Consciousness is a very difficult subject to tackle. It’s hard to even define, despite the fact that every one of us experiences it during every (waking?) moment of our lives. It’s even harder to study objectively, given that consciousness is, practically by definition, highly subjective.
Jay Ingram gives it a shot in his latest book, Theatre of the Mind. The title refers to several past thinkers who have used the theatre metaphor to understand consciousness. This often leads to problems (e.g. if the stage represents consciousness, then someone (the audience) needs to view the contents of consciousness, and thus must be conscious themselves, which leads to an infinite string of consciousnesses within consciousnesses), which Ingram points out in order to illustrate difficulties with consciousness studies. However, I like how he also explains an updated version of the metaphor to illustrate one of the current theories about what consciousness is, how it works, and how it avoids the above problem. Books like this often present a whole lot of research and anecdotes without even attempting to tie it all together. Ingram, though aware of the limitations of this approach, does bring up one possible approach (global workspace theory) to wrap things up.
Given Ingram’s origin as a host of popular science shows, it is not unexpected that the book is extremely casual and non-scientific. It is almost like watching a long episode of Daily Planet all about consciousness. This makes it an easy read, and I would recommend the book to anyone even if they have no experience with psychology or philosophy. Sometimes, however, I wished for more detail and depth. He jumps around a lot, as if unable to stay on one topic for more than a few paragraphs, which can get annoying if the topic is interesting and he suddenly moves on to something else. Ingram also adds his own anecdotes and opinions, which again makes it easier to digest, but some may view it as overstepping his bounds to be critical of an area of research which he has not participated in himself.
Another thing I must mention is that Ingram takes a very open-minded approach. Though he always warns when something is not generally accepted by the scientific community, he is not afraid to venture into territory that could be considered pseudo-science or parapsychological. One example is a researcher, Benjamin Libet, who wishes to stimulate a piece of brain which has been completely detached from the rest of the brain, but kept alive and in the skull. He believes that the rest of the brain could still react to the stimulus, because there is more to consciousness than connections between neurons. Needless to say, it’s a bit controversial, but given some of the incredible findings that Libet (and others) have already discovered about the mind and brain, I think it’s worth seeing what happens.
I recommend Theatre of the Mind to anyone looking to learn more about consciousness. It probably brings up more questions than answers, but at least it will clarify one’s thinking about a subject which is very hard to think about.