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The study of human consciousness has been a feature of studies within the arts for centuries however, the hard sciences have b

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

by Alva Noë
Hill and Wang, New York, NY, 2010
232 pp. Trade, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-8090-7465-5.

Reviewed by John Vines
University of Plymouth.


Whilst the study of human consciousness has been a feature of the arts and humanities for centuries, the hard(er) sciences have been notably slow in treating this area of research with the seriousness it deserves. This has altered somewhat over the past few decades with advances in various neuroscientific technologies and, subsequently, methods, with a growing opinion in neuroscience that scientists are able to explore consciousness and human experience through observing how the brain functions. In ‘Out of Our Heads’ Alva Noë asks whether the assumptions that form the starting point of the majority scientific studies of consciousness – that it is ‘something that happens somewhere and sometime in the human brain’ (p. 4) – inherently constrains this area of research.

Noë defines consciousness from a biological perspective, arguing it provides a ‘rigorous empirical alternative to mechanistic detachment on the one hand and mere personal intimacy on the other’ (pp. 25-26). Typically, he argues, science has attempted to look at how others think through observing external behavior or measuring internal neural states, generating a scientific paradigm of the mind that must take a detached perspective. By starting from a non-mechanized biological perspective, however, Noë uses the example of how a simple bacterium may be considered as having a mind as a result of it having a ‘life’. The bacteria, although primitive, is engaged with and geared into its world around it in an attempt to fulfill its appetite for certain types of sugars. It may be difficult for some to relate human consciousness to the example of bacteria, but Noë’s point is that consciousness can be understood not purely through some kind of internal state or its representation in external behavior of an organism, but rather through the ongoing and dynamic interaction between a particular organism and its environment. In stating this he does not deny the importance of the brain as a part of this system, but rather than being considered as the centre of human consciousness its role is more in line with ‘enabling an exchange between the person or animal and the world’ (p. 67).

The book comprises of eight short chapters that each takes a topic relating the move from brain-centric to world involving systems of consciousness, with an epilogue and a short section of notes near the end. The fourth section of the book appears to be of particular note, as it is here that Noë discusses evidence of how human activity both shapes and is shaped by the dynamic exchanges between a unified mind, body and world. The conclusion stemming from this chapter is that ‘in an important sense, we are not separate from the world, we are of it, part of it’. (p. 95) This duly leads into a chapter on ‘habits’, which Noë determines as part of the worldly nature of consciousness in that along with skills they can be ‘triggered by environmental conditions and they vanish in the absence of the appropriate environmental setting’(p. 97).

Taking Noë’s argument, the intellectualization of conscious experience – that humans are thinking things that rationally digest information – must be replaced with understanding that we experience and perceive the world through the sensory and motor skills the human body provides - skills that have evolved in reciprocity with the world they interact with. It is the habitual nature of human kind that have formed these skills over millennia, and Noë provides evidence that human beings are today still creatures of habits in an extended world of thought that goes beyond the skull. He touches on notions of novices and experts, comparing the techniques used by a player learning the game to that of a player who had mastered the sport through habitual practice. The novice requires a high level of focus upon the mechanics of hitting a baseball; the attention of the player is on their body, the ball and hitting thereof. The opposite is presented by the expert player, whom if concentrating on the mechanics of the task shows deterioration in performance. Rather, ‘the expert turns his attention elsewhere-for example, to tactics, or to figuring out what sort of pitch is likely to be thrown next.’ (p. 100) A similar argument is presented to people learning second languages. Noë highlights how the forming of habits and, thus, expert skills, furnishes beings with a heightened ability to partake in the wider context of an activity in an automatic manner. When we deliberate, plan and mediate the flow of a given situation is disengaged. If the environmental situation changes, again the flow of the activity is broken.

In ‘Out of Our Heads’, Noë has moved towards broadening the audience of his particular perspective on the philosophy of perception, and at many times the book reads as a journalistic piece rather than scholarship. Noë’s argument is rather profound, yet in moving towards a more simplistic prose, an informed reader of ‘Out of Our Heads’ may react with a ‘so what?’. Although I am sympathetic to Noë’s argument, there are moments where I wonder what he is trying to bring to the table that differs in the slightest from what Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Francisco Varela, James Gibson, Jakob von Uexküll and a whole host of other thinkers have said before. To claim this, however, does injustice to the manner in which Noë synthesizes, examines and reanalyses a huge amount of scientific experimentation literature. Importantly, in making this book more open Noë still continuously relates his claims back to the empirical studies they are inferred from, never moving too far from the evidential base.

‘Out of Our Heads’ differs hugely in writing style comparison to Noë’s previous work, such as Action in Perception [1], which can be hard work for anyone not entirely familiar with cognitive science, phenomenology and visual perception. For this reviewer, there is no doubt that Noë has provided an account for consciousness that adds to the growing discussion of understanding human beings as embodied and situated organisms. Only touched on very briefly in this book, Noë’s model of consciousness is greatly influenced by the work of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson, and as such will provide easy and valuable reading to anyone interested in the study of consciousness, and must be read by anyone working with the aforementioned authors work. Artists and creative practitioners interested in Noë’s research on visual perception and consciousness may also find his investigations into the relationship between art and science and the role certain artworks have in the examination of perceptual consciousness as particularly useful further reading [2].


[1] A. Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2004)

[2] A. Noë, Art as Enaction (http://www.interdisciplines.org/artcog/papers/8)

Last Updated 5 September, 2010

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