Anil Seth: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality (Full Transcript)

Anil Seth

Here is the full transcript of neuroscientist Anil Seth’s TED Talk: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality. 

Anil Seth – Neuroscientist

Just over a year ago, for the third time in my life, I ceased to exist. I was having a small operation, and my brain was filling with anesthetic. I remember a sense of detachment and falling apart and a coldness. And then I was back, drowsy and disoriented, but definitely there.

Now, when you wake from a deep sleep, you might feel confused about the time or anxious about oversleeping, but there’s always a basic sense of time having passed, of a continuity between then and now. Coming round from anesthesia is very different. I could have been under for five minutes, five hours, five years or even 50 years. I simply wasn’t there. It was total oblivion.

Anesthesia — it’s a modern kind of magic. It turns people into objects, and then, we hope, back again into people. And in this process is one of the greatest remaining mysteries in science and philosophy. How does consciousness happen?

Somehow, within each of our brains, the combined activity of many billions of neurons, each one a tiny biological machine, is generating a conscious experience. And not just any conscious experience — your conscious experience right here and right now.

How does this happen? Answering this question is so important, because consciousness for each of us is all there is. Without it there’s no world, there’s no self, there’s nothing at all. And when we suffer, we suffer consciously whether it’s through mental illness or pain.

And if we can experience joy and suffering, what about other animals? Might they be conscious, too? Do they also have a sense of self? And as computers get faster and smarter, maybe there will come a point, maybe not too far away, when my iPhone develops a sense of its own existence. I actually think the prospects for a conscious AI are pretty remote. And I think this because my research is telling me that consciousness has less to do with pure intelligence and more to do with our nature as living and breathing organisms.

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Consciousness and intelligence are very different things. You don’t have to be smart to suffer, but you probably do have to be alive.

In the story I’m going to tell you, our conscious experiences of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, are kinds of controlled hallucinations that happen with, through and because of our living bodies.

Now, you might have heard that we know nothing about how the brain and body give rise to consciousness. Some people even say it’s beyond the reach of science altogether. But in fact, the last 25 years have seen an explosion of scientific work in this area. If you come to my lab at the University of Sussex, you’ll find scientists from all different disciplines and sometimes even philosophers.

All of us together trying to understand how consciousness happens and what happens when it goes wrong. And the strategy is very simple.

I’d like you to think about consciousness in the way that we’ve come to think about life. At one time, people thought the property of being alive could not be explained by physics and chemistry — that life had to be more than just mechanism. But people no longer think that.

As biologists got on with the job of explaining the properties of living systems in terms of physics and chemistry — things like metabolism, reproduction, homeostasis — the basic mystery of what life is started to fade away, and people didn’t propose any more magical solutions, like a force of life or an élan vital.

So as with life, so with consciousness. Once we start explaining its properties in terms of things happening inside brains and bodies, the apparently insoluble mystery of what consciousness is should start to fade away. At least that’s the plan. So let’s get started.

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