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The Conscious Mind

by Zoltan Torey
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
208 pp. Trade, $13.95
ISBN: 9780262527101.

Reviewed by Cecilia Wong
Independent writer, Los Angeles


As late as 1998, many neurobiologists still considered consciousness a hopeless subject of study in terms of producing testable hypotheses. Things have quite changed. With brain-imaging of awake human subjects in real time and other new techniques, biologists, in collaboration with experimental psychologists, are now able to document cellular and molecular events during a conscious act - the study of human consciousness is no longer exclusive to philosophy. The Conscious Mind is an ambition attempt to construct a model of the mind, its evolution and origin via the author's wide readings in linguistics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. In this book, Zoltan Torey (1929-2014) claims that a consciousness of the self (distinct from animal awareness) is the result of language acquisition unique to humans after a new neural subsystem - the motor wiring of our speech areas in the neocortex - occurred in Homo sapiens.

In 13 chapters, with titles like A Device to Move Mountains: Dual Output, Single Focus, and Language: The Trojan Horse of Negative Entropy, Torey, in rather evocative style, seeks to demonstrate that consciousness has a physical substrate in the brain, a unique neural subsystem which was the "...breakthrough to Homo sapiens, [without which] the evolution of language, and the acquisition of our functional autonomy (our sense of free will) cannot be accounted for."; and that it "is the product of a mechanism that does not exist in the animal brain."

Torey agrees with the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky that language had no analog in animal communication and that they were "not on the same developmental continuum but are different in kind." Human language, he asserts, became possible because of neoteny. "Neotenous regression, the tendency to start out post-natal life in a less mature state than did our ancestors shifts the emphasis from instincts to learning process as the dominant factor in the acquisition of the organism's survival and coping skills." Thus the infant's first year of life is the critical age for language: with the motor wiring of the speech areas and "giving the brain access to itself", leading to language.

The author goes on to explain attention, as a type of consciousness. It happens with "oscillation" between the word and its percept; and it is under voluntary muscle control (he did not specify which). This oscillation allows us to hold on to our thoughts, effectively taking it 'off-line' from the 'on-line' animal awareness. Thus, these thoughts can only be communicated with uttered words because they are composed of word and percept, not with "the modality percept of vision or somatosensation that we experience." He suggests that such oscillation is between the neocortex and the brain stem that controls automatic functions, via, I presume, that new neural subsystem.

The fact that bonobos (a close relative of chimpanzees) have been trained to communicate thought and understand language does not detract from Torey's model. It only means that our close relatives also possess this neural subsystem - reasonable in view of the continuity of evolution. Neither should the fact that syntax may not be universal as Torey claims but that its meaning depends on the speaker-listener relationship at the moment of exchange. This latter does, however, raise the possibility that it is culture, not language per se which enables human communication and the sense of self - and a route to consciousness. Some psychologists have argued that what the bonobos do is not language.

None of these arguments diminish Mr. Torey's remarkable achievement in constructing a functional model of self-consciousness, incorporating the concept of neoteny, and the to-and-fro between the neocortex and the brainstem. And as Torey himself indicated, quoting Gerald Edelman, the Nobel biologist and neuroscientist: "There can be no science of human beings until consciousness is explained in biological terms." The goal may be at hand.

Robert Desimone at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research focuses on the neural basis of attention and executive control, has demonstrated that the same group of neurons in the brain responding to the picture of a house, for example, will fire in synchrony if the subject is holding his attention on it; and fire out of sync if not. He said: "As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of 'What is consciousness?' will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction," because "consciousness is just a vague word for the mental experience of attending, which we are slowly dissecting in terms of the electrical and chemical activity of individual neurons."

I cannot imagine, however, that this will keep us humans from contemplating our own
mind, which is so close and so dear to us that it can ever be seen as just some
laboratory specimen.

Last Updated 2nd Mar 2015

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