Dr. Anil Seth has written an extraordinary book called Being You — A New Science of Consciousness. I had a chance to talk to him recently in an event sponsored by Science & Wisdom Live. Dr. Seth is one of the world’s foremost researchers on consciousness, and in our interview he touches on defining consciousness from a scientific perspective, whether we have free will, and the notion of reality as a controlled hallucination. He also talks about an art installation called the Dreamachine that he helped create, which can induce profound direct experiences of consciousness.
What is the scientific definition of consciousness?
[00:00:30] Scott Snibbe: Anil Seth, it’s a pleasure getting to talk to you today about consciousness. Thanks for joining us.
[00:01:20] Dr. Anil Seth: Thank you for having me on. It’s a pleasure.
[00:01:22] Scott Snibbe: So, you’re one of the pioneering scientists today who are exploring consciousness, and I’d like to start out by asking if there’s even a scientific definition for consciousness yet, or if you have a working definition that you use in your own research?
As I’ve followed this field along, as an amateur reading various books, it struck me that there didn’t seem to be a scientific definition for consciousness.
[00:01:47] Dr. Anil Seth: I don’t think there will be a definition that everybody agrees on until we’ve actually solved the problem of how and why consciousness arises from the brain, or how and why it fits into our picture of the rest of the universe. This is not unusual though, in science definitions evolve along with our understanding.
The early definitions of the gene in biology were very different to the definition of a gene that we have today. They started with just some very vague idea that something discrete was heritable over generations, not as a specific string of DNA or whatever it is. I think the same goes for consciousness; most of us agree about the broad outlines of what consciousness means, what it is we’re trying to understand. I always like using the definition from Thomas Nagle, the philosopher who said that for a conscious organism that is “something it is like to be that organism.”
“An organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.”Thomas Nagle
It feels like something to be me, and it feels like something to be you, but it probably doesn’t feel like anything to be a table, a chair, or a laptop; and this is very, very general. It just means there’s some experience going on. It’s totally liberal with respect to what kind of experience.
It doesn’t associate consciousness with intelligence or language or self. It just means that for that system there’s something it is like to be that system. I think that’s a good starting point because it guards against smuggling in unwarranted assumptions about consciousness from the get-go.
[00:03:24] Scott Snibbe: I like that a lot because consciousness is the ultimate subjective experience but I’ve actually not heard it defined as much from a subjective perspective. I like how you forefront subjectivity in the definition of consciousness.
[00:03:38] Dr. Anil Seth: Well, actually I didn’t, I didn’t even use the word subjective there because that can imply something that’s there, the existence of a subject, that there is some subject of that experience. The philosopher Thomas Metzinger gave a talk recently and he made a beautiful and quite provocative claim that consciousness is not subjective, which I think would strike most people as odd.
But what I took from it was a very well made point that experience in its most raw conceptual form, doesn’t necessarily imply an experiencer. It doesn’t necessarily imply the experience of being a subject; it can just be experience. Now, for most of the time, for most of us—perhaps we’ll talk later about deep effects of meditation and so on—there is a subject. We experience being a subject of our experiences, but that is not necessarily built into the definition of consciousness and it’s useful to bear that in mind.
Experience in its most raw conceptual form, doesn’t necessarily imply an experiencer.
Levels of consciousness
[00:04:36] Scott Snibbe: Well, I’m glad I asked that question because when you say “being,” it doesn’t necessarily mean being independent, right? That’s a big deal actually. If you add words to that, what do you think is a way to unfold that a little more? So that it’s clearer that consciousness is more interdependent, as I think you’re suggesting.
[00:04:56] Dr. Anil Seth: Yes, it is, consciousness under this very broad definition of the presence of any kind of experience; we should ask, What is consciousness like, at least for us humans? How might it typically be expressed for a typical human being in their everyday life? And here I think we can divide consciousness in a number of different ways.
This is useful just as a guide for doing our research. One very broad aspect of consciousness is conscious level. We can lose consciousness entirely under dreamless sleep or under general anesthesia and it comes back when we wake up or come around again. That’s a kind of global state of consciousness. We can ask, What in the brain and the body are responsible for changes in that very global aspect of consciousness?
The second aspect—and this is what I think most people focus on—is conscious content. When you are conscious, you are conscious of something; this could be the colors, shapes, objects, places, aspects of the world around you, which of course includes other people too. So part of our conscious contents are the contents of other people’s minds. I have an idea of what you are thinking right now because we’re engaged in a conversation and that’s part of my conscious experience.
And then the final aspect of consciousness, at least how I break it down, is conscious self. This is back to the subject because for most of us, most of the time, has this experience of being a self, an individual connected to others, very interdependent with others, but an individual nonetheless.
This too has many aspects; there’s part of myself, which is the experience of the body that I have, the emotions that I have, the moods that I have. Part of it is the experience of voluntary reactions, the intentions to do things, the feelings of free will, the first person perspective that I have, the memories that I have. There are many different types of experience that collectively come to define the experience of being me or being you.
There are many different types of experience that collectively come to define the experience of being me or being you.
It’s useful to fractionate consciousness this way, not because these are necessarily the natural fault lines of consciousness in the natural world, but it just gives us something to hang on to. We can explain parts of the problem without having to tackle the whole problem all at once. What David Chalmers has called “the hard problem of consciousness,” why and how does consciousness exist in the universe?
Is consciousness present in anything that’s alive?
[00:07:22] Scott Snibbe: When you talk about being, what is the subtler levels of consciousness for other types of organisms? For example, I’m reading this wonderful novel now called The Overstory by Richard Powers about the potential consciousness of trees, a very slow, aggregate type of consciousness.
Is there a level of evolution or of complexity that you think consciousness arises, or do you think it’s present in anything that’s alive?
[00:07:49] Dr. Anil Seth: That’s great that you are reading The Overstory. That’s actually next up for me on my audible listening list. I’ve just finished listening to Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life which is all about fungi and the wonderful and highly elaborate lives that fungi leads. And how the rest of life, including us humans, are dependent on all the operations of fungi. You can ask this question of fungis, as of trees, what might be going on there.
I feel a little bit cautious when it comes to ascribing conscious states to fungi and plants. This is because what we know from animals, a nervous system with neurons seems to be necessary. Whether it is actually necessary, whether there are other ways, other sorts of systems that might support conscious experiences, I can’t rule it out completely. It depends on which theory of consciousness you believe in. But empirically, from what we know right now, you do need a nervous system. And not even just the raw, simple presence of any nervous system is enough. We have complex nervous systems, but we can still be unconscious.
This isn’t to say that trees and fungi and plants are boring, they’re so much more interesting and so much richer in their behavior than people had thought. And I haven’t read the The Overstory yet, but around this idea of the wood-wide web and the intercommunication between trees, I’ve never walked in a forest or a wood the same way again.
I now think about the trees that I can see on the surface are just not really the whole story, that’s just the breathing bits of the tree. The real action is going on underground, all this communication between roots, mediated by fungi; it’s absolutely fascinating.
Does that involve any kind of conscious awareness? I doubt it, but it is still very rich, very interesting, and much more similar to animal behavior than I think people have ever appreciated.
[00:09:56] Scott Snibbe: So you think once you have neurons . . . I mean, a snail has six neurons or something like that.
[00:10:03] Dr. Anil Seth: Yeah, so it’s so hard to know where to draw the line, and I always resist the temptation of trying to draw the line somewhere, but it seems—and this is based just on intuition really—that clearly we humans are conscious. That’s a starting point for investigating the whole thing.
And we have very similar brains, in terms of the large scale structure, to primates and really to most other mammals. So, I think it’s a fair bet that all mammals are conscious. Things get much more difficult when we start looking outside the mammalian kingdom, because the brains become more different.
I think it’s a fair bet that all mammals are conscious.
It becomes harder to say if an octopus have the same brain structures, or equivalent brain structures, to humans of the sort that we know are implicated in consciousness in humans. What about a honeybee? What about a worm? Indeed, it does seem provocative to say, when you get down to a nematode worm with 302 neurons, that there is anything like a conscious experience going on.
But it’s a very dangerous argument to make because it’s not purely a matter of the number of neurons it’s their arrangement. It’s something to do with the wiring, the activity patterns that are supported. Just to give you a sense of where I sit on this spectrum, the kind of creature that always causes me trouble are things like jumping spiders and bees.
Consciousness is not purely a matter of the number of neurons.
Now they’re very, very different. They’re insects. They have quite a lot of neurons, but not a ton of neurons. I mean, they’re very small, but their behavior is incredibly rich and complicated. They can learn, they can do sophisticated things. Is a bee conscious? Is a jumping spider conscious? It’s very, very hard to tell.
I think what we can say is that their conscious worlds, their inner universes, will be very different to the inner universe that you and I have, or that a monkey or even a mouse has.
What is the relationship between the brain and consciousness?
[00:12:04] Scott Snibbe: What do you think is the relationship between the brain and consciousness? There are extremes, where some people believe consciousness is a complete side effect of the physical properties of the brain and others who believe consciousness is a completely separate entity.
What is your learned opinion?
[00:12:24] Dr. Anil Seth: My opinion—for what it’s worth—is that it’s clear there’s an intimate dependence of consciousness on the brain. This is amply demonstrated by medicine, by science. You change the brain, you change your conscious experience. There’s a dependency in that direction.
I am not very comfortable with the extremes of this position. So, one extreme might be that consciousness is entirely a separate realm that interacts somehow with the physical realm of the brain, perhaps through the pineal gland as Descartes suggested, or perhaps in some other way. But this is the dualistic perspective, and it’s got a lot of intuitive appeal for many, because it seems as though consciousness is a kind of separate thing from the physical world.
But it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. It’s very hard to figure out how it would work. And the idea that consciousness is a side effect—that it’s epiphenomenal, that it doesn’t matter—just goes against the whole of evolutionary biology. And it goes against common sense too. Our conscious experiences are not arbitrary. The way we perceive the self and the world can be understood in terms of being functionally useful for the organism. And this can be true without having to say that conscious experiences somehow cause things to happen in the brain, which is again, is a kind of dualism through the back door.
The idea that consciousness is a side effect—that it’s epiphenomenal, that it doesn’t matter—just goes against the whole of evolutionary biology.
It could be that our brains have evolved to generate conscious experiences because this is a very efficient way for them to organize behavior. This is just one way for the brains to integrate lots of information from the world in a format that’s very unified and geared towards adaptive actions and fulfilling our behavioral goals. That all makes sense to me without having to say that consciousness itself sort of comes in and causes the neuron to fire that otherwise wouldn’t fire. Our experiences are sort of the subjective rather than the phenomenological flip side of that functional organization of the brain. All this is to say that I’m a pragmatic materialist.
It could be that our brains have evolved to generate conscious experiences because this is a very efficient way for them to organize behavior.
I think that conscious experience depends on the physical brain in some way. It’s a question of how, in what way that is. I think it’s very difficult to come up with an exact answer to that, but I think by taking the perspective of experiences depending on the brain, is the most useful way to try and understand how consciousness is expressed in humans and other animals.
[00:15:01] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and I like you bringing up non-duality, because this dualistic thinking was rooted in an earlier fog of just grasping at how things might really exist. Talking to Carlo Rovelli and reading his books, like Helgoland, was very illuminating to me because he says matter really isn’t what we think it is. The primary dualism of thinking that there’s even a solid matter when you look at it from the quantum perspective without being airy fairy or woo-woo. All there is is the transfer of information. There’s the receiving and the sending of information, but there’s not necessarily a sender or a receiver; it’s the action and he calls it relationality.
There’s the receiving and the sending of information, but there’s not necessarily a sender or a receiver.
And when you think of it that way, I found it was much less hand wavy because it’s more like they’re the same thing. It’s that matter isn’t as solid as we think it is, and consciousness is not an airy fairy mystical realm that we’ll never access. Maybe there’s something else right in between that encompasses both.
[00:16:02] Dr. Anil Seth: I think that’s right. I felt the same way reading Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland, which I thought was brilliant. I really enjoyed it and I’ve spoken to him as well since then. And yeah, you’re right that when people pour scorn on materialism and say, How could consciousness ever be explained by physical stuff?
It’s often on the basis of a rather impoverished view of what physical stuff actually is, as if it is just billiard balls bouncing around in the void. What Carlo reminds us is that the material world is pretty mysterious still; it’s certainly more than billiard balls colliding in the dark. There’s quantum mechanics and there is no agreed interpretation of quantum mechanics. Carlo’s relational interpretation is beautiful, that things exist in relation to other things rather than as intrinsic things that then interact with other intrinsic things. But there are other ones too. That may not be the one, that may be something else altogether.
I think it’s not, Now we have the secret of consciousness, but it’s just sort of a healthy reminder that the resources of materialist explanation are deeper and richer than we might otherwise suppose. From when I first started out on this path about 30-32 years ago, there’s been a lot written about quantum mechanics and consciousness. I think a lot of it has not been very helpful because it’s of the sort that consciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics is mysterious, so they must be related. I don’t think that’s very helpful.
No specific theory about consciousness depending on this or that quantum process has, I think, really stood up. It’s not to say it won’t in the future, but quantum mechanics just reminds us that matter is complicated and may do many things.
[00:17:54] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I think stopping right there is good because I have heard many, many times—and you see it in books—where all of a sudden someone will write quantum physics and they might as well be saying “God” or “soul” or anything else because there’s nothing. It’s just a word, it’s not a principled argument or any kind of coherent observation or even philosophy.
[00:18:16] Dr. Anil Seth: Yeah, but there are some very interesting questions about, for instance, what quantum processes really happen in biology? The flourishing field of quantum biology is one that my colleague and friend Jim Al-Khalili is researching. And looking at most things that happen in biology, we don’t need quantum physics to understand, but that’s not always the case.
Like photosynthesis is a process for which a direct appeal to quantum mechanics is needed to explain its deficiency, and perhaps navigation in birds is another example. There are some examples, but so far consciousness is not among them.
[00:18:54] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, this is right on the edge of research, right? This research just came out, I think last year about the cells that are sensitive to magnetic fields have to use a quantum process. And as you said, photosynthesis, but there are only a couple of examples so far where we’ve directly proven that biology is related to a quantum process, but maybe it’s much more widespread.
[00:19:13] Dr. Anil Seth: Yeah, that may be. What’s interesting is in those areas where a link has been demonstrated, It doesn’t have the sort of veneer of woo-woo or mystery. Quantum mechanics is a good theory of physical systems and this explains this property of these physical systems. It’s not sort of whole different kind of explanation going on. It’s standard biology that appeals to specific quantum phenomena and yeah, let’s see how that whole thing plays out. I think that will be very interesting.
There is some work by Stuart Hameroff arguing that the action of anesthetics, to explain how anesthetics work, you need to appeal to quantum processes. Now that gets us a little closer to consciousness. I don’t think it lends support to his preferred theory of consciousness, doesn’t support the whole thing. And it’s questionable whether it’s even the case. There’s some recent stuff coming out of a physics lab in Italy that suggests that’s not even the case.
But yeah, I think we just return to the point that the main value of quantum mechanics here is in revealing the richness and potential of materialistic explanations in whatever arena is proposed.
I predict myself, therefore I am
[00:20:23] Scott Snibbe: There’s a quote I have from you about how we exist. You have said that I predict myself, therefore I am. It’s this playful adaptation of, I think therefore I am. Can you talk about what that means exactly?
I predict myself, therefore I am.
[00:20:40] Dr. Anil Seth: It’s a bit of a dig at Descartes, who of course said, I think therefore I am. Just reflecting on Descartes’ phrase, it captures one of these assumptions that is quite understandable, but it’s quite pernicious in our understanding of consciousness; associating thoughts with self, with consciousness, with the essence of an individual, it elevates thought, elevates intelligence to a distinctive realm.
Instead of that being the case, if we ask what might be the most fundamental kind of experience, it might be something much more common among other animals, maybe the experience of pain, of suffering, of hunger, of thirst, something very deeply embodied rather than something abstract like thought. When I say “I predict myself, therefore I am,” that’s actually playing on the main explanatory framework that I appeal to in the book and in my work, which is the framework of predictive processing.
This is the idea that perception—the ability of the brain to make sense of all the sensory information that it gets—is a process of prediction. The brain is making predictions about what’s out there in the world, or in here in the body, and updating these predictions on the basis of sensory data coming from the world or the body and the content of what we perceive. Both perceptions of the style and of the world, that’s the joint content of all the predictions that the brain is making at any particular point.
Perception—the ability of the brain to make sense of all the sensory information that it gets—is a process of prediction.
So that’s one sense in which “I predict myself, therefore I am,” works. But there’s another sense, which is that prediction in the perception of the body is not simply about figuring out where the body is or what’s going on in the body. But it’s also about controlling and regulating the body. So prediction can be used to control. A self-fulfilling prediction is a very effective mechanism of control.
A self-fulfilling prediction is a very effective mechanism of control.
If I want to keep my body temperature at a steady 30 degrees, my brain can predict that’s going to be the case and make actions like turning the heating up or down or metabolizing or not, in order to make that prediction come true. So predictive regulation in biology called allostasis is very, very powerful.
So “I predict myself, therefore I am,” works on a variety of levels. It works at a very mechanistic, low level in saying, Well, literally your brain, through making self-fulfilling predictions about your bodily state, is keeping you alive; it is keeping you going over time. That plays out not just at the level of the physiological body, but your psychological identity too.
You’re predicting a certain set of experiences unfolding over time that gives the experience of being you some consistency, some continuity. And in that sense, you predict yourself, therefore you are, also.
The self, perspective, & interdependence
[00:23:46] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, this gets a little into more about the self. You mentioned the self a few different times there, and you’ve talked about the self not as a thing that does perceiving, but as a perception itself. Can you talk more about that? I’m a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, and in the Buddhist worldview you see this illusion of a separate self as this fundamental obstacle to happiness and to seeing reality clearly.
In the Buddhist worldview, you see this illusion of a separate self as a fundamental obstacle to happiness and to seeing reality clearly.
So I was quite struck with this, your thought that seems very coherent with the Buddhist view, that the self isn’t a thing, but it’s a perception itself. Would you mind unpacking that from your own perspective and research?
[00:24:25] Dr. Anil Seth: I think you just did it very nicely. And I think there’s a lot of a lot of parallels between Buddhist conceptions of the illusion of the self and what I’ve been saying, but what a lot of other people in neuroscience are saying as well. And the illusion has a specific meaning here, right? That it’s a form of perception that is different in some systematic way from what actually is the case.
So it’s not like a hallucination, which might be something that doesn’t exist. In the book and in my work, I talk about perception as a controlled hallucination rather than a hallucination of something that’s not there. I think that works too. When it comes to the self from one perspective—and it may just be a very naive non-Buddhist, Western cultural perspective—it seems intuitive to think of the self as the thing that does the perceiving as if there’s an essence of me within my head that’s receiving all the information about the world through the eyes, ears, nose, wherever, and is the beneficiary of all this information. All the work the brain is doing to interpret it and form perceptions, and the self kind of gets that information and makes to memory, and decides what to do next and so on.
But this doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. The way I prefer to think of it is that there’s a single underlying principle beneath our perceptions of things in the world and the perceptions that collectively form the self. And this requires unpacking as we’ve already done a bit. What does it mean to experience being yourself?
What does it mean to experience being yourself?
There are many different kinds of experiences: the body, emotion, mood, first person perspective, memories over time, volition, agency, free will, all sorts of things. Instead of thinking of those as little mini essences of me, you can think of them as forms of perception, especially the body is an easy example. The experience of what in the world is my body? Well, that’s a perception. We know it’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted because it can be manipulated both in the lab and is manipulated in many illnesses and diseases.
People with amputations experienced phantom limbs. Other people experience existing limbs that they have as not belonging to them. They’re all these strange alterations in bodily experience and they’re best understood as unusual forms of perception of the body, of the self. I think that the term illusion is quite appropriate here because now there is an organism that is you and that is me.
There’s a thing in the world, a collection of wet wear and muscle and tissue that defines each of us. And the perception of being a self is related to that in all sorts of useful ways, but there is no independently existing essence of me or you, in the way it might naively appear.
There is no independently existing essence of me or you, in the way it might naively appear.
So the self, as a rolling process, constructed from different ways of perceiving the body and the mind and other people. There’s a really fascinating thing here, which gets back to thing you said at the beginning of our conversation, which is the interdependence on others. And a large part of what it is to be a human self is how we perceive ourselves refracted through the minds of others. And this can be in a very literal way.
A large part of what it is to be a human self is how we perceive ourselves refracted through the minds of others.
I have a pretty bad autobiographical memory. So often I rely on my friends, who’ve known me for years, to remind me what happened to me at various times in my life. And those memories are a part of my experience of being me. But they entirely depend on the minds of others.
I think in a more systematic way, what it feels like to be any of us is really strongly dependent on what we think other people think about us, whether we realize it or not. And that means to me that we are literally constituted, as people, in part by the minds of those around us.
In a more systematic way, what it feels like to be any of us is really strongly dependent on what we think other people think about us, whether we realize it or not.
[00:28:36] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, absolutely. And I wanted to go a little deeper with perception because Buddhism has said it for 2,500 years, that all our perceptions are illusions. All the five senses are completely illusory. Descartes and Newton also wrote very clearly—they understood this more from a scientific perspective—that there’s no sound, there’s no taste, there’s no touch; all the five senses don’t exist in nature. Nature is a kind of invisible, continuous electromagnetic experience.
Descartes and Newton also wrote very clearly—they understood this more from a scientific perspective—that there’s no sound, there’s no taste, there’s no touch; all the five senses don’t exist in nature.
So could you talk about that? Without a doubt that is a kind of illusion or hallucination. Can you talk a little bit about perception and that illusion of perception and how that impacts us as beings, how it constructs us and the world around us?
[00:29:24] Dr. Anil Seth: Yeah, exactly. I think all of these trends are pointing in the right direction, as you point out. Buddhist philosophy has said it for thousands of years and so have many Western scientists. Kant as well had this idea of the noumenon, the reality that’s forever hidden from us behind a sensory veil.
I think all of this is correct. It’s not to deny that there is a reality. I think a lot of these perspectives are completely compatible with the idea that there is a real world of some sort out there going on, but that is not the same as the world as it appears in our experience. It cannot be the same as the world is as it appears in our experience. I think that’s really important.
It’s not that evolution has sort of distorted our perception so that we see the world inaccurately and that there would be some way to see the world accurately. I don’t think that’s even possible, in principle.Take color for instance. There’s no accurate way to perceive color in the universe. Colors are by definition a construction of the brain and the world together. Cézanne said color is where the brain and the universe meet.
There’s no accurate way to perceive color in the universe.
They’re very useful things for us to experience and very useful in a very species specific way, other animals. It’s one of the very variable aspects of comparative physiology, neurophysiology, the variation in color, vision, among species is incredibly dramatic and incredibly well-tuned to the specific behaviors and traits that that other species possess. So this is where I think the word “illusion” in this sense can be a little bit unhelpful in guiding our thinking.
Because again, when we think of illusion, it’s almost as if we are seeing in a distorted way something that could be seen in an undistorted way. To take a typical visual illusion, like there’s this visual illusion called the Müller-Lyer illusion, which are two lines and they look different lengths because of the arrowheads pointing in different directions, on the two different lines. But they are objectively the same length, and here it’s called illusion, because you would think, Yeah, we see them as different lengths. But if we were not subject to the illusion, we would see them as being the same length, because they are the same length.
But that lesson doesn’t generalize to the rest of our perception. There is no way to calibrate or correct our perceptual experience. So, it reveals the world as it really is. It is always by definition, a construction. So in this sense, I think Kant’s very much on the right track, as is Buddhist thought, as far as I understand it.
There is no way to calibrate or correct our perceptual experience.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s not that we’re flailing around in the dark. Our perceptions, perceptual experiences are very exquisitely calibrated to whatever’s out there in a way that serves—or certainly at least over evolutionary timescales—our survival purposes. So this is why, again, just bouncing around terminology, I tended to use “controlled hallucination” to emphasize that the experience that we have comes from within but it is controlled by, geared to, reigned in by, the world, in a way that makes sense for us.
I tended to use “controlled hallucination” to emphasize that our experiences come from within but are controlled by, geared to, reigned in by, the world, in a way that makes sense for us.
[00:32:58] Scott Snibbe: No, it’s very nice. And I think it’s a common misunderstanding of Buddhism too, that you think the world is an illusion, but the words are very precise in Buddhism. And when you finally study it, what the teachers say is our experience is like an illusion, that it isn’t actually an illusion, but it has a lot in common within illusion. Just like you’re saying, it’s not a complete hallucination, it’s a kind of controlled hallucination.
The more and more I study Buddhism, I see my misunderstandings are actually based on just skipping words and collapsing my understanding to something too simplistic.
[00:33:37] Dr. Anil Seth: I noticed that in a much more trivial way, just in the stuff that I’ve been doing. I’ll say perception is a controlled hallucination, and quite often people just seem to skip the word controlled entirely and say, Well, go and stand in front of a bus and see if you hallucinate that.
And it’s like, No, the control is just as important. Our perceptions are not arbitrary and yes, the devil really is in the detail. And it’s an important devil in these cases.
[00:34:01] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, the bus isn’t really red, but it still hits your body. You have to figure out where to draw that line.
And what are your thoughts on qualia? This is one of the great questions of consciousness because you can obviously make a computer that spits out the word red when you point it at something red. But when we have the experience of red or the really passionate experience of chocolate or love and so on, those kind of experiences transcend the label. Even then, don’t say an artificial intelligence might put on that thing. That’s why we say AI’s maybe aren’t conscious because they’re just spitting out an answer.
And we use this word qualia, typically to refer to these experiences, the subjective—I hate that word now that you’ve pointed out its problem—but the awareness of something that goes beyond just labeling an experience; to actually feeling it, experiencing it, as something whole.
[00:35:00] Dr. Anil Seth: This is the big question, right? We have a strong intuition that there are some processes, some systems, that are just not sufficient to generate any kind of experience. So, programming a computer to say “red,” when you point its camera at a red bus, that doesn’t give us a sense that there is therefore an experience of redness happening for that computer.
That’s the starting point of there being anything to explain about consciousness. We have these experiences and there is something going on and therefore there’s a challenge in explaining it. In this sense, I’m what philosophers might call a phenomenal realist. I believe that experiences happen and we’re not mistaken about the fact that we have conscious experiences, but the word qualia is problematic. It’s been a bit of a philosophical football in the field for a for a very long time.
I’m what philosophers might call a phenomenal realist.
In one sense, it’s perfectly legitimate because it just points to this phenomenal realism. Just this difference between a computer that spits out red and the experience of redness, if you or I look at a red thing and say red. But in another sense, the word takes on some additional and more challenging connotations.
So the idea of the sort of mental stuff, what is this stuff of experience? Where is it? How does it relate to the you, begin to think more in terms of a sort of backdoor dualism. How does this qualia relate to brain activity? It imbues it with a kind of substance of some form that then complicates the problem.
So I don’t know in all honesty how to address that problem, but I do know you can sidestep it a little bit and it may seem like a bit of a cheat, but the approach that I follow and advocate in the book and in my work is instead of trying to explain why and how this qualia stuff could arise, emerge, or exist, accept that experiences are real. So, take a phenomenal realist perspective, describe their properties. What is it about redness that makes it different from blueness or greenness or emotion or smell or memory or agency? These experiences are different characters.
Can we try and understand why and how these experiences have these different characters? Can we explain properties of these experiences in terms of underlying mechanisms? What kind of perceptual prediction in the brain would map in an understandable, explanatory way to a particular kind of conscious experience? Now, pretty much all theories in consciousness science try to do this in one way or another. They all try to account for why different experiences are the way they are and how they relate to other ones. I think that’s a really powerful prospect.
The hope is that by doing that, you end up dissolving a little bit of the mystery around qualia. This is an argument I try to make in the book, that in the science of consciousness, as in science in general, once you can explain why a phenomenon is one way, predict when it will happen and then maybe control its appearance, or intervene in the brain, and a particular experience happens that you predict to happen, then you’ve kind of done the job that scientific explanations typically do. You don’t always have to explain why and how the phenomenon is there in the first place.
And indeed, it’s not that it hangs on as an inconvenient mystery. Often the mystery just goes away. There’s a historical parallel with life. For a long time, biologists were worried about how life could be a property of physics and chemistry, of mere mechanism. It seemed almost conceptually impossible that it could be, which drove the philosophy of vitalism, the idea that there was some special source, some essence, some élan vital. But biology didn’t figure out life by looking for this élan vital and finding it.
But importantly, it didn’t do the opposite. It didn’t say, Oh, well, life doesn’t exist actually. We’re mistaken about life being special. No, biology progressed by identifying the different properties of living systems like homeostasis and metabolism, reproduction and things, and explaining those.
It turns out that once you’ve done that, then even the question about how does life happen doesn’t have the sense of mystery. And the sense of mystery about it is gone even though we still haven’t fully explained everything there is to explain about life. So will this be the case for consciousness?
It’s too early to say, you can’t leap ahead. You can’t put Descartes before the horse in this way. But you can make a reasonable bet that this is a very productive road to follow. Instead of attacking this hard problem, in David Chalmers’ vocabulary, head-on, let’s take a divide and conquer approach. Let’s accept that conscious experiences are real. Let’s list their properties.
Let’s accept that conscious experiences are real.
Take a branch of philosophy called phenomenology more seriously, instead of just saying consciousness is experienced as one big thing. No, it’s a very complex phenomenon. It has many different dimensions. We’ve barely scratched the surface in this conversation. Buddhist philosophy, again, goes a lot deeper, as do many Western traditions of phenomenological philosophy.
Let’s figure out what it is we’re trying to explain in a more granular way, and then see what aspects of phenomenology we can explain by the different theories that we have that may make testable predictions. Then let’s just keep an eye on this hard problem in the distance and see whether it’s still there or whether it’s in fact starting to crumble and dissolve.
A positive outlook on exploring consciousness
[00:41:11] Scott Snibbe: I’ve never heard that before. It’s such a powerful analogy because you’re right, the question of what is life isn’t a big deep question anymore. Of course, there’s questions still to answer at subtle levels, but we more or less understand it. And yet it’s no less wonderful.
I think we still say life is extraordinary and wonderful. But we no longer say, Oh, what the heck is it? And it’s something separate from everything that makes it up. So, that actually makes me very hopeful that science may be able to probe consciousness, because there are many great thinkers who actually say we’ll never be able to explain consciousness scientifically.
I spoke with Thupten Jinpa recently, the Dalai Lama’s translator, who’s also very much aware of all the scientific research and he’s a little pessimistic that we’ll ever understand consciousness scientifically. But what you’re just saying makes it seem possible.
[00:42:00] Dr. Anil Seth: Well, I think you’re never gonna know until you try, right? I think just writing off the possibility preemptively is just not that productive. People have tried to construct arguments why, in principle, we can’t scientifically explain consciousness. There are many arguments you can follow ranging from mysterianism, that there is an explanation out there, but we’re just not smart enough to find it or understand it.
It may be the case, but who knows, we don’t know yet. So I think it’s just better not to be prematurely pessimistic. And you raise a very important point that in the case of life, it didn’t lose its grandeur. I think it increases its wonder. And certainly in the limited time I’ve been thinking about consciousness from scientific, philosophical perspective, it’s got more wonderful, rather than less wonderful.
This is important because there’s certainly one current of thinking that you hear sometimes, which is that a scientific explanation of consciousness is somehow spiritually dangerous. If consciousness turns out to be explicable, we’re gonna lose something very precious. We’re gonna lose something very special to us, something that sets us apart and makes us who we are, and the sense of awe might be damaged or abolished.
I suspect the opposite will be the case. And this is not new. This happens in science all the time. We just think about the James Webb telescope taking its first images now. How much more wonderful is that than the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe and the seven or eight spheres rotating around it? The universe as it actually is beginning to be revealed to us, even through the limited ways that we still have. Even the James’ Web, amazing as it is, is not giving us the full picture.
But the universe that’s open to us now is so much richer and awesome than human imagination considered beforehand. The same goes for life in all its variety, and I see absolutely no reason why the same won’t apply to consciousness too. It becomes more impressive, more wondrous, and I think we will value it more because we also realize how precarious it is. We take ourselves less for granted, and that is a value that extends beyond contemplation of the universe to our everyday life and how we go about living day-to-day.
Do we have free will?
[00:44:33] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it reminds me of Giordano Bruno when he claimed that all of the stars were actually other suns and then was burnt at the stake for it. He’s reputed to have said, Your God is so much bigger than you think.
So, agency, free will, I know this is a gigantic question, but this sense of interdependence. On the one hand, if the mind and consciousness arise from material processes, do we have any agency at all? Are we like an automaton or do we have free will and agency? What is that? I’m sure the answer is somewhere in between, but could you talk a little bit about that? Another one of these impossible questions.
[00:45:15] Dr. Anil Seth: It’s funny when it comes to free will, whenever I’ve given talks about consciousness in sort of general public audiences, you can explain how the world that’s being experienced isn’t the world as it is. And, okay, that’s fine. And then you can explain that the self isn’t really an innate essence of you or me. It’s also a perception. It’s like, eh, okay, fine.
But then when you try to make the same claim for free will, there’s much more resistance. This is just my own very informal survey that free will seems to be that aspect of self that people are least willing to accept that there might be a scientific explanation for. Which in turn means that there’s a real value that at least people in the West have about what is quite a dualistic understanding of consciousness.
This idea that we have free will in the sense of consciousness being able to load the dice or pull some levers in the physical universe to change an otherwise determined inexorable flow of events. This is a kind of free will that maximizes the causal potency of consciousness but also makes the least sense. Because it imbues this free will with a lot of stuff. It’s not just that consciousness can change things in the physical world, but it does so in a very strategically savvy way and knows exactly what to do in order so that you as an organism do what you want to do; that you do the things that are aligned with your beliefs, values, goals, desires, and so on.
I don’t think that’s a sort of free will that we have or that we need, or that we want. I do think we do have the kind of free will that we ought to have and actually makes subjective sense for us too. What do I mean by that? Well, what does it mean to have an experience of free will? How would one describe that experience? How would you describe it? What is an experience of free will like to you?
I do think we do have the kind of free will that we ought to have and actually makes subjective sense for us too.
[00:47:22] Scott Snibbe: Well, it feels like you could do one thing or another and you deliberately choose one rather than the other. There’s this great quote by Shantideva, a great Buddhist thinker, and he said if things came into being through choice, then no one would suffer. So, that’s where I really start to doubt it.
If things came into being through choice, then no one would suffer.
Because if I really had free will, then I would never get in a fight with my wife and I would never eat an extra piece of cake or something like that. So, I do scratch my head a little bit about whether I really have free will or not because to me it seems a little bit like an illusion, that it’s kind of like me getting what I want is free will, but I’m not sure that that’s really free will.
[00:48:06] Dr. Anil Seth: Right, and I think we sometimes make the confusion between experiences of free will and the experience of exercising what is unfortunately called willpower. When you make cognitive effort, when you are faced with a hard decision and that feels like you are exerting your free will, compared to just pouring yourself a glass of water when you’re thirsty, which is equally a voluntary action.
But it doesn’t feel difficult. It doesn’t have that sense of cognitive effort behind it. I think that’s misleading because there’s no reason that free willed decisions need to be the difficult ones, the challenging ones that we face. But you’re absolutely right that the experience of free will, central to it is this experience of a counterfactual possibility that I did A, but I could have done B.
I made a cup of tea, but I could have made a cup of coffee. And I think there’s a couple of other things that also characterize free will, and you hinted at them. One is that I’m doing what I want to do. It feels like I’m doing something that is aligned with my beliefs and desires, which are beliefs and desires that I didn’t choose to have.
They’re there in my brain, in my mind. I didn’t choose those, but that action is aligned with them. And finally, it seems to come from within that the action I made, whether it’s picking up a glass or taking a job or just raising my hand, doesn’t have an alternative cause in the world.
It’s not that somebody was lifting my hand or sticking wires into my brain. The causes came from within. So, that’s what an experience feels like. What I’ve been doing in the book and in the work is actually trying to take the same perspective to free will as I would take to other kinds of conscious experiences.
Instead of naively thinking, Okay, the experience of free will is that I cause something to happen so that must be what’s going on, otherwise free will doesn’t exist. To say that, Okay, no, let’s look at it in a bit more detail, what experiences of free will are actually like, just as the same experience of self doesn’t mean there is an actual self, the experience of free will doesn’t mean there actually is free will, there is a very casually potent variety. It actually means there’s an experience of this sort of counterfactual possibility coming from within, aligned with beliefs and desires. And that makes a lot of sense. It’s a kind of perception, again, of a particular kind of action.
Just as the same experience of self doesn’t mean there is an actual self, the experience of free will doesn’t mean there actually is free will.
So we are complicated creatures. The causes of actions that we make can be relatively divorced from things immediately happening in the world. They can be driven by causes that remain largely in the body and extend back over time. Like my decision to make a cup of tea is partly because I was born and brought up in England.
The longer time horizon is partly because I was thirsty, the shorter time horizon, partly because I was in the kitchen and there was already you know, a teabag on the table. But it still felt like a voluntary thing to do. So it’s useful for the brain then to label those kinds of actions with a particular kind of experience that is related to, to what’s actually happening.
But it’s not a transparent window onto what actually happens. I think this core element here of the counterfactual is critical. So it feels like I could have done differently. Could I actually have done differently? Could I have made coffee rather than tea? The answer is no. And it doesn’t matter whether the universe is deterministic or not at this point.
It really doesn’t matter. Non-determinism doesn’t help because just adding a bit of randomness in only helps if you’ve got this sort of super causally, potent, free will that knows exactly how to change the sort of random movements of atoms or whatever, so that I end up making coffee rather than tea.
Why do I experience that I could have done it differently if in fact I couldn’t? Well, it matters for the next time. The brain pays attention to voluntary actions because the brain is always changing. Maybe it turns out that I’ve suddenly become allergic to tea and I have this cup of tea and I feel terrible.
So now the brain has learned that, okay, next time coffee will be made rather than tea or water or something else, because the alternative possibilities have been highlighted in my experience the first time I made tea. The trick is always to recognize that how things seem is not how they are, which again, is totally inherited from or compatible with Buddhist philosophy, but it’s also not totally divorced from how things are.
The trick is always to recognize that how things seem is not how they are.
Is just finding that relationship and for free will, I think it’s a relationship that extends over time. I feel like I could have done differently because next time I might do differently.
[00:52:55] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I think you’re right about that. It’s another one of these problems of language, because in Buddhism it’s kind of a combination of doing things and imagination. That part of what you’re saying is that we go back and imagine we could have done something else, but that’s very different than having actually had the power to do something else in that moment.
But then imagining it does change your brain and the potential for doing something else in the future. And in Buddhism they call this volition or even karma—I hate to use that word karma because it’s way too loaded. But in Buddhism it’s just action that people do things and it’s conditioned on everything that happened before.
[00:53:33] Dr. Anil Seth: We can’t escape that, right? Just knowing that also doesn’t escape it. Last week I was suffering from this very, very intensely because I decided not to travel to this conference because I’ve had Covid for months and there’s a lot of Covid around.
And I thought, Okay, I’m not gonna go to this meeting because I think it’s just gonna be too much of a drain and also too much of a chance of catching another infection of Covid. And then I came to regret that decision, I thought, Oh, I really should have gone, I really should have gone because it would’ve been great and so on.
I was telling myself I could have gone, I could have just booked a last minute flight. I could have booked a train. Why didn’t I do that? Totally neglecting everything that we’ve been talking about now, which is that at that time, I could only have done what I did. And there were reasons for that, and the reasons made sense at the time.
But even more fundamentally that, I had no choice. I just did what I did at that time. What is the point of all this post regrets that we all suffer from? I think just as knowing that colors don’t objectively exist in the world, doesn’t make you stop seeing color, knowing that free will of this very spooky sort doesn’t exist, and we just do what we do and we experience it in a variety of ways, that doesn’t stop us from experiencing free will or the occasional regret that we all have when things don’t turn out as we projected them. But it’s still useful. So regret is the price you pay mentally for making a different decision the next time.
Dreamachine: connecting art and science
[00:55:07] Scott Snibbe: Very powerful. I wanna talk to you about one last thing. You said, I still remember having to choose between arts and sciences when I was 15, and that sounds nuts, and that resonates very much with me too. I’m a person who’s dedicated my whole life to the complete combination of both of those things.
Can you talk a little bit about that? You’ve manifested this in your own life with the Dreamachine, which is an experience I’m dying to have, that you’ve created. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to art and science, and also particularly the Dreamachine and how that’s a manifestation in your life?
[00:55:39] Dr. Anil Seth: Oh, I’d love to. By the way, the Dreamachine is certainly not something that I’ve created. I’ve been lucky to work as part of a team with artists, and then that’s been the beautiful thing. So, yeah, I do remember that back when I was a teenager as being a really difficult decision.
And by arts, this meant almost anything that involved writing. It wasn’t necessarily the creative arts, it was English literature, it was history. In England, we have to choose, it was either the sciences, or the arts very broadly, and in these early stages of education where you continually specialize, I think it’s natural to assume that as soon as you’ve cut off one branch, it’s never gonna come back. And you’re gonna keep exploring progressively more and more specialized twigs.
One of the great pleasures and reliefs of progressing further in academia is that that’s not actually true. It can be, it depends on if you want it to be more specialized, I’m sure you can do that. But it doesn’t have to be.
And certainly deciding to focus on a topic like consciousness is never going to turn out that way. It is so encompassing. There is so much that speaks to it, and it speaks to so much that you are not going to get very far unless you take a multidisciplinary perspective. And that includes the arts as well.
The best theories of the human self, certain aspects of the human self, probably come from literature rather than from the sciences. Those give us the best window into what being a self is actually like. Some of the greatest works of phenomenology, of understanding visual perception, come from the visual arts.
Paintings are investigations into what it is to see. So they’re very, very important collaborations and connections between the arts and the sciences to the extent that sometimes it’s quite difficult to see where the boundaries are, of course, the main boundaries in the practice. Science tends to be defined by what you can do. That at least in principle, subject, testable experiments. And arts is not constrained in that way. But both are creative and I think both play essential roles in understanding complex phenomena.
I think both science and art play essential roles in understanding complex phenomena.
And one thing I’ve been very lucky to experience in the last 10 years, and more and more, is an increasing level of opportunities, increasing interest, from people in the artistic side of things to collaborate with scientists in various ways, and I think the collaborations have become richer.
So there’s a sense in which some collaborations can be a little bit superficial. It can be like, okay, an artist might translate some scientific finding or give some artistic expression to some aspect of science. Or it might be that some aspect of science serves to inspire some work of art in some way. Or the other way around, some work of art might inspire some scientific discovery or experiment.
But these are all a little bit superficial in the sense that there’s one connection, but it’s not deep and lasting. But I think this is changing too. Certainly, I’ve been lucky to engage in a few projects where the art science collaboration has been very, very deeply embedded from the beginning. The ultimate result is a true collaborative project where it’s really hard to separate the contributions.
And the Dreamachine is something, I think exemplifies that. The Dreamachine is currently in the UK, we’re hoping to tour it more widely across the world, but we have no concrete plans yet. It’s based on a phenomenon that dates to the beginnings of neuroscience, which is the fact that fast flickering bright lights on closed eyelids gives rise to rich visual experiences, hallucinations really, and in this context, because your eyes are closed, you see stuff and you see colors and shapes and all sorts of things.
This has been known since Jan Purkinje in the 19th century, and William Grey Walter in the 1950s wrote about it in his book, The Living Brain. And in my lab, we’ve been working on this for the last 10 years as a sort of side project because it’s fascinating. You look at flickering light with your eyes closed and you have conscious experiences. So what’s happening?
What I didn’t know was that it was also a well-known phenomenon in the arts that had been the artist Brion Gysin in the late 1950s, who the story goes by accident, had this experience when he was on a bus in the south of France and the bus went down a tree lined avenue, and the sun was shining through the trees, which caused a stereoscopic effect. And his eyes were closed and he had all these visions. And then at the end of the journey, he decided to try and make that and bring it to the people. He made the first Dreamachine. He came up with the word Dreamachine.
The original Dreamachine was just a bright light in a cardboard tube with slits cut in that you put on a record turntable and rotated. And so you had a little mini strobe and people would sit around with their eyes closed and have experiences. And Gysin had a vision that this Dreamachine would become more popular than the television, which didn’t happen.
And it sort of faded to be a relatively fringe thing. And I’d never heard of it until about two years ago when this Dreamachine project led by a woman called Jennifer Crook, who knew about this, contacted me with the idea of putting together a team to reinvent the Dreamachine for the 21st century, which is what we’ve done.
What we’ve done is use modern strobe light technology and sequences that we’ve calibrated partly in the lab at Sussex, but with engineers there. We’ve made it a collective experience. So instead of one person or two people sitting in front of a light, we have 32 people in the space at a time.
So they’re each having individual journeys, because everyone has a different experience, but they do it together. And I think that makes it powerful in a very unique way. And there’s a sonic element, an audio element. So the composer John Hopkins prepared a spatial soundtrack that helps structure and guide the experience.
So people go in, they have a 35 minute, usually for them, entirely unexpectedly rich journey, visual, emotional, auditory. If you tell them it’s just white light flickering on their eyes with some sound, nobody expects what then unfolds in their minds during the actual journey. And then afterwards we’ve designed sort of a reflection zone where people can draw and fill in simple surveys and talk about, write about, their experience in various different ways.
Of course, we use that to gather some data. It has been a very rewarding experience because the flow between the science and the creative aspects, the arts aspect, has just been continuous right from the beginning, right until now. And looking ahead into the future as well.
Just to mention along with the Dreamachine experience itself, we have this online experience called the Perception Census. So just as everybody in the Dreamachine has a unique experience, this is true for all of us all the time. If you and I look at the blue sky here in Brighton, who knows whether we are seeing the same blue?
We might have different perceptual experiences for the same world, because as we’ve been discussing, they come from within. We each have different brains. So we’re all gonna have slightly different experiences, but not much is known about this inner diversity. So the Perception Census is a first step at making some kind of map of how we will differ on the inside which is going to be a really valuable thing to do because we now recognize, at least increasingly, that diversity is a rich aspect of our human experience.
We value diversity that we see externally: different cultures, different skin colors, different heights, different genders, and I think the same goes for inner diversity, but we are just much less aware of it because we use the same words to describe things. And because I can’t directly inhabit what’s in your mind. Anybody can do it. You can find the website on the Dreamachine website and it’s a series of very simple, hopefully fun and engaging, illusions and tasks. That will really help us advance the science and come up with one of the first portraits of how we each experience a unique inner universe.
And once we can understand that, then I think we’ll be in a much better place to understand each other.
[01:04:00] Scott Snibbe: Oh, that’s wonderful. I want to try that today. Well, Anil, thank you so much for taking all this time to speak. It’s wonderfully illuminating and inspiring and it makes me feel very optimistic. We’re obviously living in a time where there’s an awful lot of difficult things happening. But talking to you, and some other people like you, has made me feel very optimistic about our future.
That you can study scientifically, and very seriously, these deep questions and turn up with scientific answers that validate what weren’t validatable religious truths from thousands of years ago about interdependence and the nature of experience. And coming up with the answers that show us that we’re so much more interconnected with other people, that we’re not the solid, separate individuals, that have to fight against each other so much.
Thank you so much for this conversation. I really appreciate it.
[01:04:56] Dr. Anil Seth: Oh, thank you. It’s been a real pleasure. And just to close, the science of consciousness is a wonderful thing, but it can be and is being made more wonderful by its interaction with some of the non-scientific traditions like the Buddhist tradition. There’s a lot of wisdom there. And we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
The science of consciousness is a wonderful thing, but it can be and is being made more wonderful by its interaction with some of the non-scientific traditions like the Buddhist tradition.
It’s approaching the same issues from different perspectives and there’s a lot to be learned by the science of consciousness being open to the wisdom in these other traditions. And I think that that is the case. This has been happening in various ways for many years. But the more that can happen, I think the more progress we’ll all make.
[01:05:37] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks again, Anil, I really enjoyed talking to you,
[01:05:42] Dr. Anil Seth: Likewise, thanks so much, Scott.
[01:05:45] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining me for my conversation with consciousness researcher Dr. Anil Seth. This interview was conducted in partnership with Science & Wisdom LIVE. Check them out at sciwizlive.com to learn more about their podcast, live events, and classes.
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