Publication date: 8/7/2012
Sharing knowledge about the universe has been a tricky endeavor since the dawn of science. Technical jargon can confound the general population. Not being explicit enough risks a scientist’s credibility.
Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) found meaning in science by writing in verse, which worked well for his purposes and audience. Students in the age of Virgil and Cicero learned by reciting verse—its meter serving as a mnemonic device.
Giulio Tononi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, hoped to be similarly erudite about consciousness science by writing in allegory. In his new book, Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, an aging Galileo wanders from chapter to chapter having imaginary dialogues with scientists and other allegorical characters that symbolize what we know about consciousness.
“Galileo is often credited with having eliminated subjectivity from the study of nature, replacing it with mathematics and measurement.”
In Phi, Galileo represents the objective nature of science. A conversation with Frick (Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) reveals what we know about consciousness as a brain function. A thought experiment with Alturi (artificial intelligence founder Alan Turing) presents Galileo with a way to build a scientific theory of consciousness. Galileo also explores the diverse and evolving nature of consciousness with the bearded old man (Charles Darwin).
Tononi proposes if a mechanism in the brain reduces uncertainty and generates “a single entity of experience,” then this is consciousness quantified by phi (Φ) as a bit of integrated information. Like measuring the amount of information in a computer file—in bits.
The premise of the book is original, but is based on the skimpy fact that science might not be compelling enough to read sans a contrived rhetorical device. (Enter a man juggling balls and riding a unicycle.)
The notes at the end of each chapter of Phi fill readers in on why Tononi prefers to filter complex topics in science through the sieve of allegory.
“Sleep is probably the ideal test bed for studying consciousness: most people can testify that often, after a brusque awakening early in the night, one may emerge from virtual nothingness into the fullness of experience, just like Descartes in this chapter.”
Plus, Tononi’s schpiel uses metaphor in powerful ways to unveil relevant facts about consciousness.
“Think of it this way: the waking brain is like a pluralistic society— different groups of neurons have different allegiances and cast different votes. But when it falls into a dreamless sleep, the brain becomes totalitarian: everybody behaves like everybody else, they all fling their arm up and down together, and there can be no dissent. It is a monolithic brain, there is no freedom left, so it is no use to talk.”
Tononi’s allegorical experiment might have worked for me if not for the recent discovery by CERN scientists of the Higgs Boson particle.
On July 4, scientists analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider discovered an “excess” in the detector data. Consistent with the Higgs Boson, the excess corresponded to an elementary particle at a mass-energy of around 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV).
Science fans like me were enthralled. The story was told in technical but riveting terms. We hoped for more opportunities to reuse the word gigaelectronvolts. We were overjoyed to read that science had confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson long predicted by the Standard Model in physics and believed to give all other particles mass.
“We told you so!” CERN researchers could happily say. “The Higgs Boson lives!”
Why wouldn’t anyone find gripping the narrative of a discovery that might move human knowledge forward?
Reading about science almost requires the same emotional investment—self-awareness, empathy and motivation—as reading a novel. Science aficionados read about discoveries in physics, astronomy and neuroscience because they are worth reading.
The power of sharing a clear narrative in science? It will provoke questions. Dr. Tononi is a scientist. He should never be afraid of the questions.
Phi presented Dr. Tononi an opportunity to move consciousness from the mysterious domain of philosophers and poets. He has more work to do. Demystifying research is ridding your language of all traces of magic. Readers will find wonder and awe in the science.
Tononi and his colleagues are proposing a “consciousness meter” that could measure consciousness like a thermometer measures body temperature.
Wow! Beyond our imagination! So was the Higgs Boson. Once.
Phi by Giulio Tononi is an advisable, potentially worthwhile read, except for the author’s efforts to veil an emerging science of consciousness behind more mystery.
Category: Nonfiction, Neuroscience, Consciousness