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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 466-468
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I of the Vortex:
From Neurons to Self
I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. By Rodolfo R. Llinás. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. Pp. x + 302. $27.50.
"I move, therefore I am a self, (I think)." So says Rodolfo Llinás, who updates Descartes by proposing that the neural mechanisms underlying movement constitute the primordial agencies upon which first a practical sense of self and later a concept of that self are built.
Since he is a basic neurobiologist working at the level of membranes and electrical properties of nerve cells, Llinás' new book fills a niche in the growing library of scientific reconsiderations of consciousness. Other books in this domain include Francis Cricks' Astonishing Hypothesis (1997), Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1993), and Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens (1999).
But Llinás is not the gruff monistic reductionist that such a limited job description suggests. This is because he has not hesitated to work at higher levels of organization, including thalamacortical interactions in living and thinking human selves. And he has even contributed to the literature on sleep mentation in its stretch from neuron to dream. Llinás' intrepid mind thus spans eight orders of magnitude.
One of the most attractive features of I of the Vortex is its voice. Llinás is not only intrepid, he is relaxed, casual, and even conversational in tone. This capacity to speak directly to the reader is particularly welcome in a scientific treatise that depends so heavily on technical details for its credibility.
For all these reasons I highly recommend the book not only to fellow neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists, but also to scholars in the medical sciences generally, and even to those humanists who are open to E. O. Wilson's call for "consilience" among all disciplines concerned with greater understanding of the mind of man. Llinás speaks clearly to all of us. It should be obvious that anyone who can come up with a book title like I of the Vortex has something of the poet in him.
What does the book say? First and foremost Llinás says that since consciousness is an evolutionary product with many old roots in the irritability of tissue, especially "nervous" tissue, it is a mistake to look for some specific and recent brain wrinkle or widget that will explain it. Instead Llinás contends we must take seriously the idea that important and legitimate progenitors of consciousness long antedated the development of language.
Second, and no less important, Llinás contends that because survival and behavioral success have always depended upon the capacity of organisms to predict the consequences of their actions, some germs of consciousness and the sense of self must reside in the innate ability of lowly creatures to generate [End Page 466] movement. To this Llinás adds their complementary talent for creating "images" that allow them, and us, to deploy strategic repertories. Here is a typical example of Llinás at his best: "And so we see that the property of motricity is being internalized—the beast is literally pulling itself up by the bootstraps! It is the only way to explain the incorporation of external motricity inside. Through intrinsic oscillatory properties and electrical coupling, these properties are pulled up the neuraxis and into the encephalization of the brain. So what do we have? The ability to think, which arises from the internalization of movement" (p. 62).
Llinás points out that the reflex doctrine of our neurobiological hero, Sir Charles Sherrington, is an inadequate model for spontaneous, internally generated, prediction behavior. Instead, we need models of oscillators such as were pioneered by Sherrington's student Thomas Graham Brown. Brown advanced the notion of paired half-centers that governed spinal reflex excitability, but also were obviously essential at the level of the brain stem and above to explain such rhythmic phenomena as respiration and the sleep-wake cycle.
Third, using a myriad of well-chosen and carefully...