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The Astonishing Hypothesis

SandraGandarez's picture

Sandra Gandarez
Neurobiology and Behavior
Book Commentary
The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul by Francis Crick

 One of the first things Francis Crick does is define consciousness as stated by Stuart Sutherland in The International Dictionary of Psychology. Before even laying out the table of contents or the introduction he has that definition outlined. I think that although this is a small aspect of the book as a whole that it is important to note since we discussed just how loopy science is. By doing this it enables the reader to read the book with his perception in mind. We all have our own definition to certain aspects of science and we may be at different points on the loop back to discovery. Allowing us to know where he stood and his perceptions when he wrote the book, rather than have us use our own perceptions to interpret his work. I feel it is a better way to start off your road of informing than having people with different ideas across a spectrum interpreting your data as they wish. This does not mean that others ideas should be shunned; just put on the back burner while you inform them of your ideas.
  “After all, we open our eyes and there the world is, large and clear, full of objects in vivid Technicolor, without our having to make any appreciable effort. It all seems so delightfully easy, so what can be the problem?” (Crick) Though Crick goes on to discuss the problem with that assumption in his own way I wish to explore it in terms of our classroom discussions. The aspect of vision that many people do not realize is that it is not as delightfully easy as they assume; it is complex in ways that we generally do not perceive. Many people think of a blind spot as a place where you cannot see a car on your side, but are they aware that you have a similar blind spot in your eye from the spot where your optical nerve is. Of course you do not see that blind spot, as we learned, because your brain is making up for the difference by filling in the blanks for you. So though you do not make the conscious effort when using your vision, you do make an unconscious one continually. This also brings to mind that the world is not simply there and that everyone is not observing everything the same way. Our perceptions are heavily influenced by our vision and what we witness in this large and clear world. Just because we are looking at the same object does not mean we are seeing the same thing; as can be witnessed by looking at optical illusions where there are two pictures to be seen in the same image. This aspect of life which seems so cut and dried and easily defined is in fact many faceted with hidden portions yet to be discovered.
 “In the past, psychologists did not concern themselves with what was happening inside the skull; they mostly studied attention by measuring how it affected the speed of response, the level of errors, and so on.” (Crick) When we discussed responses to a stimulus we questioned whether thinking takes time. Using a computer generated program we tested the response time when we just had to click a button on the screen and averaged the times. Then to see if thinking does take time we had to make a choice between two buttons to click, therefore having to think and pick one, rather than automatically clicking. The results were that yes, thinking about a response does slow down your response. Just like paying attention helps your response times by focusing on the task at hand, and the actions that have to be taken. When distracted by something than your response time is much slower just like when you have to think about an action. If you are doing an exam absentmindedly then you are not focusing on the questions or the knowledge that you have on the topic. By not paying attention we are not digging into our memory banks and not retrieving the information that we need. In the response experiment if we were focused on another object then we also have a higher number of errors since we are essentially picking at random, instead of making an alert and informed decision. A major difference between Crick’s reference of psychologists and our own experience is that throughout our course we have integrated what is going on in our nervous system and how that affects our physical actions. By having that better rounded knowledge we are better able to understand not only what will happen with our bodies in a certain situation but why that will happen.
 “Over the years, neurologists have examined people whose brains have been damaged in various ways – by strokes, blows to the head, gunshot wounds, infections. Quite a number of these injuries alter some aspects of visual awareness while leaving other abilities, like speech or motor activities, more or less intact.” (Crick) A wonderful example of this is Phineas Gage who had a three foot long, fourteen pound rod shot through his skull while working on the railroad tracks. He survived and seemed to be healthy and functioning normally; pain free even throughout those circumstances. His personality underwent drastic changes making him ‘no longer Gage.’ The fact that he was physically hale and hearty and only arose from his impaling with an altered personality has given much insight into the partitioning of the brain. This has allowed for many experiments to occur where the sections of the brain are given specific tasks and portions of the body to control. This is also where the visual depictions of the brain and the body parts it controls come from where the right and left lobes control half of the body and each of the parts are given a specific spot and amount of space. Damage to the brain in any of those sections will cause the body part that it controls to be harmed and not function to full capacity. This being said, I will assume that the portion of the brain that was damaged was the personality center.
 “Free Will is, in many ways, a somewhat old-fashioned subject. Most people take it for granted, since they feel that they usually they are free to act as they please.” This is where our knowledge on the storyteller comes into play. What we do seems to be of our own free will but who is to decide? It is entirely plausible that we are not acting of our own free will and that our storyteller is covering that knowledge with another story. This is like the case that we heard in class where a man is hypnotized and is told that there is a large table in the center of the room, when there is in fact not. When he is awoken and told to walk to the other side of the room he walks around the edge, even though there is no table in the center of the room. When asked to explain his actions he said that he wanted to look at the pictures that were hung on the wall. That was his storyteller confabulating a reason for why he took that route. He was not acting on his own free will, but he was unaware of that fact. This puts into question the whole concept of free will since it is not as easy to gain as previously thought.
 There was an incredible amount of collaboration with our course offerings and the book The Astonishing Hypothesis.  The fact that the information carries over into these situations is beneficial in the fact that I am better prepared to understand what is being said. I have a better background knowledge and can now move forward onto more complex areas of neurobiology.



Bellows , Alan. "Phineas Gag's Brain Injury." Damn Interesting. 28 Sep 2006. 12 May 2009 <>.

Crick, Francis. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the astonishing hypothesis

"This puts into question the whole concept of free will ..."

Or does it?