What is consciousness? At first blush this question appears to be rather simple, but with further investigation, it quickly becomes much more complex. Consciousness is the most intimate of mental experiences, and yet the hardest to explain. It is the faculty that allows you to read this sentence, to remember yesterday’s events, to enjoy music and art, and to daydream about your plans for tomorrow. It provides your whole experience of the world and yet is mysteriously altered, or absent altogether, when you fall asleep at night.
For centuries, writers have argued about both the nature and purpose of consciousness, yet several rather basic questions remain unsettled. For example: at what stage does a foetus or newborn become conscious and able to understand the world that we, as adults, inhabit? Likewise, how does animal consciousness differ from ours and why do animals not respond as we do to music and art? What would it take to construct a machine that was conscious? And finally, could conditions like coma and the vegetative state harbour conscious minds within unresponsive bodies? These are some of the thorny questions I asked in my new book Into the Grey Zone, through the lens of a neuroscientist working at the border between life and death.
Over the last 25 years, that 3lb lump of grey and white matter in our heads generates every experience we have ever had has come into much sharper focus, largely through incredible developments in brain science, and through the works of many great writers and thinkers. Here are 10 of my favourite books on the subject.
1. Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett
Probably the best introduction to the central ideas and concepts that have preoccupied all great consciousness thinkers throughout history. It may be a little challenging for a general audience, but Dennett masterfully combines ancient philosophical concepts with more familiar modern analogies (such as “the brain as a computer”) in a book that continues to influence contemporary thought on the human condition more than a quarter of a century after its publication.