Sam Harris describes the properties of consciousness and how mindfulness practices of all stripes can be used to transcend one's ego.
The basic technologies to enable us to look inside the brain and see its functioning are growing exponentially. And they're at a point now where we can actually see individual interneural connections forming and firing.
What's the Big Idea?
“Contemporary research on consciousness in neuroscience rests on unquestioned but highly questionable foundations. Human nature is no less mysterious now than it was a hundred years ago," writes philosopher Alva Noë in his book Out of Our Heads.
It's a bold assertion in an age when fMRI has enabled us to see images of the brain functioning in real time, and when many prominent public intellectuals (Stephen Hawking, Eric Kandel) have argued, either implicitly or vociferously, in favor of reductionism. The "brain-as-calculating machine" analogy assumes that human thought, personality, memory, and emotion are located somewhere in the gray matter protected by the skull. In other words, you -- at least, the waking you who gets out of bed in the morning -- are your brain.
But you're not, says Noë. Just as love does not live inside the heart, consciousness is not contained in a finite space -- it's something that arises, something that occurs: a verb rather than a noun. And since the publication of Francis Crick's influential The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, scientists have been looking for it in all the wrong places. Watch our video interview:
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What's the Significance?
The evidence is this, says Noë: we still do not have an adequate theory for consciousness. "Everybody working in this field understands that we haven’t gotten to the stage even of having a back-of-the-envelope sketch of what a good neural theory of consciousness would look like. If I said to you, is consciousness happening in this individual cell?' you’d laugh."
A cell is obviously the wrong scale for explaining such a complicated phenomena. Neuroscientists have addressed this by simply expanding their domain: "You get bigger. You look at larger populations of cells and at the dynamic activity of those larger populations distributed in the brain spatially and over time."
What Noë is advocating is an entirely new approach -- what if we were to try expand our conception of consciousness by crossing that boundary out of the skull, to encompass "not just our bodies and our movements over time, but also the dynamic interactions that we have with the larger world around us, including the social world?"
Begin by looking at our connections, he says, and we'll find the tools for gaining insight into the nature of consciousness. In fact, lots of information that stimulates our nervous system doesn't get experienced by us. For example: "I might spend an hour talking to you and not notice what color your shirt is. In some sense I saw your shirt. It was there before me and it activated my nervous system and yet I might be unable in any way to make use of that information." It's an interesting puzzle: intuition structures our experience in a way that can't be traced back to the nervous system.
It's also an invitation to reopen an important debate that has been to some extent buried in a mire of specialization. It's okay to speculate, Noë seems to be saying, even if you're not a genius. The question is, will we do it?
With his new book "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking," philosopher Daniel Dennett offers a kind of self-help book for deep thinkers -- a series of thought experiments designed as a workout for the deliberative mind. Here he discusses reductio ad absurdum, "the workhorse of philosophical argumentation," wherewith thinkers test the validity of an opponent's argument by taking it to its most illogical extreme.
Bayes’ Rule is a formalization of how to change your mind when you learn new information about the world or have new experiences.
Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.
Nobel-Prize winning neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel describes new research which hints at the possibility of a biological basis to the unconscious mind.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains how your brain perceives time (retrospectively).
What's the Big Idea?
“By the word ‘thought’ (‘pensée’) I understand all that of which we are conscious as operating in us.” –Renee Descartes
The simplest description of a black hole is a region of space-time from which no light is reflected and nothing escapes. The simplest description of consciousness is a mind that absorbs many things and attends to a few of them. Neither of these concepts can be captured quantitatively. Together they suggest the appealing possibility that endlessness surrounds us and infinity is within.
But our inability to grasp the immaterial means we’re stuck making inferences, free-associating, if we want any insight into the unknown. Which is why we talk obscurely and metaphorically about "pinning down" perception and “hunting for dark matter” (possibly a sort of primordial black hole). The existence of black holes was first hypothesized a decade after Einstein laid the theoretical groundwork for them in the theory of relativity, and the phrase "black hole" was not coined until 1968.
Likewise, consciousness is still such an elusive concept that, in spite of the recent invention of functional imaging - which has allowed scientists to visualize the different areas of the brain - we may not understand it any better now than we ever have before. “We approach [consciousness] now perhaps differently than we have in the past with our new tools," says neuroscientist Joy Hirsch.
"The questions [we ask] have become a little bit more sophisticated and we’ve become more sophisticated in how we ask the question," she adds - but we're still far from being able to explain how the regions of the brain interact to produce thought, dreams, and self-awareness. “In terms of understanding, the awareness that comes from binding remote activities of the brain together, still remains what philosophers call, ‘The hard problem.'"
What's the Significance?
Discovering how mechanistic processes work - the firing of neurons or the earth revolving around the sun, for example - is considered by some to be an "easy" problem because it involves observation, the description of an event from a third person point of view. "Hard" problems, on the other hand, involve first person experience. They're the questions that persist even after physical processes have been mapped and explained.
It's tempting to see them as universal to humanity, but whether and how they've been framed has varied historically. Historians of philosophy have observed there was no ancient Greek word that corresponds to “consciousness," while the modern Western perspective on consciousness seems to have been developed during the Reformation era - the age of “I think, therefore I am,” and “To be or not to be.” (Hamlet was written around 1600, and Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method was published in 1637.)
So there's no reason to assume that consciousness is eternally inexplicable. However, it may never be explained through neurobiology, says David Chalmers, the philosopher who originally made the distinction. "In so many other fields physical explanation has been successful… but there seems to be this big gap in the case of consciousness," he says. "It’s just very hard to see how [neurological] interactions are going to give you subjective experience."
Hirsch sees it more practically. Though functional imaging has not explained where perception comes from, it has important applications for unconscious patients. “The boundaries have been broken a little bit, clinically," she says. "As we study patients with disorders of consciousness, we can probe their levels of awareness in ways that other traditional ways of asking them to respond."
It's no different than any other aspect of the brain that we cannot presently explain, she says:
For example, we don’t understand how the brain creates colors. That’s a perception that is very private - I don’t know that your perception of blue is like my perception of blue, for example. Smells are another one. I don’t know that your perception of the smell of an orange is like mine. These are the hard problems of neuroscience and philosophy that we haven’t made a great deal of progress on.
What do you think? Is the distinction between "hard problems" and "soft problems" useful, or reductive? Does the brain create consciousness? Will we ever empirically understand where it comes from or how it works?
In some crucial areas of human cognition, we don’t know and we can’t fully trust ourselves. On the bright side, Daniel Kahneman’s work shows that the kinds of errors we tend to make are extremely predictable.