Tag Archives: Neurobiology


The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul Learning and the Origins of ConsciousnessAs with most of my non-fiction reviews, I’ll first give a general overview & appraisal of the book. After that there’s a lengthy section with quotes and paraphrases of stuff I want to keep on record, and those could be of interest to you too.

What is the mind?
It is the sound of the breeze
That passes through the pines
In the Indian-ink picture.

Ikkyū Sōjun, 15th century

The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul: Learning and the Origins of Consciousness is a mammoth: 482 pages of text, 62 pages of notes, 72 pages of bibliography and an index of 28 pages. It took a decade to write.

Eva Jablonka is a microbiologist & evolutionary theorist with a Ph.D in genetics. She is especially known for her interest in epigenetic inheritance, and she co-authored the landmark Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life with Marion Lamb. That book was published in 2005 by MIT Press – with a revised edition in 2014 – and on the strength of this book I’ve added it to my TBR. Simona Ginsburg is a chemist with a Ph.D. in physiology.

The title is a bit misleading in the sense that the moniker ‘sensitive soul’ might sound New Age-ish, but make no mistake: this is as scientific as non-fiction can get. Jablonka & Ginsburg use the term ‘soul’ as an hommage to Aristotle, and the next two quotes elaborate a bit on that, and at the same time set the stage:

The Aristotelian soul is the dynamic embodied form (organization) that makes an entity teleological in the intrinsic sense – having internal goals that are not externally designed for it but that are dynamically constructed by it.


From an evolutionary point of view, understanding the transitions that resulted in the three Aristotelian goal-directed systems is enormously challenging. The first problem, understanding the transition to the first living system, to the nutritive (/reproductive) soul, is still not fully solved, although great strides have been made in this domain. Very little is known about the second, understanding the transition to subjective experiencing, the evolutionary origin of the sensitive soul. The third, understanding the transition to rationalizing, symbolizing animals, to the rational (human) soul, is one of the hottest topic in present-day evolutionary-cognitive biology, and progress is being made. All of these goal-directed systems are the products of chemical and biological evolution, and there is an evolutionary continuity between them.

The book has two distinct parts: the first a history of the biological conceptions of ‘consciousness’ and some of its philosophical foundations – from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin and William James, via Pavlov and Skinner to contemporary neuroscience. The second part looks more closely at major (neuro)biological transitions in the evolution of the mind, and basically sketches the evolution of neural systems and how learning ties into that. It should be stressed that most of the book is about minimal animal consciousness, not about human consciousness.

Instead of trying to summarize the book in more detail, I’ll quote some of the praise I found on the MIT website – and I can say after having read it, none of it is hyperbole. But first let me quote the blurb to give you the general idea:

A new theory about the origins of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the evolutionary transition to basic consciousness. What marked the evolutionary transition from organisms that lacked consciousness to those with consciousness—to minimal subjective experiencing, or, as Aristotle described it, “the sensitive soul”? In this book, Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka propose a new theory about the origin of consciousness that finds learning to be the driving force in the transition to basic consciousness. Using a methodology similar to that used by scientists when they identified the transition from non-life to life, Ginsburg and Jablonka suggest a set of criteria, identify a marker for the transition to minimal consciousness, and explore the far-reaching biological, psychological, and philosophical implications.

After presenting the historical, neurobiological, and philosophical foundations of their analysis, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose that the evolutionary marker of basic or minimal consciousness is a complex form of associative learning, which they term unlimited associative learning (UAL). UAL enables an organism to ascribe motivational value to a novel, compound, non-reflex-inducing stimulus or action, and use it as the basis for future learning. Associative learning, Ginsburg and Jablonka argue, drove the Cambrian explosion and its massive diversification of organisms. Finally, Ginsburg and Jablonka propose symbolic language as a similar type of marker for the evolutionary transition to human rationality—to Aristotle’s “rational soul.”

Here’s Axel Cleeremans, Director of ULB Neuroscience Institute in Brussels, Belgium:

This massive and challenging book is by far the most thorough attempt at exploring consciousness from a biological and evolutionary perspective. Most impressive is the successful integration of philosophical, historical, neuroscientific, and biological considerations in addressing this most vexing question: How and why did consciousness emerge out of biological activity?

Or Jean-Pierre Changeux, honorary professor at the Pasteur Institute in France:

It is the best synthesis I know about consciousness. It includes a fascinating history of the concepts and discoveries about consciousness together with an outstanding presentation of the most recent scientific data, theories and philosophical speculations.

And finally Cyriel Pennartz, from the University of Amsterdam:

Based on the view that consciousness subserves fulfillment of an animal’s needs and goals, Ginsburg and Jablonka take us on an engaging journey from Aristotle to contemporary neuroscience, culminating in the daring but well-informed hypothesis that consciousness coheres with complex forms of learning. This book made me think differently of the Cambrian explosion of life, the roots of animal cognition, and the very origins of human thinking. This accessible and inspiring book offers a wealth of information and deep thought for everyone interested in the rich interface between biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Last year I read Contingency and Convergence: Toward a Cosmic Biology of Body and Mind by Russell Powell, a true intellectual feast. Ginsburg & Jablonka’s book touches on many of the same themes, but frames them differently. Powell’s book is about the nature of evolution, minds, and the possible implications for astrobiology, Ginsburg & Jablonka focus on learning and the evolutionary history of neural systems, including a chapter on jellyfish and the likes that was more informative than Jellyfish by Lisa-Ann Gershwin.

For a wee bit of critique: I would have liked a bit more sections on (the neurology of) mental representation. To me it felt as if Ginsberg & Jablonka don’t fully engage with this part of the consciousness problem, especially as I’ve read Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories – a book specifically about that. I would have liked to read the authors’ take on what Rosenberg wrote.

Anyhow, what makes this book a joy to read is its enormous scope, and what makes it truly amazing is its attention to detail on nearly everything it touches: this is no quick pop-science overview of the latest research, no, this is the real deal: interdisciplinary scholarly work of the highest order.

The book is clear and self-contained, and requires no previous knowledge, but at times it is tough reading nonetheless – especially parts of chapter 8 were beyond my level of interest of understanding. This will be different for different kind of readers, but this is obviously an academic book, so your mileage may vary.

Jonathan Birch’s 7-page critical essay on the book in Acta Biotheoretica is well-worth reading, he summarizes it in just two sentences: “Ginsburg and Jablonka’s thesis, in short, is that second-order conditioning involving novel, compound stimuli is a signature of consciousness. This kind of learning cannot happen, they claim, if the stimuli are not consciously experienced.”

If the subject matter interests you, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Together with How Molecular Forces and Rotating Planets Create Life: The Emergence and Evolution of Prokaryotic Cells by Jan Spitzer – coincidentally about the first Aristotelian transition – it is the best book I’ve read all year.

I’ll leave you with a whole lot of quotes and insights I wish to preserve for myself.

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I’m rereading The Book of the New Sun at the moment, and while I first thought to just read Shadow of the Torturer, it felt wrong to write a review of the first volume only, so I’m going to finish all 4 volumes and then write on the entire thing.

That means no new speculative book review for now, but two very different books on the brain. First a scientific account of rationality and neurobiologic algorithmic decision making, after that an art-science hybrid: a catalogue of historical pen and ink drawings by neuroanatomist Cajal, which includes a biography and some other text on the matter.


This is the English edition of the 2015 French publication Matière à décision, but updated with new data, some mistakes corrected and also partly rewritten structurally – with a new chapter added as the most striking change. As such, I’d very much call this a 2020 book indeed, and that’s of note in an ever evolving field.

The basic question this book tries to answer is whether neurobiological science supports the case for rational decision-making. It does so by using a bottom-up approach, “beginning with the neural matter and tracing the journey of how decision-making might have emerged from the physicochemical interactions between its components.”

This book is a strange hybrid. It both tries to give a short overview of the philosophical debate and the history of the science involved – including a bit of behavioral economy – and it tries to answer the question using an algorithmic model based on actual vertebrate brain science. Continue reading


How History Gets Things WrongDarwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology – a book Alex Rosenberg published in 2006 – was one of the best books I read in 2019. It tries to marry physics & chemistry with biology, and successfully so. It’s a very dense text, and extremely interesting.

So when I learned Rosenberg had written a book about our addiction to stories, I couldn’t resist and bought it. These 291 pages are a very different read than Darwinian Reductionism: a whole lot more accessible, written for a somewhat larger audience – although this is still no pop science book. While not without problems, it is very much worth your time if you have a serious, academic interest in human behavior, theory of mind, and narrative – Rosenberg’s scope is both broad and deep.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories biggest shortcoming is its title. It’s great from a marketing point of view, but it is a bit misleading. Yes, history features, as do stories, but in the end, they are a sideshow. Rosenberg uses the fallacies of narrative history to frame his central argument, which is a refutation of the most commonly held (folk) ‘theory of mind‘. He does so mainly with recent findings from neuroscience. Let me quote Wikipedia to give you an idea of Rosenberg’s basic line of reasoning:

This work develops the eliminative materialism of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, applying it to the role ‘the theory of mind’ plays in history and other forms of story telling. Rosenberg argues that the work of Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser reveals that the “theory of mind” employed in every day life and narrative history has no basis in the organization of the brain. Evidence from evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, medical diagnosis and neural imaging reveals it is an innate or almost innate tool that arose in Hominini evolution to foster collaboration among small numbers of individuals in immediate contact over the near future, but whose predictive weakness beyond this domain reveals its explanatory emptiness.

It has been over a decade since I read something truly substantial on the neurological working of our brain, and I was surprised by the detail in the discoveries of Kandel, O’Keefe and the Mosers. Their findings about the nature of brains – ‘place cells’, ‘grid cells’ and especially the functioning of ‘sharp wave ripples‘ in how decisions happen – strengthen a materialistic, reductionist viewpoint of behavior. The chapter in which Rosenberg describes the research is truly fantastic, eye-opening and worth the prize of the book alone – but I’m sure there are other good texts about that if you only want to read about that subject. In 2000 and 2014 the research was awarded a Nobel Prize, so this is not some obscure theory – as such, it might be old news to some, but it was not to me.

It’s refreshing to read a whole lot more than the typical stuff on the experiments of Benjamin Libet and John-Dylan Haynes on the fact that our brains make decisions before our consciousness registers it – a staple in popular texts on free will and similar subjects. Mind you, this is not a book on the non-existence of free will. Rosenberg says that free will doesn’t require consciousness, indicating he sees the term a bit differently than most. Although the book doesn’t deal with it explicitly, there is a lot between the lines.

It’s also of note that the book deals extensively with representation, as a big part of Rosenberg’s argument hinges on the fact that there are no representations of desires or beliefs to be found in our brains. These play a crucial role in how we generally perceive how humans act: we do stuff because we desire something and we act on those desires based on certain beliefs about how to attain them. We think somehow representations of these beliefs and desires are found in our brains, and that our brains somehow process these desires and beliefs, and make decisions based on that. Not so, it turns out.

One more remark before the jump, a crucial one. Neural circuits in the brain do not have content or represent something indeed, but it is obvious that their material output (our speech, our writing, to a certain extent maybe our conscious thoughts as well, …) does. The brain lacks content, sure, but it forms content. I would think that you cannot treat the brain as a closed system, and that we need to take its extensions so to say into account as well.

I’m not sure what this means for Rosenberg’s overall theory. Maybe it is not much more than a matter of sharper definitions. Rosenberg talks about cell circuitry that does not ‘represent’ or ‘interpret’ etc. – but again, what about their output? Is that part of the brain as well? Or part of its representation/interpretation/aboutness?

Or maybe his main beef shouldn’t be with narrative history and the folk theory of mind that puts computation of representations in the brain, but narrative history and the folk theory of mind that presupposes rational, non-causally determined agency of human actors. The neuroscience and other points raises could easily support that. Or maybe it doesn’t have an effect on his logic at all.

In the rest of the review, I’ll talk a wee bit about the book’s most important formal problem, and end with a list of a few of the nuggets of wisdom I found.

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the emotional foundations of personality

The main ideas of this book were first formulated by Jaak Panksepp, the psychobiologist and neuroscientist who became a wee bit famous outside the field for his research about laughter in non-human animals, especially laughing rats. He died before it was finished, and this volume could be considered his crowning achievement. The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach is hard to review, as I’m not really the target audience.

The book is definitely not without merit, but for the general reader there are some problems. For starters, let me try to break those down.

Afterwards I’ll highlight what this reader found to be the interesting take-aways. That list should be of interest to those readers of this blog who don’t care for criticism of this book, but do care about their emotions and their brain

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