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The Cerebral SymphonyThere are German and Dutch translations.  

The original English is now available in an Authors Guild reprint edition via amazon.com and other booksellers:


A book by
William H. Calvin
The Cerebral Symphony (Bantam 1989) is my book on animal and human consciousness, using the setting of the Marine Biological Labs and Cape Cod. AVAILABILITY is again good.  There is now an Authors Guild reprint edition available via amazon.com and other booksellers.
The Cerebral Symphony
Seashore Reflections on the
Structure of Consciousness

Copyright ©1989 by William H. Calvin.

You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).

Table of Contents

     Prologue: Finding Mind Amid the Nerve Cells 1

1. Making Up the Mind: Morning on Eel Pond 16
Woods Hole, on the southern tip of Cape Cod. Cormorant, skunk, and robot behavior: How do they decide what to do next? Thinking about thought: Movement programs and “brainstorming” creativity. Why pianists and ferryboat captains can’t rely on feedback: When the perfect plan is needed. Our sense of self, of voluntary decision.

2. The Random Road to Reason: Off-line Trial and Error 27
Trial, error, and selectivity. Purpose and chance in philosopher’s eyes. E. coli’s random walk. Selling short darwinism again. Experience as the elimination of bad guesses, but we humans can think through an action without acting. Owner’s test for boaters (and prospective parents) and why planning ahead isn’t common.

3. Orchestrating the Stream of Consciousness: Prefrontal-Cortex Performances 45
Venturing out Cape Cod. Stupidity in freeway (and cormorant) design. Elaine’s head injury, amnesia, and the stages of recovery of function. The fantastic juxtapositions of nocturnal dreams. Injury to motor strip, premotor, and prefrontal cortex. Planning sequences and a violinist’s performance at the MBL Centennial. Sense of volition and how dreams violate it, promote the notion of a soul that wanders abroad. Monitoring narratives, telling the truth. The frontal lobe’s role in worry, compulsions, and schizophrenia.

4. Varieties of Consciousness: From Coma to Reverie 69
Coast Guard Beach, the Outermost House. Horseshoe crabs and dangers of overdoing defensive armor. Consciousness as overused word: Sleep/wakefulness, awareness, perception/cognition, even worldview. The Narrator seems the most important aspect of consciousness — but that brings up the homunculus problem, and the need to know the parts from which an explanation can be constructed.

5. The Electrically Exciting Life of the Inhibited Nervous Cell 91
Churchyard; graves of Otto Loewi and Stephen Kuffler. Fin de siecle arguments. Loewi’s discovery of puff of perfume used to bridge gap between two nerve cells. Atropine and a heart-stopping story. Kuffler’s inhibitory neuron and how it turns up its sensitivity when deprived. Basic research as the major industry of Woods Hole.

6. Making Mind from Mere Brain: Taking Apart the Visual World 109
Nobska Beach. A schema for Picasso and the Procrustean bed of our expectations. What the frog’s eye tells the frog. An analogy to retina: A bank that sends out a million interest-bearing account statements every second. Digging deeper in springy sand, and the meandering agenda of reductionism. Mexican hat arrangements specializing in small black spots. Hubel and Wiesel’s cortical cells specializing in lines.

7. Who Speaks from the Cerebral Cortex? The Problem of Subconscious Committees 133
Shining Sea Bikeway between Falmouth and Woods Hole. There is not just one map of the visual world in your brain but dozens. Redundancy for precision; duplication then diversification. Grandmother’s face cell fallacy and the command neuron concept. Trichromaticity lesson; irreducibility of color and taste. Infinite regress.

8. Dynamic Reorganization: Sharpening Up a Smear with a Mexican Hat 157
Plasticity of brain maps; nature versus nurture. Childhood loss of cortical connections; like carving to produce patterns. Bootstrapping MBL. Horseshoe crabs and lateral inhibition. Transformations produced in the brain. Smear of anatomical connections; sharpen up with inhibition. Exercising fingers enlarges cortical maps.

9. Of Arms Races in Church Gardens: The Sidestep and Evolution’s Other Byways 181
Foxglove’s digitalis. We usually inactivate plant toxins by cooking but remember Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS on Guam. Arms races between plants and insects. Cultural versus biological evolution. Emergents from combinations such as hybrid vigor; holists versus reductionists.

10. Darwin on the Brain: Self-organizing Committees 205
Hit-or-miss toolmaking. How do I move my hand? Autonomy versus instruction from higher levels. Command neurons; why labeled lines aren’t needed. Sequences and frontal lobes. Committee properties; how neurallike committees can be shaped up for text-to-speech “reading aloud.” Committee self-organization without an instructor; moving the “Canadian” border when “California” expands into “Oregon.”

11. A Whole New Ball Game: Bootstrapping Thought Through Throwing 233
Our ballistic recreations, and how dogs train us. Reaction time problem with hammering, throwing, kicking; must make the perfect plan (like a player piano roll) as corrections are impossible. Tolerable error in timing throws and evolving multitrack sequencers. Law of Large Numbers for reducing jitter in time of rock release. Hallelujah Chorus analogy; gang together for precision. Building a heart, and the regularity of the beat. Shifting from “variations on a theme” mode to “precision” mode: Auditioning songwriters, then having them all sing together as a chorus.

12. Shaping Up Consciousness with a Darwinian Dance: Emergence from the Subconscious 255
Infant’s development of a sense of self, a narrator of our mental lives. Dog versus chimpanzee insight when on a leash. Trial and error’s history. When not throwing, can use Darwin-Machinelike neural tracks for planning what to say next. Dreaming’s unrealistic scenarios constructed from existing schemas. Marshaling yard metaphor. Sequential aspects of consciousness can come from a Darwin Machine too. Hazards of remembering everything. Lateral inhibition circuits for declaring “the best”: Does this provide our “unity of consciousness”? Is the subconscious all of the tracks but the best one, which is what one is “conscious of”? Chunking due to seven-unit buffer length.

13. The Trilogy of Homo seriatim: Language, Consciousness, and Music
Multiple planning tracks create a Darwin Machine analogous to biology’s variation plus selection: If operate tracks independently, get a Darwin Machine for planning all sorts of future scenarios. The problem of value: How does machinery judge “better” and “best”? The economists’ Subjective Estimated Utility function as the scorecard. Ready, get set, and go: Random Thoughts Mode of the Darwin Machine. Variations-on-a-theme Mode when we focus our attention. Choral Mode of near-clones from “get set.” Constructing sentences with sensory and movement schemas (“nouns” and “verbs”) in a Darwin Machine. The emerging consensus among sequencers. Music may be another secondary use of the same neural machinery in the off-hours when not needed for throwing or talking. The Woods Hole Cantata concert at the Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole, scientists en famille.

14. Thinking about Thought: Twilight at Nobska Lighthouse 301
Niche specialization: Can the cormorants and the Great Blue Heron manage to share the resources of Eel Pond? Getting around niche-fixity with a nice jump to a new function and the virtues of discovering an “empty niche”. Labor Day in Woods Hole and the hazards of amateur truck drivers. Sunset from Nobska Lighthouse and the green spots escaping sunset. Stringing things together and free will. Subconscious problem-solving and premature closure; fundamentalist hazards of frameworks. The virtues of noise. And why it would be logical to rename the cat “Darwin.”

15. Simulations of Reality: Augmented Mammals and Conscious Robots 317
A night on the beach; constellations as human creations. Could artificial consciousness contemplate the heavens in the same ways that we do? The visit of the harbor seal: Would animals thank us for augmenting their look-ahead ability, if that included worry and suffering? Robotic concepts as a mirror of mind understanding itself. Building a Darwin Machine for language and planning ahead, but when might we declare it conscious? Exporting intelligence to protected places away from the fragile Earth; society’s many recent retreats from knowledge. “Downloading” a person’s brain into a work-alike computer: Cautions from chaos. Training a Darwin Machine to be a personal auxiliary that comes to think like its trainer. Is the minimalist view of mind a Darwin Machine, or is there something simpler? The many free bonuses from our Darwin Machine: Language, consciousness, music, poetry, games. The beyond-the-apes human characteristics that Darwin Machines may account for, and those it cannot. The evolving universe within our heads.

     End Notes

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Finding Mind Amid the Nerve Cells

We shall, sooner or later, arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness.
     Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

To most people, Huxley’s prophesy is still improbably distant. I hope to persuade the reader that, on the contrary, there is already one mechanistic analogy for consciousness. It isn’t yet implemented in computer hardware, and it may well prove to be insufficient, but it shows that human consciousness has proved capable of thinking about its own roots in the brain, about how it differs from the sensibility of other animals, and about how it came to be that way.

     And I don’t mean consciousness in any superficial sense; important as it is, I’m not simply talking about the brain-stem region that controls sleep and wakefulness, nor am I only talking about cognition, how we become aware of something. I really do mean consciousness in the sense of the metaphorical “little person inside the head,” the conductor of our cerebral symphony, who contemplates the past and forecasts the future, makes decisions about relative worth, plans what to do tomorrow, feels dismay when seeing a tragedy unfold, and narrates our life story.

     And I mean machine too — not specific machines such as are currently on the drawing boards, but a class of computing device that I call a Darwin Machine, so-named because one of this new type works like a greatly speeded-up version of biological evolution (or of our immune system) rather than like the familiar programmed computer. The Darwin Machine can evolve an idea, using variation-then-selection, in much the same way that biology evolves a new species using Darwin’s natural selection to edit random genetic variations and so shape new body styles. Our conscious and subconscious thought processes constitute a Darwin Machine. It shapes up new thoughts in milliseconds rather than new species in millennia, using innocuous remembered environments rather than the noxious real-life ones. This suggests that consciousness is due to the same darwinian principle as evolved life on earth, but simply on an accelerated time scale.

     It is impossible to conceptualize the power of a symphony just from knowing the technical specifications of each instrument of the orchestra, just as it is impossible to imagine a ballet from knowing how nerves and muscles work. Many people use such an analogy when contemplating the anatomy and physiology of the human cerebral cortex — that many of the uses made of this machinery are far removed from the nuts and bolts of neurons. But I think we can do much better than merely wave our hands about the machinery, as is the common practice among psychologists and humanists. I believe that we now understand how our brain creates the narrator of our conscious experience, the conductor of that cerebral symphony — not in all its complexity, but at least in principle — and that knowledge of the narrator machinery is going to revolutionize our concept of consciousness, make it much easier to appreciate the richness of our cerebral symphonies.

     Consciousness is fundamentally a process, not a place or product: How is the fundamental question, not the where or what of the classical “seat of the soul” searches. I address the mechanisms of animal consciousness, discuss how human consciousness elaborates that, and propose how humans could create machines that would have much of what we call consciousness. This book covers both the neurological mechanism and its machine mimic: We are conscious machines (among other things), and we can probably create mechanical consciousness as well. Creating “mind” in a machine comes closer to “playing god” than any amount of genetic tinkering — and to exercise suitable caution, we must understand our own mental processes and how they occasionally fail us.

     As in several of my previous books, I have again used a narrative style to permit the nonscientist reader to temporarily skip over any difficult sections and resume the travelogue. And I have again taken a few (hopefully inconsequential) liberties with time and place in order to keep this narrative from becoming as cluttered as real life and a real diary. The Marine Biological Laboratory celebrated its centennial in 1988; I hope that, in passing, I manage to communicate some of the special flavor of Woods Hole, an intellectual atmosphere built up by thousands of thoughtful people over the century.


The Cerebral Symphony (Bantam 1989) is my book on animal and human consciousness, using the setting of the Marine Biological Labs and Cape Cod. AVAILABILITY is good.

There is now an Authors Guild reprint edition available via amazon.com and other booksellers.

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