Consciousness is the big kid in the playground. Something we all think we know about, but which has remained somewhat elusive to Science and Philosophy. I just want to share a quick lesson in consciousness now, which is more of a question provoker, than an answer to anything.
I recently read ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Daniel Dennett, arguably the world’s leading Philosopher of mind, and he referred to a few neuro-scientific experiments from the 1960s and 1970s by Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, and others by William Grey Walter. I’ll describe one by Walter. Let me know what you think about it.
Walter hooked up experimental subjects’ brains to a sort of photo carousel – one of those machines with a wired up remote button to change whichever photo is displaying through a kind of projector (I imagine something like what they have in my favourite scene from Mad Men). He gives them the remote control, and tells them to simply browse through the photos at their leisure. Secretly though, he has disabled the button on the remote control, and instead hooked up the mechanism to change the photo, to the neurons that fire when their brain is sending the signal to move their thumb, to click the button that they think is going to move the photo.
Now here’s the mind blowing outcome: People felt like the machine was reading their minds. They felt like they had not yet made the decision to change the photo, but that they were almost about to. To them the machine seemed to know what they were about to do. The reason for this turns out to be about timing, and also about the way our brain ‘creates’ our conscious experiences. There is a lag of about 300-400ms it seems, from the neural activity associated with our brain forming the decision to push the button, and the motor activity of us pushing our thumbs onto the button. Our brain sort of erases that lag in the ordinary course of events, and we are only aware of situations where something odd happens, like in this experiment.
This completely goes against the way we think we work – the way we think we make decisions, and the way we think we experience the world. We think we ‘consciously’ make a decision like pushing that carousel button – that we are aware of the decision making as much as we are aware of our thumb pushing down on the button. This experiment shows otherwise. The decision is made, in your brain, before you are actually aware of it. You become aware of the decision afterwards, and somehow sustain the illusion that there is a ‘self’ inside you consciously and purposefully pulling all the levers and pushing all the buttons, so to speak.
I’m not going to analyse it any more, or say anything else about how Dennett explains what this means about human consciousness. Just run it over in your head a few times and think about what it means for your everyday conception of yourself, and people in general.