The best books on consciousness from a neuroscientist

Christof Koch Author Of The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed
By Christof Koch

Who am I?

I am a neuroscientist best known for my studies and writings exploring the brain basis of consciousness. Trained as a physicist, I was for 27 years a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before moving to the Allen Institute in Seattle, where I became the Chief Scientist and then the President in 2015. I published my first paper on the neural correlates of consciousness with the molecular biologist Francis Crick more than thirty years ago.


I wrote...

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

By Christof Koch,

Book cover of The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

What is my book about?

In my latest book,The Feeling of Life Itself (2019), I define consciousness as any subjective experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted. How can the brain, three pounds of highly excitable matter, a piece of furniture of the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as any other piece, give rise to subjective experience? I argue that what is needed is a quantitative theory that starts with experience and proceeds to the brain. I outline such a theory, based on integrated information, and describe how it has been used to build a clinically useful consciousness-meter. The theory predicts that many, and perhaps all, animals experience the sights and sounds of life; consciousness is much more widespread than conventionally assumed. Contrary to received wisdom, however, programmable computers will not be conscious. Even a perfect software model of the brain will not be conscious. Its consciousness is fake. Consciousness is not a special type of computation—it is not a clever hack. Consciousness is about being.

The books I picked & why

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The Doors of Perception

By Aldous Huxley,

Book cover of The Doors of Perception

Why this book?

The classic account of the author’s encounter with mescaline, a psychoactive substance derived from the peyote cactus and traditionally used by Native Americans for religious purposes. Huxley’s experiences include profound changes in the visual world, colors that induce sound, the telescoping of time and space, the loss of the notion of self, and feelings of oneness, peacefulness, and bliss more commonly associated with religious visions or an exultant state. Mescaline, together with psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, and LSD, are closely related psychedelics whose therapeutic potential is being explored for a variety of psychiatric conditions.

The Doors of Perception

By Aldous Huxley,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Doors of Perception as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover this profound account of Huxley's famous experimentation with mescalin that has influenced writers and artists for decades.

'Concise, evocative, wise and, above all, humane, The Doors of Perception is a masterpiece' Sunday Times

In 1953, in the presence of an investigator, Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of mescalin, sat down and waited to see what would happen. When he opened his eyes everything, from the flowers in a vase to the creases in his trousers, was transformed. Huxley described his experience with breathtaking immediacy in The Doors of Perception.

In its sequel Heaven and Hell, he goes…


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

Why this book?

A collection of essays by the world’s favorite neurologist that places the reader inside the minds of neurological patients, describing the idiosyncratic world they inhabit – lost in time, unable to recognize faces, bewildered by an alien leg attached to their hip, or unable to feel their body.  Sacks excels at relating how the seemingly bizarre behavior of these patients is a reasonable response to living with a brain-damaged by stroke, infection, progressive dementia, and so on.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Celebrating Fifty Years of Picador Books

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self - himself - he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

In this extraordinary book, Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities, and yet are gifted with…


Mind: A Brief Introduction

By John R. Searle,

Book cover of Mind: A Brief Introduction

Why this book?

A concise introduction to the beating heart of the ancient mind-body problem – consciousness and free will. Searle, famous for his Chinese Room argument that is featured in the book, engages with contemporary scientific theories of consciousness, which is uncommon for philosophers. What is even rarer is that Searle professes himself perplexed when it comes to reconciling his feelings of acting freely with the laws of physics that appear to rule out free will.

Mind: A Brief Introduction

By John R. Searle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The philosophy of mind is unique among contemporary philosophical subjects," writes John Searle, "in that all of the most famous and influential theories are false." One of the world's most eminent thinkers, Searle dismantles these theories as he presents a vividly written, comprehensive introduction to the mind. He begins with a look at the twelve problems of philosophy of mind-which he calls "Descartes and Other Disasters"-problems which he returns to throughout
the volume, as he illuminates such topics as materialism, consciousness, the mind-body problem, intentionality, mental causation, free will, and the self. The book offers a refreshingly direct and engaging…


The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul

By Francis Crick,

Book cover of The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul

Why this book?

This book, by the co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, helped kick off the modern research enterprise that seeks to track and identify the neuronal correlates of consciousness, that is the footprints of consciousness in the brain. Crick argues that for tactical reasons, scientists should focus on more accessible aspects of consciousness, such as visual awareness, and provides an easy-to-follow introduction into the mammalian brain.

The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul

By Francis Crick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Astonishing Hypothesis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Applying the methodology of science to the search for the soul, the winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA explores the fundamental questions of human consciousness, challenging science, philosophy, and religion. Reprint. 25,000 first printing.


Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

By Eliot Weinberg,

Book cover of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

Why this book?

An extraordinary gem of a booklet that considers the many ways that four lines of a single poem, composed by an 8th century Chinese Buddhist, have been translated into modern idiom. It is amazing how a mere twenty ideograms, depicting a mountain and forest scene devoid of people, can illuminate the variety and subtlety of consciousness. I recommend the 2016 edition with additional translations.

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

By Eliot Weinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The difficulty (and necessity) of translation is concisely described in Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a close reading of different translations of a single poem from the Tang Dynasty-from a transliteration to Kenneth Rexroth's loose interpretation. As Octavio Paz writes in the afterword, "Eliot Weinberger's commentary on the successive translations of Wang Wei's little poem illustrates, with succinct clarity, not only the evolution of the art of translation in the modern period but at the same time the changes in poetic sensibility."


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