Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Reviews: Blink and Out of Our Heads

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blink is a quick, easy, and fun read about how people unconsciously and near-instantaneously analyze things, in some cases with surprising accuracy and detail. The myriad real-life examples explored in the book are fascinating, and readers are bound to find themselves eager to share these interesting stories with those who have not had the privilege of reading the book for themselves. Still, the book is little more than a collection of these stories, and those looking for a meatier treatise will walk away disappointed. This would not speak ill of Blink itself if not for Malcolm Gladwell's introductory chapter, wherein the author implies that such meat is forthcoming. For example, Gladwell states that one primary objective of his writing Blink is to convince readers that "snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled." Reading this, one expects something more on the idea of honing our instantaneous judgments than Gladwell actually provides, which is a single chapter that, more than anything else, tells a story about how musical orchestras have largely eliminated sexual bias from the audition process by making auditions anonymous.

While I only give Blink three stars, I heartily recommend it. It seems an ideal read for an airplane ride, the morning train commute, and the like.

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness
by Alva Noë

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alva Noë’s thesis is simple: consciousness is an active procedure, something we do rather than something that happens to or within us. Noë argues that consciousness is a kind of skill, not something we passively experience and must then interpret. It is therefore incorrect to suppose that the mysteries of consciousness can be answered by appealing solely to the physical brain, and any science that proceeds on the assumption that the brain is the be-all and end-all of consciousness is egregiously misguided. The mind is more than the brain, and consciousness consists of an active relationship between one’s body and mind and the world. The brain is merely an ingredient of consciousness.

Out of Our Heads is a philosophy book written for a general (i.e. non-philosophizing) audience. This has its merits, of course. The book is fairly approachable, though those who find scientific discussion of any extent either arduous or boring are better served elsewhere. The non-rigorous treatment also has its shortcomings—some conclusions just seem too hastily reached. Philosophically inclined readers are bound to ask a lot of, “OK, but…”-type questions on behalf of Noë’s opponents, but this is to demand more of the author than he has set out to give. A more philosophically robust treatment of these issues is purportedly given in Noë’s previous work, Action in Perception (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit I have not read).

My main criticism of the book is that the first fifty pages or so feel repetitious. Noë spends a good deal of time on his one-note soapbox (consciousness is not something that happens in us, you understand?) before treading more interesting terrain. Fortunately, the latter half of the book examines a great deal of fascinating scientific research, replete with tales of “rewired” ferrets who experience vision with their “auditory brains,” cameras that translate visual information into vibrations and enable blind people to successfully hit oncoming Ping-Pong balls, and visually unimpaired people who fail to notice when a woman in a gorilla suit beats her chest right before their eyes. Noë deftly uses these data in support of his own admonition that scientific investigations of consciousness need to be re-examined and, in many cases, restructured completely.

For the most part, Noë’s project is successful. His approach to the issues at hand is imbued with a healthy respect for common sense, which is both appealing and refreshing. Admittedly, I remain leery of thinking that Noë has shown consciousness of a most primitive sort to be irreducible to neuronal activity in the brain; at best, he has demonstrated that consciousness may require external stimulation, which seems a much more modest (and, I would think, much less controversial) claim. Even still, Noë has certainly contributed to an important and engrossing discussion, and much of what he argues seems applicable to consciousness more broadly construed—that is, as the faculty which comprehends and engages with the world, which seems to be Noë’s primary focus of concern. In the end, then, those who have never questioned the notion that the brain is all there is to consciousness will benefit from an open-minded reading of Noë’s text, while those who are already wary of such claims will find their suspicions validated and empirically reinforced.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I think you've hit on the reason I didn't buy Blink and bring it home. I got the same impression. Noe sounds much more likely to be interesting, but maybe a bit arduous for my little brain. I like this stuff.