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The Christof Koch Consciousness Reading List

Christof Koch has dedicated his life to the neurobiological study of consciousness. This trajectory has been played out in the work of his mentors (Francis Crick and Valentino Braitenberg), his contemporaries (like John Searle), and his own work. Consciousness is one of the most fundamental mysteries of the mind. It is fundamental in both the sense of being one of the primary features of the mind, as well as the sense of carrying with it an air of intractability. How does one even go about objectively investigating the nature of subjective experience? Based on our conversation on Cognitive Revolution, Christof gives his picks for the most incisive books on the subject he's ever come across.

Christof's picks

"The Astonishing Hypothesis" by Francis Crick

Though this book is more than twenty years old it is, as Christof says, still one of the best introductions on the topic to establish the big questions around consciousness. Christof is, of course, just a tad biased, as Crick was his mentor. But the claim still stands. Crick's two big claims to fame are the discovery of DNA -- outlined in his book Life Itself -- and his investigation of Consciousness, outlined in this book, and mostly undertaken with Christof as his partner. Between the two of books (and the two researchers, I guess) they're two works that gave the public deep insight into the most fundamental problems of science.

"The Mystery of Consciousness" by John Searle

If you want to wrap your mind around the structure of the problem of consciousness, you could do a lot worse than this. Searle is one of the most incisive philosophers of mind of the late 20th / early 21st century. You may or may not agree with his take on a problem; but you can be sure that you're hearing from someone who understands what's at stake. He's got a lot of books to chose from (including Mind: An Introduction). But if you want something focused on consciousness, this is a good place to start.

"On the Texture of Brains" by Valentino Braitenberg

Christof called this "a beautiful little book that really got me into neuroscience." The author, Braitenberg, was Christof's advisor. Before digging into this book, Christof was a pretty straight-ahead physicist. This book was his gateway drug to studying the brain. Though, if you listened to our conversation, you'll note that this isn't the only scientifically fruitful drug that Christof has done.

"Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology" by Valentino Braitenberg

This was Braitenberg's other, more famous books. It is essentially a series of thought experiments in which the author takes you through the process of building a thinking machine, step-by-step. I know many colleagues cite this book as playing a major role in developing their initial interest in the subject of psychology, cognitive science, and AI. (Note: Christof feels it should be flagged that this book doesn't include any discussion of consciousness.)

"What is Life?" by Erwin Schrödinger

This is another book in which one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century expounds upon the fantastic conundrums of the physical basis of lived-experience. Shrödinger is famous for his thought experiments the dead (or not?) cats, and so was acutely tuned into the complex dance between the world of the subjective and that of the objective. What, for example, would it mean for a physical instrument (like a thermometer) to measure a quantity without a conscious agent there to interpret it? If you're into that sort of thing, this book is for you.

Honorable mention: "Der Ring des Nibelungen" by Richard Wagner

As you may well know, this isn't a book but an opera. Properly speaking it isn't even a show; it's presented as a "cycle." It took Wagner twenty-six years to compose, and it is often considered one of the greatest musical masterpieces of all-time. Christof maintains that it's the greatest artistic representation of stream of consciousness (à la William James in science; James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in literature) that he's ever come across. So there you have it. If the Ring cycle comes to town, go check it out.

Cody's picks

"Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind" by Annaka Harris

This is one of the most recent popular books to come out on the subject of consciousness. Unlike most of the authors on this list, Harris isn't a professor of philosophy or biology -- which I think we can all agree counts to her credit. If you're craving something highly technical or with a really powerful historical legacy, maybe choose one of the above books. But if you want to pick up something you'll enjoy and find engaging, this is probably your best bet!

"Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist" by Christof Koch

This book by Christof combines memoir with scientific exposition. He talks about his religious upbringing, as well as his relationship with Francis Crick. It's a great book, as it's both personal and interesting. Speaking candidly, I'm surprised Christof was able to pull himself away from consciousness long enough to write about his own upbringing. But I'm sure glad he did. The book is awesome. (Note that the title of this book was actually suggested by one of Christof's former students, whom I've also had on the show, Heather Berlin.)

"The Feeling of Life Itself" by Christof Koch

The title is pays homage to Crick's book, and in doing so ties together Cricks two life-directing interests: Life Itself, and the conscious experience of it. This book gives Christof's most up-to-date theory of consciousness, based primarily around Integrated Information Theory. If your goal is to dig into the specifics of that theory, this is the one to pick.

"The Ravenous Brain" by Daniel Bor

This was the first book I read that really got me started thinking about consciousness. I remember it as the first time I started thinking about consciousness in functionalist terms: What's the point of consciousness? What can a conscious agent do that an unconscious one can't? It's not as well-known a book as the other ones on this list, but it's a nicely written that deserves its seat at the table of solid works on consciousness.

"Galileo's Error" by Philip Goff

"One of the rather surprising developments to me," said Christof during our interview, "has been the growing popularity of panpsychism." And in an ever widening field of interest, Philip Goff is one of the foremost proponents of this topic. He's also written probably the most engaging book on a modern scientific view of panpsychism that you're likely to come across.

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