A while back I noted that Emily Dickinson had stumbled onto the problem of ‘qualia‘ well before our dear David Chalmers made such a splash in the mid-nineties with his so-called “hard problem of consciousness“:

A color stands abroad

On solitary hills

That science cannot overtake,

But human nature feels.

That is an absolutely wonderful passage that illustrates the difficulties of that feel of conscious experience. While we have only been debating this at an academic level for, I don’t know, 30 years (at least since the publication of that famous essay, What is it like to be a bat?) Ms. Dickinson had apparently stumbled upon it in a brilliant moment of philosophical clarity. It really makes you wonder how many people throughout our history have had similar insights into future discoveries and problems facing a study of the mind. After all, we all enjoy equal access to consciousness that is unparalleled with any other phenomena. Mightn’t thinkers of ages past thought things that are now receiving empirical support? If you have wondered about any of those things, then Jonah Lehrer’s new book Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a must read.

I know the year is still young, but I am going to predict right now that the chapter on Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf (the first and last chapters, respectively) are the most interesting chapters I am going to read in 2008. Whitman was an easy decision for me for the sole reason that that particular period in America’s history produced my favorite authors and America’s greatest intellectuals. But even if that wasn’t enough, there is enough history, poetry and science intertwined to keep even the most giddy readers hooked. If you haven’t picked it up yet, Jonah has done some serious homework for this book, and it shows. Something of note: I had no idea that Whitman spent time pondering the mysteries of phantom limbs. It is quite engaging to see how folks with such a limited supply of resources would react to people who claimed pain in a nerveless space. In any case, Whitman wrote extensively on the importance of the coherence of the mind and body in a time when transcendentalism was at its peak. I promptly bought a copy of Leaves of Grass after I had finished this chapter.

I don’t have the time or space to exhaust all the things I enjoyed about this book, but I can say that if you like to read non-technical books that draw from a very diverse group of fields and knit them into a diverse tapestry, this will be the best science book of the year for you.

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