How matter becomes imagination by Gerald Edelman and Guilio Tononi

A tough read this one. Definitely not for the faint hearted. I understood probably less than a third of what is explained in this book but the parts I did grok were excellent grist to the mill of 'untying the world knot' as E&T put it.

What I liked about this book were the movement from 'first person' description ( i.e. our own conscious experience ) to third person ( i.e. neuronal level descriptions ). For example, they give a helpful example of a musician learning to play a new piece of music and the role that awareness plays in this process. In this respect, Edelman is in the same vein as Varela ( who I've yet to read on consciousness ). I can't quite decide if Edelman is as radical a constructionalist as Walter Freeman ( 'How brains make up their minds' ) because he doesn't state that everything in the 'world' is a construct, even though he acknowledges the role the brain plays in constructing ( rather than merely depicting ) our reality.

The strengths for me of this book are its theory of the 'dynamic core' and E&T's explanation of what makes a difference between things we're aware of and things we're not. How I read it is that this is down to whether the neuronal activity is synchronised ( 'phase locked' is Varela's term which makes sense to me as an EE ) or not. The dynamic core is all of the neuronal activity which contributes to awareness, built up of 'functional clusters' of neurons  - we become aware of the neuronal component when that cluster participates in the dynamic core by synchronisation of firing patterns

My take is this. Suppose there's a subtle background smell, below awareness - initially there's a functional cluster in the brain whose dynamics correspond to 'osmanthus'. However this cluster isn't synchronous with the dynamic core, so I'm unaware of the smell. However, the presence of the odorant has been noted by the subconscious, so it can directly affect other processes below awareness. Awareness of a smell only happens when the functional cluster's dynamics get synchronised to the core. Now, our subjective experience has something to say here - that movement of attention to something can result in pushing it away, so I wonder what must be going on as the dynamics of the functional cluster hover on the brink of entering awareness. I guess that the phase locking process can act to weaken the activity of the smell functional grouping - the smell needs to be strong enough to survive the transition to awareness.

This dynamic core notion might be useful to shed light on the psychological concepts of denial and projection. Denial is a means of keeping something below awareness, that is, out of sync with the dynamic core. What's the role of thinking in contributing to denial ? Projection shows that things below awareness show up 'outside' - how might this operate? What we don't have in the dynamic core concept is an onion-like structure to depict layers of denial. But its an interesting concept to work on..... Also we might be able to get a concept of 'self' out of this notion too. Since 'self' is a matter of real and imaginary components, what if its the phase of the firing of the functional clusters which is important ? Could functional clusters be frequency locked but not in phase ? Then the imaginary self might be the weighting given to quadrature components not in awareness. The 'real' self only emerges as quadrature components are brought into phase. Must put some more thought into this, but it feels a promising line of enquiry !

First the butter, then the knife.. some criticisms