Being You by Professor Anil Seth review – the exhilarating new science of consciousness | Science and nature books

For every stoner who has been overwhelmed by a deep insight and dragged, “Reality is a construction, maaan”, here is the amazing assertion. Reality – or, at least, our perception of it – is a “controlled hallucination,” according to neuroscientist Anil Seth. Everything we see, hear and perceive around us, all of our beautiful people, is a big lie created by our deceptive brain, like an eternal version of The Truman Show, to appease us to live our life.

Our minds invent for us a universe of colors, sounds, shapes and feelings through which we interact with our world and relate to each other, Seth argues. We even invent ourselves. Our reality is therefore an illusion, and understanding it involves addressing the thorny question of consciousness: what that means, well, to be.

Conscience has long been the prerogative of philosophers and priests, poets and artists; now neuroscientists are investigating the mysterious quality and attempting to answer the difficult question of how consciousness appears in the first place. If this all sounds a bit difficult, it actually isn’t in the masterful hands of Seth at all, who skillfully weaves the philosophical, biological, and personal with lucid clarity and consistency that’s exciting to read.

Consciousness, which Seth defines as “any kind of subjective experience whatsoever,” is central to our being and our identity as sentient, living creatures. What does it mean for you be you, instead of being a stone or bat? And how does this feeling of being emerge from the spongy cluster of cells that we keep in our skulls? Science has avoided these kinds of inherently experiential questions, in part because it’s not clear how the tools of science could explore them. Scientists like to pursue “objective” truths and realities, without probing the perspective domains of subjectivity to seek the truth of nostalgia, of joy or the perfect blue of a Yves Klein painting. Also, it is hard. Seth could use other words, but essentially he’s exploring the science of souls – an arduous task.

Yves Klein blue paintings at Tate Liverpool.
Yves Klein blue paintings hanging at Tate Liverpool. Scientists like to search for objective truths and realities, rather than, for example, probing the realms of subjectivity in perspective to search for the truth of the perfect blue of a Klein canvas. Photograph: Paul Ellis / AFP / Getty Images

All of this, of course, makes consciousness one of the most exciting scientific frontiers, and no one is better placed to guide us there. Seth has researched the cognitive foundations of consciousness for over two decades and is an established leader in the field. He pioneered new ways of analyzing the impenetrable and measuring the incalculable in his quest to deduce the constituents of our feelings down to their atomic basis. This highly anticipated book exposes his radical theory of our invented reality in accessible and compelling writing.

We take for granted the idea that we travel through life, inhabit a world that is truly out there, as the main character in our own biopic. But this hallucination is generated by our mind, Seth explains. The brain is a “prediction machine” that constantly generates the best causes for its sensory inputs. The mind generates our “reality” based on the predictions it makes from visual, auditory, and other sensory information, and then constantly checks and modulates it with updated sensory information. “Perception is done through an ongoing process of minimizing prediction errors,” he writes.

These perceptual expectations shape our conscious experience. When we agree on our hallucinations, we call it “reality”; when we don’t, we are described as “delusional”.

Sometimes these disagreements can help us peek beyond what William Blake called the “gates of perception.” One of those baffling events you might have experienced was #TheDress: an overexposed photo posted to social media in 2015, in which a striped dress looked blue and black to some people, and white and gold to others. . Which version people saw depended on their brain taking into account an adjustment in ambient lighting when generating their reality. People who spent more time indoors were more likely to see the blue and black dress, as their prediction machine was designed to take yellowish lighting into account when preparing for the hallucination. Those who spend more time outdoors have their brains ready to adjust to the bluer spectrum of sunlight.

The sartorial phenomenon, Seth argues, is “compelling evidence that our perceptual experiences of the world are internal constructs, shaped by the peculiarities of our personal biology and history.” In objective, non-hallucinated reality, however, the dress does not have physical properties of blue, black, white, or gold. Color is not a physical property of things like mass is. Rather, objects have particular ways of reflecting light that our brains include in their complex production of “reality” in Technicolor.

“We see the world not as it is, but as it is useful to us,” Seth writes. In other words, we have evolved this generated reality because operating through our hallucinated world improves our survival, helping us to avoid danger and recognize food, for example.

This is still an emerging science and Seth is generous to his fellow sailors, including those with competing theories, as he gently and persuasively guides us through optical illusions, magic tricks. and the fascinating experiences that build his case.

We are, according to his research, much more likely to perceive things than we expect. In a study in which people were shown brief flashes of different images in their left and right eyes, hearing a signal for an image meant that they were much more likely to “see” that image while being oblivious to it. competing image shown to the other eye. . Sometimes our hallucinated world is completely out of sync with other people’s – we lose our grip on reality. “What we call a ‘hallucination’ is what happens when perceptual assumptions are unusually strong, crushing sensory data so that the brain’s grip on their causes in the world begins to slip.”

Seth has been experimenting with changing his own reality – he describes using virtual reality headsets and taking LSD. I learn to my surprise that hallucinogens really take you to a higher level of consciousness – your amount of consciousness can now be measured regardless of arousal. This had life-changing consequences, Seth explains, allowing “locked up” patients to be recognized as conscious, despite their seemingly inert state.

What then is the zero point of consciousness in a living – or even an artificial being? At its most fundamental, it’s self-awareness, knowing where you end up and where the rest of the world’s matter begins, and Seth explores a diversity of self-perception, from parrots to octopuses – whose suckers attach themselves to. almost everything except their own skin, because they can taste each other. He questions self-knowledge from the inside out, debunking the idea that our emotions produce bodily expressions, like tears. Instead, Seth argues, our emotions are a response to the mind’s perception of our bodily reactions: we are sad because we perceive ourselves crying. Likewise, we are afraid because we perceive that our heart is beating faster – a survival mechanism to prepare us to respond to a threat picked up by the visual cortex, for example. Our feelings, even much of our experience of agency, are also hallucinations emitted by the mind to control us.

The self is therefore another perception, a controlled hallucination constructed from an assemblage of better perceptual assumptions, previous beliefs and memories. Seth movingly writes the episodes of delirium and delirium induced by his mother in the hospital, and tells the story of a talented musicologist who suffered catastrophic memory loss. Memory loss, Seth explains, disrupted the continuity of his self-perception – his “narrative self” – eroding his personal identity.

We see ourselves as controlling ourselves, is Seth’s often counterintuitive but nonetheless compelling argument in this meticulously researched book. However, we are just as important the perception of others. Seth briefly mentions that we modulate our behavior in response to our perceptions of what others may think of us, but the social context of our “selves” is far more important than that. We are largely the brainchild of others.

Being you, after all, is not only about the sensitivity you feel, but also the the youth of you. By the time my beloved grandfather died of a stroke in 2012, I had been mourning him for two years already. Dementia had taken a smart, funny, sweet man and left us with a stranger, who lashed out or spoke inappropriately and meanly. He was clearly someone – he was fully aware – but he was not himself. It was we who, deprived of his advice and conversation, knew who we had lost – and with that, something of ourselves.

That said, Be you is an exhilarating book: a vast and phenomenal achievement which will undoubtedly become a founding text.

Gaia Vince is the author of Transcendance: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time (Allen Lane)

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