Consciousness by J Allan Hobson WH Freeman 256 pages, US$ 22.95071 676 0401
People are fascinated by consciousness. After all, it is the basis of being human. It enables awareness, abstract thought, symbolism, communication, emotion and belief—without consciousness there would be no religion, no poetry and we would not be able to embark upon a quest to understand ourselves. J. Allan Hobson, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is a leading expert in sleep research; in simply calling his book Consciousness, he is evidently confident that his particular discipline, neuroscience, is capable of investigating and explaining it single‐handedly. We are also led to expect a definitive work. Sadly, the book rarely satisfies such expectations.
First, Hobson ducks the question of whether animals have consciousness by defining two types. The first, primary consciousness, is that possessed by animals. He then introduces mankind's secondary consciousness, and defines it as the ability to ‘represent our own mental processes to ourselves via the abstractions of language and thought’ —in other words, the awareness of being aware. Obviously, describing consciousness is problematic; if we have trouble even defining it, what hope does science have in pinning down this elusive wonder of evolution?
There is a certain arrogance prevalent in science in believing that, given enough effort, all questions will eventually be solved. Neuroscience's adoption of the reductionist method—taking something apart and examining the pieces in order to understand the whole—is a prime example of this attitude. By analogy, studying the parts of a car with an electron microscope and a mass spectrometer will not help us understand how it moves.
So, neuroscience teaches us that the reticular formation, particularly the part of it that extends to the thalamus, is a kind of on‐off switch for consciousness. When activation levels of the brainstem fall, even a little, the circuits in the thalamus begin to oscillate to their own rhythm, resulting in a loss of ‘sensible’ input to the cortex. Indeed, brain rhythms are associated with conscious states, e.g. beta and gamma electroencephalogram (EEG) waves with waking, delta and theta waves with sleep. But this is simply descriptive and does not define consciousness. Can it be defined in terms of pharmacology? There are different neuronal systems, the aminergic and the cholinergic systems, active in waking and rapid eye‐movement (REM) sleep, respectively. This means that, in principle, different brain states could be mediated by different neuronal systems, each with its accompanying biochemical and physiological state. If behaviour is determined by the activation of different neuronal systems, free will and morality are under threat. Thankfully, Hobson says not. Then, maddeningly, he spends only a single paragraph defending them.
There is no God and ‘clearly no Little Person inside us’ states Hobson. His perception is that consciousness arises as a property of the whole machine, emergentism, but that the machine is modularised. Although the ‘learning’ module is shared by snails and humans, ours is in part voluntary and verbal and the snail's association is exclusively automatic and non‐verbal. Indeed, language and memory are important components of secondary consciousness. However, this line is not developed further. A pity, because there is much evidence that, raised in the absence of language, humans do not develop conceptual thought processes.
Instead, the second half of the book is concerned with Hobson's three‐dimensional A‐I‐M model to describe conscious states. This represents ‘activation’ level, information source and modulation as the three axes of a cube—a reasonable, though entirely qualitative model. He uses it to define consciousness, by comparing dreaming, non‐REM sleep and waking consciousness and asking what is subtracted from brain activity if one compares these states. But this approach is hopelessly limited if the goal is to understand consciousness. Having defined the model, Hobson then stretches it to breaking point. He uses it to describe psychopathology, neurodegenerative disorders, the artistic temperament and to justify pharmacological and other interventions in brain disorders—most disturbingly, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or, what the Americans more euphemistically call, electric shock therapy (EST). He rubbishes Freud but he excuses Moniz, who invented lobotomy, on the grounds that a metal instrument inserted into the brain and wiggled around produced results. Of course it did. This shameful episode in scientific history is one of the cautionary tales that all neuroscientists should commit to heart. He extols the virtues of Prozac, demonstrating how it works in terms of his model, bringing the disordered brain back into the ‘correct’ state‐space in his three‐dimensional consciousness cube. Hobson seems to have written his book before the catalogue of negative side‐effects and long‐term psychophysiological problems of the drug became known.
However, Hobson is a star in his particular firmament and moulds himself on William James (brother of Henry, the novelist, and seen by some as the father of modern psychology). As a resumé of modern thought on consciousness, the result here is not encouraging, disappointing even, and the last chapter dealing with the functions of consciousness is a sad reflection of the limits of the scientific imagination. This is not to say that he has not contributed to the understanding of neuronal mechanisms in consciousness. An intriguing observation made by Hobson during his ‘experience sampling’ research, in which he has volunteers record their thoughts and emotions when ‘beeped’ at random intervals during the day and night, is that consciousness may edit behaviour and memory. People tend to forget quite how frequently they recorded negative thoughts and emotions when asked to look back on the whole day.
Who should read this book? Its style and content are not too technically demanding and make it a textbook suitable for science undergraduates and the interested layman. But those expecting to gain a comprehensive understanding of consciousness will be disappointed. After reading this book, I am convinced that it will take more than neuroscience to unravel the mysteries of consciousness. What is presented here is a descriptive account of what happens to some of the structures and processes associated with neuronal activity in sleep, when awake and in certain pathological states. But just summing up these happenings does not provide an explanation of consciousness. Nevertheless, neuroscience deserves its due: it has demonstrated that the reductionist approach can and will, explain many interesting aspects of the brain's activity. But it should be left there.
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization
The author is at the School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK E‐mail: