Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
August 2017
Fred's Rating: 
David Gelernter
Total Pages: 

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale. His research has proved important to several leading Web-search efforts and to the development of the Java programming language and the development of the first modern social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Amazon website for the hardcover edition is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary (click on ‘Read more) that is too brief. A better and more complete summary (a copy of the Front and Back Flaps of the hardcover edition) can be read in full in the Kindle edition preview. I recommend you do so – without this more complete summary I probably would not have bought this book. This Kindle summary, the book’s Contents page, and Ch. 1's Fig.A) all encouraged me to buy this book. Why? As a hint, the author considers both the rational brain of ‘meat’ some have said is not complete without the ‘mind’ because both are required to be a human being, with algorithms (aka coded rationality) as well as the emotional ‘reasoning’ human mind combined with the rational computational brain. These aren’t his words, instead they are my words as I understand what his intentions were with this book.

To probe my meaning, use the ‘Look inside’ option of Kindle edition, which has all the 14-pp Preface (whereas two pages are omitted in Amazon’s hardcover preview). However, the Kindle preview ends a bit too soon. So I strongly recommend going to Amazon’s hardcover edition to read at least the beginning of Ch. 1 – The Tides of Mind. Page 3 of Ch. 1 has Fig. A – a quick sketch. This sketch is crucial to his proposal of how the human mind works. Fig. A’s first column subdivides the human mind’s focus into high, medium, and low. A second column gives in brief what the memory’s focus is (for low, medium, and high) and the third column gives for each focus level what a human's ‘thought’ is. The word thought includes and requires the sense of ‘what the mind is mainly doing.’ After reading a bit beyond Fig. A, I returned to it to ponder it some more. I asked myself questions such as these: Are three focuses enough? Would more be better? How much overlap is there between Gelernter’s three proposed focuses? How many streams of thought can a human handle at the same time (aka multitasking)?

Here is an important digression that must be stated before reading more. Page 18 is one of the omitted pages in Amazon’s hardback preview. These two paragraphs need to be kept in mind: “I lean on some of the deepest thinkers and best-informed and most genuine experts mankind has ever known – the real authorities on the human mind. First, of course, there’s Shakespeare. Second, and not even close – though far ahead of everyone else – comes Tolstoy.

“Behind these, my choices are idiosyncratic to a point but hardly surprising: Blake, Keats, De Quincey, Racine, Rimbaud, Hugo, Holderlin, Buchner, Rilke, Kafka, Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Karen Blixen, Cynthia Ozick, J.M. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul, and others. These are the people who know.”

In the next few paragraphs of page 18 David Gelernter also mentions Wordsworth, Freud, Coleridge, Philip Roth, and the Hebrew Bible, among others. My having read books or poetry by nearly all of those he names, who deserve well-earned reputations among the well-read class of people, his choices for source material may, to my knowledge, distinguish David Gelernter as unique from all the others I’ve read who write books that discuss the human mind. This was a surprise to me at first, but then I tried to recall all the physical scientists and psychologists I’ve met who also found time, usually while younger (like me) or much older than grad students (like me since I retired in 1999). But when he quotes a sentence from, say, Anna Karenina (the book by Tolstoy, not the movie) he says nothing about the context of the quote. So we are left with his interpretation of the meaning of mind he has drawn from Tolstoy in this particular and excellent novel. So his references, when given without context, are neither enlightening nor insightful. Digression done.

Since we can multitask with certain types of mental states, one would expect multitasking to be discussed, but it wasn’t. Some types of multitasking are so well enough known that I could imagine him as not bothering to discuss them, but these well-known types leads to other critiques of his simple Fig. A. To be explicit, first I must add nonconscious to the two consciousness states he discusses – conscious and unconscious, with the latter being that which occurs for real deep-sleep. Simple nonconscious states describe situations (usually actions) that are so well known we don’t “think” about them, we just do them as if they are hard-wired in our minds – such as walking, swimming, driving, skiing, riding a bicycle, roller skating, etc. However, it is useful to recall that when we were first learning them, they were our prime focus. And second, our nonconscious minds possess an alertness/warning aspect that recognizes a dangerous situation we may encounter as we simply roller skate on a sidewalk, such as a bump or a level shift between two sections of the sidewalk. Since we probably all did this as kids, we learned take notice of and to decide whether to jump over the level shift or slow down and step over it.

There are many sports activities that require being fully conscious when learning them but, once well known, our actions may slip into our nonconscious minds. In sports, quickly changing from our nonconscious state to an alert “focus” becomes an automatic mental/physical state. These situations are well known to most active humans, but I was much older than a kid when the term “nonconscious” first caught my attention. Since my retirement I learned that our GI system can, and usually does, involve a nonconscious GI state of mind, only using our vargus nerve to send a signal up to our conscious mind when it needs to, such as when we feel nausea, so we can react appropriately. (The vargus nerve is the sole contact between our “GI mind” and our brain; when all is OK with our GI system, we need not think of the many chemical processes our GI system is doing well enough that it need not send any signal to our brain.)

My reason for bringing up our nonconscious minds was to assert that we can all, without thinking about it, multitask when some of the tasks involve one of our nonconscious minds. When I was a little pre-school kid during WWII I spent long hours with my grandfather, who became my teacher of many things – thoughts, games, hand tools. Once he made the comment that it was unclear if some person was able to chew gum and walk at the same time. I didn’t need him to explain to me that comment! But Grandpa said of a talkative older lady (who visited us in his living room) that "she said what she thought, but more often.” He had to explain to me that his words meant that she spoke more often then she thought. These days I’ve heard this used by people about Trump and his tweets. I think Grandpa would have agreed that Trump often seems to be similar to that old lady in this way.

As I read this book, I was hoping that the author would discuss conscious thoughts beyond the level he does. I learned that Fig. A. was formed to describe, as it does, three levels of “focus.” They were first discussed in a general way that we wake up alert, thus with a high focus, then shift during the day to a medium focus, and then later have a low focus. As I had expected, the author says that any specific new thought could occur which may shift someone to a high focus anytime of the day that a new and interesting topic arose. He did not include a discussion of having simultaneously different focuses on different topics, which most of us do fairly often. Thus he omitted multitasking in his model. That left me hungry because I was hoping he would discuss how his model was able (or not) to cope with multitasking.

Perhaps he will deal with the more difficult topic of multitasking in a future book. He gave no hints that he will do so. Overall, I found this book to present a start on the task of mental focusing. He put to rest that presumption that the human brain is not sufficient to describe well enough the human mental ability. So I rate his current effort at three stars (not quite making it to four stars).