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In I of the Vortex, Rodolfo Llinas, a founding father of modern brain science, presents an original view of the evolution and nature of mind. According to Llinas, the "mindness state" evolved to allow predictive interactions between mobile creatures and their environment. He illustrates the early evolution of mind through a primitive animal called the "sea squirt." The mobile larval form has a brainlike ganglion that receives sensory information about the surrounding environment. As an adult, the sea squirt attaches itself to a stationary object and then digests most of its own brain. This suggests that the nervous system evolved to allow active movement in animals. To move through the environment safely, a creature must anticipate the outcome of each movement on the basis of incoming sensory data. Thus the capacity to predict is most likely the ultimate brain function. One could even say that Self is the centralization of prediction.
At the heart of Llinas's theory is the concept of oscillation. Many neurons possess electrical activity, manifested as oscillating variations in the minute voltages across the cell membrane. On the crests of these oscillations occur larger electrical events that are the basis for neuron-to-neuron communication. Like cicadas chirping in unison, a group of neurons oscillating in phase can resonate with a distant group of neurons. This simultaneity of neuronal activity is the neurobiological root of cognition. Although the internal state that we call the mind is guided by the senses, it is also generated by the oscillations within the brain. Thus, in a certain sense, one could say that reality is not all "out there," but is a kind of virtual reality.
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What is it about neuroscience that graces its practitioners with humility? Rodolfo Llinas of the NYU School of Medicine continues this tradition of quietly tackling the deepest issues in I of the Vortex. This exposition on the evolution and development of consciousness is accessible and intriguing enough to interest readers more philosophically than scientifically oriented. Grounded in research, the book posits our awareness as an artifact of the cortico-thalamic binding of perceptions and movements in synchrony; Llinas uses this theory as a launching pad for more far-reaching considerations of selfhood all the more relevant for their correlation with the facts.
Charmingly illustrated with artistic and scientific images cleverly supporting the arguments, the book is a quick if challenging read, and it explains all the scientific basics for those approaching from the humanities. Synthesizing evolution, philosophy, and neuroscience is becoming an increasingly popular endeavor for introspective eggheads, and we should be grateful: the question of consciousness affects us all and touches on every other field, from theology to particle physics. I of the Vortex is a welcome contribution to the theory of mind and essential reading for the introspective. --Rob LightnerAbout the Author:
Rodolfo R. Llinás is the Thomas and Susanne Murphy Professor of Neuroscience and Chairman of the Department of Physiology and Neuroscience at the New York University School of Medicine.
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