Thursday, March 30, 2017

Some recent books on conciousness

Recently I finished reading, well, starting three books in a row that were about consciousness.  Which, of course, it quite enough to do a blog post.

The first was Consciousness and the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene.  It was excellent.  Often when we talk about consciousness philosophically we get lost in depths of abstraction.  This was about consciousness as a scientifically observable phenomenon.  How to tell if someone is conscious of something?  Ask them if they saw it.  People are conscious of things when they notice them but not when they're asleep or not paying attention to them or in various other circumstances.  Insects can't report what they see so we'll get back to the problem of insect consciousness later.

It turns out there's a lot of investigation you can do within that framework that's still very interesting.  And all the philosophical debate about whether qualia are separable from observations is neatly sidestepped for now.

Investigations you can do start out with subliminal messages.  If you see a word or phrase for long enough you become aware of it but it has to be present for more than roughly 50 milliseconds for that to happen.  And we can look at a brain with various imaging technologies and see the difference in it's reaction between seeing a number for 40 milliseconds and 80, the difference is apparently very obvious.

The author goes on to talk about how much processing the brain can do on input before it becomes conscious, turning written words into meaning for instance but not parsing entire sentences.  And also that while subconscious cues can influence your immediate behavior their effects fall off rapidly and disappear entirely after less than 2 seconds.  This applies even to the most basic of functions like Pavlovian conditioning.  If two stimuli are present at the same time and subconscious then conditioning can occur but if the stimuli are separated in time then they have to rise to conscious awareness for conditioning to occur.  So consciousness is entirely prior to memory, something I hadn't known at all.

Next up was Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler.  This is the one I didn't manage to finish.  The idea that altered states of consciousness can be useful is one that I was interested in but the book ended up being blindly and shallowly enthusiastic about the concept in a way that I thought wasn't really teaching me anything I could rely on.  The author continued to just give examples in which altered consciousness could be cool without ever touching the limitations or potential drawbacks.  In Consciousness and the Brain for instance Dehaene talked about the power of sleeping on a problem and how your subconscious might come up with an answer for you, but also the need to think it over carefully consciously first and the need to double check the answer consciously later since intuition isn't always reliable.  Stealing Fire just talked about how subconscious processing was really cool and powerful without talking about what had to happen before and after.  It also didn't really have any clear idea of what it meant by the word consciousness and conflated altered consciousness and unconsciousness in its examples.

Finally, there was Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  I enjoyed that book but I wasn't blown away like I was by Consciousness and the Brain.  Octopuses and other cephelopods are cool animals which diverged evolutionarily from humans back when nervous systems were measured in the hundreds of neurons.  Yet, somehow these creatures evolved a very sophisticated intelligence entirely independently.  Much of the book was taken up by describing Octopuses, Squids, and Cuttlefishes - their physiology and psychology - and I found that bit very interesting.  The author also had some ideas about consciousness which he shared which I thought weren't very interesting, but that was a small part of the book.  The main argument was that cephelopods can't have a reflective consciousness like we do because a human can hear themselves talk but a squid can't see itself change color to communicate.  Aside from the obvious objection that congenitally deaf people seem to have reflective consciousness the author relies a lot on introspection to formulate his idea which is notoriously unreliable.  I'm sure the author is correct when he says he always thinks in words but people are different in how they think.  I know that I often go to explain an idea and get to what seems like a simple part of it that seems like it should be a single words but then as I unpack it mentally it turns into a sentence then a paragraph.  Still the way an octopus can change color to match its surrounding without being able to see color itself was very interesting and overall I'm glad I read the book.

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