This is my third of four posts on “The Science of Consciousness” in Tucson, Arizona, which lasted April 26 to April 30. See Further Reading for links to other posts. -- John Horgan


First thought, before my eyes open: My talk is today, tonight, 7:05, wrapping up the concurrent session on “Panpsychism, Idealism and Metaphysics.”

My mind—or is it brain?--initiates a program that, for the rest of the day, oscillates between anxiety and anticipation, impervious to willful intervention. And strangeness creeps over me. Derealization, psychiatrists call it.

Breakfast in the Canyon Café with psychologist Alison Gopnik, an authority on kids’ psyches, and her genial husband Alvy Ray Smith. Some interview subjects must be prodded or goaded into saying interesting things. Others, like Gopnik, barely need a nudge. Alvy and I look on in awe as Gopnik generates high-speed riff after riff on the self, Buddhism, LSD, death, God, parenting, sex, grief.

She skims over a horrendous mid-life crisis that she detailed last year in The Atlantic. Her three kids grew up and left home, her long marriage fell apart, she fell in love with a woman who broke her heart, she spiraled into depression and started meditating--the whole works. She pulled out of it delving into possible Buddhist influences on philosopher David Hume. And she met Alvy.

The most wrenching part of the crisis, Gopnik says, more than her sexual confusion, was her loss of her sense of motherhood after her three children departed.

The conversation has two minor downsides. Gopnik speaks so passionately about the meaningfulness of motherhood that my feelings for my son and daughter seem paltry. And I drink so much coffee that my derealization surges and my smile stiffens into a rictus.

Saying goodbye to Gopnik and Smith, I dash to the Kiva Ballroom to hear anthropologist Terrence Deacon on “Dynamical Origin of the Self/Other Distinction at the Core of Conscious Experience.”

Deacon admires the ambition of quantum theories of consciousness and integrated information theory. But he suggests that before we can explain consciousness, which might be a property of only humans and other higher organisms, we should account for “sentience.” This is the capacity of all organisms, even bacteria, to sense and interact with their environments while retaining their own discrete identity.

Once we figure out these fundamental biological processes, we can “build up to consciousness,” which might emerge when organisms become sentient of their sentience. This all sounds sensible enough, and Deacon invokes ideas with which I am familiar, including Stuart Kauffman’s autocatalysis and Douglas Hofstadter’s self-regarding strange loops.

But Deacon’s talk bristles with too many abstract concepts and neologisms for my taste. Homeodynamics, morphodynamics, teleodynamics, reciprocal catalysis, autogenesis. One clever coinage, like Dawkins’s “meme,” can illuminate, but thickets of them obscure.

Afterwards, a psychologist says she loves Deacon’s ideas, which help her understand her self and its relation to the rest of the world. Deacon’s rhetoric repels me, attracts her. Our responses to theories of subjectivity are so subjective! And so dependent on theorists’ rhetorical style.

What does it say about mind-science that rhetoric matters so much? One can rank scientific fields by the degree to which rhetoric matters. Darwin and Einstein could be eloquent, but their theories endure because they fit the facts. We justly call them true. We still read William James and Freud because they are literary masters. To call their ideas true seems like a category error, like saying The Wasteland is true.

After lunch, I retreat to my room and fiddle with my PowerPoint slides. When return on effort flat-lines, I flip through concurrent-session abstracts, looking for something to distract me before my talk begins.

Stephen Laberge is speaking! He’s an authority on lucid dreams, in which you realize you’re dreaming. He showed that lucid dreamers could communicate with the outside world by moving their eyes, which unlike most other body parts are not immobilized in REM sleep.

I spent several days with LaBerge in California in 1994 while researching a profile of him. I met his research subjects, who were lucid-dreaming adepts, and fell asleep in LaBerge’s sleep lab while hooked up to an electroencephalograph.

I had lucid dreams as a youth, and I tried to have more while working on the profile of LaBerge. I went to bed thinking about lucid dreams, and I kept a dream journal.

I didn’t have any lucid dreams on my own or in LaBerge’s lab. But my waking life became dreamier, because I kept asking myself, as LaBerge recommended, Is this a dream? The more you ask this question when you’re awake, the more likely you are to ask it when you’re dreaming and to realize: Hey! This is a dream!

LaBerge, speaking in Salon E, is an exception to the Law of Concurrent Sessions, which decrees that you will always regret whatever session you choose. Telling the packed room about his research, and about ways in which we can induce lucid dreams, he is funny, interesting, lucid. He is lean and fit-looking, with bristly white hair.

We swap reminiscences after his talk. I walk away wondering, once again, Is this a dream? To psychiatrists, derealization is a disorder, a delusion. But according to certain mystical doctrines, enlightenment is the realization that your waking life is a dream. In 1981, I emerged from a monster drug trip convinced that reality is the dream of a neurotic god. It took months for my rational self to talk me out of it.

These memories roil my brain as I enter Salon L, where I am scheduled to speak, and sit in the front row. Stuart Hameroff and David Chalmers are already in the audience.

The speaker before me is Hedda Hassel Morch, a young philosopher pondering whether individual human minds can merge into a meta-mind, as implied by integrated information theory. Morch notes that several prominent philosophers have explored the concept of “combined consciousness,” including Charles Hartshorne.

Synchronicity strikes again! I stumbled on Hartshorne’s theological writings when I was trying to understand my 1981 drug trip. He envisioned a god who, far from being omniscient and omnipotent, is incomplete and ever-evolving. Thinking Hartshorne might respond to my drug-induced vision of a neurotic god, I called him at his home in Texas. The conversation didn’t go well.

Morch’s Q&A ends, and I’m up. I plug in my MacBook, get my presentation displayed on the screen and start blabbing about how little progress there has been in understanding consciousness since the first meeting in Tucson in 1994. If anything, things have regressed. There seem to be more theories of consciousness than ever. Abundance of theories isn’t a good sign. It means no theory is good enough to compel agreement, just like abundance of treatments for a disease means no treatment really works.

As usual when I give a talk, I’m in an altered state. The audience’s attention presses on me like a physical force, compressing and heating my brain. A quantum, telekinetic effect, perhaps? I hear chants or yelps from an adjacent session. Or are these hallucinations secreted by my pressurized brain? Either way, best to ignore them.

The session chair raises his hand, fingers splayed. Only five minutes left? Whaaa…?

I take my shot at quantum consciousness. I note that this morning I emailed neuroscientist Christof Koch to ask if the Hameroff-Penrose model or any other quantum-consciousness theory should be taken seriously. I flash a slide with Koch’s response:

“No empirical data on large-scale quantum effects (e.g., coherence) in central structures in the brain (only for photosynthesis in algae). So very unlikely that such effects play a major role in cognition, including consciousness.”

Someone grumbles, probably Hameroff. Hoping to mollify him, I attack integrated information theory, which Koch has aggressively promoted, and which builds on Chalmers’s suggestion that information is a fundamental property of reality. If you’re trying to explain how matter makes mind, I complain, you can’t just declare that mind was there all along. That’s cheating!

The talk goes over… I have no idea how it goes over, but I’m flooded with relief when it ends. My derealization subsides.

I soon find myself dining with two other conference speakers. The topic of psychedelics arises, and my dinner-mates confess, to my surprise, that they are psychedelic virgins. I brag about slurping ayahuasca with nine white people on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and chewing peyote with 20 Navaho in a teepee in Arizona.

The conversation veers to telekinesis, and now I’m the virgin. My companions say they can bend spoons. They’re not kidding. Picking up spoons, they demonstrate the technique: You rub the shaft of the spoon between your fingers while focusing your mind on it, and it gets all rubbery.

I remember the scene in The Matrix when Neo stares at a spoon until it flops over. I ask my companions to bend the spoons now, but they’re not in the right frame of mind. One disappears and returns with a spoon that he says he bent when he was in the right frame of mind. The shaft of the spoon is tightly curled.

I shrug. You still don’t believe me? he asks. You think I’m a liar? He is a large man with a shaved skull. I tell him I can’t throw out my entire skeptical, materialistic worldview because someone shows me a twisted spoon. He glares at me, then smiles.

Derealization floods me. Is this a dream?

[In my fourth and last post, I report on the last day of the conference, when I spot a white rabbit and discover the solution to the mind-body problem.]

Further Reading:

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 2

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 4

Flashback: My Report on First Consciousness Powwow in Tucson. How Far Has Science Come Since Then?

Meta-post: Horgan Posts on Brain and Mind Science

The Singularity and the Neural Code