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What Is Consciousness? Go to the Video!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ned Block explains consciousness.

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 Mind Body Problem: An interview with Ned Block from Imaginal Disc on Vimeo.

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.

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff 11:53 am 01/28/2013

    Great video! How anyone can ‘not’ be a physicalist in the mind/brain discussion beats the heck out of me. Just because all can’t be explained (yet), doesn’t mean that the brain is not the mind. Obviously, it is! The real question is ‘how’. How does it all work!?

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  2. 2. sleeprun 3:12 pm 01/28/2013

    It looks like consciousness, along with other subjective experience is trivial and epiphenomenal. The solution to the “hard” problem or human consciousness is that it doesn’t mean anything more than other solipsistic and subjective experiences, emotions, verbal self and other talk, beliefs, etc.

    If consciousness were important in biology all other life forms would have it. If the claim is all animals and life forms have consciousness, then it does not mean what humans say it is. Big waste of time discussing.

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  3. 3. sleeprun 3:30 pm 01/28/2013

    He is just wrong about some things — as philosophers are wont to do. We don’t know if the frontal lobes are the seat of all we want to claim. They do rise directly above the eyes so likely are related to visual processing.

    His comments about animal brains are hand waving and uninformed.

    I do music as well. It’s probably best to keep the music and science personas separate!

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  4. 4. Bruno24 11:40 am 02/1/2013

    People opposes dualism with physicalism, but if we take the idea that the brain works like a computer, there are reason to oppose preferably dualism to mathematicalism, or arithmeticalism. This gives a testable monism, as it explains with quantitative precisions how both mind and matter, or the laws of mind and the laws of physics come from arithmetic (the numbers and the laws of addition and multiplication, which are enough to explains computer science). Arithmetic contains coherent web of dreams from which physical beliefs can be explained, and tested empirically.

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  5. 5. arnoldg 4:11 pm 02/4/2013

    Are two meanings of observation possible today,
    observation from nature—observation and nature.
    Is observation the unknown to nature?
    Are observation and nature always found together?
    Does mind/body exist because of observation and nature?
    Can we be objective towards nature, life and observation, to understanding our place in the cosmos/universe?

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  6. 6. namee 1:30 am 03/28/2013

    Descartes did not actually state the mind and brain are as distant as Ned Block claims:

    “Nature likewise teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am besides so intimately conjoined, and as it were intermixed with it, that my mind and body compose a certain unity. For if this were not the case, I should not feel pain when my body is hurt, seeing I am merely a thinking thing, but should perceive the wound by the understanding alone, just as a pilot perceives by sight when any part of his vessel is damaged; and when my body has need of food or drink, I should have a clear knowledge of this, and not be made aware of it by the confused sensations of hunger and thirst: for, in truth, all these sensations of hunger, thirst, pain, etc., are nothing more than certain confused modes of thinking, arising from the union and apparent fusion of mind and body. [L] [F] 14. Besides this, nature teaches me that my own body is surrounded by many other bodies, some of which I have to seek after, and others to shun. And indeed, as I perceive different sorts of colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat, hardness, etc., I safely conclude that there are in the bodies from which the diverse perceptions of the senses proceed, certain varieties corresponding to them, although, perhaps, not in reality like them; and since, among these diverse perceptions of the senses, some are agreeable, and others disagreeable, there can be no doubt that my body, or rather my entire self, in as far as I am composed of body and mind, may be variously affected, both beneficially and hurtfully, by surrounding bodies.” (Descartes, Meditation VI)

    I am not sure sure how a retour to Humean empiricism will actually solve the problem, and I am not sure why having perceptual experiences must necessarily exclude self-reflexivity.

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