Wider Than the Sky

PS2007's picture

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.

References

Edelman, Gerald. Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness. New Haven and London: Yale         University Press, 2004.

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

Why consciousness is hard to study?

Interesting though that consciousness is hard to study because ... "one must assume that all human experience is somewhat similar" and maybe, in the case of consciousness, that's not so? The issue intersects in an interesting way with another discussion of whether we are more similar to one another consciously or unconsciously.

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