[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.9] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a billion downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help For Smart People Podcast Network.
In this episode, we go deep into a scientific look at consciousness. We ask how do our brains experience reality? What is consciousness? Is our perception a reality nothing more than a controlled hallucination? What is the hard problem of consciousness and what are the major aspects of consciousness? How can we use the neuroscience of consciousness to better ourselves and improve our lives? We dig into that and much more with our guest, Anil Seth.
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In our previous episode, we looked at how to use insights from behavioral science to improve your life. We looked at what it means to have a good day and figured out how to reserve engineer more good days in your life by examining decision making, the power of rest and recovery, intention setting, boundaries and much more with our guest, Caroline Webb. If you want to learn how to use scientific research to create more good days in your life, listen to that episode.
Now for the show.
[0:02:52.9] MB: Today we have another exciting guest on the show, Anil Seth. Anil is the professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex. He’s the co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, the editor-in-chief of the Neuroscience of Consciousness and was president of the British Science Association for Psychology in 2017. His TED Talk has been viewed over 2.5 million times and his work has been features in The Guardian, BBC, New Scientist and more.
Anil, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:23.0] AS: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me on.
[0:03:25.6] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on here today. I know you do some really fascinating, some work in research and I’m excited to kind of dig into many of these topics today. So to start out, I’d love to begin with kind of the idea of consciousness and kind of the question of how does our brain experience reality.
[0:03:44.4] AS: That’s the big question, I think, that certainly I’m trying to answer and certainly that’s motivated me in my career. Studying consciousness is a funny thing. Let’s be clear. We don’t have a very, very good scientific definition of it. Everybody knows what consciousness is. It’s what goes away when you fall into a dreamless sleep or go into general anesthesia and it’s what returns when you come around again. It’s any kind of subjective experience.
There something it is like to be me and there’s — I’m sure there is something it is like to be you and for everybody listening. There is also something it is like to be them. There’s a subjective experiences happening to those organisms, and there isn’t the thing — We assume that’s not the case for something like a table or a chair. It may be the case for something like a work or a fish, but we don’t really know yet.
The question is, for some things in the universe, there are consciousness experiences and for other things, there probably aren’t, and this is one of the biggest mysteries in science and philosophy. People have been thinking about it forever. One of the things that’s always surprised me is, for a lot of the 20th century at least, explicitly studying consciousness was not really considered to be a legitimate part of psychology and neuroscience, which is — I think it’s kind of hilarious, because it’s the most obvious phenomena. It’s where everything starts. Nothing else really matters. If there’s one central feature of psychology, of neuroscience, it’s the fact that we have conscious experiences.
So how that happens is really, I think, the most interesting and most basic question in much of science, and it’s also attractable. If there’s one thing that we know about consciousness, at least in humans, it’s that it is intimately dependent on the brain, and the brain stops, consciousness stops. Change brain in various ways, your conscious experience of the world and the self will also change.
So there are perfectly valid and productive scientific methods that we can apply to the study of consciousness and begin to figure out what it is about the brain and not just the brain in a kind of jam jar on a [inaudible 0:05:59.2], but the brain in the body, in the world. What it is about this whole interconnected system that gives rise to having conscious experiences in the first place and then shapes the kinds of experiences that we have, whether that experience is of perceptions of the world around us or of the experience of being an individual, being a person, being a conscious self with all the emotion and sense of embodiment, all these other things that go along with that.
There is a very, very urgent — It’s both important, interesting and urgent scientific question to ask. I say it’s urgent because it’s probably only through a scientific understanding of consciousness that we will come to have a proper mechanistic understanding of what happens in cases of psychiatric humans, for instance, and I’m sure we’ll probably come on to this later on. But if you want to develop a proper understanding of distressing steps of conscious experiences that characterize psychiatric problems, we need to understand what the mechanisms are. That’s just stating a problem, and then I guess we can go in in various ways to try to find answers.
[0:07:11.5] MB: Is that kind of — When you do some sort of cursory research or reading around consciousness, you’ll come across the phrase, “The hard problem of consciousness.” Is that what you’re describing or is that something distinct?
[0:07:23.2] AS: That’s right. The hard problem is a phrase that’s due to the philosopher, David Chalmers. He’s been a terrific inference in consciousness science and philosophy more than “a century” now. There really isn’t one single problem of consciousness. I think that’s another important thing to establish at the get go. It’s a bit like biology. There’s no single problem of life either. There’re a lot of problems that cluster under the same basic description.
What are the problems of consciousness? The hard problem, the Chalmers, is a contrast between two kinds of things. It’s a contrast between the hard problem and the easy problem. I’ll put it like this; the easy problem, the Chalmers, is the problem of figuring out how brains do what they do. How they implement various functions. How they guide behavior. How they allow the world to be sensed so that behavior can happen appropriately. How the thing works is a mechanism. This is of course not an easy problem. It’s going to keep neuroscientists and biologists busy for centuries.
The point about the easy problem is it doesn’t necessarily make any reference to consciousness at all. It’s just about how the complex networks of neurons together support the kinds of things that organisms do. The hard problem is explaining how and why any of these should have anything to do with consciousness expert. How could any explanation that is made in terms of mechanisms or functions; this neuron is connected to this neuron, it connects to that neuron. How could any explanation of that kind tell you why a conscious experience happens? The intuition I’m making this distinction is that it just doesn’t. That however sophisticated, detailed your understanding of the brain as a mechanism is, it will leave entirely untouched this basic mystery of how and why conscious experiences happen to be part of the universe in the first place. That’s why Chalmers calls it a hard problem, because it’s almost as if it’s beyond the remix of any kind of science or neuroscience.
Now, I have struggled with this. I think it’s very interesting point of view, and it goes right back in philosophy, of course, to Descartes and [inaudible 0:09:45.0] where he cleaved the universe into two different kinds of things, stuff is made out of and the stuff of thought and of conscious experience. Once you cut the universe in two this way, it’s very difficult to put it together again.
Now, figuring out a solution to the hard problem is — Well, we just don’t know what that would look like, although people have come up with some kinds of speculative ideas. I guess my point is we don’t need to solve the hard problem in order to pursue a very productive and illuminating science of consciousness.
We know that consciousness exists. We have conscious experiences and they can be described in various ways. I can describe how my experience or vision is different from my experience of an emotion, which is different from my experience of illusion, of intending to do something. Given that these conscious experience exists and they also go away on the general anesthesia or sleep, things like that. Then we can start to just explore how mechanisms within the brain explain aspects of these conscious experiences, explain the difference between, let’s say, vision, and hearing, and smell and self, and that way we’re saying testable and predictable things about the relationships between the brain and consciousness. We can just — It may seem a bit unsatisfying, but we can just leave aside the question of how and why consciousness comes to be a part of the universe in the first place.
This isn’t really a cop out. I don’t think it’s a cop out at all, because the history of science has pursued this strategy very successful in many times before, and even in physics. Physicists cannot tell you why there is a universe in the first place. Nonetheless, we understand a great deal about it now, thanks to the methods of theoretical and experimental physics. Another analogy that’s not exactly a true analogy but is interesting if life. So it wasn’t that long ago, biologists thought that there could be no mechanistic explanation of the difference between the living and the nonliving, so they would propose something like an [inaudible 0:11:55.2] or a spark of life to some sort of special sauce that would explain that difference. Of course, now, while we don’t understand everything about life, this basic sense of mystery about what life is has faded away as biologists got on with the job of accounting for the properties of living systems.
I think we can do the same with consciousness. We can just start to explain its properties. We can do the normal business of science, which is develop theories that help explain, help control, help predict and see how we go. This is in fact what’s going on in my lab and in many other labs in the world, and I think a lot of really interesting progress is being made. It’s interesting to think why people find it’s unsatisfying. I think there’s a sense in which people ask more of a science of consciousness than they ask of other kinds of science, and I think this is partly because it’s so central to our own existence. We’re being faced with a challenge of coming up for a scientific explanation of what it is to be me or to be you, and so there’s something I think intuitive that we want — Firstly, there’s resistance to something like that being explained. Yeah, we want to cling on to ourselves as somehow especial, and then we will say ask more of a kind of scientific explanation of consciousness that it should be really intuitively satisfying somehow, and we don’t apply these criteria and other various of science at all. I don’t think we should do so in consciousness. We can just look at the brain, look at conscious experiences and get on with the job.
[0:13:33.3] MB: So let’s dig in a little bit around the properties of consciousness. Tell me more about that.
[0:13:39.5] AS: There’s a long list of ways to divide up what we mean by consciousness. I like to think of it quite simply in terms of three different aspects of consciousness, and I don’t think these three aspects are entirely independent. I think there’re complicated relations between them, but I don’t think it’s a useful starting point.
The first property of consciousness is conscious level, and this I would describe as sort of scale from being completely lacking in any kind of consciousness at all, such as when you run the general anesthesia or in a coma or dead, let’s say, all the way to being vividly alert, awake, aware and conscious, fully conscious.
An important thing here is that conscious level is not the same thing as just being physiologically awake. You can have conscious experiences when you’re asleep. This is what happens when you dream, and there’s also cases on the other side if you like where if you’ve had severe brain damage, been very unlucky to have some severe brain damage, you might end up in what was once called a vegetative state, now called the unaware wakeful state, which is a state where you go through sleep and wake cycles, eyes will open. Physiologically you will wake up, but there doesn’t seem to be any conscious experience going on at all.
So the mechanisms that responsible for being conscious, it can overlap with, but they’re not going to be the same as the mechanisms that just modulate whether you’re physiologically awake or asleep. That’s conscious level.
The second aspect is what I would like to call conscious content, which is when you’re conscious, you’re conscious of something. This is probably what most intuitively think of. You look around, there’s a subjective scene. It has — You open your eyes, and you’re not blind. You open your eyes, there’s colors, shapes, objects of various kinds populating things visual scene, clouds on the horizon and whatever you happen to be looking at, but there’s also whatever you might be smelling at the time, hearing at the time. Then there are the sense, tactile senses of your body sitting on a chair. It’s the full content of your perceptual scene at any one time. That's conscious content.
Again, we know there’s not any differences between different perceptual modalities, like vision and hearing and smell, but the brain can do a lot of this sensing of the world without consciousness being involved at all. We’re not necessarily conscious of everything that our eyes and ears detects.
The third and final aspects of consciousness is actually a subset of conscious content, but it's a particularly important subset, and that’s the experience of being a particular person, of being me or being you. The experience of being the subject of that experience, and that is this experience of being somebody that is probably the aspect of consciousness that we feel most attached to and we’re most resistant to it being explained. It’s also that aspects of consciousness that can go wrong if you like in a lot of psychiatric conditions.
[0:17:01.3] CS: I want to segue and get into a little bit, the way that we perceive reality and the way that we perceive the world, and you’ve talked about in the past, the idea of perceptual predictions and then how we’re not necessarily sort of passively perceiving what's happening around us, but in many instances kind of actively creating it. Could you elaborate on that?
[0:17:22.4] AS: Yeah. This is an old idea, but I think it’s getting a new relevance now. I think this is a relevance that actually makes a difference to me in my everyday life. Now, there is a kind of intuitive way to think about sensation and perception as part of our conscious lives, which is that there’s a world out there and our eyes and our ears and our other sensory organs detect features of this world. Light waves, energy, hits our retina and so on, gets converted into signals, go deeper and deeper into the brain, and that sensation-perception is this process of interpretation, just the building up with sensory signals that originate from some sort of fixed external world that’s out there.
Now, there’s another view and, again, this goes back in philosophy to Kans, if not before, and in psychology to a guy called Herman von Helmholtz in the late 19th century. He argued that perception was not so much just about this passive registration of sensory data that just impacts our sensory organs. It’s an act of construction that the sensory signals that we encounter — I mean, they don’t come labeled with; this is vision; this comes from a table; this is sound; this comes from my friend. It’s all just energy and it’s all kind of noisy and ambiguous and only indirectly related to what’s out there in the world.
But our perception, or at least our conscious perception seems to be populated by determined objects. I’m not looking at the computer in front of me and the mug of tea in front of me and they seem to be there. How does this happen? Well, the idea is that the brain meets this noisy and ambiguous stream of sensory information with what we call prior predictions or expectations about what caused that sensory information.
So what we see is not the sensory data itself or any kind of filtering of it. What we see is the interpretation of the brain's best guess about what caused that sensory data, and depending on what that best guess is, your perception will be different. Think of if you go outside on a day where it’s kind of cloudy. There are these nice little white fluffy clouds. It can be very easy to look at guys clouds and see the faces in them or see animals in them, see something strange in them. What’s happening there is that the brain is imposing an expectation of seeing your face on to some quiet ambiguous sensory data, and so that's what you actually see. I think we’ve all had the experience as well walking out maybe on a foggy day and you think you see your friend because you're expecting to meet them and it turns out to be a stranger.
Our perception are always shaped by the interpretations our brain brings to bear, and we’re not conscious so much. We’re just conscious of the result. We’re conscious of how these predictions become combined with the sensory data. That shapes our perception. I think this is quite transformational for the way we think of the way we perceive the world around us. I mean, we have this sort of naïve realism that we think or it just seems to us that the world is out there as we perceive it. We have that phrase, I believe it when I it. You might as well say the other way around, that you only see things that you believe, and these beliefs can be unconscious.
What this means is we probably all see, perceive the world in slightly different ways. Sometimes maybe in different ways depending on the expectations that our brain bring to bear on the sensory data. We all inhabit kind of different in the universe as this way.
[0:21:13.9] MB: In your TED Talk, you have some really great examples of this, may be hard to kind of demonstrate in the podcast format, but I really found the example of kind of the checkerboard shadow to be really, really fascinating and also the kind of the auditory illusion that you’ve created during the show, which we’ll throw these in the show notes for listeners, but I thought those were great examples.
[0:21:34.2] AS: Yeah. There’s a lot of examples that we come to every day. Optical illusions are a great source of you like kind of improvised or discovered experiments in psychology and neuroscience. Optical illusions work, because we’re just made to realize this discrepancy between the way things are and how we perceive them. You might have two lines. One looks longer than the other and then you measure them, they’re both the same length, but they still look different lengths.
The checkerboard example that you mentioned, I think this is a beautiful example. That’s based on, is our brain — Or the visual system in our brain just knows that objects get darker when they’re in shadow. That’s a kind of rule that the visual cortex in our brain has. I was born with or it’s genetically wired in now or we learn it in the first years of life. That means that the brain is expecting the patterns of shadow to change sensory data in particular ways, and this illusion is called Adelson’s Checkerboard. Just means that we see few patches of gray. They’re going to look very, very different, but if you go and actually cut the patches out and put them next to each other, you’ll see they’re exactly the same color. What's happening here is our perception isn't just a direct reflection of what color a patch is. It’s really what color the patch should be given the pattern of light and shade that is happening.
I always use that example as well just to — Some people think, “Oh! That means my vision isn't working very well. Why is biology screwed up and given me this visual system that can’t actually figure out what color something is.” That’s not what the visual system is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to figure out how much light is hitting the eye. It’s supposed to figure out what’s the most likely state of affairs out there in the environment and it does it beautifully.
All these optical illusions and visual tricks that we have thought of right way. What they really demonstrate is how beautifully sophisticated and well adapted our visual system is. You’re dealing with the noisy visual information that we get by using these regularities about light and shade and concavity and convexity and any number of other things. Actually, generate for the organism a reliable picture of what's going on in the world around it.
[0:24:03.0] MB: I think this larger point, kind of zooming back out a little bit, is really, really important, which is this idea that we think of the world outside of ourselves as this sort of fixed entity that’s precisely defined and we’re sort of passively perceiving it, but in many ways our own perceptions of what's happening around us are, in many cases, as you call them sort of a controlled hallucination.
[0:24:27.5] AS: Yeah. I think it’s a nice phrase. I wish I could take credit for it. I first heard that phrase from Chris [inaudible 0:24:35.1], who’s a psychologist, one of my inspirations in London and actually nobody knows he first said it, but the idea of the controlled hallucination is that when we think of the word hallucination, you think of people perceiving things that aren’t there. I think we can almost think of it as just a slight imbalance in how normal perception works. Even normal perception, as we’ve been discussing, normal perception involves this continuing balancing act between sensory data and the brain’s interpretations of that sensory data. Now when you look at the white fluffy clouds and see if a face in them, that's a kind of hallucination going on there. So you can think of these sorts of hallucinations that people describe in schizophrenia or perhaps on psychoactive drugs of various kinds. That’s just tipping the balance even more. So the brain's prior expectations kind of overweight the sensory data and overcome, overwhelm the sensory data even more strongly so that what we perceive becomes less the dependent on signals from the world.
Normal perception is a controlled hallucination, precisely this sense that the brain is always anticipating, always predicting what’s out there, but these predictions are controlled because they’re always constrained and reigned in and guided by the sensory data that we encounter, and it's when that process goes wrong, becomes imbalanced, either one way or the other way, that we start to see deviations from normal perception that people then start to worry about, because then they start disagreeing with people around them about what's actually going on.
But there’s another thing — We’re beginning to be familiar with this idea in another context already. So a lot of people talk about echo chambers and filter bubbles and social media. We seek evidence that fits with our beliefs, and if we only expose to particular kinds of opinions because of the way social media works, the echo chamber phenomenon, then that’s the way we will believe the world to be one way and other people inhabiting the same world will hold a very different set of beliefs because their echo chamber is different because this sensory information they encounter and the prior beliefs they bring to bear are also different.
I think the work that we're doing, me and many colleges, is showing the same thing applies to more basic levels to this. It's not just your abstract beliefs about what kind of politics is good. It also drills right down to how we perceive colors and shapes and things and objects in the world around us, and maybe not to such a degree, because probably a lot of the visual system is quite hardwired and quite inflexible, but it’s there to some degree, or at least the potential for it is there to some degree, and I think that's — It is a very important things to realize just this fact that we will have different or potentially different experiences of the world around us at this concrete perceptual level and not just more abstract level beliefs and desires.
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[0:28:59.4] MB: And I think the fact that it's sort of such a concrete physical manifestation of this phenomenon really underscores the fundamental conclusion that what we perceive and believe to be true may not be the case, whether it's physical, whether it's kind of an ideological construct, and I think the example of the social media echo chamber is a perfect example of this. We shouldn't always be so confident that our perceptions are correct, and I think if you look at some of the greatest thinkers and scientists, they come from a very humble perspective of constantly kind of questioning their own perceptions and ideas, and I think it's really interesting to see that mirrored not only from kind of intellectual sense if you look at something like a social media echo chamber, but really at a very basic physical sense all the way down to the way that our consciousness is created.
[0:29:49.8] AS: That’s right. I mean, I think there’s the value of skepticism, of an informed skepticism, it’s always there in whatever context you want to discuss. Another method for people who’ve often used to the way we've been discussing perception is a process of hypothesis testing. The brain might have a hypothesis, a better guess about the way the world is, and then it will test that hypothesis with sensory data. In fact, it will try to seek out sensory data that will either confirm or disconfirm its hypothesis, in much the same way that a scientist would have a hypothesis and do an experiment that might confirm or disconfirm their scientific hypothesis.
Of course, if you take that all the way, then I also have to remain very skeptical about everything that I've been saying about consciousness. I could be entirely wrong about it too. It's just another hypothesis, but of course that’s the beauty of the scientific approach of these things, is that we will continue to do the experiments and if all these ideas about perception being prediction turn out to be off the mark, we’ll find out, and it will come up with a better theory. Yeah, skepticism is great all the way, but it's even better when you contested against the court of reality.
[0:31:09.2] MB: I want to segue now and talk a little bit about — We’ve talked about the external world, but the same phenomenon applies to our perceptions of the self and of ourselves. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
[0:31:23.2] AS: This is where things get really interesting to me, and where it gets intuitively challenging from — And first-person perspective on these issues as well, because it’s — Yeah, I think it’s one thing to think about how our perception of the external world as a construction. I’m okay if somebody tells me that there’s no such thing as the color red out there. That’s something that the brain has sort of invented as a convenient representation of a certain kind of invariants in the way light reflects from surfaces. That's fine. Redness is something that my brain is generating to make the world more understandable, and optical illusion is fine. Yeah, okay. Those two lines, they are actually the same length even though they look different. I’ll accept that and move on with my life.
Now it becomes more challenging when you type exactly the same principles, exactly the same mechanisms and exactly the same lessons and apply them to our perception itself, because the experience of being a self, of being a subject of experience, really, it’s just another kind of perception. It’s not something that it sits behind all other experiences receiving them somehow, like an immaterial soul or something like that. No. It's something else that’s very, very tightly dependent on particular brain mechanisms, and the experience of being a self is also compose of many potentially separable elements.
One of the most obvious of these is the experience of embodiment. William James was one of the founders of psychology. Used to talked about it in the following way, and he would say that the experience of being a body is somehow always there. It’s always in the background. Our experience of the world around us is changing as we move around it. But there’s always the experiences of the same old body going along for the ride.
And because it's always there and it changes, but pretty slowly over the course of a lifetime, unless you have an injury or something, or an illness, it's tempting to just push it also into the background and think we don’t really have to explain it. But the experience of what isn’t and what is not the body is another kind of controlled hallucination, and we can demonstrate this very easily. There are plenty of experiments and one of the things I show in the TED Talk is this thing called rub a hand illusion, which is a very simple demonstration where you have a fake rubber hand, looks like a real hand, and you put it in front of someone. They hide their real hand, then the experimenter takes a paint brush, two paint brushes and strokes the rubber hand in time with striking the person's real hand, even though they can't see this happening to their real hand.
From the subject’s point of view, what they see is a fake hand. It looks like a hand and is roughly where a hand should be. They see it being stroke and they feel the stroking, because the real hand is being stroked as well. For the brain, this becomes enough sensory evidence that it updates its best guess about what is going so that the person actually starts to experience the rubber hand as being part of their body. It’s a really uncanny experience. At one level you know is not part of your body, but another level, you feel it is part of your body, and this shows that even something as basic as what is and what is not our body, even something as basic as that is activity on-the-fly always a best guess, a hypothesis to the best explanation generated by the brain.
Then that applies, I think anyway, to pretty much all other aspects of self that we have, whether it's the experience of making a volitional movement, when I intend to do something and I feel I’ve caused that movement. That’s just the brain’s best guess of a movement that had a relatively internal versus external cause. it's not evidence for any kind of free will or anything like that. All these elements of selfhood can all be explained by mechanisms.
Of course, it doesn't seem like that to me yet, even doing these experiments and thinking about these things for many years now, it still doesn't seem like that to me. I seem to be this unified self somehow sitting somewhere behind my eyes, looking out on an external world. I mean, that still seems to be the way things are even though we can do all these experiments to show that was actually happening under the hood is something quite different.
[0:36:02.0] MB: Yeah, I've heard of the rubber hand illusion, or the rubber head experiment. It’s so fascinating. I mean, I think the whole kind of conversation of what is the self, what is the body, what is our experience of it, and the fact that if you really kind of keep digging and asking these questions, it's not that clear or that obvious or even that sort of scientifically coherent as in terms of what we think it is. In many ways, it kind of opens a door philosophically. It makes me think of people like Alan Watts and others and it’s a really, really fascinating kind of journey in sort of a rabbit hole that you can go down.
[0:36:38.5] AS: That's right. I mean, I think there’re many other paths that people can take when they really are interested in understanding the origin and the structure of their experiences of the world and self. Some of them, what I do in the lab here is a more scientific one, where we’ll try to manipulate these experiences in systematic ways, figure out what's going on. But, of course, there are traditions of mindfulness and meditation which can lead to similar insights in a different — Meditation is not going to deliver by itself, and neuro-scientific explanation of what's going on, but it also post a challenge, similar challenges to our assumptions of the unity or the self and this naïve realism by which we experience the contents of our perception as reflecting and being identical with some external existence, an external reality. Certainly, we can take various kinds of substances and also alter our perception in different ways too. Religious ceremonies also can do this.
I think there’s a common theme to a lot of these things though, which is that — I’m thinking here of something like an out of body experience. This is happen. People have out of body experiences. They feel that they’ve left their body. They’re seeing their body from a different perspective. They may be floating above it or leaving it behind in some way, and people have reported these kinds of experiences throughout history in various sorts of contexts, and they’ve usually accompanied these reports with some sort of explanation of what's going on and it's often something like, “Well, I have an out of body experience, so therefore my soul has left my body and had started flying around.”
This is where I think we get into a little bit of trouble, because we should take very seriously that people have these experiences, but the kind of intuitive explanation for them might not be right, and in this case almost certainly isn't right. So the explanation for an out of body experience is going to be something like the brain has the — Whatever reasons, maybe suddenly cut off from input coming from inside its own body. That is it’s perspective. The origin of its first-person perspective is now somewhere else. But that experience is still generated by the stuff inside that person's skull, and that — I think thinking things this way is very helpful, because it preserves the importance of these kinds of unusual experiences that people have about, the dissolution of their ego or an out of body experience or whatever it may be, but it provides a more satisfying mechanistic explanation for what's going on. That way, I think, leads to a fuller understanding of how our experience of the self is actually constructed and how it can fall apart in the ways that it can fall apart and sometimes does.
[0:39:47.4] MB: How has this understanding of the self and the way that it's constructed impacted the way that you kind of think about life and think about your own self?
[0:39:59.6] AS: That’s a great question, and I often wonder what a similar version of me would be like that had done something completely different had not been entrusted or been researching in consciousness neuroscience at all. They’d not be properly able to answer your question. As it is, there’s only been one of me, so it’s hard to compare with the counts of actual.
But what I can say is that sometimes it just fades into the background. I mean, sometimes it’s just what you do in the lab and you’re getting your papers out and you’re trying to get your grants and you’re having some detailed discussion about the statistics on this or that experiment and you get equally frustrated by things in your life and in the world that then you would do otherwise.
But there are times, and for me it’s often when I’m maybe having some sort of thinking time or going for a walk or just sitting back the chair for a moment and realize that my experiences then is this construction is no external reality. And I think, for me, this is quite an enlightening and wonderful experience, this realization that what I’m experiencing is this construction, is on-the-fly construction of the brain that is not necessarily the way things are, that it’s not necessary the way things seem to other people. So it can change the way you interact with other people. If you can hold this in the mind at the right time, that they may be believing, seeing things that are actually slightly different from you.
I also think that it has the potential to change one's relationship with one's own emotional state, and I think this is probably one of the more important implications both scientifically and in terms of personal development. The story here would get something like this, that just as my experience of something out there in the world is an interpretation of that, say, visual signals or light bouncing off objects. My experience of having a particular emotion is also another aspect of self. It’s also another interpretation of sensory data, but in this case it's a sensory data that largely comes from inside the body and how the heart is beating, how tight my stomach is and what the level of various chemicals in my bloodstream are.
This is, again, an old idea that emotions are really perceptions of changes in the physiological state of body. Again, it carries this implication that the way you feel at any time is the brain's best guess about what's happening to its body. It's not necessarily the way things are or the way things have to be. If you can sort of appreciate that in the moment, I think it can help with emotional regulation, with emotional control, with being aware of what's happening to you and sometimes breaking vicious circles of negative emotions.
Now, in my own life, this is still very much a work in progress. I often enter states where I just feel the way I feel, and if it’s a negative set of feelings, those persistent amplify each other and I find it very difficult to apply what I know about the mechanisms of emotions to changing my lived experience of them. But I do think the potential is there for applying these insights in my own life. I think the potential is also that, scientifically, once we understand the mechanisms of what underlies the generation of particular emotion and mood states, then we’ll have also a much better handle on developing treatments for conditions like depression or negative emotions and anxiety and so on and so forth. But it’s certainly not a shortcut. It’s not that you study neuroscience and then you become enlightened and everything suddenly is revealed to be a different way. I think it does impacts, but you have to continuously pay attention. You have to continuously bring to mind the relevance of what you’re doing for your everyday life. But it’s definitely there.
[0:44:20.0] MB: Would you be willing to share a little bit of your own journey or your own kind of battle with negative emotional states and kind of how you’ve dealt with those?
[0:44:29.0] AS: Yes, I would. For many years now, and not that frequently, but from time to time, and unlike many other people, I’ve had episodes of uni-polar depression. So the kind of depression where you just sink into a very, very negative emotional states without the corresponding kind of manic and high state that some people get on the other side. These states of depression only have my own benchmarks to go by, but they are completely debilitating and I wouldn't wish them on anybody else at all.
Now, this has been going on for me on and off for much longer than I've been studying consciousness and neuroscience, but it has been a motivation at the same time because I've always been interested in what's actually happening to me here, what’s happening to my brain and my body that brings about these conditions.
One of the things about the phenomenology of depression, it's not just persistent sadness. It’s something very, very different from that. In fact, in my own experience, I feel state of depression kind of often most prominently in my body. You’ll feel very, very negative symptoms coming from the way you experience your limb, that they really shouldn't be there in some way. There’s clearly something going on with how the brain is interpreting signals from its body. Then, of course, you end up cycling into lots of remuneration and negative thinking and self-blame and all the other self-reinforcing things that go on that sustain and deepen these depressive episodes.
Now, I have not got a solution. I certainly think there are many approaches which seem to be partially successful and work differently for different people. So I’m not going to say anything particularly conclusive, for instance, about medications. So we have things like SSRI medications, serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like citalopram or Prozac. These work for some people. They work better for some people than for other people, but they are pretty blunt pharmacological tool. You’re not going in and delicately adjusting the mechanisms of the brain to fix a particular problem. You’re kind of washing, treating the brain like a kind of bag of chemicals and just spraying a bit more into it. There was an analogy, I think, I heard, taking an SSRI is something like if you got a car engine that’s not working properly, you just open the hood and pour a bunch of oil all over the engine and hope some of it gets to the right place. It’s a bit like that. It’s pretty nonspecific, but it can work a little. Of course, cognitive behavioral therapy also has a very important place in helping us resist the kind of vicious circularity of the negative thinking that can happen.
I, in the research that I’m doing and other groups doing this too, trying to understand the mechanisms of depression in more precise way about how the brain predicts and control the internal state of the body, and I think this is an extraordinary important line of work, because it’s not just from my own person experience. It’s the statistics out there for anybody to read the impact, the social and economic impact of the depression is huge, not to mention, the cost and personal suffering that depression causes and it doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
So, coming up with a better mechanistic understanding of what is going on I think is one of the more important things that anybody doing neuroscience could be doing. It doesn't necessarily help in the day-to-day. So the struggles that I personally have with it, on just tries to occasionally hold in one's mind the idea that these negative feelings, these emotional feelings aren’t necessarily reflecting the way things are or the way things have to be, that they will pass, that it will be possible to feel different again.
I think the way I can use the neuro-scientific knowledge here is just to give myself a reason to expect things to pass, to expect things to — that however low you get, they will get a bit better. It may not seem like that at the time, but it does seem to be like that in the end.
[0:49:09.8] MB: What interventions have you found to be the most effective for yourself and kind of mitigating some of those symptoms or experiences?
[0:49:19.0] AS: Personally, I found these sorts of things that you often hear work for people. I mean, it becomes really not that much based on my scientific knowledge of these matters anymore. There’s the importance of reconnecting with the world around me. So what always works for me when nothing else really works is to go for a long walk in the country, partly that there’s a rhythmicity to that, I think, that sets the body doing something. There’s the sort of right kind of sensory stimulation that prevents you from — The world is still there. The world doesn't really care about whatever the proximate cause of your depression might be at a particular time. Exercise, fresh air nature. I mean, I’m saying anything that is remotely new here at all. The key is — And this has been for me, is that you forget that these things work. You forget and you think, “That’s not going to work. There’s no point.” But if I do to get myself out into the world a little bit, it does make a big difference. But there is no one thing. There is not one thing that I’ve found that I can say, “Okay. It’s time for that now.” Sometimes it’s a case of waiting it out a little bit as well and gradually things get a little bit more into perspective, and cognitive behavioral therapy has also helped. We’re all, I think, praying to — Our own internal echo chamber this way. We think thoughts that reinforce the thoughts that we've already been thinking, all the beliefs that we already have about ourselves and our place in the world. To break that vicious circle through embedding, we’re trying to make automatic certain responses to negative thinking is also extremely, extremely helpful. That’s also worked for me too at times.
[0:51:16.7] MB: Thank you for kind of going into that and sharing your own personal experience. I think it’s courageous and also really valuable for listeners to kind of hear that and hear someone who's obviously a very accomplished scientist still struggles with some of these issues and also what you've done to kind of help mitigate that.
[0:51:36.6] AS: Yeah, I think it’s — I mean, we all know there’s a still a stigma out there about mental illness, and I think it should be — I think, whatever any of us can do to challenge that is a good thing, and whether if this helps in some small way, then I hope that’s also a good thing too. I don't want to give the kind of the other completely wrong impression. Also, these things, these episodes can also be pretty transient. One of the things that I would caution against is — And, again, this is part of the stigma aspect of it, I think too. People aren’t defined by their suffering from this or that psychiatric issue or mental health problem or psychological problem, however you want to describe it, in the same way that you wouldn't define somebody by their suffering from a more obviously physiological disease, for having a cold or having a flu or something like that. It can affect you and it certainly changed my personality in some ways, but hopefully in a way that some sense made me more aware of my own inner emotional state and what affects them.
Yes, that’s just other — The flip side of the coin as well, is that we — Those of us that have experienced things like that would not want to be defined that way either. I think the same will probably go for pretty much anybody in that condition.
[0:52:59.3] MB: Thank you again for sharing that personal experience, and I think it's really valuable and helpful. To kind of segue back to the broader conversation we’ve had, what would be, for listeners who kind of listen to this episode and are curious about consciousness or learning more or even maybe who are struggling with something like depression, what would be kind of one action step or kind of piece of homework you would give them to implement some of the ideas we’ve talked about today?
[0:53:25.3] AS: That's a good question. I think go and do that course in neuroscience. That’s one action step. I’m kind of half serious about that. I think there’s a lot of good, popular, accessible literature out there now about the brain, about emotion, about neuroscience and perception that even a non-technical understanding of this can help develop this realization that the way we experience things, the world around us and ourselves isn't necessary where things are. Of course, delayed in writing in my own book about this, but hopefully I’ll be able to talk more about that next year.
The other actions step is, yeah, I think — Again, this may not work for everyone. Just when you’re walking around in your daily life, try to make it a routine. Just experiment with this for a little bit, and I’m just thinking about this now. Maybe this works, but if you just walk around, and now and again just reflects on your own perception. Just reflect on what you are experiencing at that moment and try to experience it as a construction. If you see patterns of light and shade and objects, try to understand that your experience of the things in the world at that moment, how they might be generated by this interaction between the brain guessing about what’s out there and the light coming into your eyes.
Try just a little bit to get under the hood of your experiences now and again, and I think if you can do that, that would be another avenue towards understanding this relationship between the naïve realism that are experiences have where we just — As we’ve discussed, a lot of reign, is this hour that we just experience things as real and this appreciation of how, in fact, dependent our experiences are on how the brain is bringing its side of the story to what's going on.
[0:55:29.6] MB: Where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:55:34.1] AS: The best place to look, try to collect everything in the moment on my personal website, which is anilsith.com. There’s a number of other podcasts, interviews and pieces of writing, and also a whole load of research papers from myself and my lab there as well. So anilseth.com would be the place to look.
[0:55:56.4] MB: Well, Anil, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing all of your wisdom and experiences, fascinating conversation, and I really appreciate your time and contribution.
[0:56:05.0] AS: Thanks again for the opportunities. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
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