PHI: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Guilio Tononi

Or, Galilieo Trips Balls and Learns the Secrets of Life

This book is written by the man who, to the best of my knowledge, put forth the first quantifiable theory of consciousness, called Integrated Information Theory. What separates Tononi’s theories on consciousness from the others I’ve encountered is how systematically it addresses consciousness, putting it entirely within a testable framework and moving it from the intangible playground of philosophers into the laboratories and blackboards of scientists. It provides details and makes testable predictions of what consciousness is, how it can be measured, and because Tononi is also a sleep researcher, why consciousness waxes and wanes during sleep and dreaming.

So it’s a pretty big deal.

And this book is Tononi’s attempt at artistically conveying his ideas. The name of the book, PHI (represented by the symbol \Phi, though I kind of prefer my title), is the symbol that Tononi chose to represent integrated information, which is an actual, nonfictional, scientific thing. That Tononi invented.

But what is integrated information, you ask?

That’s what the whole book is about: a gradual reveal of the whats and whys of consciousness. But instead of writing in the standard neuroscientist-gone-author tone of a quasi-autobiographical, well-referenced argument detailing a theory, Tononi breaks the mold and writes a fictional narrative as the vehicle to deliver his message to the masses. The book’s protagonist is none other than Galileo Galilei, one of, if not THE, most important people in the scientific revolution.

PHI is not so subtly based on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy; instead of the poet Dante being led by famous artists through Heaven, purgatory, and Hell, PHI depicts the scientist Galileo being led by famous scientists through fantastical settings that demonstrate the relationship between brain and consciousness. The fantastical settings are elaborated by colorful illustrations throughout the book, giving the actual object of the book quite some heft while also providing space to breakup chunks of idea-dense dialogue. These illustrations range from scans of brain activity to famous paintings and sculptures to awkwardly Photoshopped works of art. While often beautiful, the layout of illustrated pages is notably chunky, and in many instances, the inclusion of the illustration is either repetitive or inconsequential.

Further adding to the awkwardness of the book’s artistic enterprise are the “Notes” at the end of every chapter. These notes include the sources of the illustrations, but more importantly, provide a commentary from an unintroduced narrator that is a thinly veiled Tononi commenting on what has taken place, the borrowed inspiration for it, and the significance of the unfoldings. It is as if each chapter is a riddle, and instead of allowing the reader the solve the riddle themselves, this “mysterious narrator” is too proud of the genius of the riddle to allow any part of it to be missed by the reader.

I briefly considered the possibility that each of these end notes is a metaphor for another aspect of consciousness; the events of the story being a continuing process of conscious experience that is presently happening and the Notes being a self-aware reflection on the transpiring events. If you want to bust out your old Literary Theory textbooks, this is a Formalist interpretation of a book about consciousness: the format of the book is an elaboration of the subject material. This idea is aided by the fact that the protagonist’s dialogue is never written in quotation marks while every other character’s is, suggesting a (somewhat) first-person perspective.

I think that this interpretation is highly plausible. And really cool. But it makes an already difficult book more unwieldy. Unfortunately, the presentation of the book often gets in the way of the content. All in all, the artistic efforts seem too ambitious for what is actually accomplished.

Yet in spite of all the above, I love this book. The ideas in it is so compelling, and at times beautifully elegant, that it makes up for the artistic failings. At it’s core, PHI is about the exploration of consciousness: how the different parts of the brain contribute different aspects, how communication among different parts of the brain creates a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts (aka integrated information) and to the extent that the whole is greater than the parts, that is the extent of conscious experience. How, why, and the implications of both are further detailed.

For a more elaborate discussion of Tononi’s ideas of these further details, see my [upcoming] Consciousness Explained series, which is largely a synthesis of this work and another: Self Comes to Mind by Antonio Damasio.

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