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Never have I ever felt so unprepared for an interview. While connecting to Zoom, one of his phrases, heard in a Ted Talk, was still buzzing in my head: ”Imagine you are like the colour red: you exist, but you might not be who you think you are”. The perspective of talking to this highly esteemed researcher, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and author of the acclaimed Being You: A New Science of Consciousnessabout this very topic, felt pretty much like drinking a cup of coffee on Mars with Michelangelo (hey, my ignorance, my imagination!). But then again, professional (bruised) ego left aside, I consoled myself with the idea that the most brilliant minds in the world are still trying to decipher the mystery of consciousness, so I relied on my childlike curiosity while talking to Anil Seth about this topic, on #Simona’s Interviews, this month.

Until you’ll meet Anil yourself, on the stage of Unfinished festival, later this month, feel free to take a look at our discussion over this fascinating topic. 

Is consciousness something we are born with or it is a construct of our brain, which is fluidly formed throughout our lives? 

I don’t think anybody knows at exactly what point we become conscious – whether is the moment we are born, before or even slightly after – it’s very difficult to know precisely. But basically, yes, I like to think of it in exactly that way: it’s a property of our brains and bodies that we are born with, but that also develops. The type of conscious experiences that a newborn baby may have is going to be very different from a child or an adult. So, consciousness, our experiences, especially of the self (the experience of being who we are), are going to change quite a lot throughout life. 

Is something measurable in any way, shape or form? 

We can measure aspects of it. And this is very important, because in the history of science, being able to measure something has proven to be critical to scientific understanding, whatever that thing is. In consciousness we already have some fairly simple, fairly basic ways to measure how conscious somebody is. We can measure the depth of anaesthesia, when people get into the operating rooms for surgery, and we can measure the disappearance of consciousness during sleep. These are very useful things to do and they give us a grip onto the biological basis of consciousness. But we are still at the very beginning. In other fields of science, when we can measure something, we can generalise: we can say something about the temperature of the Sun, we can know about the temperature of the South Pole – things we would not normally experience. But when we ”measure” consciousness, at present we can only really measure how it’s changing for a particular person. We cannot generalise to measure consciousness in general. So, we are still at the very beginning. Also, it may not be that everything about consciousness is something that we can measure. Think about life − another big challenge for science, and one that has been addressed quite well: scientists now understand quite a lot about life. But life is not something you can measure − you don’t put a hedgehog in a lab and say: “Oh, yes, it’s alive with a life score of 6.7!“. Not being able to do this of course does not mean we don’t understand life. It just means that life is not the kind of thing that is reducible to a number, and I don’t think that all of consciousness can be reduced to a single number either, even though I do think that are aspects of it that can be measured.

How would knowing and understanding more about consciousness benefit us in practical terms, in scientific fields – medicine, psychology etc?

I think there are many benefits. There are benefits, certainly, in medicine. For example, in neurology – which has to do with brain injury, brain damage – people may appear to lose consciousness when assessed in terms of their behaviour, and we might want to know: are they still conscious, even if it can’t be seen on the outside? Is there still something going on inside, some form of “inner life“? Understanding the basis of consciousness can help here. Also, consciousness research is useful in psychiatry and for people with mental health challenges. For example, depression and anxiety are very, very common diseases, which are very distressing, debilitating, and very costly as well. Most psychiatric conditions can be thought of as alterations in how people experience the world and the self. In schizophrenia, for instance, people often have hallucinations, where they experience the world and even their own body differently. Here, again, understanding the basis of how conscious experiences arise can help develop new approaches in psychiatry.

And there are other ways consciousness science can help us. We increasingly live in a world where we are dealing with people that hold very polarised and opposite beliefs, people who believe very different things about the world. Understanding how we form beliefs and perceptions of the world may be able to help us better communicate with each other, and to learn to live with the new technologies that we have, like machine learning and AI – which may give the appearance of being intelligent and perhaps even conscious, but without any conscious experience going on.

But fundamentally – maybe this isn’t so practical, but I think it is important anyway – most of us, throughout our life, we wonder who we are and what our place is, in the world and in nature. And understanding consciousness speaks to these very deep questions, questions that people have thought about from perspectives of religion, philosophy, spirituality for thousands of years. How we think about questions like this can be very important in how we live our lives and in the quality of our lives.

You’ve been studying this domain for quite some time. Of course, there are many divergent opinions about it. What do we know so far about consciousness?

We know quite a lot. Sometimes, it is a bit difficult to appreciate that, because there still is a sense of mystery about it. We certainly don’t know everything and, as you said, there is a lot of disagreement, a lot of divergent theories and opinions. But setting that aside and just thinking about what scientists may agree on and what has been discovered, over the last hundred years, and especially over the last 30 years, I think there is quite a lot.

We know, for instance, which parts of brain are mainly involved in consciousness. Here again there are some disagreements, but also some consensus: for example, we know that there is a big chunk of the brain, called the cerebellum, at the back of the brain, which is not involved in consciousness at all. So we’re beginning to focus in. Right now, there are a lot of experiments going on, testing different hypotheses, different theories about which brain regions are implicated, so we can narrow it down even more.

Among discoveries: we know about what happens in anesthesia, what happens in sleep – and that these conditions are very different. We also know a lot about how perception works. By perception I mean how the brain interprets the information coming into the eyes and the ears to form the subjective world that we each experience, which is full of colours and shapes and people and places. But there is still an awful lot that is not known. We don’t know which other animals are conscious. We don’t know what other things in the Universe, besides animals, are conscious and, fundamentally, we still don’t know how and why conscious experience happens at all. What is it about brain activity that produces any experience? That is what David Chalmers calls “the hard problem of consciousness“ and that is still not solved.

Given that it is about our experiences, which are active constructs of our minds, is it possible that each of us is living in a bubbly universe of its own? Are we living in our different worlds, which, in truth, are not at all colliding? Are we just billions of people living a unique experience on an individual level, or is there some common ground, after all?

I think there is common ground. I mean, this almost gets quite political − doesn’t it? − when we think about consciousness this way: are we all individuals or is there a Society of Minds? I think there is a Society of Minds and that this is not just a political perspective. But both can be true at the same time, of course.

Ultimately the world we experience is generated by our brains. And we all have different brains, so we are all going to inhabit slightly different worlds. But they are not completely different. This is because our perceptual worlds are not unrelated to what is actually out there, what is actually going on in the world. I mean, if that was the case, we wouldn’t survive very long. Our evolution, development and culture all contribute to make sure that the way we experience the world is useful. This doesn’t mean perception is “accurate“ or “true“, it means it’s useful. And what’s useful is going to be quite similar between people. If we are standing in the middle of the road and a bus is coming towards us, it is very useful to experience this large object coming straight towards us, so that we get out of the way. And I think most people would have a similar experience, unless they were blind or hallucinating. So, there is definitely a common ground, but I do think we are overestimating that common ground. And this is actually something I am very interested in studying at this moment: if you and I look at the blue sky, are we seeing the same colour? I suspect not.

No! That was actually what I meant to ask you – we have basic disagreements, such as: “Do you have blue eyes or green eyes“? And what I perceive as green, other perceive as blue. So how can we have a unified ”concept”?

It doesn’t have to be completely unified. Colours are particularly interesting, because, though we already know there are people with colour blindness, there are also people who perceive many more colours than most other people see. And other animals will again perceive very different colours. Colour doesn’t exist as a property of the world, independent of any mind: the mind creates colours from colourless light waves. This is a process that can be different from person to person or from species to species, more different than − let’s say – the experience that is generated when a bus is coming towards you. Although there’s been some research in this area, not a huge amount known about the different ways in which our inner experience varies from person to person.

Here’s another example: there was that photograph of that dress, from a few years ago, that half the world saw one way, as blue and black, and half saw another way, as yellow and white. This is a good example of what I’ve been now been calling “perceptual diversity”, the diversity in how we are on the inside, just as we are all different on the outside. The thing is that differences on the outside are easier to see − differences in height or skin colour, we can see that – but differences on the inside are hard to see and they are especially hard to see if we assume, each of us, that the way we experience the world is the way it really is. That was what was so interesting about that dress: people saw it one way and they really thought that if I see it that way, then that is how it is, and so how it is possible for someone to see it in a different way?

One of the lessons from the study of perception and consciousness if that we should be much more humble about our own way of seeing, way of experiencing, recognizing that it is not directly reflecting the world as it is. The novelist Anaïs Nin said: “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are“. And that – I think – is a very, very helpful message.

To help understand more about perceptual diversity, we are now doing a large study, called The Perception Census, which is trying to get ten of thousands of people across the world to engage in a series of interactive simple experiments and fun illusions and things, so we can look at how different we all are on the inside. Not just in vision, but in how we experience sound and music and emotion and the passing of time and all these sorts of things. Because very little is known about how it all hangs together. So, we are trying to map out this hidden landscape of perceptual diversity. It would amazing if you and your readers could take part and help spread the word – it’s all online and all you need is your own computer: perceptioncensus.dreamachine.world.

Are there any studies at all about identical twins and consciousness? When people share DNA, they live, up to a point, in the same environment, being brought up by the same parents and so on, what makes one having a different consciousness than the other? What is the differential factor, I mean, in consciousness, if the two premises are the same?

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It’s a good question. We know that for certain aspects of consciousness there is a strong genetic component. For example, there is a condition called synesthesia: people with synesthesia might experience colours when they read black and white letters. This different way of experiencing the world is known to have a genetic component. There are also some other conditions which involve consciousness that are heritable to some extent. Schizophrenia stands out as a good example here. In general, the experiences that we have, the way we experience the world and the self, will be like most things in biology: it’s going to be a mixture of our genes, our bodies, our development, our culture and our society. As for identical twins and consciousness, I don’t have specific opinions on this.

If a child were to ask you: ”What does consciousness mean?”, what would you tell her?

I would say that consciousness is this fascinating mystery that is also the most familiar thing for each of us. It’s the experience of the world around us and of being who we are within that world. And to that child I would say: ”You know when you fall asleep? – you lose consciousness! You fall asleep, it goes away. It might come back when you start dreaming – in a different way – and then, it comes back again, when you wake up in the morning”. The mystery is how this is happening. You – your brain and your body – are a very complex biological machine, with millions and billions of parts. Somehow, out of all that, there is this incredible miracle, there is an actual experience of being somebody in the world – that is what consciousness is and I think it is fascinating, because we still don’t know how it happens.

In your books, your interviews, you talk about consciousness and self-consciousness. How are they related or interdependent – which one comes first?

I think consciousness is first, at least under most interpretations of what self-consciousness means. We – in science and philosophy – have tended to overemphasize certain things about the human way of being, about human consciousness specifically. And this gives us a distorted view of what might be necessary for consciousness. For example, in previous decades, some people associated consciousness with language. That is a very human specific thing and isn’t even something that is present at birth. I don’t think we need language for consciousness.

The consciousness versus self-consciousness issue is a bit more complicated. In my view, there is always only one conscious experience happening and part of that is usually the experience of being a self. Now: can you have an experience of the world without an experience of the self? In some ways yes – some aspects of self-consciousness may not be necessary for consciousness to be present at all. One interpretation of self-consciousness is a quite high-level idea of personal identity: I am Anil Seth, I am aware of being an individual in the world, that has a set of memories and plans for the future and I know who I am, I have an identity.

Or so you think (you know who you are)…

Exactly! I think we’re often mistaken about that, too. But at least, we usually have some impression of who we might be, which we hold with various levels of confidence and accuracy. But I think this may not be necessary for consciousness in general, and even in humans can sometimes go away. For example, if we are highly immersed, playing sport or listening to music or something, we can lose this experience of personal identity. If we are in a big crowd – a football game or something – we can temporary lose that element of self-consciousness too.

Having said this, I do think there is a deeper level of selfhood, which is probably always there, and that is actually what I argue in the book: that there is this basic sense of being alive, of being a body, that, at least for humans and other animals, is the basis of all conscious experience. So very low fundamental levels of self-consciousness, like this feeling of aliveness and emotion and mood − I think that is fundamental. But there is this higher level: like yes, I am Anil Seth and I am wondering when I’m having lunch − all of these things are optional.

I remember being at some breathing seminar with a yoga practitioner and he asked us to do this exercise: to recall how we felt as babies and then at different stages in our lives. And I recall knowing I felt the same, as an infant, at 20 and so on. Is our core, the ”essence” of us, the same and then we are just adding layers on top, depending on our life experiences and our relationships?

It seems that way to us, right? Sometimes, it seems that is a sort of continuous thread, which is the essence of me or whoever, that has always been there from birth and carries on throughout life. It may get added to or subtracted from, for instance if you have certain diseases, but there is still some essence. But I’m not sure that is ever the case. In fact, this is not even an insight from neuroscience. The Buddhist philosophy says something similar: that the only thing that is permanent is change. We change all the time, it’s just that we don’t really notice that we change. If I met my 10-year old self now, he would probably seem to be a very different person.

In truth, yes, science tells us that every couple of days or months every cell in our body regenerates. I am not the same person I was ten minutes ago…

Exactly! We are not totally different, of course…

But our consciousness remains the same?

I don’t think so. I think our experiences of the world and of the self change all the time, it’s just we don’t always notice the change. This is well-known in psychology. There is a phenomenon called ”change blindness”: when things change slowly, and we are not expecting them to change, we don’t perceive the change as happening. This could be the colour of a wall changing, or something else that changes very slowly – we won’t experience the change at all! I think the same goes for the experience of self: it changes slowly and we are kind of attuned by evolution to assume that it doesn’t change very much at all. So, even though the experience of being me now might be different from the experience of being me a month ago or a year ago or in 5 years time, I won’t experience the change, because it is slow and I am basically designed to not notice that. But I do think it changes.

What is the next step for you? What are you interested in now?

Many things, really! I tend to be the kind of person that works on several things at once, now with lots of people together in various teams. One of the things that I am very excited about is – we already talked about it – this idea of perceptual diversity and understanding how we each see the world in different ways, through the Perception Census. This is actually is part of a larger project, called The Dreamachine, which is an art-science collaboration I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. The Dreamachine uses stroboscopic light to give people dramatic visual experiences with their eyes closed: explosions of colours and shapes in the mind. This has been very interesting. We don’t quite know how and why it works (I am interested in that, too).

I am also working more on the basic question of how can we explain why vision is the way it is, compared to hearing? When we have a conscious experience of listening to something, that has a different character than when we look at something. When we open our eyes we have the experience of objects out there in space, in different locations. When we listen to something, or feel something emotionally, it is more ”in here” and it feels different. So, I am trying to use computational models, basically, simulations of different parts of the brain and how they work together, to try to understand how conscious experiences are different from each other. Why is emotion different from vision, different from smell, different from the experience of being a body? – that is the larger goal. By following this research, my hope is that we will eventually dissolve this big mystery of consciousness – the hard problem – once and for all. Once we can explain its different properties – why different things feel the way they do – then I don’t think there is going to be this big sense that consciousness is beyond science – I don’t think it is!

You would have only one question about consciousness to ask to a Genie in a bottle, the Golden Fish or some wise entity you believe in: what would this question be?

I would ask: “What is it about the stuff we are made out of that gives rise to conscious experiences?“.

Later in September you will talk to Romanian audiences about the Science of consciousness. What will you tell them?

Yes, it’s part of this Unfinished festival in Bucharest. I’ve never been to Romania before, so I am really excited to come. I’ll be talking to this general audience about consciousness, about the self and about this Dream Machine project, which is a really unique (in my experience) combination of art and science and architecture and creative industries − so I think it’s particularly interesting for the audiences at this festival. 

If someone were to gather information about consciousness what would you recommend – a sort of Consciousness for beginners?

Consciousness for dummies? (laughing). I have written this book – Being You: A New Science of Consciousness – which is intended for a general audience. It does require a little bit of investment, but it is supposed to be accessible and you don’t need a scientific background to read it. But if you want to go even easier, then, there are places to start. I had a previous book, called The 30 second brain, which contains very short bite-sized, easily digestible chunks about the brain. There are 50 ideas in this book and every one of them should only take you 30 seconds to read about, so it’s nice and easy. There are of course lots of wonderful things that other people have written and talked about in interviews and podcasts and films. One I would highlight is this book, written by Lisa Feldman Barett, which I think would be a great introduction.

Simona Calancea este jurnalist cu o experiență de 25 de ani în presa scrisă și online. În ultimii ani a coordonat proiecte editoriale de parenting și a colaborat cu mai multe organizații neguvernamentale pe programe de educație și sănătate.

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