We've Been Looking for Consciousness in the Wrong Place

One of the problems in the contemporary neuro-scientific study of consciousness is really a basic fundamental one, which is that we’ve been looking for consciousness in the wrong place.  We’ve been looking for it inside of us.  That’s a profound mistake.  It’s a little bit like trying to find the dancing in the musculature of the dancer or trying to find the value of money in the chemical composition of the dollar bill.  It’s the wrong kind of place to look.  


The idea that I've had in my work is that instead of thinking about consciousness as something that happens in us or to us in our brains or anywhere else, why don’t we try to think of consciousness as something that we do or enact or perform in our dynamic involvement with the world around us.

There are some unquestioned assumptions that are motivating the neuro-scientific study of consciousness and I think nothing encapsulates that more than the idea that you see all over the literature in this field, which is that you are your brain. You, your personality, your emotions, your memories, your feelings are nothing but the action of your brain cells together with their associated molecules.  

In fact, these words are almost an exact quotation of something that Francis Crick wrote in a book toward the end of his life called The Astonishing Hypothesis. Crick claimed that it was precisely this idea that you are really nothing but your brain.  That is the astonishing hypothesis that has sort of come forward out of contemporary neuroscience.  He said that idea is so strange to the way most people think today about themselves that it can truly be called astonishing. But the thing I argue in my book is that actually the striking thing about that idea is it’s not astonishing at all.  The idea that consciousness is inside us, that there is a thing inside of us that thinks and feels and that you are that thing is an old idea.

In the olden days the older generation of philosophers and scientists couldn’t conceive how that thing inside of you that thinks and feels and is conscious could be your brain.  They couldn’t understand, couldn’t even imagine how mere stuff, mere meat could do that.  And so the contemporary scientists say it’s the brain that’s the thing inside of you that does all that. It’s not the soul, the immaterial spirit. But the truth of the matter is we don’t have any better idea today how the brain accomplishes what the spirit was supposed to accomplish.  Sorry.  We don’t have a better idea today how the brain does that than Descartes had how immaterial soul stuff does that.

So when I say that the contemporary approach to neuroscience is resting on unquestioned assumptions, I primarily have in mind the idea that consciousness is something that happens inside of you.  Look, if I said to you here is a dollar bill, let’s look at it and try to discover its value you’d say that’s crazy because the value isn’t in the dollar bill.  Where is it?  That’s an interesting question.  And then if you came to me and said "Look, I've got the best electron microscope in the world, let’s really study that dollar and try to find its value." No, you’re looking for the value in the wrong place.  And the idea I have is that the neuroscience of consciousness has been making that kind of mistake in assumption about where to look for an understanding of what consciousness is and how it happens, how it arises.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Space toilets: How astronauts boldly go where few have gone before

A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.

Videos
  • When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
  • Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
  • Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Photo: Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less