Out of Our Heads Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness

Alva Noë

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

232 Pages


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Alva Noë is one of a new breed—part philosopher, part cognitive scientist, part neuroscientist—who are radically altering the study of consciousness by asking difficult questions and pointing out obvious flaws in the current science. InOut of Our Heads, he restates and reexamines the problem of consciousness, and then proposes a startling solution: Do away with the two hundred-year-old paradigm that places consciousness within the confines of the brain.

Our culture is obsessed with the brain—how it perceives; how it remembers; how it determines our intelligence, our morality, our likes and our dislikes. It’s widely believed that consciousness itself, that Holy Grail of science and philosophy, will soon be given a neural explanation. And yet, after decades of research, only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious—how it gives rise to sensation, feeling, and subjectivity—has emerged unchallenged: We don’t have a clue.

In this inventive work, Noë suggests that rather than being something that happens inside us, consciousness is something we do. Debunking an outmoded philosophy that holds the scientific study of consciousness captive, Out of Our Heads is a fresh attempt at understanding our minds and how we interact with the world around us.


Praise for Out of Our Heads

"To be conscious, Alva Noë claims, is to be 'awake, aroused, alert,' and neuroscientists are wrong to imagine that they can reproduce consciousness in a petri dish. A philosopher-scientist, Noë aims to replace neuroscience's reductionism. He compares the development of consciousness to a trickle of water that carves a tiny path in the land; with time, the path draws more water to it, eventually making it impossible for other water not to flow down that path. Similarly, cognitive habits grow in response to our needs and interests. Noë is an alluring writer . . . One comes away from the book agreeing that an 'explanatory gap' separates conscious experience from the simple firing of neurons, that reductionism is indeed dead, yet wondering what accounts for our conscious engagement with the world. Noë's partial answer is summarized in the book's preface: 'Only one proposition about how the brain makes us conscious . . . has emerged unchallenged: we don't have a clue.'"—Ruth Levy Guyer, The Washington Post

"Alva Noë, a philosopher at UC Berkeley, argues that consciousness remains a mystery because we've been looking in the wrong place. In his provocative and lucid new book, Noë writes that scientists have been so eager to locate the mind in the brain that they've neglected to consider the possibility that our mind might not be inside our head . . . Then where is it? Don't worry, Noë isn't an old-fashioned Cartesian dualist: He doesn't believe that our consciousness is some metaphysical gift from God. Instead, he suggests that who we are and what we know is inseparable from where we are and what we're doing: 'Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own,' Noë writes. 'Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world . . . It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.' Noë sells this audacious idea with a series of effective metaphors. For instance, he begins the book by comparing consciousness to a dollar bill. He notes that it would be silly to search for the physical correlates of 'monetary value.' After all, the meaning of money isn't in the paper, or the green ink, or the picture of George Washington. Instead, it exists in the institutions and practices that give the paper meaning. Similarly, our awareness of reality doesn't depend entirely on what's happening inside the brain, but is a side effect of how we, as individuals, interact with the wider world. Although Noë is a philosopher, his argument is carefully built on scientific evidence, as he considers everything from studies of cells in the visual cortex to examples of neural plasticity. In each instance, he interprets the data in a startlingly original fashion, such as when he uses experiments showing that ferrets can learn to 'see' with cells in their auditory cortex as proof that 'there isn't anything special about the cells in the so-called visual cortex that makes them visual. Cells in the auditory cortex can be visual just as well. There is no necessary connection between the character of experience and the behavior of certain cells.' Certainly, many of the scientists cited by Noë would disagree with his interpretations, but that's part of what makes this book so important: It's an audacious retelling of the standard story, an exploration of the mind that questions some of our most cherished assumptions about what the mind is. In many respects, Noë's ideas mark a return to an earlier tradition of American philosophy, represented by people like William James and John Dewey. These thinkers insisted that the attempt to reduce the mind to its fleshy source was inherently flawed: The brain is part of an organism, and that organism is part of a culture. 'Man is more than a psychical machine,' Dewey wrote. 'His life is bound up with the life of society.' For the most part, modern scientists brushed aside such skepticism, as they embarked on an epic search for the cellular circuits that give rise to our conscious mind. Although much has been learned, little has been found. Perhaps, as Noë argues, that's because we're searching on our inside for something that doesn't exist."—Jonah Lehrer, San Francsico Chronicle

"Alva Noë is rethinking the way we think about thought. Specifically: that consciousness doesn't arise from tissue encased inside our skulls, the standard view of science, but from living in the context of the wider world. Consciousness for Noë is an ecology of mind, body and spirit. One of the Berkeley philosopher-cognitive scientist's several surprising observations concerns the much trumpeted brain-scan technology, which he says doesn't actually reveal the interior of the brain in the manner of an X-ray but represents it more like a mediocre artist's rendering. Out of Our Heads accomplishes one of the chief tasks of philosophy: to challenge the unquestioned assumptions that govern our notions of reality."—David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express (Milwaukee)

"For a decade or so, brain studies have seemed on the brink of answering questions about the nature of consciousness, the self, thought and experience. But they never do, argues University of California at Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë, because these things are not found solely in the brain itself. In his new book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons From the Biology of Consciousness, Noë attacks the brave new world of neuroscience and its claims that brain mechanics can explain consciousness . . . Noe's conversational style is gentle, attentive and easygoing."—Gordy Slack, Salon

"Alva Noë makes a powerful and persuasive case for the view that a several centuries old picture of the mind as an entity 'inside the head' has misled both lay and scientific thought about the nature of consciousness and, more broadly, the nature of the mind-world relation. Ranging over topics in philosophy, psychology, and neurology, the chapters of this book combine sophistication and availability to a general reader. His alternative to the misleading picture is non-trivial, and while his views are sure to be controversial, most of what he says is true and all of it is original and important to think about.”—Hilary Putnam, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University

“As colorful and hard-hitting as its title suggests, this is an important and provocative work that challenges some of the deepest assumptions guiding the contemporary scientific study of conscious experience.”—Andy Clark, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, Edinburgh University

“A provocative and insightful book, which will force experts and students alike to reconsider their grasp of current orthodoxy. Out of Our Heads is a vivid, clear, and very knowledgeable critique of some of the main ideas in cognitive science, and those of us who disagree with some of its main conclusions have our work cut out for us.”—Daniel C. Dennett, Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University

“As a neurologist, confronted every day by questions of mind, self, consciousness and their basis, I find Alva Noë’s concepts—that consciousness is an organismic and not just a cerebral quality, that it is embodied in actions and not just isolated bits of brain—both astounding and convincing. Out of Our Heads is a book that should be read by everyone who thinks about thinking.”—Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center

“This book blows a breath of fresh air into the debates about consciousness and the brain. You are not your brain; you are your body, brain, and world dynamically intertwined. Consciousness is not a solo performance by the brain; it’s a partner dance our living bodies enact in concert with the world. If you think the brain is the beginning and end of the story about consciousness, you need to get out of your head and read this book!”—Evan Thompson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, and author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of the Mind

“Here is a philosopher who can actually help cognitive scientists untangle the knotty problems of the mind.”—Daniel C. Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained

“Illuminating . . . An invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes’ famous maxim, ‘I think, therefore I am.’”Carl Hays, Booklist

"Noë turns Descartes's famous statement on its head: I am, therefore I think, says Noë. The author, a philosopher at UC-Berkeley, challenges the assumptions underlying neuroscientific studies of consciousness, rejecting popular mechanistic theories that our experience of the world stems from the firing of the neurons in our brains. Noë argues that we are not our brains, that consciousness arises from interactions with our surroundings: Consciousness is not something that happens inside us. It is something we do or make. Noë points out that many of our habits, like language, are foundational aspects of our mental experience, but at the same time many, if not most, habits are environmental in nature—we behave a particular way in a particular situation. He goes on to challenge popular theories of perception, in particular the claim that the world is just a grand illusion conjured up by the brain. Readers interested in how science can intersect with and profit from philosophy will find much food for thought in Noë's groundbreaking study."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


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—Ludwig Wittgenstein

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  • Alva Noë

  • Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. His previous book, Action in Perception, was published in 2004.