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Andrea Diem-LaneAndrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.

Galileo's Telescope on Consciousness

A Closer Look at Giulio Tononi's text,
Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul

Andrea Diem-Lane

Tononi tackles consciousness from an interesting angle as he acknowledges a world teeming with life and distinct levels of awareness.

In Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul Giulio Tononi explores consciousness in a very unusual way. While most books on this topic either offer technical details of neural anatomy that may allow for consciousness or philosophically scrutinize its overall meaning, this author approaches it as a story and one told from the viewpoint of Galileo. Yet, unlike his usual role of objectively studying nature, here Galileo examines his own consciousness, and in a dream-like, almost psychedelic, way he ventures on a journey to understand what it is all about. Along his way, Galileo goes in and out of conversations with others and multiple analogies and stories are told. Perhaps Tononi's nomadic style makes sense as this is what consciousness itself does, experiencing the world not as third person but subjectively.

The book starts off with Galileo laying down to rest and wondering how many breaths he still has in him. Soon after he enters into a hypnagogic state that almost seems to be an out of body experience. Tononi writes: “Then, suddenly, straining to blow inside his body, the air took Galileo with it. And he felt his soul sucked inward, flowing through narrow nostrils inside the dark vault of the skull.”

As Galileo enters into a dream like state, he muses what give rises to his awareness in the first place. Was it his brain and, if so, how could it generate consciousness? And would it all vanish at the time of death? Or was the source of consciousness his soul? Perhaps the whole objective world was really a product of consciousness itself? As Tononi puts it, “he seemed to be of two minds on this issue.”

As the dream continues, Galileo meets three scientists, Francis Crick, Alan Turing, and Charles Darwin, who help him try to make sense of these philosophical quandaries. (One wonders if perhaps the author drew his storyline in part from Dicken's Christmas Carol.) When discussing these guides, Tononi points out in his notes, almost jokingly so, that all three are a “bit too English” and perhaps a “bit one-sided,” but nonetheless have something significant to offer Galileo in his quest. The author thinly veils the name of each mentor, referring to Francis Crick as Frick, Alan Turing as Alturi, and Charles Darwin as the bearded old man.

Giulio Tononi
Giulio Tononi

In a poetic and analogous form he maintains throughout his text, Tononi in part one of the book introduces the reader to Crick's position on consciousness. Besides his research on the structure of the DNA molecule, which eventually led to him winning the Nobel Prize in bio-chemistry along with James Watson, Crick was deeply interested in the study of consciousness and wrote The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Crick (as Frick in the story) explains to Galileo that consciousness does indeed arises from the brain. More specifically, he argues that for consciousness to manifest there must be an interactive loop, or communication, between the cerebrum and the thalamus. The neurons in the cerebrum communicating with the thalamus is called the corticothalmus complex.

Instead of a “prince or pope” running the show, Crick continues to explain to Galileo that the cerebrum part of the brain acts as a democracy with many specialists contributing and cooperating with each other. Cells here are connected and conversing, and this is essential for awareness. Interestingly, even though the cerebellum, in Latin meaning the “little brain” responsible for motor control, may be more populated than the cerebrum in term of cells, the neurons here do not talk to each other but are isolated. As such, these particular brain cells do not account for consciousness, argues Crick.

To make his understanding really come to life, Crick refers to the cerebrum and the cerebellum as two great cities living inside the brain. The cerebrum is a bustling metropolis where citizens argue, shout, and discuss. This pluralistic society allows its members to cast different votes and all of this excitement plays a pivotal role in developing consciousness. The cerebellum, on the other hand, is like a silent prison where the citizens, though many, live in isolated cubicles unable to talk. As such, Crick reminds Galileo, one can damage the cerebellum yet still have consciousness. However, lesions or injuries, even small ones, in the cerebrum can cause great havoc, from loss of memory, to epilepsy, to even resulting in a loss of consciousness or death. Thus, for conscious awareness, Crick asserts, what ultimately matters then is how the neurons are connected, not necessarily how many one has in a particular region.

In the next scene Crick and Galileo come across a sleeping Frenchman. When Galileo shook him awake and asked him what was on his mind right before he woke up, the Frenchman shouted as though quite irritated, “Nothing is on my mind.” Groggy and discontent, the Frenchman fell back asleep. As they observed him sleeping, Crick pointed out to Galileo that the Frenchman's eyes this time were moving back and forth as he slept, indicating he was dreaming. When the man was reawaken once again, this time he was not dopey and he reported experiencing very vivid images in the sleep state. Utilizing an ocean analogy, Crick explains to Galileo what is going on in the different sleep segments. In deep sleep the waves are deep and slow and uniform in the entire sea. As though under a totalitarian regime, there is no neuronal talk and everyone follows the same orders or wave pattern. But when the man was in the dream state, the waves were more erratic, changing shape and momentum, in a shallow sea. This means neuronal activity was strong and as the neurons talked so came awareness and imagery.

Once fully awake the Frenchman expressed his own views on consciousness—he stated that consciousness was there in sleep (in deep or dreaming states) and, more importantly, it will be there after death. In a defensive tone he proclaimed: “Consciousness never expires, not even for a moment. What the brain does is immaterial; consciousness uses it to communicate with the body, and through the body with the world, but consciousness is a different substance and does not need the brain to exist.” At death, his consciousness will be one with God, the Frenchman opined. When Crick offered a counter materialist view that matter alone generates consciousness, he then asked Galileo what was his take on it, to which Galileo remained silent.

Many years ago while finishing up my undergraduate studies at UC San Diego, I met Francis Crick at a dinner party at V.S. Ramachandran's house. Since I was only introduced to this guest as Francis, I was unaware that for over two hours I sat on the couch discussing the brain, consciousness and the meaning of life with one of the great minds of the 20th century. As I recall, my twenty two year old self said some embarrassing statements, such as “what do you do for a living, Francis?” and “if you have nothing going on, perhaps you can help me out in the research lab sometime.” To his great credit he never let on who he was, though the grin on his face when I asked him these questions was priceless. While I look back upon that night with bitter sweet memories, I feel very fortunate to have met Crick and to have been given an opportunity to hold a conversation with him similar to the one that the imaginary Galileo did in Tononi's book.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul

In part two of the reading, Galileo's journey continues with Alan Turing (played by Alturi). In a conversation with Turing, “phi” (pronounced fi as in fly) and its significance in understanding consciousness is discussed. Presented as a symbol of an I with an O placed directly over it, phi is a mathematical symbol of the “golden ratio—the right way of dividing something into parts.” In the context of this book, phi refers to the “the information integrated by the whole above and beyond its parts—call it integrated information.” Thus, in this section Turing proposes that the brain produces consciousness since it can integrate information between all its specialized parts (an idea that seems to fit with Crick's analysis as well). Yet, in addition to this, according to the phi theory consciousness can be understood as the whole that cannot be simply reduced to its parts (this idea Crick may take issue with). In a way, Tononi seems to be hinting that consciousness, being irreducible, can be understood here as an emergent property.

Furthermore, as the story unfolds Galileo learns that a “complex is where phi reaches its maximum, and therein lives one consciousness—a single entity of experience,” and that the human brain is such a complex. When pondering if other non-human beings also have consciousness Tononi indicates yes but their phi is to a lower degree. This matches to some degree the hierarchy of consciousness idea found in Michio Kaku's Future of the Mind, wherein he too presents distinct levels of consciousness found in the natural world. However, some have argued that Tononi's position goes beyond recognizing consciousness in the animal world and borders on panpsychism, especially when he suggests that a photodiode has a “wisp of consciousness” and that a phi of a rock is low compared to that of a moth. And some may take exception when he argues that a human embryo's phi may be less than a fly's. Despite his critics, Tononi tackles consciousness from an interesting angle as he acknowledges a world teeming with life and distinct levels of awareness.

Finally, in the third section of the book, the old bearded man (aka Charles Darwin) is brought into the scene. This part of the reading is not so much about Darwinian evolution but about reminding us that human consciousness continues to develop, to grow and to evolve. What contributes to this is the integration of art, culture and history into our awareness. Whether our individual consciousness survives us after death is unknown, but certainly one can argue that human consciousness as a whole continues after our death and we contributed to developing that. So in this sense, at least, we survive.

Since this book is a bit difficult to follow, one may really appreciate the author's “notes” at the end of each chapter. In the notes, Tononi steps out of the dream to clue the reader in on what is going on and to add some context and references. These notes are of extreme value in grasping the nuances of the text. Altogether, this book was an enjoyable, albeit challenging, text on consciousness, reading more like a piece of literature than a science book. While the hard problem on consciousness (explaining why and how we have qualia) may still be a mystery, Tononi's approach to the topic was indeed thought-provoking.

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