This is my last post on “The Science of Consciousness,” held in Tucson, Arizona, April 26-30. (See Further Reading for links to post 1, 2 and 3.) -- John Horgan
DAY 4, FRIDAY, APRIL 29. WHITE RABBITS AND BRAINS IN VATS
Last day starts on a high note. Psychologist Alison Gopnik yanks the mike from its stand and strides the stage of Kiva Ballroom in silky black pants, trying to help us remember what it’s like to be a kid.
Gopnik has devoted her life to studying kids because they have so much to teach us. They aren’t just tiny, dim-witted adults. They’re different. Their cognitive control centers, in the prefrontal cortex, are still unformed, so they can’t focus or plan like we do.
But they have other talents. Synaptic connections surge in kids’ brains until they’re seven or eight, then gradually decline. Kids’ ability to come up with crazy, creative solutions to problems, similarly, peaks early and subsides by early adolescence.
Imagine possible solutions to a given problem as a landscape. We adults explore the topography cautiously, because we are bound by what we know--or think we know. We take orders from our dictatorial frontal cortices. Kids, unbound, can leap from peak to peak.
Another Gopnik metaphor: Adult awareness resembles a flashlight, narrowly focused. Kids’ consciousness shines like a lantern, casting its light widely.
And another: Children are humanity’s research and development division, adults do marketing and sales.
So how can we adults think more creatively? More like children? Gopnik has suggestions. Fall in love, travel, meditate, “ingest a controlled substance and go out into the desert.” The old acidheads in the audience nod and chuckle, and again when Gopnik says babies and young children “are basically tripping all the time.”
That line primes us for the next talk, Robin Carhart-Harris on “Brain Imaging Studies with Psychedelics.” Carhart-Harris seems perfectly cast for the role of psychedelic researcher. He is young, handsome, bearded, British, earnest and trained in psychoanalysis (yes, that’s still a thing).
Carhart-Harris says LSD and psilocybin, which resemble our natural neurotransmitters, are powerful tools for exploring the conscious and unconscious mind. He gives these drugs to subjects and records their subjective impressions, while scanning their brains with fMRI and other imaging methods.
Psychedelics, Carhart-Harris has found, boost crosstalk between different neural regions. As this “global integration” increases, so does “ego dissolution,” often accompanied by bliss. Our sense of ourselves as distinct individuals, separate from the rest of the world, diminishes. Our sense of “oneness”—Freud’s “oceanic feeling”--grows.
Carhart-Harris likes Gopnik’s suggestion that psychedelics return us to childhood, before our frontal cortices, belief systems and egos have congealed. He quotes Wordsworth: “Heaven lies all about us in our infancy!/Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy.”
I find the Gopnik and Carhart-Harris talks fascinating but dispiriting. I am in the prison house. I know, intellectually, that existence is infinitely improbable, hence miraculous, but I can’t see it. I can’t see the splendor in the grass, the glory in the flower.
I exit Kiva Cave into blinding sunshine. As I trudge up the path to the main hotel, a boy and girl, seven or eight, descend in the opposite direction on the grass beside the path. They don’t stride in a straightforward, purposeful manner, like us grownups. They amble, saunter. They’re loosey-goosey, tipsy.
Passing me, the boy flops forward and summersaults the rest of the way down the slope. Alison Gopnik clearly enlisted him to demonstrate her claim that kids are tripping all the time.
That thought cheers me, but later lectures wear me down. One features Dean Radin, a prominent investigator of paranormal phenomena, or psi (not to be confused with phi, the murky variable at the heart of integrated information theory). He trained as an electrical engineer as well as psychologist, and he worked at Bell Labs and Princeton before ending up at the New Age-y Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Radin presents his latest evidence that humans have telekinetic powers, mediated by quantum effects. The evidence involves the two-slit experiment, in which a laser shines through two apertures and forms an interference pattern on a screen. Radin conjectured that if people looked at the laser apparatus, they would make the light’s wave function collapse, affecting the interference pattern.
Surprise, surprise, the conjecture was confirmed. When people look at the laser apparatus, the interference pattern collapses, not entirely, but slightly. The effect occurs regardless of whether the subject is next to the apparatus or looking at data from it streamed over the Internet. It’s a slight but statistically significant effect, which persists across many trials.
So Radin claims. He has been presenting results like these for decades, and he’s good at it. He’s like a caricature of an old-fashioned scientist, an image no doubt cultivated to boost his credibility. One of his slides shows a cartoon version of himself: slight, bald, moustached, nerdy. He speaks with the calm hyper-rationality of Mr. Peabody, the old Rocky and Bullwinkle character.
Radin compares himself to Galileo, trying to convince church authorities to look through the telescope. I looked through the telescope, sort of, about 15 years ago while researching a book on mysticism.
I tried to be open-minded, but British psychologist Susan Blackmore—who started her career as a psi-believer but became a skeptic--convinced me that psi claims almost certainly stem from delusion or fraud. She didn’t rule out the possibility of psi, but she didn’t want to waste more time investigating it. That’s how I feel.
Now and then, when I meet a smart, sensible proponent of psi, like Rupert Sheldrake--or even Radin, whom I interviewed more than a decade ago--doubt nags me: Could these guys be right? But for the most part, believers in psi—like the spoon-benders I dined with last night—depress me. We’re all lost, but psi believers seem especially lost.
I perk up, briefly, for a young Asian neuroscientist, Jimo Borjigin, exploring near-death experiences. Why do people often report extravagant, heavenly visions after they survive near-death experiences? What’s going on in their brains?
Borjigin can’t experiment on dying humans, so she poisons and asphyxiates rats while monitoring their brains. Some rats’ brains show a surge of neural activity and of levels of dimethyltryptamine, DMT, an endogenous neurochemical and potent psychedelic.
Part of me is impressed with her findings, which corroborate speculation by psychiatrist Rick Strassman that DMT plays a role in near-death experiences. But another part of me feels sorry for the rats, sacrificed to satisfy humans’ craving for self-knowledge.
Probably because my blood-sugar levels are crashing, I feel even gloomier listening to a lecture by British physiologist Peter Fenwick. He has studied emissions of light from French guru Alan Forget.
Cameras can’t detect the light emanating from Forget, but many of those who sit in his presence do, including Fenwick. The light emanating from Forget can be white or colored, and it becomes brighter in a brightly lit room and faint in a dark room. It is attenuated by double-glazed glass…
I try to care, but I walk out before the talk is over. As I sit in the hotel lobby scribbling in my notebook, my mind feels congealed. I’m wiped out, mentally and physically. Maybe I should just eat a room-service burger in my room and watch Star Trek.
Two young philosophers stroll by and ask if I’d like to join them for dinner. Of course! I end up at a crowded, raucous table with five youngish mind-explorers and a white-haired psychologist.
I tell my fellow geezer about my encounter with the spoon-benders, and he says he’s bent spoons too. By now my mood has brightened, and he’s a genial, intelligent fellow, so I decide to believe him. Hey, maybe I can learn how to bend spoons too!
I remain unfazed even when he confesses that he believes in astrology. Everybody is entitled to an irrational belief or two, and believing in astrology isn’t as bad as believing in Donald Trump.
Time for the “End-of-Consciousness Party”! I don’t summersault down to the Kiva Ballroom, but I feel loosey-goosey. I sit at a table next to the dance floor with two young philosophers, and we end up talking about psychedelics, mysticism and God.
One philosopher confesses her suspicion, inspired by Hindu theology, that God creates the world because he gets bored and lonely. I tell her about my drug-inspired idea that God creates because He is scared shitless.
As often happens when I talk to young people, I feel good about humanity’s future.
A lithe woman in a white suit with long platinum hair and bare midriff strides onto the stage trailed by four guys in white turtlenecks. One guy plants himself behind a drum set, another behind a keyboard, two strap on guitars.
It’s Dorian Electra and the Electrodes, our evening’s entertainment. Dorian spots the conference organizer, Stuart Hameroff, in the audience, pokes a finger at him and yells, “Stuart, I solved the mind-body problem, so you don’t have to have this conference any more!”
Guitars, drums and keyboard pound, and Dorian growls, “Got my mind on your body, and your body on my mind!” She’s electrifying, a caterwauling witch, undulating across the stage, snarling, shrieking, purring.
People swarm onto the dance floor and wriggle and writhe. The song over, Dorian shouts, “That’s all you need to know people! Hard problem? It’s solved!”
Yeah! That’s it! That’s the solution!
I forget what the solution is when Dorian starts singing White Rabbit, slow at first, then faster and faster. She’s better than Grace Slick! The crowd goes nuts as a white rabbit strolls across the dance floor.
Now a guy in a white lab coat wheels a table with three brains in jars across the dance floor, and Dorian is moaning, “This world, unreal, just like a simulated fantasy…. Brain in a vat, I’m just a brain in a vat.”
She yells at David Chalmers to get on stage, and he jumps up and bellows into a mike. I think I hear “quantum computers,” but otherwise I can’t understand him, and that’s okay, his message is clear, he’s an animal, we’re all animals, we’re bodies, if we could just get rid of our minds, we could solve the mind-body problem.
All the old consciousness warriors are boogying now, shaking their booties, Chalmers with Claudia Passos, Hameroff with some lovely lady, Stuart Kauffman with his wife Katherine Peil, and the young philosophers are dancing too, and they’re all beaming, maybe not as ecstatic as children, they haven’t achieved full ego dissolution, collective consciousness, but they look pretty damn happy.
As I watch these seekers gyrating and grimacing, affection for them washes over me, washes away all my skepticism and scorn, and I think, Yeah, man, consciousness, what a trip. Science and philosophy can’t solve the mind-body problem, but rock n’ roll can.
I have my article’s finale. I shove my notebook in a pocket and head into the night.
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 3
Meta-post: Horgan Posts on Brain and Mind Science
Meta-Post: Horgan Posts on Psychedelics
Flashback: My Report on First Consciousness Powwow in Tucson. How Far Has Science Come Since Then?