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Annaka Harris on Consciousness, Free Will, and Self Identity

Jun 04, 2021
Annika thank you very much for coming early in the morning to talk about a profound topic like

consciousness

. It's really good to have you here, so obviously we were talking a little bit off the air. You know one of the things as I was going through your book and just talking about such a profound topic as

consciousness

, the book is called consciousness, of course, one of the first things I thought about was just trying to understand the definition of what consciousness is. really means and maybe it means something different than others. people, so for your definition, maybe we could break down how they would give an overview of what is conscious, yes, no, it's definitely important to start there because the word is used in various ways and often people refer to something a lot.
annaka harris on consciousness free will and self identity
It's more complex than I'm talking about, which is why people often refer to higher order functions like complex thinking and language

self

-awareness. A lot of people actually mistakenly think that consciousness, to be conscious, must be aware of the fact that you are aware of your

self

on a meta level and that's not what I'm talking about although, of course, all of those things are related, but the way I use the word consciousness is really um analogous to experience um and so it might be the simplest experience we can imagine um there's no consensus on whether worms are conscious but if there is, you know there's good reason to think which they are, they have a brain and a nervous system, so if you imagine a The worm is conscious, it's obviously not self-aware, it has no thoughts, it's not doing, you know, nothing really complex is happening, but you can imagine an experience very simple sense of, you know, your skin moving across the earth, maybe of heat and cold. moving towards the food or away from the food, so, any smallest felt experience that you can imagine, um, if there's an experience there, that's what I call consciousness and that's really where the mystery lies, because um, like you We know that we really are made of the same ingredients as everything else in the universe.
annaka harris on consciousness free will and self identity

More Interesting Facts About,

annaka harris on consciousness free will and self identity...

We are matter. There is no special ingredient that is injected to make living beings conscious. We are all made of the same things that stars are made of. And so the real mystery and the real question, um, and what interests me so much is why, when you know that this seemingly unconscious matter in the universe is configured in this very specific way, suddenly the lights come on from the in Inside, suddenly, there is an experience of being, that question of being those atoms and we have really made little progress in answering that question. That question is often known as the hard problem of consciousness, which is, it was coined by David Chalmers, he's a philosopher who's written a lot on the subject and he's really influenced my way of thinking, heh heh, so he talks about it as a hard problem rather than, jokingly, the easy problems of consciousness, which correlate the different types of experiences we have with brain activity. which, of course, is not an easy job, but at least those are not mysterious in the same sense that they are not mysterious in their essence.
annaka harris on consciousness free will and self identity
We can see when the brain is in this state. You know, a person is having a vision experience, we know there is a visual center, we can correlate different types of experiences with processes in the brain, but the question is why is any of those processes a felt experience, why is it felt? like something being those processes and that's what's considered the Hard Problem, um or the mystery of consciousness, of course, yeah, and just the complexity of being able to break it down using the limitations of language that you know we humans have invented, yeah, trying to describe something that humans can't even imagine. it's really the limitations, even the English language has its own limitations versus I don't know if you speak other languages, I don't know, well, it's, you know, for example, like the Japanese word, there's a word like kokoro, which is a word that it describes the connection between mind, body and soul and we just don't have words like that to describe it even in the English language and I agree that it's a little difficult to describe what a complex thing that consciousness is, yes I'm sure .
annaka harris on consciousness free will and self identity
A lot of people have been confused by that and one of the things you mentioned is the difference between complex thinking versus consciousness and what are some examples you could give that make that distinction of why it's so different? we tend to anthropomorphize most things um and so we are conscious beings and um we tend to imagine and this is this so my book, a lot of my book and my work is about breaking down false intuitions and assumptions to gain understanding. deeper. of the nature of reality, um, which is part of the scientific process in every area, especially in areas where we are faced with something that seems mysterious to us, um and maybe I'll just give some examples there, um, before we move on. because my book really the emphasis is on shaking up our intuitions, breaking down false intuitions, trying to figure out which assumptions are false and which ones have nothing to do with consciousness, and that's why in science, this is often the first step in all the major advances, you know everything from understanding that the earth is a sphere, um, and not flat, you know there is a false intuition that we simply have based on our perceptions that we have available, the germ theory of disease is always a example I give, simply no.
Were we not created with senses to be able to detect microscopic organisms and understand that they can harm us? So when we encounter these things that we don't understand, there are usually people who we just don't have intuitions for. for most of the time, usually, excuse me, there is a period in science where we are really faced with counterintuitive evidence and it takes a period of time before we can absorb that new evidence and change our intuitions or just be

will

ing to leave them. go so we can really see the truth as it is so we can really understand that although the earth feels flat it's actually a sphere and here's the evidence and it's starting to change our intuitions a little bit um and I think so We're at a point like that with consciousness at this moment.
I think there are a lot of things in neuroscience in modern neuroscience that we already understand that there are some illusions that we know we have. There are a lot of things about how the brain works that tell us that a lot of our intuitions are false and these are things that inform our thinking about consciousness, they don't specifically refer to consciousness, but we are in this period where we need to absorb information. that we have but also in us at a point where I think it's very important for us to start asking really basic questions about our strongest intuitions about consciousness and usually they are that consciousness serves a function that we may not really know. , but this is a very strong assumption that people haven't been

will

ing to ask, so we assume that consciousness really guides our behavior.
We assume that you know that it would not be possible for me to make a decision about whether or not to accept a job offer if I were not aware. Now you know, it's a safe assumption, but the question is: can we imagine an AI or can we imagine another processing that can make that decision without there being an experience of what it is like to be that organism? So, then, yes. So most of my work is to get as close as possible to our strictest assumptions about consciousness and then see if we can change them and see if there's another way of thinking about things, um, or new intuitions to start absorbing our way of thinking about things and now I've lost your question, but I know it was related, it was related, yes, going somewhere with that, tell me your question again, no, this is where we want to go, we were talking about differences of how Can someone make the I guess false intuition that most people have of associating the correlation of complex thought and consciousness and the importance of the distinguished distinction, right?
You're asking for examples, yeah, um, so, yeah, so I mostly responded So I guess so, so we tend to, like I said, anthropomorphize and think that because we are conscious beings and our brains are the most complex thing that we know in the universe right now, and it's the only way we having access to another person's conscious experience is through their communication, there is no way to know which is one of the things that makes it so difficult to study and makes it so mysterious, there is no way to have access from the outside . there is the conscious experience and you are either having it or you are not, and although you know it, I fully believe that you are aware that the strange reality is that I cannot have any direct evidence of it, all that can happen is that you can convince me by explaining it to me.
What is your experience like? It's close enough to mine that I assume you're aware, like me, so as things become less like us, we tend to assume or trust them less. having consciousness and then um and the same is true for all the things that we assume consciousness is for and thinking is one of them for sure in the language um and experiencing pain and you know the whole range of things that we experience if there is There is other creatures around us that seem to be exhibiting some similar behavior seem to be having those same experiences where we assume they are conscious um and I really think that as crazy as it sounds to me even after thinking about it all this time.
I still think it's an open question about whether consciousness is actually a complex phenomenon, um, and what do you mean by that? So, yes, most people and most scientists at this point assume that consciousness arises, that is, that it is an emergent property that arises. of complex processing, many scientists right now because of our advances in AI are open to the idea that some advanced AI could develop consciousness based on complexity and the integration of ideas, information, decision making and all those things, but that Our brains do it because we assume that it is this complex processing in our brain that somehow at some point gives rise to consciousness, which again may be true, but it is actually a more open question than most people realize. believe, we rely primarily on intuition and very old assumptions um and not on evidence that we have no evidence that that consciousness is a complex phenomenon or um and so one thing that we're jumping into that we're running into very quickly. , we're just Skipping more time to yes, this concept of hand psychism and the truth is that I no longer use this word in my writings and even in my discussions, um, but you know briefly, panpsychism is a kind of general term for the theories that put consciousness at a fundamental level, um, the older theories, where it comes from, um, don't sound very modern or scientific, so I don't really see any use for that term, I think especially where we've arrived with quantum mechanics. and all these questions about whether spacetime is even fundamental, which many prominent physicists who are working on interpretations of quantum mechanics are now starting to say is very likely spacetime or at least space.
There is some question about time, but that is an emergent phenomenon that is not the fundamental nature of reality, so I think we can simply ask if it is possible that consciousness is actually much more fundamental than we have assumed and it is something which is very simple. and basic and not part of complex phenomena and I think it is a very open question and it may or may not be, but I think at this point it is a clear and legitimate question for scientists and we were talking before. I really think this is a Question for collaboration between physicists and neuroscientists, but in some ways I think this belongs more to the realm of physics, even neuroscience.
I think neuroscience will be able to inform a lot of this work, but yes, there are many reputable physicists who are. working on um this very question is and the question is just whether consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe in the form of a field or um you know, it's a big question so it's hard to know how it would take shape, but yeah. yes, and that's why I tend to just ask it as a legitimate scientific question rather than using an ism that's old and doesn't really apply to everything we know now. I think so, it's a hard word to say, it just sounds weird, people think like that. other things, yes, but I don't know who invented that word, but anyway, the 16th century, yes, definitely, yes, yes, well, I think we'll talk about a lot of things that will probably blow people away in terms of what we have led.
We've been believing our whole lives and what are some of these things that aren't true. We're talking about someone like Daniel Hoffman, Donald Hoffman, who claims that spacetime is doomed like you're going pretty far. spectrum in that case, but of yes, although he should say thathe's quoting physicists, I mean, he's taking what physicists say, um and in that case I think he's directly quoting a physicist from Princeton, um nema arkani hamed, who is involved in this group, a physicist who feels pretty sure that space-time is emergent, yeah, well, to go back to the kind of definition of what consciousness is and the kind of false intuitions, I think because as humans we like to believe that we are conscious. beings, so we look at similar individuals like you and naturally we intuitively think okay, she's a conscious being too and I guess for humans we associate that with, you know, reactions to physical harm or the ability to care for others. others and being able to make certain decisions, I guess, I think this brings us to the idea of ​​locked-in syndrome and I think in the book you talked about a guy named Jean Dominique uh Bobi who only had the ability to blink with his left eye. right or something like that, one of his eyes, one eye, yes, he had mobility in one eyelid, yes, um, I don't remember which one, but yes, there is one that was completely paralyzed, but in one eyelid he could blink, yes, or wink an eye, yes, and I guess the bottom line is that without the ability to do that, no one else in the outside world would have been able to know that I was conscious and it's like the natural intuition that we have is like movement or some kind of life. was the only thing. something that is required for consciousness.
I had a woman named Victoria Arlen and she had, I guess, something similar to any anesthesia coma where she had the ability to think and hear, but her whole body was paralyzed for four years and oh, wow, this was it. based on anesthesia or was this based on a coma, yes, it was a very rare disease. I guess my question is: Is it okay? She didn't start with a surgery where she had surgery and then didn't. I don't think so, I think so, it was a slow degradation and eventually she became paralyzed, but you know, in a situation like that people just assumed she was a vegetable for three four years, so I guess tell me a little bit about the idea. . of blocking syndrome and yeah, yeah, well, so I use some of these examples as ways of challenging our intuitions in this way about what consciousness is and yeah, that's a very good example of that, I'll actually take it to these These two questions that I always think are really important to guide this conversation, I mention them at the beginning of my book, they are related, they almost seem like the same question but they are slightly different.
The first is, is anything clear? evidence that we can point to on the outside and in the behavior that we can point to and say that there is consciousness present in that system or in that organism, then there is something that we can see on the outside and if we see that thing, whatever it is, we can do it. a list or we can say if you see this behavior if you see this externally there is awareness present inside um and we all feel strongly that the answer is yes and we can list a whole list of things that I think if I see this behavior, if I see my daughter crying after falling, you know, the list goes on and on, so yeah, that's concrete evidence, we can talk a little bit about why that may or may not be true, and looking at plant behavior is an area that we go into.
We can go next, which I think is very interesting, look at where certain behaviors are, it's not as easy to answer these questions as we would think and our intuitions start to break down. we are deep and then the second question is whether consciousness does something, it guides our behavior, it helps us make decisions, it is what drives everything we do, including thoughts and decisions, and again we have a very strong feeling that the answer It's yes, and there's actually a lot of reason to question that there's a lot of things that undermine that intuition and so lock-in syndrome is interesting because it's the opposite of having behavioral evidence that we know and This is an interesting counterpoint, We know that it is possible to have zero behavior and not be able to witness anything from the outside and there can be an experience as full and conscious as the one you and I are having right now.
I just retweeted. I forget who it came from, but I had seen it through the neuroscientist's annal. Seth um shared this on Twitter a couple of years ago that he's a um, he should be in a science museum, it's a photo, have you seen this of a brain of a brain? and a central nervous system of a human being um, you know, like on a medical table and the legend is if this were still alive, it would be conscious and there's something very interesting about that um and it's very similar to locked in syndrome because it really challenges our intuitions about what we normally take as evidence of consciousness in a system and where we assume there is no consciousness and where we assume there is consciousness and how we could be wrong on both sides of the spectrum um and yeah, I mean there is.
There's a lot to talk about. in terms of the lock-in syndrome. um, I could, since I was going to move on to plants, but I didn't want to move too quickly if you wanted to talk more about that kind of thing. that that state and what we can learn from it, yes, I mean, I think it exists, presents the opposite situation of what we normally define as consciousness and I think plants are a good transition to that in terms particularly of the situation of consciousness. that you talk about douglas firs and the venus fly trap, I mean, maybe we can give people an overview of examples of that that's going to block people's minds, you know, yeah, yeah, that's where I learned, actually , I was just doing research for my book um, I knew a little about this before, but now I know a lot more and I'm even more dumbfounded by it um, there are extremely complex plant behaviors um daniel chamovitz is a great person to read, he wrote a book, What Plant knows has done a lot of research on plant senses, including the DNA and genes that are responsible for certain senses and the crossover of genes we share with plants.
In fact, I'll just give this example. I find it very interesting. So one way plants perceive their surroundings is through light and we've all had some experience, whether through time-lapse photography or simply owning a houseplant. Some houseplants move a lot more than others and if you have one that moves a lot, you may see it gravitating towards the light and moving its position or opening and closing flowers, you know, depending on the lighting situation, they have light receptors and They respond to them in real time and it turns out that this is the work of Daniel Chamovitz.
We share this gene, this light-sensing gene, with plants and it regulates all kinds of things in the human body related to light, including circadian rhythms, and obviously, you know, it's expressed very differently in humans. but it's interesting that not only do some of the behavioral implants turn out to be much more complex than we would necessarily know in our everyday observations, but they are similar down to the DNA and what I find interesting about this is that we assume plants are not conscious. and that's still my starting point and my general assumption, although I started to wonder what to do, I don't think that you don't believe that plants are conscious, that's a very strong kind of intuition that I have.
I mean, the truth is that I'm open to consciousness being a fundamental feature of the universe, in which case you know that there is some level of consciousness, as impossible as it is for me to imagine it in the chair I'm sitting in, so obviously I'm I also think I'm open to plants, although I should say that when we contemplate systems that are very different from us and that involve some level of consciousness and tracking experience, I think we have to be very careful not to anthropomorphize that and therefore, If there is some kind of consciousness, if there is some kind of felt experience that happens in a plant, it's nothing like the human experience because the thing is, you know in the same way that this gene produces very different behavior in a plant. um, that in a plant. what it does in a human being we're just not very similar creatures and so the idea that, um, I think some people jump to whether something is conscious again, they're making that connection, they assume it, they have a complex processing complex. thoughts and then suddenly they assume that a plant is like a human and has feelings of love and you know that you can speak telepathically about your plans and I wouldn't subscribe to any of that, but I'm open to the idea that these processes could have a felt experience, associated with them, so yeah, so plants, I mean, they feel their environment too.
You know, the way vines can wrap themselves to climb walls is that they're actually sensing the material they're wrapping themselves in and Venus. flytrap is one of the most amazing displays of this where you are actually waiting to feel the food coming, beetles, yes, and there are two hairs and you have to touch them in succession, but within a certain period of time, etc. the plant keeps a record of all this the plant has a kind of memory of how long ago the first hair was touched and therefore there is a way that living creatures move so that it has a kind of algorithm to It is very likely that it is a living being. creature that I can consume if it touches hair a and then hair b within a certain period of time and the second that second hair is touched within the correct period of time, it slams and then there is one correct one and many of the behaviors on that list when I talked about these first two questions, you know what evidence we can see on the outside, a lot of the things, if we were to make a list, it's actually hard not to include a lot of plant behavior, and you were talking about about trees, this is the work of Susan Simard, where she investigated the underground communication between trees, in the Canadian forest, a lot of fascinating data was revealed about this, which I find most interesting and most relatable. to behavior that we would assume has to do with consciousness, the trees were able to recognize their own relatives and therefore they are all these trees in the forest, different species of trees, the trees, I can recognize the trees that grew . of their own seedlings throughout the forest and they have these complex networks mycorrhizal networks fungal networks um where they communicate and share carbon and um and so these mother trees, as she calls them, give more carbon to their own relatives than to each other .
Other trees that they share with will also make more room for the roots of their relatives and there is very complex behavior and communication that, um, at a similar level in humans, we assume that consciousness is present and therefore the main reason is that actually mentioning plant behavior in my book is for the opposite reason, not really to convince people that plants are conscious, but to shake this intuition we have that if there is certain behavior present , there is consciousness present and if there is not, there is not, and with what ease. We can look at plants and not even notice all this complex behavior and very easily assume that there is no consciousness present and then how can that also be applied to other areas and why when I look at a dog for example, don't I don't assume that The dog is like the tree, what is it?
What do I believe? It's proof that consciousness is present in one place and not another and these lines start to get very blurry and confusing when you look at them closely, yes, yes. and just like the vague definition of you know, if we're talking about consciousness as something that can react to physical harm or care for others, I'm referring to the two examples of plants, the Douglas firs and the birch. Trees like that meet the definitions that most people are doing, sure, and all of these behaviors in humans also evolved the same way they evolved in plants, we have this kind of strong intuition that there is something magical.
About human beings that we are not, we often have this strong feeling that we are not part of nature, that we are not animals either, that we are not, but it is interesting to consider, do you know how strongly? I mean, obviously, we are nature, yes, we arise because of very similar processes and we are trying to survive in the same way as them and the idea that consciousness begins with a certain complexity, it is not so easy to find evidence for it. because yes, and we will definitely delve into this idea of ​​our sense of self and this natural human tendency to attach to the self that we have, but I think the question I had for you in terms of you know this example about plants.
Consciousness is I think it seems like most people are looking at consciousnesses as this black or white thing like you either have it or you don't, but can we think of consciousness as a spectrum where some species may have maybe greater diversity? like humans, but that doesn't mean that someone who is less diverse isn't conscious, yeah, so I think so, so this will quickly feed into this idea of ​​self and this is something that I've been reading a lot about. recently it's really just the neuroscience of how the experience of self is created by the brain um but in terms of the spectrum there's clearly a spectrum evenin the things that we know that we know are conscious, but what's interesting and where the mystery lie is that we assume that at the lower end of the spectrum, at some point, the lights go out, and if you look at a sandy beach, there's no experience in that arena, and then at some point you start moving up the ladder. whether it's in a worm wherever that place is We think yeah there's a felt experience happening there's a point where you step out of the spectrum or you jump into the spectrum and that moment for me is really the focus of my work and what interests me and that's the thing.
That seems so mysterious that maybe it's not true, but yeah, once you're on the spectrum, clearly there is a spectrum, especially in terms of content, so often neuroscientists also tend to talk this way, they separate consciousness and content, so if you are a conscious being, you are a bumblebee and maybe you are aware of some light and some sensation and you are moving towards the bees and you have a sensation of moving towards the queen bee, you know, whatever. minimal experience, you have all that is correct content and they have the wavelengths of light that are available to them.
Human beings are capable of experiencing much more content than much more complex content. You know ideas, stories, rockets and everything else. and so it's hard to say if there really is a spectrum of consciousness or if it's just a spectrum of content. I tend to assume it's the latter. I tend to assume that consciousness is more of a binary thing, it's either there or it's not and then. you can bring in a lot more content, I think if you're looking, let's just take a vision, you know, if you're having the experience of seeing something and it's very blurry, let's say your entire field of vision is blurry, that might look like it.
You might want to describe it as lower on the spectrum than if the scene you're looking at was very vivid and sharp and had tons of color and all this information that you can gather from it, but I think the level of consciousness. in those cases it's the same, it's just the content that changes, so that's the way I lean, but in a sense there is a spectrum and even if it's true that there is a conscious level spectrum, um, yeah. There's clearly a point where we expect you to fall and there are certain things where the lights are completely off and there's no felt experience at all, where is that cutoff line?
That's what I'm curious about, at least from your perspective, yes, we know. humans, we know animals, we can, I guess the debate is that the plans are where that could be, where we think they generally increase more than that, like the worm, is the example I usually use because there is no consensus on whether worms have to make up and a lot of insects too, I think a lot of very respected neuroscientists disagree on what kind of brain processing is required for consciousness to come online, so yeah, once you get to insects and worms, that's where you really start to have a disagreement and our intuitions start to disappear um we just no longer have intuitions about whether those things are conscious or not yeah and it's interesting and plants it's hard to find a scientist who thinks that plants are conscious um oh you just know It froze oh my back oh it says we lost connection you probably can't hear me I can hear you let me know what I'm doing if you can hear me oh you're back yeah did you hear me all that time?
I could hear it the whole time yeah, yeah, I'm not sure what happened there, but I'll tell you, I'm sure the problem is on my side, okay, yeah, well, I think it's a good idea, yeah, I was just mentioning. You know, I guess I think that's a good bit of leeway in this idea of ​​sense of self and I think maybe a precursor to that would be to talk a little bit about the split brain because I think those examples can really help reshape this idea. sense of self, can you talk a little bit about the split brain experiment?
Yes, and in fact I might even make a clear distinction just to make sure the terminology is clear, because I is another word like consciousness that is used. many different ways, excuse me, and many times when people talk about the self, they are talking about the autobiographical self, so the autobiographical self is basically, you know, everything that I have retained from my memory, the feeling that I am. The same person I was when I was three, although I'm obviously very different, but there is a center that has moved through time, all of which in some way is me and my story, and that includes my name and all the experiences that I've had and where I live and all these facts um and then some people might say that if I woke up with amnesia tomorrow and couldn't remember any of these details, I would have lost my sense of self, which is true in a sense, but that It's not the self I'm talking about, so someone who has amnesia will still say things like I don't remember my name, I don't know where I live, you.
I know I'm confused and they're referring to an eye that feels very substantial yet, even though they don't have details to describe it, they still have the feeling that they're one eye, that they're kind of a single point, I mean, it's interesting. when you get people trying to talk about what this actually entails, but it's actually where the idea of ​​a belief in a soul comes from and we all know what our beliefs are and how much we know or don't know about In the brain, we all we still walk around with this very strong feeling that there is a self, there is a solid center, um, that exists, although I say it now and I know it's not true, but I still almost have this feeling that I could leave my body or and I mean my body like my body like I'm here and yeah, if I lost my right arm, I'd still be me and no matter what happens to my body, there's still a Me, somewhere, you know, writing in my brain, um, and we know that's not the nature of reality, we know that everything I'm experiencing is brain processing, it's just a constant electrical firing that's going on and there's no self, there's no solid center than that. it moves through time um and then it's that more basic self that sees how it's illusory to see how to understand how the brain creates that sense of being a self um can start to erode and help you see through that illusion and how somehow way it skews our thinking in many areas, yes, and that's a lot to take in for people who are listening, yes, realizing and then reflecting on this for the first time, but I think there are some positive things in that, one of the things which, like me, I was reading your book is just to reiterate and I've certainly thought about this before, it's like you're not your thoughts and in terms of maybe the negative thoughts that you may have and the doubts that you may be facing in your In normal life, you know there's a certain positivity that you can act on in terms of improving the quality of your life by being able to separate that sense of self, yes and fact, and maybe let's focus on that first because I think it's an important piece. and I've been on this audio series I'm working on.
In fact, I'm talking about it a lot because some of these ideas are understanding how the self, the experience of being itself, is an illusion that the brain creates and Some interruptions or changes in the way we think about self. will that we now know, we now understand how the brain works and our typical sense of having

free

will and it's a complicated discussion and I usually separate conscious will from

free

will, um, but We have some false intuitions in these areas that when pointed out some people may find them destabilizing and disturbing and upsetting and there really is another way of looking at it, another way of framing it, which is actually at the heart of many spiritual traditions.
And so, I think it's important to emphasize this and for people to understand that there is a very positive way to experience this to see it, there is something very liberating about it and the experiences that have been studied scientifically and these are through meditation. many people in meditative states are able to let go of this illusion and we now know that it takes place in a part of the brain, sorry, not a part of the brain, but it is a kind of network called default mode. network that is silenced during meditation, as it is during the influence of different psychedelic substances, which is now also being studied scientifically and in all these studies, in these cases, during meditation and during being under the influence of psychedelics, this It is experienced as an extremely positive state for most people, completely transformative, it cures people of PTSD treatment-resistant depression and there are many factors at play, but many of them attribute seeing through the illusion of oneself as part of the healing process and for people who have this experience.
It is an experience of feeling more connected to the universe, more connected to nature, I mean, it is a kind of letting go of the separation that is the source of much of our psychological suffering and which, in fact, is not true, no we are our brains. we're just not isolated from the environment, we're really much more interconnected with our environment and with other people, so we usually feel like we feel very separate, like I was talking about, and usually, you know, hearing about the idea can be destabilizing and scary. . but the experience of abandoning that illusion of self that I have had many times and can attest to is profound.
I always hesitate to use the word spiritual, but it is deeply spiritual. It has a very deep sense of well-being and something opposite to what some people might assume, yes, so I think it's important to say that and the same with free will, which is harder for people to understand, but there is a Being very much in touch with the fact that we are part of nature, the universe is unfolding the way it is unfolding and we magically have this felt experience of the universe unfolding this way. There's something very, very beautiful about having that. experience, yes, I mean, especially with the increase in people suffering from depression and loneliness.
I think a practical example of that is the studies you mentioned on psychedelics and LSD, where yes, after consumption, a specific substance goes off. Definitely not. You will be able to name it correctly, but it turns off a specific part of your brain. Yeah, the network in default mode really mutes it, yeah, right, and you kind of lose this sense of self that allows you to stop really being in your head more and you see yourself as an isolated being, you know, but more connected to nature and I think maybe it's just an analogy to back up that statement, yeah, yeah, um, yeah, these studies have been incredibly successful, it's really unlike any other drug that's ever existed.
It is used for a treatment for these disorders, where many of them are 80 to 90 percent effective after one treatment, and although the effects can last for years, yes, yes, well, hopefully we will have some time to address that, but yeah, yeah. sample notes because there are a lot of links I can send, we definitely do all this research, okay, yeah, that would be awesome, in terms of the split brain experiment or at least the joining of brains, let's say I think. You talked about this in the book where let's say you took half my brain and half your brain and what's so interesting?
We could take the whole brain. We wouldn't need to leave half of it out. We could just wire our brains. all our brains combine it into two, so it's like in a world that happens, yeah, I think it's just an interesting thought experiment so that people, even people, just don't think about this, they know it on a regular basis, deeply So yeah, I think it's probably more useful to start with split brain research because that's something that's been done and we have results about people's experiences and it's incredibly interesting and it really also informs our guesses about what might happen. happen if you merged two brains, but then there are, I don't know to what extent your audience might or might not be familiar with this surgery, where and patients who have had this surgery are called split brain patients, where most the timing is For epileptics who have seizures so severe that they are life-threatening or simply cannot lead their lives and this is due to the fact that the seizure starts in one hemisphere of the brain and spreads, it is a grand mal seizure, basically, the thunderstorm takes over the entire brain, and you know this is very dangerous, and also really life-altering for people, they can't function normally, so worst case scenario, they'll do a procedure. in which they actually sever the connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and what's interesting, although this is such a serious thing, for the most part the patients afterwards seem to behave basically the way they did.
Before there were very few side effects that were noticeable from the outside, but what scientists began to discover, the first work on split-brain patients was done by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry, and Kazanic has written many books and talks about this.I do a lot of work if anyone is interested, it is very fascinating to read the detailed accounts of the studies that were done and yet they found ways to access the right and left hemispheres of these patients' brains because they were separate, the two hemispheres were not were. sharing information um but the right visual field is connected to the left hemisphere and this is true for most of our body.
It's true, the information from our right hand is sent to the left hemisphere, of course, in a normal brain and in a healthy brain, all this information is shared, but that is where it is sent, and there are some variations, but for the most part part, the right half of the body, the right visual field, the right ear, all that information that comes through those senses is sent to the left hemisphere and vice versa. um and the language center of the brain is not in everyone's brain, but in most brains it is in the left hemisphere, so they tested this first, but in these patients, um, where was the language center in his left hemisphere, were to be able to ask.
I asked them different questions and presented different visual stimuli to their right and left hemispheres so that they could present something to the right hemisphere, which is projecting to the left hemisphere, just, let's see if they were projecting the word Penny, I'm sorry. I always get confused when there is too much to remember, so kudos to you for remembering all this, but essentially you can ask each hemisphere the same question, because the person can respond by writing with their I'm sorry, they can respond, they can talk with their left hemisphere to that they can respond verbally like you and I would and say that's a penny um and that would be the left hemisphere communicating that message, they can give the left hand options to select things that you saw and the left hand is being controlled by the right hemisphere. so the left hand can grab something and answer the question that way.
I can also point to um and in all of these patients there is some difference in how the left and right hemispheres feel about different things, so you can ask. a question a couple of these patients were children this is a very famous example they asked this child what he wanted to be when he grew up and he had different answers his right and less hemispheres had different answers um you see things called hemispheric rivalry where someone They are getting dressed and their hands literally start fighting each other because the right hemisphere wants to put on a sweater and the left hemisphere wants to wear a jacket and they can be in these strange circumstances where one hand tries to dress them while the other hand takes the article of clothing off. .
An example from the kids: how drastically different the career paths they wanted to take were. Were there any observations about whether it was similar or similar? restaurant and scientists or was it completely different um the one I think from this famous study was I think he was a racing driver okay, they were very typical um I hate to say it nowadays but very typical guy for sure, yeah, like car basketball players careers, I mean, there are things that you probably weren't interested in when you actually grew up, yes, but they were different answers and this has now been shown time and time again, with all kinds of things for your preferences. um and thoughts and there is even a documented case of a man who had one hemisphere was a believing Christian and the other hemisphere was an atheist um but the majority do and there are many that you can read about these cases, they are incredibly interesting um but in the cases where those of you who just see it, you know it's based on a momentary experience where and this really also gets to this experience of self because we really feel when we have a preference for something, even something as simple as I feel like wearing. a sweater right now that's my preference that's what I want I'm exercising my free will and it's very interesting to think that within a single human brain those desires and desires at the same moment can be divided and most of the neuroscientists who have worked with these patients and all the neuroscientists actually assume that there are now also two centers of consciousness in a split brain patient, so they really become more like conjoined twins, twins who have separate brains that share one body, than like one. . person and you refer to that consciousness as that's what the two hemispheres are supposed to no longer communicate with each other at all so when someone is asked a question um and one says I feel like eating spaghetti and the other hemisphere says I hate spaghetti, those are two separate conscious experiences that convey those messages.
We assume you must have the same feeling that you and I have when someone asks us a question. It feels like a unified self and a unified conscious experience that is not available to anyone. Otherwise, if someone asks us both what you want for lunch, um and I want a turkey sandwich, I have no idea what you're going to say, I don't even want a turkey sandwich, I just said. yeah, yeah, very specific for some reason, that was the example that came to mind, but I can't even know what you're going to say, because it's your private conscious experience, and so, yeah, most people assume that most neuroscientists assume that something that's happening in a split brain patient because the two hemispheres no longer communicate um I mean the ethics of that are interesting uh and I actually wanted to delve deeper into dozens of cells like this which we will definitely go back there, but the ethics of That's interesting if you have someone who has this together, I guess two different consciences and maybe they did something unethical, who's responsible for that?
When you have scientific evidence that this person has a tooth, you know a dual sense of yourself and how. Who is guilty? I guess it's the same. These are the same ethical dilemmas you get into with conjoined twins. I imagine because you can't punish one without punishing the other. I mean, they're in the same. same body and it's a very similar situation yeah um so related to yeah no okay I was just going to say it reminds me of some examples that I like to give too um oh you froze again I just want oh no maybe sometimes you I'm really still, I I'm, it's ridiculous because we have a bad connection sometimes I just want to make sure I'm going to cheat on you now um, um, oh, yeah, so, there's a lot of things that we understand. the brain now that puts us in very difficult and confusing situations with respect to ethics and choice and free will, so there's a whole area here and in my book I talk a lot about parasites simply because it's very interesting how parasites they can affect the brain of their houses um and there are also bacteria in viruses that can affect the brain of people and for them there are famous cases of people who have tumors in which their brain presses on a certain part of the brain where they have been ethical model citizens , wonderful and loving throughout their lives. and then a tumor grows in a certain part of their brain and suddenly they have the desire to start killing people and the ethics of that are also very complex, you know, how do you punish someone like that?
How do you even think about punishment? Punishment is the first thing you question about how that makes sense, and then you start to wonder how it makes sense to someone, because, like anyone who controls the brain they're born with or the brain you know, it was shaped throughout their life. life. and recently, I was actually reading about that covid in a small percentage of cases affects the brain, it can affect the brain in different ways and neuroscientists are researching this now, but there is a specific effect that has been reported in many hospitals and So. In many regions recently there was a New York Times article about it that I can send you, but it affects the brain, it's hard to understand, it goes against our intuitions for us, our feeling that our self is some kind of solid entity that has certain characteristics um, but people who are affected by this start to have paranoid delusions and what is common among most of them is that they have the desire to decapitate people, which is so strange, it's so interesting, you know how the brain works, how it's organized, you could even just press a certain part of the brain in a certain way and make someone have that feeling um and so on and some people have actually carried out these horrible crimes um a lot of them are actually what It seems to be common among them is this strong desire to decapitate people and there is usually an illusion that accompanies it.
There are aliens here. You know, I think that varies a lot. There is something they are afraid of and they need to decapitate people. to solve this problem to save them by whatever reasoning they have there and their specific deception, but the impulse is the same and for many of these people they are their children and fortunately scientists are becoming more aware of this so they can know, be aware of people's behavior before acting on it, but yes, many parents who have this condition based on covid affecting their brains in a certain way are having this impulse to decapitate their children as the most contradictory thing .
You could imagine that you could create, you could have someone, a good, loving person, do it, and that just shows you how it's a very strong example of how much our behavior, our thoughts, our desires, everything we experience is a product of our own. Brain processing, yeah, yeah, I guess. As we learn more about this brain power and how we can impact certain decisions and behaviors that we have, I mean, I think there was a tweet or a quote in an article where the justice system, you know, we'll look at. One day in a hundred years, once we have a better understanding of the brain and we're ashamed of how many people we've sentenced because of this lack of understanding that we had in the brain, it was just simply reconnecting with You know that could potentially be done. with something like a neural link or something, yeah, around the segway of future technology and maybe I love it.
I'm curious if you've seen this episode on Black Mirror where I haven't seen Black. Mirror, so I'm sure I haven't seen that specific episode. It might be good because you seem to have a very positive outlook in terms of consciousness and Black Mirror is obviously the opposite of this in terms of the dark side, but yeah. One of the episodes is where a widow loses her husband unfortunately and can use um, I'm going to slaughter like in the description, but she is able to future technology can bring this exact form of her husband alive. from the physical point and using AI she is able to program her voice and her sense of humor and all these things in an exact way and perhaps a later example of the one that really becomes popular is the movie she with scarlett johansson, yes, where The man falls in love with an artificial intelligence assistant.
Do you think, from your perspective, that humans require someone else, at least the belief that this person has consciousness in order to fall in love with them? Yeah, I mean, I think it's complicated. I think the answer is yes, but what is not clear is whether our intuitions just need to be convinced or whether our intellect needs to be convinced and a lot of people are talking about this now. This line I forget there's actually a term for it. to the point where AI gets so good, you know, including skin replication and facial expression and all that, where they can imitate another human being so well that our intuition is that they are conscious even if we know that .
They are not, so they can tell us, okay, this thing is a thing that we created, we know it, but in reality it is not possible that someone could know it, but let's say we can know it, hypothetically we can tell you that this robot is not aware. I mean, this is really Westworld, right, this is, I've only seen a few episodes, but really the basis of that is the assumption that they don't have a conscious experience, but, um, ours. Intuitions are so strong that if I presented you with an AI that looked like a human, looked like a human, sounded like a human, and just said they're not conscious, you still might not be able to act as if they were.
I'm not aware um and I mean in Westworld, I guess they know, like you can, you can murder this robot to fight, can you, you know, fulfill this violent fantasy that you have because it doesn't actually hurt anyone, um, but yeah are we able to do it? that or not um I mean, I think I think most people aren't I think we'll still feel and act like they're conscious even if they tell us they're not um and the truth is we won't know we'll never know, I mean, it could be an AI that is trying to convince us that they are conscious beings, but we will never know if that is the case, yeah, I mean, my hope is that we can advance enough in our understanding of consciousness that we will have some idea, yes, at least of the content of what could be conscious if the thing is conscious, what do you think it could be if you made some predictions?
I really have no idea, but I know there issome. Scientists are working on this and it is very interesting work. Giulio Tanoni is a neuroscientist and his theory has been written about and, in fact, practically used in patients who have locked-in syndrome. His theory is called integrated information theory. I do not know if you. I've heard about it um but it's Julio Tinoni and the neuroscientist um Christoph is now working with him they've written um Kristoff just wrote a book forgetting the name um I'll send you um I'll send you the name of that book where he gives a full explanation of what says and then the practical use of it, so I forgot where it was most recently posted.
I'm sure there's something in The New York Times talked about this method, but the popular term was zap and zip and it's a complicated procedure that I probably don't need to explain in detail, but they've actually been able to apply integrated information theory to a device that delivers an election stimulus and based on the output of that based on what they read in the EEG after delivering the electrical impulse, they can do a calculation to determine if someone is conscious and it has now been shown that this technique works. It's not, um, it's not infallible and it's just that there's a lot more work to do to make it as accurate as we would need it to be, but it has been able to detect consciousness in locked up patients where the person is later conscious and can confirm that yes, of course.
In fact they were aware and they are actually now using another method that I find very interesting and then they collaborated with the Toni team to see if integrated information theory applied to this patient. They had this patient who appeared to be in a vegetative state. They assumed there was no consciousness there. I don't remember why there were some hints that he might be conscious and I forgot what reason they had to be suspicious about it. So someone came up with a method, a neuroscientist, where they put this patient in an fMRI scanner and told her she was a tennis player and told her to imagine playing tennis and then imagine something else that would happen. activated a very different part of your body. the brain so imagining playing tennis would activate a lot of the parts of the brain that would activate when you actually play tennis um I forgot what that was um but this is what I was um in contrast to but they were trying to get me to voluntarily activate different parts of his brain and this, in fact, was detected in the fmri.
It was very clear that when she thought about tennis, you knew those parts of her brain lit up and when she was told to think. and she was following the instructions of the experimenters um and then this was also confirmed with this the zip and zap and zip I think it's called a technique where the information that they got from their procedure in the brain of the same patient showed that there was consciousness um and yeah , I mean the work will just continue, I think we will inevitably get better and better at it. I don't think the work is very relevant to knowing how deep into the universe consciousness goes, I think it's very Probably relevant because I think what's probably going to do well for you is to feel if the kind of experience that you and I are having in this moment of being a self and being able to experience pain and thoughts and the kinds of experiences that the human mind knows that we value and that are important and that are most likely necessary for any real suffering to occur.
I think they're getting better at detecting that and of course it's a great service to humanity and to anyone who blacks out to be able to have a tool to know if they're really experiencing something huge, yeah, well Annika, I guess it's a way to close the gap and I think I was initially trying to ask you about this at the beginning, but what is the purpose of all this? I'm not talking about life, but let's distill it a little, but what is the purpose of consciousness? I think from an evolutionary perspective, you know, most people are led to believe that everything we have through natural selection has some kind of purpose that has helped us survive and you know, I even went back to talking about Donald Hoffman.
He was talking about that because he claims that you know the false reality that we live in and one of the questions I asked him was: Why what is the purpose of being able to see a star at night and what is the reward of that for survival and I'm just curious what you think about this underlying layer, although you know our discussion we had about consciousness, what its purpose is, how it serves us. Yeah, yeah, so what's interesting is and part of the reason I'm so interested in starting with these two questions that I referenced is whether we're wrong about our assumptions about consciousness, which is driving behavior and We didn't get into this much, but there's a lot of evidence now in modern neuroscience that the feeling that we have, the intuition, we have that I have the conscious intention and then the behavior follows, um, that often that's not the way.
It may never be the way the brain works, that often all decision making, all behavior is like subconscious processing and I think the way I put it in my book is that consciousness is the last to know. that we are a kind of I just gave up everything, including the feeling that we have decided to do something, but that is not actually the cause of what we are doing, so there are many reasons to question what we think consciousness is doing and what it is for. and then you take a step back and realize that affects how we view the evolution argument because if I and I really don't know, this is an open question, but if consciousness doesn't fulfill the functions that we think it complies, then evolution The argument goes out the window because the argument for evolution is that consciousness allows us to do b and c and that is why it evolved, but if that is not really the function of consciousness, then it is possible that it is something that did not evolve and was here long before. life and then if there is a property of matter, if it is actually something much more basic and much simpler and much more pervasive, then matter has all these fundamental properties that we know but in fact there is also an intrinsic property of what it feels like being that matter, whatever that matter is, um, so consciousness just showed up along with all the other behaviors that evolution formed, but it was there before that, um, so we just don't know well or all that What we're experiencing today doesn't necessarily have to come from that, you know, from a natural selection perspective, it doesn't have to be right, yeah, no, sure we can, we've definitely hacked evolution, um.
I mean, it can generally explain our interests, our drives are the things we care about, but in terms of what we end up producing, what we end up doing, how we end up behaving, even the things we have access to, like stars, which obviously We don't need to see stars, but we can see stars because we need to see other things, you know, um, yeah, but when it comes to consciousness, no, this is a big question for me: whether it's something that evolved. or if it was really there before, yes, yes, that's before life, yes, right, yes, that's a very interesting way to look at it and I think it's a good final point.
You know, we didn't discuss the delayed consciousness part. and I think it's fascinating, especially with the addition and subtraction example you give and the button pressing. I think that's a good reason for people to come in and read the book because it definitely goes into something like that. The examples of that are fascinating, so I highly recommend people consciously read the book and learn more about Annika, of course, so you know where you can find her online and maybe we can go over some of the interesting things that you. Something is coming up that we talked about before the interview began.
Oh right, yeah, yeah, so my website is just my name annika

harris

.com and annika is not spelled in any way that you can guess a-n-a-n-n-a-k-a

harris

.com um and yeah, so I was saying that. I'm currently working on an audio series, um, which is basically picking up where the book left off, so obviously I still had a lot of unanswered questions, a lot more. I had done a lot of research, years of research and interviews for my book. And I still had a long list of people I was interested in talking to and my own ideas have developed and evolved and, as I said, I've written a couple of articles about how I update my view of things. and then this audio series goes even further, so I'm talking to a lot of physicists about how it might work, what it would be like if consciousness were fundamental.
I talk to lee smolin and brian greene and john 11 and sean carroll and I get all these incredibly fascinating points of view on different interpretations of quantum mechanics and um and I'm also talking to philosophers and neuroscientists like David Eagleman, so I keep asking questions and giving shape my ideas and I'll probably be I finished interviewing people for this project in about six months and I imagine it'll be out in about a year and then there will very likely be a film project based on the audio series, so could we see a your podcast too? Of course you have, I call it an audio series, um and I don't actually call it that because people now think of podcasts primarily as what you're doing, which is kind of like an ongoing radio show, um.
And really this project that I'm working on will probably be 10 to 20 episodes, but it will be kind of a full series that will have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it will be heavily edited and produced, so for whatever reason , I'm more interested in creating some sort of finished, polished product than doing regular interviews like that, but I have a feeling I'm not going to lose interest in this topic, so, yeah, once I get into it. On the other side of these projects, I'm sure there will be something else I'm working on related to consciousness, so I love it.
I read a very poorly written joke in one of the interviews you had about someone who mentioned uh. your husband, Sam, where they said Sam actually took a good name for your podcast, which is waking up with Sam Harris, which is like you're really the only person who wakes up with Sam Harris physically. I was like, oh God. I felt underappreciated by Daisy's bad joke, but I thought I should mention that, Annika, thank you so much for coming on the show. I'll link all the show notes and, yeah, if you can send something like that. of the research we discussed I will definitely link to it so thank you very much sounds good thanks it was fun to talk

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