A Journey through the Human Brain with Guilio Tononi

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The human brain and our consciousness: they have been mystical and exotic topics that many a scientist has tried again and again to understand.  Neuroscientist Guilio Tononi, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, is one of those scientists.

Tononi has published two books on the topic of our consciousness. His most recent publication, “Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul,” grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning with his exploration narrative. 

The story is told by Galileo, a man who opened the way for the objectivity of science. He takes the reader on a tour of the three minds and meets three famous friends on his journey of understanding. "Galileo is now on a journey to understand how experience, consciousness, and subjectivity can arise out of matter," Tononi says. The protagonist wants to reintroduce subjectivity to science.   

Tononi discusses the brain, our conscience, and what unique twists and turns are revealed in his book that provide a new perspective on this complicated subject. Tononi recalls Galileo's disproving of the theory that Earth, and therefore mankind, was at the center of the universe, while Darwin discovered humanity's evolutionary roots. Human beings have struggled with the implications of these revelations ever since, but Tononi focuses on a third idea. 

Tononi gives the example of the cerebellum, a highly complex component of the brain that is involved in motor functions like balance coordination. "Yet, if you take it away, consciousness doesn't change a bit. Essentially, this is a very, very complicated thing; it is a piece of brain, and yet it has nothing to do with consciousness. But, if you take out some other parts of the brain, suddenly you would not only block the functioning of a piece of matter, but you yourself would disappear and not exist anymore." 

The neuroscientist sees further study of the brain as a way to gain some insight on the connection between the physical structure of the brain and human consciousness. "What is it that makes some parts of the brain generate experience [and] subjectivity, and others which are equally complicated don't do anything at all?"