Wider Than the Sky
Wider Than the Sky
This semester I read the book Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness by Gerald M.
Edelman, a writer who is also a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist. This book explores the ideas of
consciousness—what it is, how it works and even whether consciousness actually exists. In the words of the
author, consciousness contains, “Many disparate elements—sensations, perceptions, images, memories
thoughts, emotions, aches, pains, vague feelings and so on. Looked at from the inside, consciousness seems
continually to change, yet at each moment it is all of piece—what I have called ‘the remembered
present’—reflecting the fact that all my past experience is engaged in forming my integrated awareness of
this single moment” (8). In other words, consciousness is a combination of many different abilities of the
brain that combine to create our unique awareness and experience of the world around us.
I thought this book was a good companion to the Biology 103 course because while being extremely
scientific it was also very philosophical. Edelman writes a lot about the idea of the individual experience, and
how every person has a unique perspective that no one else will ever be able to experience. For example,
two people could be watching the same movie and come away with completely different feelings about that
movie. The emotions the movie brings up for them could be very different because of unique past
experiences, knowledge and point of view. Because we are conscious we are also self-conscious and
self-aware. We understand that the way we view ourselves is not how other people view us, and vice versa.
Consciousness is what separates us from other species, it is the reason we have come so far technologically
and scientifically. It is what makes us as scientific questions, and the ability to answer them. Both this book
and our class stress how intertwined philosophy and science are, and combined they gave me a new outlook
on the scientific experience.
Edelman spends a lot of time discussing the different parts of the brain involved in the consciousness
process. This involves summarizing the different parts of the brain and what they do, and I was very glad he
did this. His explanations were very simple and concise, and I could see this part of the book used as
somewhat of a textbook in a science course. This part of the book also highlighted what an improbably
assembly the human brain is—Edelman describes consciousness as a process of all these different abilities of
the brain coming together. His descriptions of how everything works together in such an intricate way really
emphasizes how amazing the brain is and how impressive it is that this process actually works. The brain is
definitely an organ of extremely improbable assembly.
Something about this book that may make it not such a good candidate to be read in an introductory
biology class is that it is extremely complex. Edelman tries to write for the layperson but he does not
necessarily succeed. Reading this book requires a lot of concentration on the part of the reader. I have
taken some neuroscience courses, such as Behavioral Neuroscience, so with my previous knowledge
concerning the brain I was mostly able to understand what the author was writing about, although I still
spent a lot of time rereading passages and looking at my old neuroscience textbook. I think someone reading
this book with no scientific knowledge might be more than a little confused. He does provide a glossary of
terms at the back of the book, which was extremely helpful but there is really no way to write about such a
difficult, scientifically involved topic and have it be easy to read. I think maybe if a whole class read this book
together, so they could spend time discussing and analyzing the really confusing parts it would be a good
book to read as a class.
I really enjoyed this book even though it was hard to read at times. It really makes you think about
what it means to be human. Although Edelman does a lot in the way of illuminating the process,
consciousness is not something that is fully understood by scientists. Something I found intriguing is why
this process is so hard to study. Edelman writes that when one studies consciousness one must assume that
all human experiences is somewhat similar, and that even though consciousness is subjective the underlying
emotions and perceptions are homogenous. It is interesting that this ability that separates all humans so
distinctly from one another also brings us together. When someone reads a poem they may not know
exactly what the author was writing about but they have experienced that emotion. The human experience
is unique but it is unique to all of us, and consciousness is what Edelman calls our “greatest gift”. I would
recommend this book to anyone who is interested in understanding the human condition, but it is definitely
not an easy read.
Edelman, Gerald. Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.