LIFE, BRAIN AND CONSCIOUSNESS New Perceptions through Targeted Systems Analysis by Gerd Sommerhoff. (Advances in Psychology 63, edited by G. E. Stelmach & P. A Vroon.) Amsterdam: North-Holland/Elsevier Science Publishers, 1990. (Distributor for US/Canada: Elsevier Science Publishing Company, Inc., 665 Avenue of the Americas, New York NY 10010. Mailing address: P.O. Box 882, Madison Square Station, New York NY 10159) + 336 pages, US $115.50.


Writing a little over 20 years ago, Jacques Monod named two "borderlands of the unknown" which form the frontiers of scientific knowledge:


... the origin of the first living systems on the one hand; on the other, the inner workings of the most intensely teleonomic system_1 ever to have emerged, to wit, the central nervous system of Man. (Monod, 1972, pp. 139-40)


Since then, in the arena of "the inner workings of ... the central nervous system of man," investigators in neuro-physiology, neuro-anatomy, etc., in cognitive science, and in diverse related disciplines have amassed vast quantities of data. But somehow, the hoped-for synthesis concerning how the brain works has not occurred. Despite the data, our best workers in brain research appear to have come no nearer to developing a satisfactory theory of the higher brain functions. In the physical sciences of the Western Indo-European (WIE) tradition, the success of our studies follows from the fact that we rigorously define the key constructs we use in terms of what we can observe, measure, or otherwise access experientially or operationally. But until now, we Westerners, with our shared, fundamentally dualistic and elementalistic WIE frame of reference, have allowed ourselves no way to observe, measure, or otherwise access body-and-brain as an integral physical system, in that rigorous sense.


In his Life, Brain and Consciousness, Sommerhoff undertakes to fill this lack -- to characterize the faculty of consciousness in rigorous physical terms, and to specify the nature of its embodiment in the brain-body system. In so doing, he takes a "targeted systems" approach, which he also calls a "TOP-DOWN" approach. He starts by focusing on the functional relationships that appear characteristic of the system as a whole. Then he selects for detailed analysis those aspects which seem most relevant to the problem at hand.


Most workers in brain research take a "BOTTOM-UP" approach: They focus initially on the properties of individual neurons and their ascertainable reactions and interactions, their biochemistry, or their information processing capabilities. They hope that they will eventually arrive at something representative of one or another of the higher brain functions. Somehow a key point escapes them: if they cannot describe and define these higher brain functions in precise and rigorous terms to begin with, they cannot convince anyone whether whatever emergent results they obtain do or do not adequately model the higher brain functions in question.


And in point of fact, no one previously has succeeded in describing these higher brain functions in rigorous, physical terms. For example, in common speech the term consciousness has several meanings rather than only one, and the dictionary meanings it does have do not qualify as precise._2


For the exponents of the "top-down" approach, then, it becomes an urgent matter to produce a precise definition of consciousness prior to making any attempt to discover how this faculty of the organism gets realized in the brain. Sommerhoff does both.


For the task at hand, Sommerhoff has prepared himself in a fashion which to me appears unique. Forty years prior to the present book, Sommerhoff examined the lexicon of teleological terms, such as adaptation, coordination, regulation, etc., terms which point to the ways that all living systems appear directive or goal-directed or apparently 'purposive'._3 He develops a rigorous, mathematically-defined model for the exact spatio-temporal and causal relationships which make up such directive activities. Later, he used this model -- which he calls directive correlation -- to examine the brain as an organ. Now it provides him with a framework sufficiently sturdy to support the study of the special problems posed by what we call consciousness.


In the first chapter, Sommerhoff delineates the problem which concerns him, and spells out its importance for science. This chapter clears away so much rubble that, even taken alone, it amounts to a significant contribution. Sommerhoff asserts that consciousness holds the key to all our mental life. For example, what we call our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, fantasies, memories, make up what William James calls our "stream of consciousness." Likewise, the problem of memory hinges on the fact that, in simple terms, to remember an event means to bring that event back into consciousness. We cannot fully understand memory until we understand what it achieves -- what it means to raise something to the level of consciousness. Similar considerations apply to what we call pain, subliminal perception, dreams, sleep-walking, hypnosis, blind sight, and the like. We cannot back up claims that we have accounted for consciousness and its physical substrates until we have framed our theory in terms


... that are congruent with the conceptual framework of the natural sciences and satisfy the same stringent semantic standards of objectivity and precision. For consciousness is a faculty of a living organism, and that organism is a physical system. (p. 1)


Thus the problem which Sommerhoff takes on requires him to address some of the most massive and intractable debilities of the Western scientific tradition, and of the frame of reference shared by those cultures out of which the scientific tradition arises.


(In my opinion, even the way we sub-divide science shows Western science as dualistic and elementalistic in structure. Physics, the study of "physical" happenings, stands opposed to psychology, the study of "mental" happenings. The revolutionary theories of twentieth-century physics do include some meta-discussion of how an observer/experimenter arrives at her/his picture of "physical happenings," and in the mathematics of the theories, some heavily metaphorical representations of such topics. But to date, the community of scientists has neither accepted any non-dualistic and non-elementalistic theory, nor even agreed that such a theory exists.)


Sommerhoff starts by summarizing the current state of knowledge on the topic of consciousness. In the acerbic first five pages of his text, he spells out some of the evasions and obfuscations in the views held in various fields that impinge on consciousness, e.g. by some of the more prominent workers in these fields.


At the point at which an introduction to the science of consciousness should review the state of the art, one can only report that there is as yet no art to review. Instead one has to tell a tale of neglected issues, of evasions and lack of clarity in the questions asked or answers suggested, and of investigative approaches which, to use Wittgenstein's phrase, "cause problem and method to pass one another by".... (pp. 4-5)


Then, in the remaining 25 pages of this 34 page chapter, he outlines his overall argument: He discusses the way people use the terms conscious and consciousness in ordinary discourse, and why a technical definition for consciousness must cover these commonly used senses of these terms; quotes some distinctions introduced by Malcolm and by Armstrong; and spells out how he uses the term internal representation -- and how he avoids implying


that somewhere in the brain there is a little man or 'homunculus' who inspects these representations. (p. 14)


Further, he points out that


... whatever is represented in consciousness is represented in the context of the whole situation. Indeed, it is this that makes it so meaningful. (p. 15; emphasis his)


Sommerhoff defines three basic categories of internal representations. Category 1, the first and most fundamental of these three faculties of the brain,


consists in a power to form a coherent and comprehensive representation of the surrounding world, of the body and of the relation of the body to that world. I shall call this ... the subject's global world-model. Loosely we may describe it as the 'cognitive presence' of the world in the brain. It amounts to a structure which we must take to intervene between stimulus and response. (p. 17)


Category 2 consists of


a power to form internal representations, not only of actualities, but also of mere possibilities, viz. representations of fictitious or absent objects, events or situations. (p. 18)


Category 3 consists of


a power of the brain to form representations which register the occurrence of representations of category (1) or (2) as being part of the current state of the organism. ... This category of representations, for example, would add to the occurrence of a representation A of category 1 or 2 a further representation B(A), viz., a representation of the fact that the occurrence of A is part of the current state of the organism -- thus adding A to the brain's global world-model. (p. 19)

Having developed these categories, Sommerhoff proceeds to offer a technical definition for his construct of consciousness:


For reasons to be detailed in Chapter 4, I shall recommend defining the faculty of consciousness as a power of the brain to form internal representations of both category 1 and category 3, but excluding category 2. (p. 21)


He regards internal representations of category 2 as necessary for thought, but not for the consciousness in everyday life.


Sommerhoff spells out these three kinds of internal representations in terms of the model of directive correlation, mentioned above. Then he posits that the internal representations which the brain forms


create expectations of what will be the consequences of any one of the whole spectrum of acts open to the organism, and the organism will initiate those acts that carry the strongest expectation of need satisfaction. This whole body of what-leads-to-what expectancies is taken to have formed in consequence of the subject's what-leads-to-what experiences. (p. 26)

He argues that


... there is no need to assume that there exist in the brain two distinct entities, viz., both models and associated sets of what-leads-to-what expectancies. My case will be that it is sufficient to assume only the existence of these sets of conditional expectancies, because these sets themselves are capable of acting as the required models. This will be called the Conditional Expectancy Hypothesis. (p. 27)


This he uses to account for the neural correlates of the various kinds of internal representations and of expectancies. He utilizes this growing logical structure to look at certain distinctive dimensions of the affective or emotional side of human life -- especially, those deeper levels of consciousness known as the moral and aesthetic sensibilities and the religious dimension, etc. Each of these has managed to develop in a seemingly 'Darwin-defying' direction -- as cultural phenomena, they do not follow the same rules that genetic traits do. (In the third section of his book, Sommerhoff accounts for these cultural phenomena in detail.)


Sommerhoff divides his book into three parts. In Part I (Chapters 2 and 3), subtitled LIFE, he lays out directive correlation as his main tool. Whatever you see happening in the living world, he says, especially among higher organisms, seems directed towards the production of some biologically significant end-result. The actions or processes in question appear to operate in such a way that


over a variety of circumstances they will match those circumstances in a manner conducive to the end-result in question. If the mouse jumps to the left so will the cat. (p. 38)


Similar considerations apply to the much slower processes of ontogenetic development, maturation and learning, and, in a slightly more restricted sense, to the very slow processes of evolution.


Thus Sommerhoff treats the constructs of organism and environment as polar opposites, where neither term can exist without the real or implied existence of the other. This makes "what the organism does" and "what the environment does" into a kind of mutually-determining "dialogue".


In my opinion, more traditional Western scientists treat "organism" and "environment" as discrete, separable THINGS, which they either deal with "in isolation," or else, secondarily re-combine. Western mathematicians have developed well-known ways of representing "happenings" as spatio-temporally ordered (e.g., ordered in terms of before and after, here and there, etc.). But the traditional teleological terms, e.g. adaptation, coordination, integration, etc., do not intrinsically involve distinctions such as before/after -- they treat both "organism" AND "environment" as un-ordered. Those terms also neglect distinctions concerning logical "level" -- instead of treating "organism" and "environment" as in "conversation," they treat them both as "things" in mechanical interaction, as if they existed solely and exclusively on a single "level."


Sommerhoff's observations open the way to


... a very general expression for the kind of correlation between action and environment which bestows upon the higher organisms their unique brand of independence from the caprices of the environment, viz., a power to meet these caprices with appropriately matched responses. (p. 49)


This "correlation between action and circumstance" amounts to


a system-property whose formal structure can be investigated, regardless of how little we know about the specific mechanisms that bring it about in any particular case. (p. 49, emphasis mine)



This system-property makes up one of the most important of the "functional relationships" of "the system as a whole" which Sommerhoff addresses. The construct of "correlation between action and circumstance" presupposes what I would call an organism/environment field, in which the constructs of organism and environment stand as inseparable, polar, mutually-determining -- neither one can exist without the real or implied existence of the other. Thus in the simplest case of the construct of directive correlation, Sommerhoff specifies the structure of the transacting which takes place between one particular organism-as-a-whole and its environment, over a specific period. Moreover, in the simplest case, he shows this transacting as taking place in a series of steps. In my own abstract terminology, the "happenings" in a directive correlation occur within an organism/environment field, in a spatio-temporally ordered fashion, and also in a hierarchically ordered fashion.


(For an example of hierarchical ordering, consider the relationship between the statements made in a conversation, a two-person dialogue, in which participant A makes a remark1, participant B replies with remark2, A continues with remark3, etc. Each remarkj builds on the preceding remarki, and so occupies a different logical "level" (a different position in a hierarchical ordering) within the dialogue. For instance, look again at Sommerhoff's example of cat and mouse, but this time consider the "conversation" from the mouse's point of view. "Remark1": Fleeing mouse jumps to the left. "Remark2": Pursuing cat also jumps to the left. "Remark3": Detecting cat still on his trail, mouse jumps somewhere else, and so on through the hierarchically ordered "conversation," until the "outcome": cat catches mouse, or else, mouse escapes to safety.)


In Part II (Chapters 4 through 9), subtitled BRAIN AND CONSCIOUSNESS, Sommerhoff builds up his model of consciousness in detail. In Chapters 4 and 5, he accounts for consciousness in terms of the three special cases of directively correlated "internal representations." In Chapter 4, he considers the physical structure of these "internal representations." He uses Chapter 5 to present his "Conditional Expectancy Hypothesis," and with it he accounts for empirical evidence from various sources. At the end of this chapter, he considers other theories of perception.


The theory at which we have arrived is entirely formulated in a physical language, and in this respect it can claim to remedy what must be seen as a major weakness of the main theories that dominate the contemporary literature. (p. 131)


Sommerhoff does, however, endorse the validity of many studies of the mechanisms of vision at the level of observation and elementary theory.


The weakness to which I have referred appears only when one turns to the more abstract theoretical concepts which investigators tend to introduce in order to explain their findings, and when they come to consider the nature of the internal representations that are the end-products of perception. Sometimes these concepts are left wholly undefined; sometimes they are defined in woolly or mentalistic terms; or they rest on metaphors of questionable validity, e.g. analogies with computer operations of one kind or another, or analogies with the processes of rational thought. (p. 132)


Chapter 6 discusses the neural correlates of the internal representations, accounting for many observations. In Chapter 7, he uses his model to account for self-awareness, imagination and memory. Chapter 8 presents an interpretation of language and rational thought. In Chapter 9, Sommerhoff discusses the ways that his model bridges the gap between mind and matter. I consider this an impressive list of accomplishments in a thoroughly impressive book. Those who have read only this much of Sommerhoff's text -- experimentalists, theorists, etc. -- have at their disposal an altered, heuristically useful approach to cognitive science and brain research. Sommerhoff makes clear what we do know, in terms of acceptable research findings, and what we don't. This work gives guidance toward developing effective research protocols to fill in what we don't yet know.


Part III (subtitled CULTURE) discusses "Deeper Levels of Consciousness." I maintain that the 41 pages of this section make a major contribution to our understanding of culture and civilization. Although apparently innocent of the term time-binding in particular and Korzybski's work in general, Sommerhoff provides an increase in our knowledge of the self-reflexive activities we call time-binding.


In the introduction to Part III and summary of Chapter 10, Sommerhoff analyzes our moral and aesthetic sensibilities -- which he designates as "the spiritual dimension of human life", taking the term spiritual "in a strictly secular sense" (p. 243). Science, Sommerhoff asserts, gives no account of, nor credence to, the spiritual side of human life, a failure which


... has tended to blunt our very sense of what it means to be human. Not surprisingly, this failure has also aroused considerable antagonism towards science itself. It has tended to leave people with the feeling that the advance of science has profoundly disturbed our spiritual ecology: that it has increased our knowledge of the external, natural world only at the expense of our knowledge of the inner world of the human psyche -- and especially of those levels of consciousness at which we experience the tonic effect of beauty, compassion, and other manifestations of the human spirit. (p. 244)


Sommerhoff treats these faculties as a crucial departure from the biological norm. He displays their roots in the human psyche, in terms of "four basic motivational factors which made biological sense: ... an aversion to ... conflict, frustration, anxiety and cognitive dissonance." (p. 252) Further, he provides a rigorous accounting for these aversions as directive correlations. In Chapter 11, he proceeds to consider in detail the sense of beauty and the moral sense, shows these as a distinctive step in the evolution of life, and ends by considering the religious dimension of human life.


Sommerhoff explains "religious and humanist movements" as cultural developments that reflect both our human connection with all living species and our peculiar imaginative faculty. Like other organisms, we show the aversions discussed above. But we also transform these "biological negatives" into "the corresponding biological positives," and aversion into "a longing for situations, conditions, degrees of freedom and a way of life, in which the above negatives are absent or minimal": such as "freedom and self-fulfillment," "emotional and motivational stability," and "emotional security." These longings "generate [shared] visions of a better world, a world of harmony and minimal social conflict -- visions of a brotherhood of man." (pp. 253, 268-9; emphasis his)


In my opinion, the directively correlated activities of non-human species relate more or less uniformly to the conditions obtaining at the time; but those of time-binding species (of which humans provide the only example known to date) often do not. For instance, unlike a healthy cat, a physically healthy, hungry human in the presence of nourishing food may refuse to eat, for any one of a number of reasons: a vow of fasting, a psychological eating disorder, a cultural prohibition of the category of food at hand, etc. These personally and culturally organized patterns make a big difference when we undertake to explain or predict the behavior of time-binding organisms.


Such rigor creates the necessary floor for rigorously discussing the behavior of time-binding organisms. Sommerhoff thus completes his "top-down" analysis by demonstrating not only the possibility of putting sociology and psychology on an operational basis, but also of providing a missing dimension of the physical sciences.


Sommerhoff writes with clarity in a field where little clarity has previously existed. He makes a difficult subject appear simple -- a sign of mastery of his subject matter. His prose seems transparent; in its logical and rhetorical structure, his argument seems equally limpid and clear. He has an elegant teaching style; for example, he puts a summary at the beginning of each chapter; and at the point in my reading at which I noticed that I had begun to feel almost overwhelmed by the riches of his text, he consolidates his position by summarizing and recapitulating his argument. For each of his key points, he provides examples, usually both detailed and vivid.


For anyone concerned with any aspect of the human psycho-social sciences and the biological sciences, and for those physical scientists open to seeing how far the term "physical system" can go, I consider this book a must -- it provides crucially important insights not available elsewhere. (However, Sommerhoff's approach cuts across the grain of existing approaches and disciplines, and so gives him no natural allies in any traditional camp. Those who feel contented with (or unswervingly committed to) the standard approaches may want to avoid reading this book.)


By pricing the book at US $115.50 -- that comes out to $.41 per page for the text alone, or $.33 per page if we include the table of contents, preface, acknowledgments, appendices, bibliography and index   -- the publishers show that they do not want the bother of printing a best-seller. Because of its price, a lot of readers, I imagine, will at first borrow this book from a library. I expect that many will conclude, after reading it, that it merits such extended study that they must own it, despite the price.

C. A. Hilgartner





1Monod uses the term teleonomic system to signify "objects endowed with a purpose or project," and regards teleonomy as "one of the fundamental characteristics common to all living things without exception." (Monod, p. 9)


2To exponents of general semantics, the situation appears even more intractable than Sommerhoff states. The term consciousness belongs to the class of multi-ordinal terms described by Korzybski (1933, pp. 433-442), and so has different meanings when used on different orders of abstraction. Multi-ordinal terms remain ambiguous (infinite-valued) in general, whereas each has a definite meaning (becomes one-valued) only and exclusively in a given context, when its user can specify the order of abstraction.


3Sommerhoff, 1950.



Korzybski, Alfred (1933). Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Chicago: Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co., Inc. Fourth edition (1958). Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT, distributors.


Monod, Jacques (1971). Chance and Necessity. Austryn Wainhouse, translator. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Paperback edition (1972), New York: Vintage Books (Random House).


Sommerhoff, G. (1950). Analytical Biology. London: Oxford University Press.