In the Theater of Consciousness: The Workspace of the Mind by Bernard J. Baars
Publisher: Oxford University Press
The human consciousness may well be one of the hardest problems of science. Everyone of us is aware what it feels like, yet there's a mystic quality to how a biological machine can give rise to subjectivity and self-awareness. Worse, we're trying to solve this grand problem by use of the object itself, our brain. It's a quest for something we may never reach. As illustrated by the failures of great minds like Descartes and Locke, our search may well turn out to be futile. Yet there's a growing body of modern research into consciousness. Research that provides new insights into the nature of consciousness and its role. Understanding these properties of consciousness is a necessity, not at least from an ethical perspective emerging out of the ever deeper uncanny valley.
Our consciousness is probably a key biological advantage. It helps us interpret, learn and react to novel situations. In his remarkably accessible work, Bernard Baars goes into a lot of depth explaining the defining features of consciousness. The explanations are based around Baars' Global Workspace theory. Within the Global Workspace theory, the functions of the brain are seen as widely distributed, massively parallel, and largely unconscious. As Baars puts it, "conscious contents appear to be disseminated globally to a great multitude of networks throughout the brain that are unconscious, but that have observable conscious consequences downstream". As a fan of Sigmund Freud's writings, from their literate qualities, I cannot help to note that although wrong in the details, to some extent Sigmund Freud nailed the big picture.
But there's nothing Freudian about the modern science of consciousness. The Global Workspace theory is based on a theater model, a thinking tool used throughout the book. In short, the theater stage itself is the working memory, our mental workspace. Different players are acting out, with the spotlight of attention hitting whatever appears as a conscious experience. The vast unconscious processes of the brain are modeled as the audience. Baars provides a more detailed model than my brief description. It's still limited in the way all metaphors are. But it works well in visualizing the main idea and establishing a framework for the detailed scientific discussions to come.
In the Theater of Consciousness turned out to be a rewarding read. I was surprised at how much detail Baars managed to put into it while still keeping it accessible. The writing style is fairly informal and managed to keep me engaged throughout the book. Baars has written a pedagogical introduction to highly fascinating subject. As far as non-fiction books go, this is as close to a page-turner as it gets.
Reviewed June 2012