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Semi-fantastic Voyage

David Wilson

Going Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness. John McCrone. 368 pp. Faber and Faber, 1999. $ 20.

New brain-scanning techniques have given us insight about the nature of mind and consciousness. John McCrone's book ably reviews some of the more exciting findings and couples them with other, related studies of mind and consciousness. I greatly enjoyed large portions of Going Inside, but it gets weak and speculative toward the end.

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McCrone writes with a clarity and skill that allows the reader to grasp the essence of difficult concepts, and he does an impressive job of summarizing a lot of recent neuroscience. One comes away with a sense of how complex and multifaceted consciousness must be. McCrone uses the results of brain-scanning experiments to describe the hierarchy of processing levels and the feedback connections among them, which underlie consciousness. Occasionally McCrone exaggerates to help make a story, but much of the description of studies that use PET, which stands for positron emission tomography, and f-MRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, is well put together. He nicely weaves other results, such as Benjamin Libet's work on the timing of conscious events, into his story as well.

However, throughout the book, and especially toward the end, there is a derision of reductionism. McCrone attempts an unnecessary division between reductionist and dynamic views of mind and consciousness. Chaos, complexity and a dynamic view of the brain processes that produce mind are not the opposite of, or incompatible with, reductionism. It is not until McCrone's last footnote that he appears to acknowledge the role that reductionism must play, even in the face of complex, dynamic processes, in an ultimate understanding of mind. His distorted view of reductionism may result from his ambiguous use of the word. Reduction is not the same as oversimplification. Reductionist explanations are at the heart of modern science and have worked well, for example, in giving us our modern understanding of molecular and cellular biology. Reduction is more than breaking a system into parts; it is determining how the parts work together to cause the emergence of new properties or processes. Nothing about attempts to explain and understand the new properties emerging at one level on the basis of the properties of units at the next level down prevents one from also studying the new processes from the top down. It is when knowledge builds from both directions, top down and bottom up, that progress in science usually is most rapid. To the extent that McCrone wishes to say that consciousness is a complex phenomenon and that we should not oversimplify the difficulties and challenges that confront those of us trying to explain it, I can agree. His book points out nicely the complex brain pathways and feedback connections involved.

There also are places where he reaches questionable conclusions. For instance, he views grammatical speech as necessary for thinking beyond the present to past or future events. He mostly asserts this point rather than establishing it. As a quick counter, why not use images in the place of language for recollection and for thinking about the future? McCrone doubts that animals other than human beings can be introspective or have self-knowledge, but experiments suggest that chimps have these abilities. Comments such as "A newborn begins life from scratch. It has no habits or expectations" seem to underplay the role of genetics and heredity in producing behavior. Acknowledging both genetics and environment/experience as playing roles in behavior is long overdue. McCrone only contributes to what is more and more obviously a useless debate resulting from inappropriate either/or thinking.

McCrone takes a generalist's perspective and integrates a wide range of new knowledge from neuroscience. Does he have his facts largely right? Yes. Does he make the intellectual journey interesting? Yes. Despite its flaws, Going Inside makes for fun and provocative reading.—David L. Wilson, Biology, University of Miami

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