The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten

In the preface to CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED (1991), Daniel Dennett recalled how, as a first-year college student, he became “hooked on the mind-body problem. . . . How on earth could my thoughts and feelings fit in the same world with the nerve cells and molecules that make up my brain?” In CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED, Dennett presented an “outline of the solution” to this problem: a theory of consciousness heavily dependent on analogies between the human mind and the computer. For all their air of provocation, such analogies reinforce some long-established assumptions about how the mind works—notably, for example, the assumption that (in Israel Rosenfield’s summary) “we can accurately remember people, places, and things because images of them have been imprinted and permanently stored in our brains; and that, though we may not be conscious of them, these images are the basis of recognition and hence of thought and action.”

Rosenfield devoted his previous book, THE INVENTION OF MEMORY: A NEW VIEW OF THE BRAIN (1988), to a critique of this assumption concerning the nature of memory and its relation to perception and thought. In his new book, Rosenfield extends his argument to consider the nature of consciousness.

Where Dennett and others of his persuasion interpret consciousness in terms of the computer (Dennett: “Conscious human minds are more-or-less serial virtual machines implemented— inefficiently—on the parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us”), Rosenfield argues that “conscious human knowledge” differs radically from “the ’knowledge’ that can be stored in a machine or in a computer.” Dennett strongly emphasizes the discontinuity of consciousness; referring to Gerald Edelman’s contention that “One of the most striking features of consciousness is its continuity,” Dennett comments “This is utterly wrong.” In Dennett’s view, the “stream of consciousness” is a powerful illusion. In contrast, Rosenfield emphasizes the continuity that consciousness entails, a “dynamic flow of uncontainable, unrepeatable, and inexpressible experience.”

As his title suggests, Rosenfield frequently refers to odd and striking neurological cases (a la Oliver Sacks) to support and illustrate his arguments. THE STRANGE, FAMILIAR, AND FORGOTTEN will be required reading for anyone who is interested in the vigorous ongoing debate about the brain, the mind, and the nature of consciousness.