For researcher Anil Seth, being conscious is a hallucination

For researcher Anil Seth, being conscious is a hallucination

The British neuroscientist has been studying human consciousness for years, and does not hesitate to call upon disciplines as diverse as psychology and philosophy. The New Statesman weekly met him in his lab and tested out a strange “hallucination machine.”

If you have ever had general anesthesia, you have experienced what is called “A state of forgetfulness”, More pronounced loss of consciousness than during deep sleep stages. Hours can pass in a split second; Evidence, if necessary, that you can cease to exist and that the world will continue to revolve without you. Some find it intimidating. For neurobiologist Anil Seth, that’s somewhat reassuring.

In 2017, Anil Seth gave a TED Talk, providing in a quarter of an hour an outstanding focus of his thirty years of research. He concluded by paraphrasing Julian Barnes [dans Rien à craindre, paru en français aux éditions Mercure de France] : “When our consciousness is over, there is nothing to fear. Nothing at all.” It’s a sentiment he made back into his bestselling book of 2021, be yourself [“Être vous”, non traduit en français]And when we met in Falmer, East Sussex [dans le sud de l’Angleterre]He told me why: “When we see the fragility and instability of our unified consciousness, of ourselves and the outside world, when we see all that it can change or abolish completely, we can either see something terrifying in it., or we are very happy to be where you are.” He chooses the second option.

Monastic allure and glimpses of humor

Anil Seth, 48, greets me in casual clothes, jeans, beige sneakers, and a blue jacket. His shaven head and calm liveliness give him a monastic appeal, which he erases at regular intervals behind hints of humour. We are interviewed in his office at the University of Sussex, where he serves as co-director of the Sackler Center for the Science of Consciousness. (The center will be renamed soon because the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, which has been implicated in the opioid crisis, will stop funding it.) hair groups.

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Seth began studying consciousness in the mid-1990s, when advances in computing and brain imaging provided researchers with new tools for understanding the mind. In 1994, Australian philosopher David Chalmers spoke of the great challenge of the future: In his keynote address to the Consciousness Science Conference in Tucson, Arizona, he described what he saw as ‘A thorny problem with consciousness’ How can objective material matter produce the unique and subjective experience of consciousness? How can an individual accurately describe the unique feeling of being “it”, relying solely on their own brain and biology?

Our creative mind

Philosophers and scientists have tried to deal with this thorny problem in different ways. Panpsychists [école philosophique aux racines antiques] Claiming that consciousness is an essential feature of every subject – that the lounge chair exhibits a different kind of consciousness than mine or your mind, but no less conscious. At the other end of the spectrum, illusionists maintain that consciousness is nothing but an effect of the imagination.

With his academic background in physics, psychology, computer science and neuroscience, Professor Seth says he came up with another, more satisfying conclusion. His research led him to take extreme positions: the way we perceive ourselves and the world is, according to him, a controlled hallucination. Instead of passively perceiving our surroundings, our brain is constantly making and refining predictions about what we expect to see; This is how we make our world.

Speaking at TED, Seth twice plays in front of his audience an audio recording of a high-pitched, distorted voice, his speech so incomprehensible that it can be uttered in any or no language. Then, as evidence, he delivers the following sentence: “I think Brexit is a really bad idea.” On the third listen, the lyrics of the audio sequence stand out so clearly that one wonders how they could have escaped us.

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“Let’s start from the principle that there are things that exist.”

The term hallucinations can sometimes pr

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