Book Review: The Crucible of Consciousness: An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain by Zoltan Torey
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: The MIT Press; Reprint edition (June 30, 2009)
The scientific study of the mind, of human consciousness, is a recent development. Obviously it isn’t easy as the mind is both the instrument and object of study. For a long time scientists ruled consciousness “out of bounds”, as not open to such rational investigations. And mystical or religious interpretations exerted too much influence in this area. The explanations and models have inevitably been mythical or simplistic – because of the reliance more on subjective feelings than empirical evidence. Dualist models have usually predominated – even though their justification has been religious rather than empirical.
These models and ideas have not helped the study of the human mind. They have, if anything, been a diversion. Zoltan Torey, author of Crucible of Consciousness, stresses that we can only make progress in this area when we have an empirically based model to work with.
A model for self awareness
Torey’s purpose in this book is to propose and describe such a model. Briefly, here’s what I got from the book:
Human self awareness only became possible when brain sizes increased to greater the 750 cc. This enabled redundancy in the sensory detection and motor response role of the brain. Excess neuronal structures were co-opted for concepts which could then be sensed and processed. Areas of the brain involved in awareness of sensory information now became involved in awareness of the concepts. We now had awareness of awareness, leading to self-awareness.
Evolution of language was critical to the ability to hold concepts and therefore vital to self awareness. Development in the human infant provides an ideal time for the extensive collateral branching in the cortical areas of the brain. This is essential for the development of language and the brain processes needed for reflection and self-awareness. The human group and society also exert a strong influence at this stage. So Torey sees evolutionary processes leading to brain development and a long period of childcare after birth as important to evolution of self awareness.
Torey also describes how society is important to our language and self-awareness throughout life.
Neural response duration and awareness
Language enables interruption of the arousal, attention and motor response cycle. This interruption and self awareness also depends on the time duration of neural response to stimuli. Short duration responses do not persist long enough for inspection and remain in the subconscious or automatic control of body functions by the brain. Longer responses enable awareness. With language and concepts awareness can be prolonged for humans enabling conscious deliberation.
Torey’s model provides a useful way of understanding free will, conscious and subconscious responses and interesting research showing a delay between neural activity and conscious perception of one’s decisions.
The model shows why self awareness is a mixed blessing. It inevitably leads to anxiety, obsessions and delusions. These are adaptive responses which produce psycho religious constructions, self-deceptions and rationalisations. The qualitative change to self awareness and conscious deliberation has enabled humans to research and understand reality, but also works to suppress and distort information about reality. these are adaptive functions working to protect the ego from the threat of reality. Language itself can become a source of distortion and limitation
Torey stresses the need to overcome this limit for normal scientific investigation. This is especially true in the study of the mind where our limitations have produced useless models such as dualism, spirits, souls, etc. which prevent proper investigation.
Model fascinating despite speculations
Torey devotes most of this book to describing his model. He does this a step at a time, chapter by chapter. In much the same way we build a sturdy house on strong foundations.
I found the story fascinating. Fortunately this was not as technical as I expected for such a difficult subject. Many readers may find they occasionally need to consult dictionaries and the book does require close attention and concentration. On the other hand at each step Zoltan returns to and restates the models as it is developed. More diagrammatic representations would have been helpful to the reader. But maybe this is expecting a bit much from a blind author. (Torey was blinded in an industrial accident in 1951. I can’t help speculating that this may have heightened other facilities which have helped him study and research the difficult subject of human self awareness since then).
My only real disappointment was the last chapter. Admittedly Torey stressed the ideas here were speculative. But he latched on to a more mystical interpretation of quantum mechanics. The idea that consciousness is required for “collapse of the wave function.” Most physicists reject this interpretation. Murray Gell-Mann describes this as a “clumsy description of quantum mechanics” in his book The Quark and the Jaguar.
Despite this there is so much that is good here that I must highly recommend the book for anyone wanting to come to grips with human self awareness, consciousness.