Five Books to Read Before Diving into The Hard Problem

NEW YORK - JUNE 3: Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University June 3, 2009 in New York City. Dr. Sacks, who was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in 2007, is the author of several bestselling books. His 1973 book "Awakenings" was adapted into the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams and his latest book is "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain". (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The hard problem, as the famous philosopher David Chalmers proposed, is how our material body gives rise to our rich experiences, reality, and feelings. How does feeling how we feel, our subjective experience, comes to exist? From where exactly? Consciousness, as we know, is a mystery that has persisted for centuries. There was a time when exploring such a topic in science was taboo. Scientist, or more aptly, serious scientists, were recommended to stay away from the dead-end that was consciousness.

Study Before the Study: Books on Consciousness

For a long time, philosophers wrestled with the problem, forming a wide bridge that almost seemed to be unreachable. But then, in the late 20th century, attitudes toward consciousness changed. Scientists, like the two Nobel laureates, Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman, became interested in discovering the origins of the phenomenon. From the 1990s to now, the study of consciousness started to lose its taboo veil. Programs across the United States and Europe started to accept the challenge. For neuroscience and other studies of the mind, consciousness became a somewhat reachable goal – even more after the rise of modern brain imaging. For a while, this all seems simple. The brain obviously was involved with giving rise to consciousness, so neuroscience was the logical field to study the hard problem.

Is safe to say that for now, neuroscience has not been the answer. Bridging the brain with the intensity of what we feel has proven to be awful hard. This opened the doors for many fields, even pseudoscience to pour comments on the hard problem. As a reporter for The Chronicles of Higher Education noted after arriving in Arizona’s conference on the Science of Consciousness:

“There’s something about the topic of consciousness that, unlike other scientific fields of inquiry, inspires an unearned feeling of expertise. If you don’t know much about, say, the life cycle of a protozoan, you probably wouldn’t pretend you did at parties. But because you are conscious, you might feel as if you can say something significant about the profoundly complex phenomenon of consciousness. You might even wish to write down what you feel, laminate it, and thumbtack it to a free-standing bulletin board for all to see.”

It’s hard to contrast what has solid science behind it and what is basically babble since everybody knows what it feels to be conscious. One day you can hear an amazing scientist showing their latest work on consciousness from an Ivy League University. On other occasions, Deepak Chopra will try to convince you that he has the answer to the hard problem with new-age propaganda. It is because of this that I have compiled five books that everyone should read before diving into the hard problem. Keep in mind that these books are for those interested in getting informed before being bombarded by this astonishing field of study or for those that want to scratch the surface of consciousness.

5. Conversations of Consciousness (2006) by Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore is a recognizable face in the study of the hard problem, she even has a book dedicated solely to the topic. But, in Conversations of Consciousness, she concentrates on the masterminds that had brought the study to a higher profile. The book is a gem because it features interviews with all-stars on the topic like Roger Penrose, Daniel Dennett, the Churchlands, Crick, and Chalmers. It also features some rising stars at such moment like Christof Koch and V. S. Ramachandran. Everybody gives input on the hard problem to Blackmore. If you don’t want a grand book on a single idea on consciousness, this book is just for you.

4. Hallucinations (2014) by Oliver Sacks

Consciousness can feature altered states. That is, your reality can change drastically if having sensory deprivation (by any of the five senses), extreme sports competition, near-death experiences, dreaming, or while experimenting with drugs. Hallucinations feature some of those altered states of consciousness and who better to explain that than everyone’s favorite neurologist, Oliver Sacks. One of the last books of the famous writer explored through the senses, drugs, and even sleep, how our perception changes and how we don’t even notice such states. Some followers of the hard problem will say that consciousness might not even be a property of the brain. Sacks challenges that notion.

3. The Emerging Mind (2003) in the United Kingdom and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness in the United States (2004) by Vilayanur Ramachandran

Richard Dawkins once said of V.S. Ramachandran, “[Ramachandran] is a latter-day Marco Polo, journeying the silk road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind.” Indeed, the best example of that statement is Ramachandran’s brief book on consciousness. Rama, as his friends call him, is willing to explore various aspects of human consciousness in everyday life. He tackles the strange disorder known as synaesthesia (mix of the senses; smelling a word, seeing a number with colors), explores phantom limbs (people feeling there hand long after being amputated) and even dabbles in what we know as qualia (the intensity of our subjective feeling). Although Ramachandran does some hit-and-misses, his beautiful and interesting writing brings to life the richness on what we know as consciousness. What’s even better is that this is condense writing of the book – less than 200 pages.

2. The Consciousness Instinct: Unravelling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind (2018) by Michael S. Gazzaniga

Michael Gazzaniga is a towering figure in the field of neuroscience, having had a career that expands 50+ years, and founding the popular field of cognitive neuroscience. In his last book, while trying to propose a new twist to the hard problem he did something extraordinary. He was able to bring the history of the hard problem to life and give some good insights into its capacities. The Consciousness Instinct is a marvelous book for anyone who screams in his mind, “What the hell is going on?” when hearing opinions on the hard problem. Gazzaniga first tackles the origins of the hard problem, the many levels of the brain that may interact in creating an experience, and finally, how we should treat the hard problem from now on. With writing that makes the layman learn about the brain, this book could satisfy those interest in consciousness.

1. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012) by Christof Koch

This is the ultimate brief book on the hard problem, written by the leading face on the study of consciousness. When Francis Crick discovered in the 1950s the structure of the DNA, one of his long-time mysteries was resolved. Late in his life, he decided to concentrate on his other long-time mystery, where does consciousness arise from our biology. He transitioned to the rising field of neuroscience and decided to choose a young man from Caltech, Christof Koch. Both men would turnaround the study of consciousness forever. Crick and Koch were set to find the biological roots of the hard problem and their relationship grew so big that when Crick was dying of cancer, his last moments were spent hallucinating about a discussion on consciousness with Koch (who was not present).

Why it’s so important, for those interested in the hard problem, a book that is partly a memoir of Koch? Because it contains everything that you need to identify the hard problem, what’s legitimate about consciousness and what’s pseudoscience. Koch opens chapter 5 by stating the following:

“I frequently receive lengthy, unsolicited cogitation in the mail – densely scribbled manuscript with the promise of more to come, self-published book, or links to extensive Web pages – concerning the ultimate answers to life and consciousness. My attitude to these outpouring is that unless they respect such hard-won neurologic and scientific knowledge, they are destined for the constantly growing X-file sitting in a dusty corner of my office.”

Koch brings to life the different angles that the hard problem brings and sketches his journey through the now confusing field. Koch lays waste to those who yell to have the answers, to those who say the bridge between brain and consciousness are too far, and for the ones that are giving up. He pays homage to his late friend Crick, gives example using case stories of Sacks, and blends beautifully the different theories of his collaborators in California – the same ones that are interviewed in Blackmore’s book. Koch’s book will make you understand clearly why consciousness is called “the hard problem” and what science is doing about it.

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Emmanuel Figueroa Rosado is a young writer out of Puerto Rico and has been writing for Last Word on Pro Sports for two years. He writes for lwos. LIFE Magazine, focusing on topics of science and reviewing science books. Figueroa is a Ph.D. student in History of the Americas and Medicine from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. He also has an M.A. in Educational Neuroscience from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico and has a B.A. in Pedagogy from the University of Puerto Rico, Bayamon.

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