In “On Intelligence”, Jeff Hawkins makes an apt metaphor for the complexity of the brain:

The brain is incredibly complex, a vast and daunting tangle of cells. At first glance it looks like a stadium full of cooked spaghetti.

neurons through an optical microscope

neurons through an optical microscope


Let’s explore this comparison. Do the proportions hold? Incredibly, they do! Take a human brain 20 cm in length and blow it up to the size of the Yankee stadium – 200 m in length. In this magnified world, axons and dendrites indeed will approximate the sizes of common varieties of pasta from thick noodles at the axon hillock to thinnest capellini in dendritic arbors. Dendritic spines will appear as barely visible bristles along the dendrites. Neuronal soma will approximate golf balls in size or, more appropriately, rather large meatballs.

Wait a minute!

Flying Spaghetti Monster
The spaghetti bowl theory of the brain lends added credence to Pastafarianism, a belief system that describes the Creator of the Universe, Supreme Being, or Higher Consciousness in similar culinary terms.

Coincidence?

Francis Crick was being coy when he titled his book “The astonishing hypothesis”: that all cognitive processes, including consciousness, are the product of neurons is much more than a hypothesis — it is a mature theory and a subject of active multidisciplinary investigation. The popularization of this insight may meet similar resistance as Darwin’s theory (although it may simply be lumped together with ‘Darwinism’). The view of consciousness as interaction of several mechanisms (or as Dan Dennett calls it, “a bag of tricks”) disagrees with the common sense notion of self as indivisible whole, the starting point in philosophical search (Cogito ergo sum). Therefore, all interesting philosophy of the next decades will be informed by recent experimental findings in neuroscience. Many authors are attempting to popularize the notions of neuronal nature of self. Others are taking advantage of the confusion to push a pet speculation or dogma.

Below I have compiled this chart with several books I have read that address questions of consciousness in intriguing ways. I rated these books based on how much new knowledge or insight they seemed to provide and whether these insights came by way of empirical findings or unfounded speculation. Click to enlarge.

Luckily, many popularizers of scientific understanding of mind and consciousness have made public presentations that are now available online. These make good previews of the contents of their books, and, if you have a couple of hours, getting to know these people will be time well spent.

Daniel Dennett:

Lectures on consciousness:

Jeff Hawkins, “On intelligence”

Christof Koch, “The Quest for Consciousness”