Links for Keyword: Consciousness

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By John Horgan I interviewed psychologist Susan Blackmore 20 years ago while doing research for my book Rational Mysticism. Here, lightly edited, is my description of her: “Her hair was dyed orange, red, and yellow, dark-rooted, cut short as a boy’s, with sideburns plunging like daggers past each multi-ringed ear. Words spewed from her pell-mell, accompanied by equally vigorous hand signals and facial expressions. She was keen on onomatopoeic sound effects: Ahhhhh (to express her pleasure at finding other smart people when she entered Oxford); DUN da la DUN da la DUN (the galloping noise she heard as she sped down a tree-lined tunnel in her first out-of-body experience); Zzzzzzt (the sound of reality dissolving after her second toke of the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine). We were talking in the dining room of the inn where she was staying, and twice we had to move to a quieter spot when employees or patrons of the inn started talking near us. One side effect of her spiritual practice, she explained, is that she has a hard time ignoring stimuli. ‘I think it is one of the bad effects of practicing mindfulness. I'm so aware of everything all the time.’” Blackmore began her career as a parapsychologist, intent on finding evidence for astral projection and extrasensory perception. Her investigations transformed her into a materialist and Darwinian (one of her best-known books describes humans as “meme machines”) who doesn’t believe in ESP, God or free will. And yet she is a mystic, too, who explores consciousness via meditation and psychedelics. In other words, Blackmore pulls off the trick of being both a hard-nosed skeptic and an open-minded adventurer. What more can one ask of a mind scientist? Curious about how her thinking has evolved in our mind-boggling era, I e-mailed her a few questions. An edited transcript of the interview follows. © 2020 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 4: The Chemistry of Behavior: Neurotransmitters and Neuropharmacology
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 4: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 27475 - Posted: 09.16.2020

By John Horgan It is a central dilemma of human life—more urgent, arguably, than the inevitability of suffering and death. I have been brooding and ranting to my students about it for years. It surely troubles us more than ever during this plague-ridden era. Philosophers call it the problem of other minds. I prefer to call it the solipsism problem. Solipsism, technically, is an extreme form of skepticism, at once utterly nuts and irrefutable. It holds that you are the only conscious being in existence. The cosmos sprang into existence when you became sentient, and it will vanish when you die. As crazy as this proposition seems, it rests on a brute fact: each of us is sealed in an impermeable prison cell of subjective awareness. Even our most intimate exchanges might as well be carried out via Zoom. You experience your own mind every waking second, but you can only infer the existence of other minds through indirect means. Other people seem to possess conscious perceptions, emotions, memories, intentions, just as you do, but you can’t be sure they do. You can guess how the world looks to me, based on my behavior and utterances, including these words you are reading, but you have no first-hand access to my inner life. For all you know, I might be a mindless bot. Natural selection instilled in us the capacity for a so-called theory of mind—a talent for intuiting others’ emotions and intentions. But we have a countertendency to deceive each other, and to fear we are being deceived. The ultimate deception would be pretending you’re conscious when you’re not. The solipsism problem thwarts efforts to explain consciousness. Scientists and philosophers have proposed countless contradictory hypotheses about what consciousness is and how it arises. Panpsychists contend that all creatures and even inanimate matter—even a single proton!—possess consciousness. Hard-core materialists insist, conversely (and perversely), that not even humans are all that conscious. © 2020 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27468 - Posted: 09.12.2020

By Laura Sanders When your brain stops working — completely and irreversibly — you’re dead. But drawing the line between life and brain death isn’t always easy. A new report attempts to clarify that distinction, perhaps helping to ease the anguish of family members with a loved one whose brain has died but whose heart still beats. Brain death has been a recognized concept in medicine for decades. But there’s a lot of variation in how people define it, says Gene Sung, a neurocritical care physician at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Showing that there is some worldwide consensus, understanding and agreement at this time will hopefully help minimize misunderstanding of what brain death is,” Sung says. As part of the World Brain Death Project, Sung and his colleagues convened doctors from professional societies around the world to forge a consensus on how to identify brain death. This group, including experts in critical care, neurology and neurosurgery, reviewed the existing research on brain death (which was slim) and used their clinical expertise to write the recommendations, published August 3 in JAMA. In addition to the main guidelines, the final product included 17 supplements that address legal and religious aspects, provide checklists and flowcharts, and even trace the history of relevant medical advances. “Basically, we wrote a book,” Sung says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 19: Language and Lateralization
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Language and Lateralization
Link ID: 27413 - Posted: 08.11.2020

Burcin Ikiz About five years ago, researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle received a special donation: a piece of a live, rare brain tissue. It came from a very deep part of the brain neuroscientists usually can’t access. The donated tissue contained a rare and mysterious type of brain cells called von Economo neurons (VENs) that are thought to be linked to social intelligence and several neurological diseases. The tissue was a byproduct of a surgery to remove a brain tumor from a patient in her 60s. The location of the tissue turned out to be in one of the deepest layers of the frontoinsular cortex, which is one of the few places where these rare neurons are found in the human brain. “This was one of the extremely rare chances that we received this tissue from a donor that had a tumor being removed from quite a deep [brain] structure,” said Rebecca Hodge, who is the co-first author of the study, published in Nature Communications on March 3rd. Hodge and her colleagues became the first scientists to record electrical spikes from these neurons. Further studies they did on these cells gave them clues about the VENs’ identity and function in the human brain. VENs are large, spindle-shaped neurons. They were first identified by the Ukrainian scientist Vladimir Betz more than a century ago. They were later named after the anatomist Constantin von Economo, who described their shape and distribution through the human cortex. Only humans and especially social animals with large brains, such as great apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants have VENs. It is hypothesized that the cells evolved independently in these animals. Since common lab animals with smaller brains, like mice and rats, don’t have VENs, it is difficult to study them in a lab environment. © 2017 – 2019 Massive Science Inc.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27291 - Posted: 06.08.2020

Brenda Patoine Can the key to consciousness be found in the folds of the cerebrum? Can the simple unfettered state of “being conscious” be localized in the brain, its properties deconstructed to precisely timed patterns of neural firing? Finding the answers is the goal of a $20 million international research program to search for the neural footprints of consciousness. The broad, multi-year initiative—termed Accelerating Research in Consciousness (ARC)—is being funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. In the first phase, representing $5 million, two leading brain theories of consciousness with diametrically opposed assumptions will face off to test their hypotheses. ARC pits the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and the Global Neuronal Workplace (GNW) theory directly against one another, in what Templeton calls “adversarial collaboration,” to settle some fundamental questions about how, when, and where the brain processes subjective awareness of ourselves and the world around us. The two theoretical models are in stark contrast to one another: their definitions and assumptions of what constitutes consciousness differ and their whole approach to the subject is fundamentally different. What they have in common is that they both study the neural correlates of consciousness. IIT is the brainchild of Giulio Tononi, a professor and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin. GNW has been elaborated by Stanislas Dehaene of INSERM/Unicog, in concert with Lionel Naccache of Sorbonne/INSERM, Jean-Pierre Changeux of Institut Pasteur, and others. These two theories were selected by Christof Koch, a leading consciousness researcher who is serving as an advisor to the Templeton project, because each has an established following among scientists and a “preponderance of evidence” backing them, says Koch, who now heads the Allen Institute for Brain Science. © 2020 The Dana Foundation.

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27201 - Posted: 04.16.2020

By Scott Barry Kaufman Who are you and how did you become interested in free will? I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Iona College where I also serve as a faculty member for the Iona Neuroscience program. I have previously worked in the Scientific and Philosophical Studies of Mind program at Franklin and Marshall College as well as previous appointments as a Lecturer at King’s College London and University of Alabama. My recent and forthcoming publications focus on issues of autonomy in terms of philosophical accounts of free will as well as how it intersects with neuroscience and psychiatry. One of the main questions I investigate is what neuroscience can tell us about meaningful agency (see here for my recent review of the topic as part of an extended review of research on agency, freedom, and responsibility for the John Templeton Foundation). I became interested in free will via an interdisciplinary route. As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, I majored in psychology with a strong emphasis on experimental psychology and clinical psychology. During my senior year at Grinnell I realized that I was fascinated by the theoretical issues operating in the background of the psychological studies that we read and conducted, especially issues of how the mind is related to the brain, prospects for the scientific study of consciousness, and how humans as agents fit into a natural picture of the world. So I followed these interests to the study of philosophy of psychology and eventually found my way to the perfect fusion of these topics: the neuroscience of free will. What is free will? Free will seems to be a familiar feature of our everyday lives — most of us believe that (at least at times) what we do is up to us to some extent. For instance, that I freely decided to take my job or that I am acting freely when I decide to go for a run this afternoon. Free will is not just that I move about in the world to achieve a goal, but that I exercise meaningful control over what I decide to do. My decisions and actions are up to me in the sense that they are mine — a product of my values, desires, beliefs, and intentions. I decided to take this job because I valued the institution’s mission or I believed that this job would be enriching or a good fit for me. Correspondingly, it seems to me that at least at times I could have decided to and done something else than what I did. I decided to go for a run this afternoon, but no one made me and I wasn’t subject to any compulsion; I could have gone for a coffee instead, at least it seems to me. Philosophers take these starting points and work to construct plausible accounts of free will. Broadly speaking, there is a lot of disagreement as to the right view of free will, but most philosophers believe that a person has free will if they have the ability to act freely, and that this kind of control is linked to whether it would be appropriate to hold that person responsible (e.g., blame or praise them) for what they do. For instance, we don’t typically hold people responsible for what they do if they were acting under severe threat or inner compulsion. © 2020 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27128 - Posted: 03.17.2020

By Laura Sanders SEATTLE — Live bits of brain look like any other piece of meat — pinkish, solid chunks of neural tissue. But unlike other kinds of tissue or organs donated for research, they hold the memories, thoughts and feelings of a person. “It is identified with who we are,” Karen Rommelfanger, a neuroethicist at Emory University in Atlanta, said February 13 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That uniqueness raises a whole new set of ethical quandaries when it comes to experimenting with living brain tissue, she explained. Such donations are crucial to emerging research aimed at teasing out answers to what makes us human. For instance, researchers at the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science conduct experiments on live brain tissue to get clues about how the cells in the human brain operate (SN: 8/7/19). These precious samples, normally discarded as medical waste, are donated by patients undergoing brain surgery and raced to the lab while the nerve cells are still viable. Other experiments rely on systems that are less sophisticated than a human brain, such as brain tissue from other animals and organoids. These clumps of neural tissue, grown from human stem cells, are still a long way from mimicking the complexities of the human brain (SN: 10/24/19). But with major advances, these systems might one day be capable of much more advanced behavior, which might ultimately lead to awareness, a conundrum that raises ethical issues. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 15: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 11: Emotions, Aggression, and Stress
Link ID: 27047 - Posted: 02.18.2020

By Tam Hunt Strangely, modern science was long dominated by the idea that to be scientific means to remove consciousness from our explanations, in order to be “objective.” This was the rationale behind behaviorism, a now-dead theory of psychology that took this trend to a perverse extreme. Behaviorists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their human or animal subjects thought, intended or wanted, and focused instead entirely on behavior. They thought that because thoughts in other peoples’ heads, or in animals, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior. Erwin Schrödinger, one of the key architects of quantum mechanics in the early part of the 20th century, labeled this approach in his philosophical 1958 book Mind and Matter, the “principle of objectivation” and expressed it clearly: Advertisement “By [the principle of objectivation] I mean … a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world.” Schrödinger did, however, identify both the problem and the solution. He recognized that “objectivation” is just a simplification that is a temporary step in the progress of science in understanding nature. © 2020 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27044 - Posted: 02.18.2020

By Bernardo Kastrup At least since the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, one of the most central questions of human existence has been whether we have free will. In the late 20th century, some thought neuroscience had settled the question. However, as it has recently become clear, such was not the case. The elusive answer is nonetheless foundational to our moral codes, criminal justice system, religions and even to the very meaning of life itself—for if every event of life is merely the predictable outcome of mechanical laws, one may question the point of it all. But before we ask ourselves whether we have free will, we must understand what exactly we mean by it. A common and straightforward view is that, if our choices are predetermined, then we don’t have free will; otherwise we do. Yet, upon more careful reflection, this view proves surprisingly inappropriate. To see why, notice first that the prefix “pre” in “predetermined choice” is entirely redundant. Not only are all predetermined choices determined by definition, all determined choices can be regarded as predetermined as well: they always result from dispositions or necessities that precede them. Therefore, what we are really asking is simply whether our choices are determined. In this context, a free-willed choice would be an undetermined one. But what is an undetermined choice? It can only be a random one, for anything that isn’t fundamentally random reflects some underlying disposition or necessity that determines it. There is no semantic space between determinism and randomness that could accommodate choices that are neither. This is a simple but important point, for we often think—incoherently—of free-willed choices as neither determined nor random. © 2020 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 27024 - Posted: 02.07.2020

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels A pioneering Belgian neurologist has been awarded €1m to fund further work in helping diagnose the most severe brain injuries, as he seeks to battle “the silent epidemic” and help people written off as “vegetative” who, it is believed, will never recover. Steven Laureys, head of the coma science group at Liège University hospital, plans to use the £850,000 award – larger than the Nobel prize – to improve the diagnosis of coma survivors labelled as being in a “persistent vegetative state”. That is “a horrible term” he says, although still one widely used by the general public and many clinicians. Laureys, who has spent more than two decades exploring the boundaries of human consciousness, prefers the term “unresponsive wakefulness” to describe people who are unconscious but show signs of being awake, such as opening their eyes or moving. These patients are often wrongly described as being in a coma, a condition that only lasts a few weeks, in which people are completely unresponsive. “The old view was to consider consciousness, which was one of the biggest mysteries for science to solve, as all or nothing,” he told the Guardian, shortly after he was awarded the Generet prize by Belgium’s King Baudouin Foundation this week. He said that a third of patients he treats at the Liège coma centre had been wrongly diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, despite signs of consciousness. As a young doctor in the 1990s he was frustrated by the questions that torture the families of coma survivors: can their loved ones see or hear them? Can they feel anything, including pain? Laureys and his 30-strong team of engineers and clinicians have shown that some of those with a “vegetative state” diagnosis are minimally conscious, showing signs of awareness such as responding to commands with their eyes. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26970 - Posted: 01.20.2020

By Gareth Cook One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as “panpsychism,” and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as “That’s just crazy!”) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. Can you explain, in simple terms, what you mean by panpsychism? In our standard view of things, consciousness exists only in the brains of highly evolved organisms, and hence consciousness exists only in a tiny part of the universe and only in very recent history. According to panpsychism, in contrast, consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental feature of it. This doesn’t mean that literally everything is conscious. The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality—perhaps electrons and quarks—have incredibly simple forms of experience. And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts. It might be important to clarify what I mean by “consciousness,” as that word is actually quite ambiguous. Some people use it to mean something quite sophisticated, such as self-awareness or the capacity to reflect on one’s own existence. This is something we might be reluctant to ascribe to many nonhuman animals, never mind fundamental particles. But when I use the word consciousness, I simply mean experience: pleasure, pain, visual or auditory experience, et cetera. © 2020 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26959 - Posted: 01.15.2020

By Joseph Stern, M.D. The bullet hole in the teenager’s forehead was so small, it belied the damage already done to his brain. The injury was fatal. We knew this the moment he arrived in the emergency room. Days later, his body was being kept alive in the intensive care unit despite an exam showing that he was brain-dead and no blood was flowing to his brain. Eventually, all his organs failed and his heart stopped beating. But the nurses continued to care for the boy and his family, knowing he was already dead but trying to help the family members with the agonizing process of accepting his death. This scenario occurs all too frequently in the neurosurgical I.C.U. Doctors often delay the withdrawal of life-sustaining supports such as ventilators and IV drips, and nurses continue these treatments — adhering to protocols, yet feeling internal conflict. A lack of consensus or communication among doctors, nurses and families often makes these situations more difficult for all involved. Brain death is stark and final. When the patient’s brain function has ceased, bodily death inevitably follows, no matter what we do. Continued interventions, painful as they may be, are necessarily of limited duration. We can keep a brain-dead patient’s body alive for a few days at the most before his heart stops for good. Trickier and much more common is the middle ground of a neurologically devastating injury without brain death. Here, decisions can be more difficult, and electing to continue or to withdraw treatment much more problematic. Inconsistent communication and support between medical staff members and families plays a role. A new field, neuropalliative care, seeks to focus “on outcomes important to patients and families” and “to guide and support patients and families through complex choices involving immense uncertainty and intensely important outcomes of mind and body.” © 2020 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26958 - Posted: 01.14.2020

By John Horgan Last month I participated in a symposium hosted by the Center for Theory & Research at Esalen, a retreat center in Big Sur, California. Fifteen men and women representing physics, psychology and other fields attempted to make sense of mystical and paranormal experiences, which are generally ignored by conventional, materialist science. The organizers invited me because of my criticism of hard-core materialism and interest in mysticism, but in a recent column I pushed back against ideas advanced at the meeting. Below other attendees push back against me. My fellow speaker Bjorn Ekeberg, whose response is below, took the photos of Esalen, including the one of me beside a stream (I'm the guy on the right). -- John Horgan Jeffrey Kripal, philosopher of religion at Rice University and author, most recently, of The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge (see our online chats here and here): Thank you, John, for reporting on your week with us all. As one of the moderators of “Physics, Experience and Metaphysics,” let me try to reply, briefly (and too simplistically), to your various points. First, let me begin with something that was left out of your generous summary: the key role of the imagination in so many exceptional or anomalous experiences. As you yourself pointed out with respect to your own psychedelic opening, this is no ordinary or banal “imagination.” This is a kind of “super-imagination” that projects fantastic visionary displays that none of us could possibly come up with in ordinary states: this is a flying caped Superman to our bespectacled Clark Kent. None of this, of course, implies that anything seen in these super-imagined states is literally true (like astral travel or ghosts) or non-human, but it does tell us something important about why the near-death or psychedelic experiencers commonly report that these visionary events are “more real” than ordinary reality (which is also, please note, partially imagined, if our contemporary neuroscience of perception is correct). Put in terms of a common metaphor that goes back to Plato, the fictional movies on the screen can ALL be different and, yes, of course, humanly and historically constructed, but the Light projecting them can be quite Real and the Same. Fiction and reality are in no way exclusive of one another in these paradoxical states. © 2020 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26953 - Posted: 01.13.2020

By John Horgan I just spent a week at a symposium on the mind-body problem, the deepest of all mysteries. The mind-body problem--which encompasses consciousness, free will and the meaning of life--concerns who we really are. Are we matter, which just happens to give rise to mind? Or could mind be the basis of reality, as many sages have insisted? The week-long powwow, called “Physics, Experience and Metaphysics,” took place at Esalen Institute, the legendary retreat center in Big Sur, California. Fifteen men and women representing physics, psychology, philosophy, religious studies and other fields sat in a room overlooking the Pacific and swapped mind-body ideas. What made the conference unusual, at least for me, was the emphasis on what were called “exceptional experiences,” involving telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, past-life recall and mysticism. I’ve been obsessed with mysticism since I was a kid. As defined by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences are breaches in your ordinary life, during which you encounter absolute reality--or, if you prefer, God. You believe, you know, you are seeing things the way they really are. These experiences are usually brief, lasting only minutes or hours. They can be triggered by trauma, prayer, meditation or drugs, or they may strike you out of the blue. Advertisement I’ve had mild mystical intuitions while sober, for example, during a Buddhist retreat last year. But my most intense experience, by far, happened in 1981 while I was under the influence of a potent hallucinogen. I tried to come to terms with my experiences in my book Rational Mysticism, but my obsession endures. © 2019 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26924 - Posted: 12.30.2019

By John Horgan Philosophy has taken a beating lately, even, or especially, from philosophers, who are compulsive critics, even, especially, of their own calling. But bright young women and men still aspire to be full-time truth-seekers in our corrupt, capitalist world. Over the past five years, I have met a bunch of impressive young philosophers while doing research on the mind-body problem. Hedda Hassel Mørch, for example. I first heard Mørch (pronounced murk) speak in 2015 at a New York University workshop on integrated information theory, and I ran into her at subsequent events at NYU and elsewhere. She makes a couple of appearances—one anonymous--in my book Mind-Body Problems. We recently crossed tracks in online chitchat about panpsychism, which proposes that consciousness is a property of all matter, not just brains. I’m a panpsychism critic, she’s a proponent. Below Mørch answers some questions.—John Horgan Horgan: Why philosophy? And especially philosophy of mind? Mørch: I remember thinking at some point that if I didn’t study philosophy I would always be curious about what philosophers know. And even if it turned out that they know nothing then at least I would know I wasn’t missing anything. Advertisement One reason I was attracted to philosophy of mind in particular was that it seemed like an area where philosophy clearly has some real and useful work to do. In other areas of philosophy, it might seem that many central questions can either be deflated or taken over by science. For example, in ethics, one might think there are no moral facts and so all we can do is figure out what we mean by the words “right” and “wrong”. And in metaphysics, questions such as “is the universe infinite” can now, at least arguably, be understood as scientific questions. But consciousness is a phenomenon which is obviously real, and the question of how it arises from the brain is clearly a substantive, not merely verbal question, which does not seem tractable by science as we know it. As David Chalmers says, science as we know it can only tackle the so-called easy problems of consciousness, not the hard problem. © 2019 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26904 - Posted: 12.19.2019

Christof Koch A future where the thinking capabilities of computers approach our own is quickly coming into view. We feel ever more powerful machine-learning (ML) algorithms breathing down our necks. Rapid progress in coming decades will bring about machines with human-level intelligence capable of speech and reasoning, with a myriad of contributions to economics, politics and, inevitably, warcraft. The birth of true artificial intelligence will profoundly affect humankind’s future, including whether it has one. The following quotes provide a case in point: “From the time the last great artificial intelligence breakthrough was reached in the late 1940s, scientists around the world have looked for ways of harnessing this ‘artificial intelligence’ to improve technology beyond what even the most sophisticated of today’s artificial intelligence programs can achieve.” Advertisement “Even now, research is ongoing to better understand what the new AI programs will be able to do, while remaining within the bounds of today’s intelligence. Most AI programs currently programmed have been limited primarily to making simple decisions or performing simple operations on relatively small amounts of data.” These two paragraphs were written by GPT-2, a language bot I tried last summer. Developed by OpenAI, a San Francisco–based institute that promotes beneficial AI, GPT-2 is an ML algorithm with a seemingly idiotic task: presented with some arbitrary starter text, it must predict the next word. The network isn’t taught to “understand” prose in any human sense. Instead, during its training phase, it adjusts the internal connections in its simulated neural networks to best anticipate the next word, the word after that, and so on. Trained on eight million Web pages, its innards contain more than a billion connections that emulate synapses, the connecting points between neurons. When I entered the first few sentences of the article you are reading, the algorithm spewed out two paragraphs that sounded like a freshman’s effort to recall the gist of an introductory lecture on machine learning during which she was daydreaming. The output contains all the right words and phrases—not bad, really! Primed with the same text a second time, the algorithm comes up with something different. © 2019 Scientific American,

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26894 - Posted: 12.12.2019

By Steve Taylor In the second half of the 19th century, scientific discoveries—in particular, Darwin’s theory of evolution—meant that Christian beliefs were no longer feasible as a way of explaining the world. The authority of the Bible as an explanatory text was fatally damaged. The new findings of science could be utilized to provide an alternative conceptual system to make sense of the world—a system that insisted that nothing existed apart from basic particles of matter, and that all phenomena could be explained in terms of the organization and the interaction of these particles. One of the most fervent of late 19th century materialists, T.H. Huxley, described human beings as “conscious automata” with no free will. As he explained in 1874, “Volitions do not enter into the chain of causation…. The feeling that we call volition is not the cause of a voluntary act, but the symbol of that state of the brain which is the immediate cause." This was a very early formulation of an idea that has become commonplace amongst modern scientists and philosophers who hold similar materialist views: that free will is an illusion. According to Daniel Wegner, for instance, “The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting one’s thought as the cause of the act.” In other words, our sense of making choices or decisions is just an awareness of what the brain has already decided for us. When we become aware of the brain’s actions, we think about them and falsely conclude that our intentions have caused them. You could compare it to a king who believes he is making all his own decisions, but is constantly being manipulated by his advisors and officials, who whisper in his ear and plant ideas in his head. © 2019 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26881 - Posted: 12.07.2019

By John Williams Credit...Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times Let’s get right to the overwhelming question: What does it mean to experience something? Chances are that when you recount a great meal to a friend, you don’t say that it really lit up your nucleus of the solitary tract. But chances are equally good, if you adhere to conventional scientific and philosophical wisdom, that you believe the electrical activity in that part of your brain is what actually accounts for the sensation when you dine. In “Out of My Head,” the prolific British writer Tim Parks adds to the very long shelf of books about what he calls the “deep puzzle of minute-by-minute perception.” The vast majority of us — and this is undoubtedly for the best, life being hard enough — don’t get tripped up by the ontological mysteries of our minute-to-minute perceiving. We just perceive. But partly because it remains a stubborn philosophical problem, rather than a neatly explained scientific one, consciousness — our awareness, our self-awareness, our self — makes for an endlessly fascinating subject. And Parks, though not a scientist or professional philosopher, proves to be a companionable guide, even if his book is more an appetizer than a main course. He wants “simply” to ask, he writes, whether “we ordinary folks” can say anything useful about consciousness. But he also wants to poke skeptically at the “now standard view of conscious experience as something locked away in the head,” the “dominant internalist model which assumes the brain is some kind of supercomputer.” “Out of My Head” was inspired, in large part, by the theories of Riccardo Manzotti, a philosopher, roboticist and friend of Parks with whom the author has had “one of the most intense and extended conversations of my life.” (A good chunk of that conversation appeared as a 15-part dialogue on the website of The New York Review of Books, whose publishing arm has released “Out of My Head.”) © 2019 The New York Times Company

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26842 - Posted: 11.22.2019

By Gabriel Finkelstein Unlike Charles Darwin and Claude Bernard, who endure as heroes in England and France, Emil du Bois-Reymond is generally forgotten in Germany — no streets bear his name, no stamps portray his image, no celebrations are held in his honor, and no collections of his essays remain in print. Most Germans have never heard of him, and if they have, they generally assume that he was Swiss. But it wasn’t always this way. Du Bois-Reymond was once lauded as “the foremost naturalist of Europe,” “the last of the encyclopedists,” and “one of the greatest scientists Germany ever produced.” Contemporaries celebrated him for his research in neuroscience and his addresses on science and culture; in fact, the poet Jules Laforgue reported seeing his picture hanging for sale in German shop windows alongside those of the Prussian royal family. Those familiar with du Bois-Reymond generally recall his advocacy of understanding biology in terms of chemistry and physics, but during his lifetime he earned recognition for a host of other achievements. He pioneered the use of instruments in neuroscience, discovered the electrical transmission of nerve signals, linked structure to function in neural tissue, and posited the improvement of neural connections with use. He served as a professor, as dean, and as rector at the University of Berlin, directed the first institute of physiology in Prussia, was secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, established the first society of physics in Germany, helped found the Berlin Society of Anthropology, oversaw the Berlin Physiological Society, edited the leading German journal of physiology, supervised dozens of researchers, and trained an army of physicians. © 2019 Scientific American

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 3: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition; Chapter 2: Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals
Link ID: 26811 - Posted: 11.11.2019

By Dan Falk At the moment, you’re reading these words and, presumably, thinking about what the words and sentences mean. Or perhaps your mind has wandered, and you’re thinking about dinner, or looking forward to bingeing the latest season of “The Good Place.” But you’re definitely experiencing something. How is that possible? Every part of you, including your brain, is made of atoms, and each atom is as lifeless as the next. Your atoms certainly don’t know or feel or experience anything, and yet you — a conglomeration of such atoms — have a rich mental life in which a parade of experiences unfolds one after another. The puzzle of consciousness has, of course, occupied the greatest minds for millennia. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the central mystery the “hard problem” of consciousness. Why, he asks, does looking at a red apple produce the experience of seeing red? And more generally: Why do certain arrangements of matter experience anything? Anyone who has followed the recent debates over the nature of consciousness will have been struck by the sheer variety of explanations on offer. Many prominent neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, and physicists have put forward “solutions” to the puzzle — all of them wildly different from, and frequently contradicting, each other. “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Related chapters from BN: Chapter 18: Attention and Higher Cognition
Related chapters from MM:Chapter 14: Attention and Higher Cognition
Link ID: 26802 - Posted: 11.08.2019