October 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

What is consciousness? Who or what is the 'me' that I call my 'self'? And does that 'self' control what I do, or is that an illusion?

susan blackmore1_1200wWhat is consciousness? Who or what is the ‘me’ that I call my ‘self’? And does that ‘self’ control what I do, or is that an illusion?

These are issues Dr Susan Blackmore spends much of her time thinking about, and which she presented at the latest GV Art & Mind Symposium. She threw various challenges out to the audience, including two historically famous examples: Benjamin Libet’s wrist flicking experiment, and Thomas Nagel’s question ‘What is it like to be a bat?’.

Susan is a scientist by training, and has written many books, including a large textbook, on consciousness. She also practises Zen meditation , though is not a Buddhist, and it seems that she combines a thorough knowledge of the experimental study of the field, with a deep introspection about her own sense of self. It seems, she said, that consciousness only exists when we pay attention.

She described how experiments had repeatedly indicated that the brain had made decisions before we were aware of them New technologies such as fMRI only seemed to support earlier experiments with cruder methodologies.

We were 24 disparate people interested in the arts and the sciences, having dinner in the GV Art gallery in Marylebone. GV Art describes itself as “the only independent gallery to foster meaningful dialogues between contemporary artists and scientists”, and I’ve found that it puts on an intellectually rich programme of exhibitions and installations. Art & Mind itself is run by visual artist and writer Garry Kennard, who ran Art and Mind Festivals in Winchester for several years.

How did the discussion on the ‘self’ go? It revealed how differently we think about this, with a real diversity of opinions, and – not surprisingly – our opinions are often very strong.

  • If the ‘self’ is an artifact, is it irrelevant, or does it have an evolutionary advantage
  • Does a spoon have consciousness? (A minority thought maybe it did!)
  • Is there a universal consciousness that we are just a part of?
  • If there is no ‘free will’ as it is commonly thought of, what implications does that have for society and our legal system? (Susan Blackmore saw no problem here, as we already have methods for dealing with people seen as not in control of what they do – and it seems to me we might end up with a much more humane system.)
  • Why can intense attention result in our sense of self appearing to dissolve?
  • Stephen Hawking just warned about artificial intelligence – if it’s just a byproduct of complexity, could machines develop consciousness, and would that be a problem? (Susan Blackmore: If consciousness is an illusion in people, it would equally be an illusion in a machine!)

art and mind1_1200wPart of the purpose of these dinners is to meet other people who share an interest in exploring connections between arts and sciences, and the people there included people involved in neuroscience, molecular biology, medicine, photography, dance and many aspects of fine art. I spoke to Cheryl Field, who had exchanged the delights of hunting through dog faeces for parasitic worms, for developing striking 2D and 3D artistic works, many of which touch on the scientific world. Matthias Sperling is a choreographer who’s works have been commissioned by Tate and South Bank. Roger Kneebone is Professor of Surgical Education at Imperial College in the middle of a 2 year stint as a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow, which he is clearly loving. We were talking about how hands seem to acquire their own skills – clearly relevant for surgery – and he’d just met with a group of magicians, who were almost unconsciously (that word again…) shuffling and playing with packs of cards as they talked.

So a varied and stimulating evening. That was the 25th Art & Mind Symposium, and I’m sure there will be more in 2015. To find out more, or attend, just contact Garry Kennard through the Art & Mind website.