Monday, January 15, 2018

A day in the life of the brain - book overview

Book by Professor / Baroness Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, published in 2016.

Read this intermittenly across the summer break, and wrote this up, in snatches across last week from digital notes taken after reading each chapter. I have tidied to provide continuity and have added the book into my list of 'need to read through another time' as the book deserves another read to pick out the applicable information to teaching and learning.

For the moment, this overview is a work in progress. 

There is review of the book from the Guardian which is mostly positive. The book has 9 chapters plus notes and references – 66 pages or about one third of the book.

The main thread of the book is the identification of what actually makes up consciousness from the perspective of images taken of the brain as it is active. The various aspects of what makes up consciousness is unpacked through the various routines in a ‘typical’ day.

The first chapter is titles ‘in the dark’. This introductory chapter tries to define ‘consciousness’ by summarising the various approaches taken thus far to understand the concept. The chapter argues that although there has been much progress, we are still some way to understanding how consciousness works. There is still no distinct brain area, or network of brain cells / neurons or clusters of brain cells in which consciousness can be found. Recent advances in neuroscience has concentrated on identifying the various contributions of different brain cells, parts of the brain etc. See connectomeetc.  The book tries to come up with a model or conception of what is consciousness and how it works, to provide some grounding for further work in neuroscience to validate the idea. The model promoted in the book relies on unravelling how ‘neural assemblies’ work. Theses assemblies are posited to be ‘deposits’ from which consciousness ripples forth.

The book then works through a series of explanatory chapters, loosely tied to the ‘day in the life’ theme. Chapter two delves into states of consciousness when we sleep and undergo anaesthesia. There is discussion on what is consciousness and the variability of this state of being. The concept of neuronal assemblies is then introduced through its historical evolution and a summary of present hypothesis which come through advances in MRi. The analogy of stones thrown into a pond and the ripples that occur is then used to provide a visual anchor for neuronal assemblies.

Chapter 3 explores consciousness in non-humans and uses this to further expand on the details of neuronal assemblies. For example, the variables and effects – using the analogy of ripples on a pond – of a bigger / smaller stone and the force / angle of approach etc. when thrown in. A useful diagram is introduced, explained and discussed. This diagram tries to unpack the ‘differences’ between mind (the personalised system), the brain (consisting of neural networks) and consciousness (the subjective experiences – sensory and cognitive). A continuum of ‘scholarship’ is also designated to each – philosophy studying the mind, psychology and neuroscience concentrating on the brain and consciousness and theology with focus on consciousness. Neuronal assemblies are proposed to bring some order and holism in to how we can understand the links between brain plasticity, neurogenesis, exercise and conscious thought.

The fourth chapter explores the five senses, and the neuroanatomy challenge. Essentially the chapter argues that the brain works in an all-inclusive manner. Even though one part of the brain may be the main site of activity for an individual sense, the way organisms perceive the world, is holistic. We do not just see, but seeing also includes tactile, aural and other senses. The VAK – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic – learning styles approach – is debunked as learning requires interconnection of various parts of the brain to achieve new learning.

Chapter 5 ‘at the office’ is used to mop up the many other ‘sensings’ we need to undertake to perceive our world. Physical features like how we sense, feel, be emotionally affected by colour; our spatial sense; and subjective reactions to the environment are discussed.

Chapter 6 ‘problems at home’ looks into the way the brain develops (adolescence); mental issues (depression; demetia); how the brain deals with pain, to further develop the argument for the existence and function of neuronal assemblies.

Dreaming is the focus on chapter 7. A summary is made of the function, history, phylogeny, neuroscience foundations of dreaming. Chapter 8 brings the argument together with a discussion on whether neuronal assemblies are the rosetta stone for bringing the fields of physiology and phenomenology together. A possible mechanism for the generation of consciousness is proposed and summarised in a diagram.

The last chapter closes the book with how space and time may be traversed through understanding on how ‘assemblies’ improve our understandings of how the brain and consciousness work. As per usual, questions are posed for further investigation and study.

Overall, a readable book without too many parts which are dense and difficult to unravel. Most of the time, the argument put forward is clear. Based on reviews - whether the concept of neuronal assemblies withstand the test of time, remains to be seen. 

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