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by Rodolfo R. Llinás
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Andrew Bailey, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001

I of the Vortex

This book presents a radically reductive neurobiological view of consciousness and the self: its central thesis is that conscious thought is (nothing more than) a global electrical event in the brain, and the self is (merely) a theoretical 'construct' within our own internal mental map of our environment. Though studded with interesting insights and intriguing speculation, this philosophically unsophisticated book does little to render these reductive claims any more plausible than the reader might already find them. It is well worth reading, however, as the manifesto of one of the leading workers in modern neuroscience, summing up in a fairly accessible way several of his important contributions to the science of consciousness.

Llinás pursues various different themes throughout this book … or rather, he pursues the same theme but at several different levels: he discusses the emergence of mind at the level of evolutionary history, at the level of global states of the brain, and at the level of individual neurons. Llinás is convinced that the mind-or what he calls the 'mindness state'--can only be understood as "the product of evolutionary processes that have occurred in the brain as actively moving creatures developed from the primitive to the highly evolved." This evolutionary perspective helps us to see, Llinás argues, that mindness must be a global functional state of the brain that allows the animal to move intelligently within its immediate environment, and does so by creating a simplified, real-time internal image of that environment which allows the animal to predict the probable outcomes of its actions. Finally, unlike so-called 'computationalist' cognitive scientists, who think of the mind as being a kind of abstract functional property of the brain in the same way as a computer program is an abstract property of the computer which runs it, Llinás believes that the global brain states which are conscious thoughts are created by summing together the neurobiological properties of individual neurons. Individual neurons are in this sense 'proto-conscious,' for Llinás, and the evolutionary ancestors of our own sophisticated consciousness were once subserved by the actions of single cells.

So, what is the evolutionary function of the mind? According to Llinás, the mind just is the nervous system, and the nervous system evolved to control active movement (or what biologists call 'motricity'). That is, the nervous system takes in information about the environment and modifies the animal's internal 'plan' for movement accordingly. Mindness is the internalization of motricity, and the ultimate function of the brain is the prediction of the outcome of the organism's movements in a particular environmental context. As the movement strategies of organisms evolved in complexity, so too did the nervous system's ability to predict. The entity we think of as the 'self,' in Llinás's view, is the centralization of this prediction: it is the bringing together of the brain's various predictions into a single construct which governs the activity of the organism as a whole.

How is this mindness produced in the brain? One of Llinás's key, and most interesting, claims is that a central part of the current cognitive science paradigm for the explanation of the mind is deeply misleading. Standardly, cognitive scientists tend to think of the nervous system as primarily a system for manipulating information received from the external world--that is, we usually think of the mind as being rather like a computer, capable of responding intelligently to inputs on the basis of a history of past inputs. For Llinás, this model is basically flawed. According to Llinás the brain does not just react intelligently to its environment--instead (while we are conscious) it is constantly creating models of sensory environments, and initiating almost random behaviors, and it is capable of doing this without input from the world. The basic state of the brain, for Llinás, is the dreaming state, a state where images and impulses are thrown up even without external stimulation by the outside world. The role of sensory input, when we are awake, is thus not to cause mental activity but to constrain it--to modify the impulses of the dreaming brain so that they match external reality in appropriate ways.

Thinking, then, is the modification of a spontaneously generated internal 'virtual reality.' Similarly, for Llinás, behavior is the modification of what he calls Fixed Action Patterns (FAPs)--"sets of well-defined motor patterns, ready-made 'motor tapes' as it were, that when switched on produce well-defined and coordinated movements: the escape response, walking, swallowing, the prewired aspects of bird songs, and the like." These FAPs, once triggered, are purely automatic: the role of the mind is not to monitor and bring about each aspect of these movements, but to determine which FAPs are allowed to run at a particular moment (shall I fight or shall I flee?) and sometimes to modify the progress of a FAP to take account of special circumstances (e.g. resetting our gait when we stumble on a rock). This makes the brain a much more efficient organ than it would be if it had to compute every movement of the body at every moment.

Though Llinás never makes it entirely plain just how much, in his view, thought consists in the running and modification of FAPs, it is clear that he thinks FAPs are a crucial part of the functional architecture of the mind. He argues that language-use is a complex FAP, that learning consists in large part in the adjustment of FAPs, and that emotions are 'premotor FAPs'--impulses to action which do not themselves trigger FAPs, but which predispose the brain to launch one FAP or another in the presence of a given stimulus. Brain disorders, also, can be seen as FAP failures: Tourette's syndrome, for example, is the inability to suppress FAPS, writes Llinás, while Parkinsonism involves a degeneration in the ability to trigger FAPs.

For the final piece of the puzzle, Llinás also addresses the neurophysiological underpinning of the mind--the neural mechanism by which the mind binds together various inputs into a single 'virtual reality' model of the environment and 'chooses' which FAPs to allow to proceed. According to Llinás, mindness is produced in the brain through inter-neuron communication mediated by electrical activity, and especially by the large electrical events which involve groups of neurons oscillating in phase. A key factor is the binding together of multiple, spatially and temporally spread out brain signals into a single brain state: this is achieved through 'temporal coherence,' probably a coherent 40-Hz oscillation in the thalamocortical system. Consciousness, in other words, is an electrical storm in the brain.

Whilst many of Llinás's conclusions are each individually plausible--he makes an especially good case for his view of the 'dreaming brain'--the resultant picture is ultimately rather unsatisfying. Llinás is never able to make it fully clear just why he thinks the neural mechanisms he points to are conscious states: why they feel like something rather than nothing. For example, merely noting that large arrays of neurons can be coordinated through a 40-Hz phase oscillation does little to answer the really interesting question of consciousness--why should 40-Hz oscillation sometimes feel like the taste of apricots or a deliberate decision to go to law school, when, say, 25-Hz lock-step oscillation feels like nothing at all? Like so many contemporary books which purport to provide 'theories of consciousness,' I of the Vortex is a useful starting point but falls a long way short of an actual theory.

© 2001 Andrew Bailey

Andrew Bailey, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Ontario. He works mainly in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001