April 27, 2011
I loved Alva Noe‘s Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. I read it last summer out at Montauk, the ocean beach town I also love (in a similar way—both are inspiring and demand respect). It was a departure from my usual summer reading, which consists of the next “I hope it’s as great as the last one” novel or memoir about dogs.
I regularly recommend Out of Our Heads to friends and use it in my teaching. So does my dear friend and colleague, Chris Helm. I asked Chris to say something about the book as a guest blogger. And she did…
Thank you, Alva Noe
Facts, individuals, moments, particulars, events, actions — such is the stuff of life, right? For some years now I have been working to help people make a shift from traditional “scientific” psychology to a cultural/performatory approach to understanding human life. Following Newman, Holzman and others I now see a world of activity and relationships— not things. This world is emergent and rife with possibility.
So, what a pleasure it was to meet Alva Noe and add his book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness to my teaching arsenal. Near my home in New York City, in 70,000 square feet of what was once the original Barney’s department store, the Rubin Museum of Art displays art of the Himalayas, shows old movies and presents unusual pairings of conversational partners. One such pairing was Noe with artist, Eric Fischl.
Making more than a few assumptions about the stance of a philosopher located at an Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, as is Noe, I was delighted at the common language with which he and Fischl discussed Fischl’s paintings and the human condition.
In his book, graciously written for the layperson, Noe takes on the neuroscientists who think that finding consciousness in the firing of neurons awaits only better brain imaging technology. Consciousness, Noe argues, “is more like dancing than digestion.” Urging the reader to look no further than her/his own life, Noe demolishes boundaries most never question. “Where do you stop and the rest of the world begin?” he asks. “We spend our lives embodied, environmentally situated, with others.”
Hand in hand with the world of things that my students and I inadvertently bring to any discussion is a dualism that makes relationships such as thought/language, individual/group, and mind/body problematic, in need of explanation. I have usurped Noe’s dance metaphor to make ordinary the unity of concepts that are both distinguishable and inseparable—activities, not things– and together, until the next time, we sweep the alienation of objectifying scientific psychology off the floor.
Chris Helm is a faculty member of the East Side Institute, primarily leading philosophy seminars for students from around the globe on issues of human development and growth. She is coordinator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Enterprise Center, where she develops programs for creative entrepreneurs, and also teaches entrepreneurship at the undergraduate and graduate level.