) is perceived.

Each chapter goes on a long exemple to explain the theory of that chapter. The problem is each time, I was wondering where the author was going and I had an headache trying to follow the exemples who kep going, going and going. There should have been images or more space between the paragraphs to help us pause and imagine what the situation is.

But the book goes:

So there is this, that cause this phenomenon, then imagine that the phenomenon affects this, and then this will do this, thus it will go into that, and that...

I was so confused! It's not that I didn't understand what was written but I didn't get most of the theories, even in the chapter 20 where the author puts each theory in small abstracts, the abstracts didn't seems to connect together. It kept me from enjoying the book.

I think there was a lot explored, it made me think. I liked that the author uses a lot of different exemple from a pinball machine to a life experience to a fictionnal society to help understand different theories.

It is interesting book, but it needed more structure (the theory is A, exemple, how it is linked to the intital situation) to make the book more accessible.
Profile Image for Rama Rao.
735 reviews103 followers
March 25, 2023
Comprehending the cosmic design

Where does consciousness begin? And where does it end? Where is the line between an individual biological entity and the rest of cosmos? Between life and non-life? Between living (not necessarily a biological entity) and a non-living entity? In this book, the author discusses a number of facts about consciousness and physical reality; the neurobiology, physics and philosophy of it. But he keeps the characterization of conscious experience open to discussion.

At any given time, a brain is taking in more information than it can handle, with more possible ways of configuring itself than the universe has atoms. There is no single conscious experience that is unique and that cannot be listed, cataloged, and reproduced with electrical, physical, or magnetic stimulation of the brain. A simple bit of shunted electricity can cause a brain to compile, run, and display to the conscious clipboard. The author derives the ideas from the work of Eliot Weinberger “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei,” which tracks the English translations of a short ancient Chinese poem, “Deer Park,” written in the Eighth Century C.E. Wang Wei’s original poem established the Buddhist propensity for parallelism, and śūnyatā which interprets that all things in this world are empty of intrinsic existence and nature.
49 reviews
November 1, 2022
The writing style is a bit odd. The author substitutes stories for discussions of often complex current theories of consciousness. This works in places but not everywhere. Sometimes I couldn’t discern what the author’s own opinions are vs. depictions of others’ opinions. And there is just way too much repetition, especially in regards to the “star” of the stories (Anna) who undergoes open brain stimulation with interesting results during a neurosurgical procedure. I think the book might have been more effective with some fairly simple reorganization. I’d leave out the description, over and over again, of Anna’s brain stimulation and just put it up front. Although it would make for a much longer book, perhaps a full description of the concepts after the stories would sharpen the point and also be useful? I’d also say the chapter titles were a bit too “cutesy.” The author didn’t touch on panpsychism or, specifically, on Donald Hoffman’s interface theory of consciousness, although there was tangential inference of the foundations for that theory. Both seem to we worthy of mention in my opinion. In the end, I was hoping for more of a scientific summary of current theories. All said, though, I did not dislike the book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,188 reviews
December 29, 2022
Is thinking just “moving without motion”? Are we anything more than conglomerations of cells “too timid to die”? Is there something that it is like to be us? Not you, in particular, or me, but any living human? For more questions, as always, than answers, check out Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, a collection of twenty brief, linked essays by neuroscientist and author Patrick House. In bite-sized, diversely-flavored portions, House approaches consciousness that runs like streams, sits stiller than trees, defines you not by who or what you are but by the “infinity of ways you are not,” is provoked to unbidden laughter in the operating room, and “has no legs but lots of places to be.” While your gray matter feasts, your subjective mind will reel from the knowledge that “the first time your brain lied to you was the second time that you opened your eyes” but find succor in accepting that life, like pinball, “is never won but, instead, can be lost less badly at some times than at others.”
48 reviews
March 7, 2023
Tempted to go four star because not every chapter was great but I LOVED taking an artistic approach to studying consciousness. Also worth high marks for the bibliography alone.

The basic premise is to copy the format of a book I have never heard of - 19 essays on the same topic from different but overlapping vantage points. So you hear a lot about Anna who got poked in her brain and laughed which she found funny. I really liked this. The essays were not overly long and some of them took wacky angles (pinball). But they all shed light on the long evolution of consciousness and what we understand if it today.

Basically the evolutionary purpose is to keep moving forward. You need to remember to predict the future. And avoid getting eaten. Because of this long herky jerky process, there are some parts that don’t make sense. And some overlap with other species (dolphin, parrot, kind of bat.)

This was fun and I learned a lot and would read more by this dude. And the stuff in the bibliography.
Profile Image for Cassandra.
124 reviews9 followers
November 19, 2022
I was hooked from the introduction alone.This book delivers on its promise of numerous ways of examining the complexities, contradictions, potential, and possible origins of consciousness. I particularly loved the Pinball analogy and the various metaphors used to help the reader better understand a variety of complex biological concepts. I recommend this book to anyone who wonders about who we are and what makes us that way. Our perception of reality and why our mind is so fallible yet remarkable. I wanted to read this book start to finish in one sitting, but I’m so glad I took my time. Giving myself a day to ponder on the previous chapter was perfect for really absorbing each new idea.
I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to listen to the audiobook by NG and I wish my review could do justice to how interesting and important this book is. Several of my friends will be receiving copies for the holidays.
Profile Image for John Lindvay.
61 reviews1 follower
January 25, 2023
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness
By Patrick House

Patrick House is a Neuroscientist who writes about how conscience could develop as one of the nineteen topics. The way two people from a single cell bring forth a new consciousness is nothing more than a miracle. Mr. House uses anecdotal information to provide different ways of looking at consciousness. He writes about a young women named Anna, who was made to laugh when a surgeon probed her brain with blasts of electricity. She had a different answer each time she was asked why she was laughing.
Where does consciousness reside in the body? What is the boundary for consciousness? Where does consciousness go when we sleep? The book brings up more questions then is answered. Mr. House believes that we are on the cusp of great ideas about consciousness.
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