Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
Reviewed by Benjamin Cox
“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” Though centuries before the advent of neuroimaging techniques revolutionized our understanding of the brain, John Milton had a primitive, yet lucent understanding of the mystery of the brain, as well as its power to shape human existence. The brain defines our humanity, perhaps more so than any other organ; not only does it control our ability to eat and breath, but it allows us think, to feel, and to have that divine sense of being alive. The brain is the intersection between body and soul. But where exactly does this intersection lie? What parts of the brain contribute to that uniquely human experience of consciousness? Guilio Tonini attempts to answer these questions in his recently published work Phi. Though Tonini is a psychiatrist by trade, this work is more of an epic than a scientific manuscript; clearly imitating Dante’s Inferno, he takes the reader on a journey not through the circles of hell, but through the circles of human consciousness. Our protagonist Galileo Galilei is guided through the allegorical realms of the human mind by several “Virgils”, each of whom brings different insights to our understanding of human consciousness.
Francis Crick first takes Galileo through the basic structures of the mind by introducing him to a succession of historical characters with various brain lesions. He meets patients with lobectomies, cortical blindness, memory loss, split brains, seizures, and many other neurological abnormalities, each of which serves to illustrate a certain facet of consciousness. He learns which parts of the brain contribute to consciousness and which parts are extraneous.
Galileo then meets mathematician Alan Turing who explores consciousness from a more mechanistic perspective. Galileo learns how consciousness, unlike individual neurons, is more than a simple on/off switch; it is an integration of many neuronal inputs with an infinite number of possible states. An individual neuron has two states, either on or off, but consciousness requires the ability to integrate information above and beyond its parts. For instance, a camera is composed of millions of photodiodes, each of which has an on or off state, however, the picture it generates is no more than a summation of these individual bits of information; it is not conscious. The network of neurons in the human brain, on the other hand, is able to generate more information than each individual neuron provides; when the eye reads letters printed on a page, it not only recognizes the shape and order of each letter, but it synthesizes these letters into words and words into sentences which are able to convey an abstract meaning beyond each individual letter. Turing gives this concept of information generated by a system above its parts the name “Phi”. The concept of Phi postulates that consciousness is not a fixed structure within the brain, like a king sitting on his throne, but is an integrated network, mutable and inconstant, that is able to grow, learn, and adapt. Though definitely the more heady section of the book, this is the meat and potatoes of Tonini’s theory of consciousness.
In the last section of the book, Galileo is guided by an unnamed bearded man, who is likely Charles Darwin. Here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and this concept of consciousness is applied to all facets of life: cognition, art, evolution, natural science, even death itself. Galileo sees what happens when consciousness fades, as in dementia, or when it first begins in the womb. While earlier in the book Tonini portrays the complexity of the brain, here he overwhelms the reader with its sheer beauty. He also opens the door to many philosophical questions: what happens to consciousness when we die? When is a human first conscious? Are animals conscious? Some readers may be disappointed at the scant answers he provides, but that is the stark reality of studying the brain – we will always have more questions than answers.
In terms of his writing style, Tonini is good but not great. He is certainly creative in his conception of this book and in the way in which he is able to integrate so many spheres of human existence – science, philosophy, art, literature, history, and politics – into a cohesive whole. The actual timbre of his words, however, leaves something to be desired. His language tends to be clunky, cumbersome, and a bit ambiguous at times. Part of this is certainly the complex nature of the subject, but there is a degree to which this is further complicated by his confusing and wordy verbiage. Perhaps this is why Tonini includes a notes section at the end of each chapter, attempting to clarify his own ambiguity.
That said, I still strongly recommend this book; his ingenuity in combining so many realms of human experience more than makes up for whatever pitfalls his writing style may have. To understand the mind, one must be as much of a humanist as a scientist; Tonini reeks of both. His book is certainly far from an exhaustive textbook on human consciousness, but to those who seek simply to enjoy the beauty of the brain and to have their minds opened to its mysteries, Phi is the perfect journey to take.
1. John Milton, Paradise Lost
Copyright © 2013 Mentis
About the author:
Ben is still a first year med student. After 2 rounds of permethrin, he is now free from cooties.
About the artwork:
"Mind" by Jaison Nainaparampil is acrylic on canvas. About the painting, Jaison writes: "I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that this organic structure is the reason behind all our experiences in life. From the thoughts we think to the emotions that we feel, they all originate in our brain. Yet, I can’t help but believe that there is just something more to it. I just feel sometimes that the power of this organ is far, far greater than the sum of its organic parts. Hence, I painted “Mind” to portray the idea that maybe not everything can be explained by various nuclei and white matter tracts."