Erich Harth - The Creative Loop: How the Brain Makes a Mind

Where does our consciousness come from? What about our thoughts and dreams? How do our brains form internal pictures? Harth attempts to clearly answer these and other questions in this thought-provoking book.

Harth's main thesis deals with how the mind works. He feels that through a series of feedback loops, neurons are capable of forming the things that are difficult to fathom such as ideas, images, and the other results produced by the brain. In presenting this hypothesis, a feedback loop of another kind is created as your own neurons will be firing as they 'think' about neurons firing.

The author is at his strongest when describing these processes and asking the questions that we have all asked (or should ask) about our consciousness. He falls apart a bit when trying to critique the work of others. He seems to be almost obsessed with Daniel Dennett--quoting or referring to him frequently. It is difficult to tell from these samplings exactly where the two agree and disagree. Harth is opposed to materialism. At the same time, his views do not include any supernatural or metaphysical elements. In my opinion, if your views do not contain these aspects then, by default, you are a materialist. Harth disagrees. He claims that materialism is outdated so he dubs his new materialism "physicalism".

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the book deals with how our mind views time and events. Sometimes people claim to experience deja vu or prophecy. Immediately after something happens they claim that just prior to its occurrence they 'knew' or 'had a feeling' that it would take place. Our memories, made up of series of ever changing neural firings, can be easily altered, confused, or otherwise distorted in relation to the objective events taking place in the 'outside' world.

"Scrambling of the original [neural] pattern may be said to take place in time as well as in space. Because of the different travel times of the signals as they go from one level to the next, time is distorted, earlier events may appear later, and vice versa. It may even be said that future events affect present neural activity, because the brain--joyfully or fearfully--anticipates, projects into, the future." p. 61
Portions of the last couple of chapters fly off on tangents that aren't nearly as interesting as the rest of the book. For instance, Harth's criticism of strong AI isn't very relevant to the bulk of the material presented, and most readers probably aren't reading the book to find out his (sometimes weak) objections.

Far more fascinating is the illustration of how the brain can "make something out of virtually nothing using the ever-present noise [in the neural net] as the source of its unpredictability." (p. 170) This is "not random noise, but a noise that contains fragments collected over a lifetime, like a sediment rich in fossils, both large and small... The creative loops in our brain are tuned to these voices and whispers of the past, from which they compose the images and thoughts of the present". (p. 171)

This is an excellent starting place for anyone seeking to understand the mind. If your neurons are in need of a good workout, this is a book for you.

from the publisher:
Where is the seat of consciousness within the brain? How can we account for a continuum that begins with cells and neurochemicals and ends with such ethereal qualities as imagination, creativity, and that elusive being we call the "self"? In The Creative Loop, Erich Harth offers a persuasive theory that explains in detailed fashion how the brain creates the conscious self, the "I" that we all experience as separate from the "It" of the rest of the world. Harth's approach takes us out of the old orthodox view which finds no place for freedom of will in its description of the brain, and merges the cold facts of neuroscience with our most human aspirations.

Erich Harth, Professor of Physics at Syracuse University, now retired, is the author of several books, including Windows on the Mind and Dawn of a Millennium.

"The chapters follow each other effortlessly in a witty yet authoritative style that should immediately capture the imagination of the general reader." -- Susan Greenfield, Nature

"This carefully documented and beautifully written book is a must read for everyone interested in what makes people tick." -- Stewart Wolf, M.D., Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science

"Elegantly written." -- Publishers Weekly

"This stimulating book addresses...intriguing questions about the nature of human beings and their relationship to the physical world. This is a fascinating exploration of the nature of human consciousness, made all the more appealing by the author's pleasant writing style and engaging sense of humor. It is highly recommended." -- Fergus P. Hughes, Science Books and Films