The Frontal Cortex

Out of Our Heads

First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who came to one of the events on my book tour, from Seattle to The Strand. Thank you for listening and for your questions. It’s been such a deep pleasure to meet so many people interested in dopamine, Proust and Cheerios. Also, a sincere thank you to everyone who bought the book and helped put it on the New York Times Bestseller List.

On an entirely unrelated note, I’ve got a new review in the San Francisco Chronicle (long may it live!) on the philosopher Alva Noe’s new book on consciousness. I really enjoyed the book, and see it as yet another demonstration that Richard Feynman was wrong when he famously quipped that “philosophers of science are to scientists as ornithologists are to birds”.

The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes. On the one hand, scientists tell us that we are nothing but 3 pounds of electrical flesh inside the skull, a trillion synapses exchanging squirts of neurotransmitter.

And yet we feel like more than the sum of these cells. We feel self-conscious, endowed with a mind that experiences the taste of a peach, and the redness of red, and the thrill of romantic love. The question of how the brain creates the mind – how these subjective experiences emerge from a piece of pale gray meat – is one of the essential questions of modern science. And yet, despite decades of research, we aren’t remotely close to an answer.

Alva Noë, a philosopher at UC Berkeley, argues that consciousness remains a mystery because we’ve been looking in the wrong place. In his provocative and lucid new book, Noë writes that scientists have been so eager to locate the mind in the brain that they’ve neglected to consider the possibility that our mind might not be inside our head.

Then where is it? Don’t worry, Noë isn’t an old-fashioned Cartesian dualist: He doesn’t believe that our consciousness is some metaphysical gift from God. Instead, he suggests that who we are and what we know is inseparable from where we are and what we’re doing: “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own,” Noë writes. “Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world. … It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.”

Noë sells this audacious idea with a series of effective metaphors. For instance, he begins the book by comparing consciousness to a dollar bill. He notes that it would be silly to search for the physical correlates of “monetary value.” After all, the meaning of money isn’t in the paper, or the green ink, or the picture of George Washington. Instead, it exists in the institutions and practices that give the paper meaning. Similarly, our awareness of reality doesn’t depend entirely on what’s happening inside the brain, but is a side effect of how we, as individuals, interact with the wider world.


  1. #1 jb
    February 28, 2009

    Having missed seeing Jonah on this recent book tour I was delighted to learn that Jonah’s talk at the Strand in NYC Thursday night was filmed and that you can watch the video at the Strand’s website; click on Strand TV. In the introduction by the store’s owner, we learn that Jonah’s How We Decide will be #12 on the NYT Book Review’s Hardcover Best Seller List in the March 8 edition. Congratulations, Jonah! More on the book later; I’m still reading.

  2. #2 Alice
    February 28, 2009

    I’m delighted your tour went well. The Los Angeles event was booked solid so sadly I couldn’t be there, even though my friend Larry introduced you. The topic of consciousness is one we ponder when considering the construction of a synthetic cortex. One can build the most elaborate technological structure on the planet and, without consciousness, it will not be a brain and it will not demonstrate true intelligence. (I have to go now because I am conscious of the fact that a pile of laundry awaits.) Congratulations on your success with the book.

  3. #3 Ginger Campbell, MD
    February 28, 2009

    I sent you an email inviting you to be a guest on the Brain Science Podcast, but I fear it was eaten by your spam filter.

    I have enjoyed both of your books and I would love to have you on my show.

    Ginger Campbell, MD
    creator and host of the Brain Science Podcast

  4. #4 Wendy Anthony
    February 28, 2009

    A mention of you & The Decisive Moment in The Guardian UK:

  5. #5 katherine olivetti
    March 1, 2009

    Hi Jonah, I completely enjoyed your presentation in San Francisco and am engrossed in the book now. You know, the ancient Egyptians removed the “important” organs of the body and preserved them in conoptic jars, four, one for the heart, the liver, the intestines, and the spleen. What did they do with the brain? They sucked it out of the skull and threw it out! They did not believe the essence of the person resided there. Do you know how the mind became located in the brain?

  6. #6 ralph137
    March 1, 2009

    Bought and read your book. Learned some and enjoyed lots. Will never think the same again. Can’t do much about the emotional side.
    Even though the Out of Our Heads does not support “consciousness is some metaphysical gift from God.” I’ll make a wild ass guess some new age church will use it.

  7. #7 sv
    March 1, 2009

    Dear Jonah,
    I really enjoyed your book presentation in Cambridge. Not only your book is full of inspiring insight but also you are a great storyteller.

    I was wondering with a friend yesterday why decision making become so popular lately. I personally think there are two main reasons. One is that MRI studies greatly contribute to achieve more reliable and interesting results and the second is that Malcom Gladwell launched the trend. Despite one can argue that his books are not very scientific, I feel he showed that there is a market for this kind of non-fiction and motivated serious researchers to publish on the topic for a large public.
    I am wondering what other readers of this blog think.

  8. #8 Patricia Rooney
    March 1, 2009

    Jonah, Loved the choice of anecdotes you included in your book. In response to an earlier comment/question about why decision-making is so popular now, I think it is because there are more and better neuro- and psycho-logical studies being done and publicized now, each building on earlier studies. The new theories are interesting in and of themselves, but people like Gladwell and yourself make it interesting for lay people to grasp.

  9. #9 Anibal
    March 1, 2009

    Nice post, though i still believe that our sentient life is inside of our skull.

    I recognize that Noë´s enactive approach to conciousness is a serious alternative to years of stagnant progress due to the traditional dogma held in neuroscience (mind=brain)regarding the most important questions of science (conciousness, qualia, meaning…)

  10. #10 Im curious
    March 1, 2009

    K.O.: “Do you know how the mind became located in the brain?” I think ‘Soul Made Flesh’ by Carl Zimmer is what you want.

  11. #11 Brian E. Moore, MD
    March 1, 2009

    Regarding your review of Noe’s book, it does not seem to me that Noe has made an advance in our thinking about mind. OK, so the mind isn’t the brain; rather, the mind lies in the relationship of the individual to the culture. How does relocating the mind help to conceptualize it? The mind is still just as ethereal, just as mysterious.

  12. #12 Celeste Wiser MD
    March 2, 2009

    Great interview on “Fresh Air” right now!
    (As a psychiatrist, and as a Proustian by nature, I really appreciate it!)
    Enjoy those Cheerios,

  13. #13 Elizabeth Hurwitz
    March 2, 2009

    Great interview on Fresh Air today. Congratuations.
    Re: Alva Noe’s ideas: Would be interested in hearing your thoughts comparing his thesis of what constitutes consciousness with the ideas set forth by Nargarjuna, Chandrikirti, the implications of accepting the concepts of impermanance and interdependence.
    Keep up the good work!

  14. #14 Mike Cohen
    March 2, 2009

    Today on Fresh Air you discussed gambling addiction. You pointed out that games such as slot machines are unfair because people are wired to seek patterns, and in a slot machine’s random payback there is no pattern. If that were the truth, it would be bad enough, but in reality it is much worse.

    As described in a NY Times Magazine article about a year ago, modern slot machines are not truly random. They are programmed to increase the payback to the house by making sure the player gets a steady flow of small “wins” and even more insidious, the gambler gets a steady flow of near misses at big jackpots. This technique uses our internal wiring against us to maximize our losses. It is no wonder that so many people get obsessed by slot machines and are turned into impoverished, degraded appendages to a cunningly designed machine.

    Aren’t the “pushers” of these fraudulent, quasi-random machines as dishonest and as immoral as drug pushers? If we allow people to make money from programmable slot machines that mimic spinning wheels, or other physical devices, shouldn’t we require that ,at the very least, they be programmed to accurately reflect randomness of the devices they mimic.

    The way it is now, the casinos might as well spike people’s drinks, drag them away, and empty out their wallets. At what point, if any, should machines designed to manipulate and exploit our basic unconscious survival mechanisms be declared illegal?

    Don’t you think that new insights in neuroscience should be taken into account in our public policies?

    Mike Cohen

  15. #15 Harold Walpert
    March 2, 2009

    about: “Noë writes. ‘Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world. … It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.'”

    If you explore the ideas of Eastern religions as talked and written about by Alan Watts in the 60’s, this idea of context and relativism is essentially a major premise linked to Buddhism.

    Terrific interview today.

  16. #16 Patrick
    March 2, 2009

    Noe’s view of consciousness as a relationship between brain, body and world sounds similar to the writings of Jean Paul Sartre. I think, and I could be very mistaken, the French philosopher said something to the effect that that conscsiousness is sort of formless in and of itseld and only forms when melding into what it sees. Similar to some Eastern philosophies, consciousness is self-born only in the sense that we choose what we digest, so to speak. I think my gym coach said it best when he warned me against hanging out with a certain crowd of boys: “Patrick,” he would say. “You are what you eat!”

  17. #17 Maddy
    March 2, 2009

    Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your interview with Terry Gross this afternoon. [Hope the Chronicle survives too!]

    You’ve certainly given me a few useful ideas to work with as to how to diminish some of the white noise associated with decision making.

  18. #18 jb
    March 2, 2009

    One doesn’t have to swallow a philosopher’s words about consciousness hook line and sinker; we all have minds so why not look at your own consciousness and experience it directly and draw your own conclusions? I once taught education majors how to write science lesson plans and used the following framework to organize all the observations or facts I might have about a topic, say, buffalo. The categories were: behaviors of buffalo, location/habitat of buffalo, physical description of buffalo, composition of buffalo, and uses of buffalo.
    One can observe your mind more easily than find buffalo, so have at it. If you get stuck for observations think of all the colloquial expressions we have about mind.
    You might try that before you read the following poem:

    Mind Play: an ode to Jonah and John*

    It boggles the mind to look at the mind,
    subject and object intertwined,
    Self and other, all me and mine.
    Cosmic mirror or spark of the divine?
    this sea of brain cells turned into mind wine.
    Neuroplasticity adds to the mystery:
    what is it that we ceaseless** be?
    Mind as noun, mind as verb,
    mind used adjectively?
    “Mind minds its mind,
    and comes not to mind,”
    mind says open-mindedly.

    * john is my meditation instructor
    ** ceaselessness is an aspect of the absolute truth
    in Buddhism. It is an aspect that can be experienced but not talked about; thoughts and words about experience are expressions of the relative truth.

  19. #19 Charles Sullivan, D.O.
    March 2, 2009

    A Zen teacher once told me: “The Brain does not contain the Mind, any more than a TV contains the programs!”

    (Certainly the TV needs to be wired correctly and undamaged for the programs to get through as intended but…)I have read Ledoux, Elliot Valenstein, Damasio, etc but I would love your comments on this.


  20. #20 Marie Conroy
    March 2, 2009

    I loved your interview on Fresh Air so came here to check more of you out! Thank you.

    Regarding your comment above about Noe: “The question of how the brain creates the mind – how these subjective experiences emerge from a piece of pale gray meat – is one of the essential questions of modern science. And yet, despite decades of research, we aren’t remotely close to an answer.”

    It seems the part of ourselves that asks the question is IT. Which is why we…or modern science…never finds IT!

    Regarding the discussion on addiction, I would appreciate some feedback on this theory:

  21. #21 Abel Pharmboy
    March 2, 2009

    Count me, Jonah, among those who absolutely enjoyed your Fresh Air interview. My favorite part was when Terry Gross asked how you became a science writer. Your description of your skill at helping the postdoc’s experiments fail in many different ways was classic.

  22. #22 Monica
    March 2, 2009

    Heard you on NPR today and knew I’d become “addicted” to your blog! Thanks for your great translation of neurology/science — If I had you as a teacher in college I may have liked my Neuro classes much more!

  23. #23 David Connearn
    March 3, 2009

    2 things.
    Re posts 15 & 16 The underlying similarities between Western existential philosophies (Heidegger and Sartre) springing from Husserl is explained by the influence exererted on this tradition by Heidegger’s Asian pupils Kuki and Tanabe who also visited Sartre. The documentation is to be found in G Parkes Heidegger and Asian Thought, Hawaii ’87 isbn 0-8248-1312-x. and R May: Heidegger’s Hidden Sources, Routledge ’89 isbn 0-415-14038-2.

    Re Noe. Is everyone aware of the work of the English experimental psychotherapist John Birtchnall? He developed an embedded theory of mind along evolutionary- behaviourist lines which seems to underpin both Lehrer’s and Noe’s work. See: John Birtchnall: How Humans Relate, Psychology Press ’93 isbn 0-86377-432-6: Relating in Psychotherapy, Brunner- Routledge ’99, isbn 1-58391-275-4: The Two of Me, Routledge ’03, isbn 1-84169-323-5

  24. #24 kjp
    March 3, 2009

    I listened to you on Fresh Air on NPR Monday. I loved it. I think that the study of the mind and brain are fascinating. My view is different from the ones expressed in these comments. That view is: I believe that we existed as spirits before we are born and that we will exist as spirits after we die. Spirit is matter. Our minds, feelings, emotions, personality are the spirit that is within us. Put the spirit in and we live. Take the spirit out and we die. There really is a lot to learn and I am looking forward to reading your book!

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  26. #26 Shakti Sivaran
    March 14, 2009

    Have you ever consider the possibility that we are not here? That our brain is just a construct to render reality, our consciousness is lying somewhere else.

  27. #27 Aluminum Casting
    September 2, 2009

    Learned some and enjoyed lots.thanks

  28. #28 Naomi Bailis
    February 11, 2010

    Buddhists or any serious meditator would likely concur with Dr. Noe. Well done.

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