What Is Consciousness? Go to the Video!

Scientific American

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Various scholars have tried to explain consciousness in long articles and books, but one neuroscience pioneer has just released an unusual video blog to get the point across. In the sharply filmed and edited production, Joseph LeDoux, a renowned expert on the emotional brain at New York University, interrogates his NYU colleague Ned Block on the nature of consciousness. Block is a professor of philosophy, psychology and neural science and is considered a leading thinker on the subject. The interview ends with a transition into a music video performed by LeDoux's longstanding band, the Amygdaloids. The whole exercise is a bit quirky, yet it succeeds in explaining consciousness in simple, even entertaining terms.

LeDoux intends to produce a series of these video blogs to explore other intriguing aspects of the mind and brain, and he is giving Scientific American the chance to post them first on our Web site. LeDoux has already interviewed Michael Gazzaniga at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on free will and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel at Columbia University on mapping the mind.

The video is not a quick hit, like most on the Net these days. The interview runs about 10 minutes, followed by the four-minute music video. The idea is for viewers to sit back and actually think along with the expert as his or her explanation unfolds. Yet video producer Alexis Gambis has generated some compelling imagery to keep our visual attention as Block unwraps his subject. Gambis directs the Imagine Science Film Festival, is about to complete his graduate degree in film and has a doctorate in molecular biology.

Nonetheless, if you want to zip to some highlights, the following struck me:

1:20 The mind-body problem. Block addresses this conundrum in terms of the ongoing debate between dualism--the idea that brain and mind are separate entities that only have a distant relationship to one another, and physicalism, the view that the mind and the brain are the same thing.

4:00 How we experience the redness of red, or the smell of a rose--the "what it's like"-ness of perceiving, known as phenomenal consciousness. As an example, Block considers a spooky sensation we've all had that no one can yet explain: When you suddenly become aware that the hum of the refrigerator just stopped, it is only then that you realize you had been hearing the noise all along, even though, during that time, you were not consciously aware of hearing it.

6:50 The controversy over animal consciousness. Block says dogs, monkeys, humans, indeed most higher mammals have very similar perceptual experiences. But because experiments show that mammals other than humans do not employ their frontal lobes much during perception, he doubts they have similar emotions. Emotions, he says, "have a much larger cognitive component" than perception, "so I think maybe we're less likely to share those."

8:50 The challenge of the speckled hen. We can see all the speckles on a hen yet we find it impossible to count them. Why? Experiments have shown that the grain of attention--the smallest point humans can attend to--is larger than the grain of vision, the smallest object we can see. The mismatch prevents us from focusing well enough, long enough, to tally up all the speckles.

11:30 Here LeDoux segues into the music video that features his band playing a song he wrote about consciousness, "My Mind's Eye." As the song begins he muses on one aspect of consciousness he has always found fascinating: "On the one hand, having a conscious experience is the ultimate example of knowing something. On the other hand, you can't always trust what you think you know. Sometimes the real reasons we do things are buried beneath the surface."

Credits and music sources: LeDoux hosts the video, which was directed and edited by Gambis. The end of the video lists the other people involved. Video production was done by Imaginal Disk. Three songs by the Amygdaloids about mind and brain can be heard through a dedicated music player. And more music about mind, brain and mental disorders that has been posted by the public can be found on a new Facebook page.

Further reading, suggested by Ned Block, on the mind-body problem:

Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Christof Koch. MIT Press 2012.

"Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness." David Chalmers in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1995 http://consc.net/papers/facing.pdf

"Wittgenstein and Qualia." Ned Block in Philosophical Perspectives (21, 1) edited by John Hawthorne. 2007: 73-115 http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/block/papers/Block_Putnam.pdf

Image from the video, courtesy of Imaginal Disk.

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