What Is It Like to Have a Brain?: On Patrick House’s “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness”
By Henry M. CowlesOctober 11, 2022
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness by Patrick House
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
BLACKBIRDS AREN’T ALL BLACK. They can be red-winged or red-shouldered, saffron-cowled or tricolored, rusty or yellow-hooded or chestnut-capped. And that’s just the members of the family Icteridae called blackbirds. Orioles and grackles, with their oranges and iridescence, are part of the family too. Old World blackbirds, many of which are called thrushes, are only distantly related; black birds like ravens and most crows aren’t blackbirds at all.
To me, this fuzziness is part of the joke of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem by Wallace Stevens first published in 1917. Across the poem’s 13 cantos, birds whirl and whistle, cast their shadows or eye us from the trees. Whether or not they’re all blackbirds — and, if so, what kind, with what colors? — the singular “a” of Stevens’s title is clearly misdirection. There are as many birds as there are perspectives, if not more, and as ever, what is true of the poem is true of the world. The more ways we look, the more we realize how much there is to see. Glance by glance, the blackbirds multiply.
Think about anything often enough, from enough angles, and it’s bound to splinter and refract. Our minds are like kaleidoscopes, packed with mirrors we twist to see the world anew. Sometimes we’re twisting consciously, sometimes unconsciously. But no matter what, we end up seeing patterns that are more a product of the tool in hand than of the world on its other end. Stevens’s poem, on this reading, is less about blackbirds than about the lenses we use to spy on them. It’s a warning, in other words, not to mistake the kaleidoscope for the universe.
After all, any poem — any kaleidoscope — forecloses as many ways of seeing as it enables. Thirteen ways aren’t nearly enough to capture blackbirds in all their diversity, or even to trace the edges of what they might be. It’s the same for anything else, from bagels to brains. Bagels can be bread or battleground (just ask someone from New York, or Montreal), a symbol of diaspora or a metaphor for the multiverse. Brains are lumps of flesh or a shorthand for knowledge or the core of the modern self, depending on how you look at them. And looking at them one way means, at least for the moment, setting aside other ways of looking. Stevens has given us many birds, but there are many more perched just off the page, rustling their feathers and shifting on shiny feet.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
Brains make birds seem manageable. The plight of the ornithologist, captured in Stevens’s teeming scenes, is nothing next to that of the neuroscientist. Or so one concludes from Patrick House’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, a new book on neuroscience and its limits. Lest readers jump to the wrong conclusion: The referent in House’s title, though also poetic, is not Stevens but rather Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, an anthology of attempts to translate a four-line poem from the Tang Dynasty. Though the editor must have had Stevens in mind, House (apparently) did not.
Which is too bad! There’s much to learn in comparing Stevens’s birds to House’s brains. At first, they seem similar. The poem skips back and forth — first this bird, now that. One canto reads like a maxim, another like a confession — and House’s book does, too. One chapter is a strange parable (“A Small Town with Too Much Food”), another is a thought experiment (“A Secondhand Markov Blanket”), and a third transcribes an interview (“Endeavoring to Grow Wings”). We meet a man with a brain tumor, learn the history of pinball machines, eat in a spinning restaurant in Norway, and consider a fish in a bowl and how our brains are like that fish. Both poem and book unfurl according to an unexplained order, as though randomness were part of the point.
And though he’s no poet (as far as I know), House is a pleasure to read. Like Oliver Sacks and like Robert Sapolsky, who advised him at Stanford, House distills the details of psychiatry and neurology into digestible forms. Near the beginning, brains “carry with them, in their assumptions and lessons, statistics about the world they act in.” And towards the end: “Information in computers is stored as limits on the possibilities of where electrons can go.” Drawing from science fiction and scientific journals, from historical episodes and his own experience, House paints a picture of a field that is at once chaotic and controlled. “Neuroscience is a frustrating field to be in,” he admits early on, not least because it feels like it gets ever farther from fulfilling its aims.
What are those aims? House names a number, from explaining consciousness to developing drugs. Neuroscience is a big tent, so of course there are a lot of goals pursued beneath it. But if you dig into the book, it becomes clear that House’s view of neuroscience as purpose-driven applies to consciousness, too. The field (neuroscience) and its object (the brain) blur together: both are tools for making sense of the world, evolved efforts to simplify complexity for the purpose of taking action. It is almost as if House’s kaleidoscope has not only refracted his view of the brain but also become his view of the brain. In his eyes, the brain is a scientific instrument eerily like those he uses to study it.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
To the man with a scanner, everything looks like a brain. But of course, there are other tools for exploring what consciousness might be — not just what it is for, but what it is like. Poetry is one, Stevens would insist. My hunch is that House would agree. His approach was inspired by a book about the imprecision of a process — translation — that he paints as central to neuroscience as well as art. Evincing a soft ecumenicalism, House’s book is sprinkled with literary references — drawing on everything from Anna Karenina to Mister Ed — that serve mostly as an entrée into scientific approaches their authors or inventors inadvertently foretold or confirmed.
Still, a few texts are conspicuous in their absence. We can forgive him “Thirteen Ways,” as the editor of Nineteen Ways failed to mention Stevens, too. But what of Thomas Nagel, whose classic essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” set the parameters of House’s search? It’s true that a number of neuroscientists and their readers have contested Nagel’s claim that there is something it is like to be a bat, and that this subjective dimension of consciousness is inaccessible to objective study. One can imagine why practitioners dedicated to just such studies might object to such prima facie limits.
But House adopts Nagel’s perspective, albeit without naming him. “The one and only thing we know for certain for every one of us,” House writes early on, is that “there is something that it is like to be us.” And for both men, that “something” remains just beyond the grasp of anyone but the person experiencing it. Subjective knowledge of me never evolves into objective knowledge of you. Try as we might, “we can only ever scratch the surface of what really goes on inside” others. While this view leads Nagel to pessimism, House holds out hope that if we just keep scratching, we’ll bridge the divide and explain what it is like to be a bat — or any other conscious being.
Doing so would mean solving what David Chalmers in 1995 famously dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness.” While explaining mental functions in physical terms was “easy,” the “hard” problem was explaining why they were accompanied by the experience of performing them. As with Nagel’s point, House seems to accept Chalmers’s — before concluding that consciousness is “Not That Hard” after all. Why the optimism? To be honest, it’s hard to tell. At times, his 19 ways click into place like an ingenious kaleidoscope; at others, they come apart in your hands, as if the only thing holding them together was House’s decision to dedicate a chapter to each.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
But maybe that’s part of the point. Once I got to chapter eight or so, I started to feel like House was up to something I hadn’t sensed before. Like the birds in Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways” or the terms in the poem translated in Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, there’s a particular image that appears over and over in House’s book. Drawn from a one-page paper published in 1998 called “Electric Current Stimulates Laughter” (included as an appendix in House’s book), the image is of a patient induced to mirthful laughter by an electrode during brain surgery.
The patient, whom House calls Anna, laughs in each chapter of his book. Sometimes we watch as “her skull [is] peeled back and the brain surgeons [get] to work”; at others, it’s just the laugh we hear — or her explanation for it, when the surgeons asked. The researchers, of course, knew they had stimulated Anna’s laughter with an electrode, but for Anna it was a feeling of mirth that caused it. She gave different explanations for the source of the feeling: a picture of a horse, or the presence of a person. If those don’t sound funny to you — well, that’s what makes them interesting.
There’s an old theory that can help explain Anna’s response, but House doesn’t mention it. Made famous by William James, the theory goes something like this: rather than expressing emotions through behaviors like laughing, our emotions are responses to movements we make without knowing why. We don’t clench our fist in anger so much as we feel angry when our fist clenches. In Anna’s case, this would mean that rather than the stimulation of mirth in her brain being what caused her to laugh out loud, the surgeons caused her to laugh out loud — to which Anna responded by feeling mirth.
A few times in the book, House comes close to James’s approach, and throughout he gives just as much priority to movement. “Any act of thinking,” he writes at one point, “is just pretending to act out”; elsewhere, all thinking is “planned movement with no muscular output.” The point is that, even at our most private and contemplative, consciousness is about effects, about (potentially) changing the world around us. James would have agreed. But for me, it’s the form of the book that comes closest to James. Encountering Anna’s story again and again, I started to look for it — searching, subconsciously, for Anna on every page. By taking hold of my anticipation, House proves his point: reading is a form of expectation, meaning that “making our way” through a book is more than just a metaphor. Our eyes twitch, our hearts beat, we look ahead to the ends of sentences and pages in search of what’s coming next. Even on the sofa, we are always on the move.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Asked to elaborate on that point, however, and words fail me. The book doesn’t reduce to an argument about movement, nor should it. Consciousness is different in each chapter — often an animal or a machine, sometimes a town or a piece of music. And that’s a good thing. After all, as he and Nagel and Chalmers insist — we are each conscious in our own way, alive in our own minds and aware of the world through our own senses. There’s good reason to believe we’re similar to one another, seeing things in much the same way, or experiencing the same pleasures and pains. But what it is like to be you and the nature of your world are out of my reach.
This is a reminder that, in the end, House’s book is not about consciousness — it is about a set of ways for looking at it. It is about neuroscience, in other words. And neuroscience has its limits. None of House’s 19 ways intersect with religious, humanistic, or literary perspectives (despite his literary references). We never see consciousness as a point of contact with the divine, or as something that extends beyond the individual mind, as Chalmers himself proposes it might. Give House 19 more ways to look and he’d meet some surprising characters: ghosts, say, or government agencies. Neuroscience might get weirder, in a welcome way.
Just like consciousness, neuroscience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The laboratories and lecture halls of House’s chapters are staffed and swept and shored up against the elements. Whether or not our consciousness is for something, neuroscience certainly is. Sometimes that purpose is obvious: an addiction neuroscientist, say, working to develop a medication. Often, the uses of neuroscience are more distant. It can be a few steps from the laboratory to Madison Avenue, from scanning a brain to selling a soda. But to truly understand neuroscience, you have to take those steps. Without them, an account of the field is like a theory of consciousness divorced from the life that sustains it.
Which brings us, at last, back to birds. When Stevens wrote of a whirling blackbird that it was “a small part of the pantomime,” he meant that it was a part of something larger — of a drama without an author, unfolding every instant. His birds were communicating in many ways, all of them through movement — another point of contact with House’s view of the world. Consciousness is, as James suggested, a series of “flights” and “perchings” — and neuroscience is, too. After all, what is any science — any way of looking — but a movement of sorts. The question is: where to?
Henry M. Cowles is a historian of modern science and medicine based at the University of Michigan. His book, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey, was published by Harvard University Press in 2020.
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