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Mysteries of consciousness: ‘Glastonbury Tor’ by Garry Kennard from “The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars” (©GARRY KENNARD)

This is a wonderful, strange and genre-defying book, but its interweaving themes are true to its title. The Dark Night is the bleak, stumping fact of death: death in general, but one death in particular, that of Paul Broks’s beloved wife, from breast cancer; the Bright Stars are just those, as Broks is a star-gazer, and a lover of astronomy. Neuropsychology is his trade, the study of the neural basis of the mind and its disorders; the book is an odyssey, both because it charts his life, from boyhood memories of Airfix models and dreams of football stardom to adult loves and fascinations, but also because it foregrounds the pervasive role of myth and legend in our thinking.

At the centre of Broks’s fascination with neuropsychology lie three fundamental questions, the Three Horsemen, so to speak, of mind and brain. The first Horseman on his neighing beast is the nature of selfhood:  we “all imagine inside others and ourselves” a “magical, essential core”, the self, the soul, the — possibly immortal — kernel of our individual being. Yet the study of the brain, and brain disorder, shows us over and over again that this self is composite and tragically prone to fragment and degrade. The second is the nature of consciousness, of subjectivity: we take ourselves to inhabit private worlds of experience, inaccessible to all but the experiencer, but science finds it hard to accommodate these private realms in the single public space that it investigates: aspiring, in the words of Thomas Nagel, to a “view from nowhere”, science seems to lack a vocabulary adequate to our individual perspectives. The third, the most headstrong of the Horsemen, is the nature of the Will: we experience ourselves as being at the helm of our lives, and it’s easy to infer that our free will can cause “a change in the physical world at a particular time and place”, but “it simply can’t. It just feels that way.”

Self, Consciousness and Will have preoccupied philosophers forever. More recently, they have come under scrutiny by the powerful tools of neuroscience. Broks introduces much of the standard thinking and research on these great mysteries in the course of his book, but does so using a deliberately recursive and digressive style, laced with humour and pathos. This mirrors the recurrent cycles of thinking on these themes over the centuries, the endless efforts to unpick what Nietzsche called “the knot of the world”, but also gives them a moving, and amusing, human context — which is, of course, also their ultimate source. Among the many excursions, heroic adventures, date nights and trips to the pub, real, imagined and mythical, that enliven The Darker the Night, I especially enjoyed the story of Lewys and Ava: their passionate love is nearly destroyed by the disturbing results of Lewys’s profound researches into the science of consciousness, only to be rescued at the last moment by a startling revelation which I cannot possibly share in this review — though it will probably tease you and please you as it did me.
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