This is Going to Hurt. Everything You Know is False. | Annaka Harris on Impact Theory | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "This is Going to Hurt. Everything You Know is False. | Annaka Harris on Impact Theory".


Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.


Intro (00:00)

- When people first encounter the science that we have and also just the idea of messing with these intuitions, it can be uncomfortable. And some people don't like going down this path. So I just like to make a little disclaimer or to say that I think people can feel very out of control. And I mean, there's something jarring about learning that everything, the things that feel most true to you about reality are possibly not structured that way. - Wait till you explain delayed measurement and people really lose their shit. Like that's where it's gonna get interesting. We're not even in the crazy stuff yet. - Hey everyone, welcome to Impact Theory.

Understanding Consciousness And The Human Mind

Guest introduction (00:49)

Today's guest is a New York Times best-selling author who is challenging some of our most fundamental notions of what it means to be a conscious being. She is an editor and consultant for many esteemed science writers and she specializes in making the notoriously difficult to comprehend topics of neuroscience and physics accessible to the masses. Her writing has not only appeared on bookshelves far and wide, but it has also been featured by some of the most prestigious outlets in the world, including the New York Times. From best-selling author Adam Grant to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, some of the brightest minds on the planet have publicly championed her work, her ideas and her uncanny ability to explain hard things well. So well in fact that in addition to her groundbreaking work for adults, she's written a very well-received children's book called "I Wonder" and collaborated with Susan Kaiser Greenland on mindful games activity cards. She also teaches mindfulness to students in the inner kids organization and has taught her techniques to children as young as four and a half years old talk about making things accessible. So please help me in welcoming the author of "Conscious", a brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind, Anika Harris. What is up? Welcome. - It's cool. - Good to see you as well.

The awe-inspiring aspects of the human mind (02:24)

Thank you so much for coming on the show. - Yeah, thanks for having me. - Absolutely. I am as awe-inspired by the topics that you cover as you are. What is, would you say, your most sort of awe-inspiring insight into the human mind? - You know, I think, I think just the simple insight that consciousness is as mysterious as it turns out to be is to me the most awe-inspiring piece. And it's really the reason I wrote the book. And there are many reasons, but the main reason was really to share this sense of inspiration and awe at just how mysterious consciousness is. And many people actually don't realize that it's one of the great enduring mysteries. So we're all kind of familiar with looking out into the cosmos and wondering about black holes in the beginning of the universe and is there life on other planets and these things are naturally awe-inspiring. And many people don't realize actually that consciousness is in some ways on equal footing with these other great mysteries, but the difference is it's here with us in every moment. And so there's actually this great mystery, this great awe-inspiring mystery that's with us in every moment kind of to be reveled at and to. - Why do you think so many people miss it? - I think part of the reason is that neuroscience has made so much progress, that I think most people think some scientist understands it or if they don't quite understand it, they'll understand it soon. And I think part of it is just that it's kind of something we take for granted. I think we have always assumed, I think, in modern times since we've had modern science, we've always assumed that consciousness is analogous to something like a light bulb where it seems miraculous to flip a switch and suddenly a room is flooded with light. But once you understand the details, once you understand electricity and the mechanics of a light bulb, it's something you can understand. It's not really mysterious. And I think a lot of people have assumed that consciousness is analogous to that and I think there are many reasons why that analogy actually doesn't hold. - So if the analogy of it being like a light bulb doesn't hold, where do you go from there?

The most fundamental definition of consciousness (04:50)

And you've always been very careful to define consciousness and why they task you to repeat yourself? - Yeah, we should probably do that. - Yeah, yeah, no, I'm glad you brought that up. So the way I'm using the word consciousness, the people use the word in a variety of ways and often it makes it a confusing term. And actually, the best term I think is experience to really point to the most fundamental sense of consciousness that I'm talking about and that my book is about and that I think is mysterious. So consciousness simply being experience, whether there is something that it's like to be a collection of atoms in the universe. So we often forget that it's literally true that we are stardust. We are made of the same ingredients of everything else in the universe and there's this magical fact that when matter gets configured in a certain way, it lights up from the inside that suddenly there's something that it's like to be that matter. And so many people use the word consciousness to kind of talk about higher order reasoning, self-awareness, things like that. But I'm using it in the most fundamental sense, simply having an experience. Simply there's something it's like to use Thomas Nagles. Definition, he wrote a famous essay called What Is It Like to Be a Bat? And in that essay, he says, an organism is conscious if there's something that it's like to be that organism. And some people have a hard time with that terminology, but for me that really kind of gets to the core of this simple definition of consciousness and why it's mysterious. - One thing you've been very careful to talk about as well, and this is where I first went.

Blending consciousness with high-level cognition (06:30)

So I dive into the book, I'm super interested. Yeah, I'm with you, like let's talk about it. And as you started explaining it, I found myself conflating the notion of being conscious with high level cognition. - Right. - And so I was like, "Ah, like how is, as you got into some of the more like esoteric panpsychism that maybe this is all a field like gravity that consciousness just sort of is it exists and from that thing spring forward?" Which is fucking fascinating, and we will for sure talk about that, but. - Well, I would emphasize maybe too. - Yeah, great. - No, and I'm completely open to it, but yeah, I like to be clear that we really don't know. And I'm not advocating that view. I just think it's actually, it's worth exploring and we should be open to it. - No question. And one thing I hope that we get to at some point is the very fact that it shouldn't be off limits to talk about these crazy ideas and the fact that this is like career suicide for so many people is just so weird to me.

The Story of Phineas Gage (07:23)

- Yes. - But before we derail on that, so. Teasing out the two concepts I think is super important 'cause people will not be able to get into the joys of this mystery if they think what they're being asked to contemplate is that a rock has high level cognition. Because then they can't separate because my biggest argument is always when someone starts talking in a way that makes it sound like you're saying there's essentially a soul or whatever. I'm like Phineas Gage homie. Like, and I'm assuming you know well the story of Phineas Gage. - I actually don't know that. - So Phineas Gage, this is so interesting. This is one of my favorite. You talk about so many examples in the book, it'll immediately be familiar as just another one of those. But Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who hit a tamping rock shot. - Oh yes, of course. Yes, he had a brain attack. - Some crazy amount, like a tea cups worth of brain matter, but never loses consciousness. But forever is different. And they say he went from like the most likable guy ever to like a total asshole, he could not hold a job. And it's just like, is it the same guy? Like the only thing that happened was damage to the brain. - Yeah, it's fascinating that we have this intuition somehow that this isn't the case. But of course we know that our experience, our conscious experience in this moment and all of the content that's flooding in through this experience is a result of brain processing. And if you change the brain, the experience changes, the thoughts change, the feelings change, it's all correlated. I feel like you had a question that you were getting at. And you brought that example up that I wanted to answer. I felt like it was a good question. - So what I want to, whenever somebody starts talking about, hey, there is something inside of me that isn't my body. And there's great comfort in that for them. And as somebody who literally my mission in life is to get people to get control of their conscious thoughts, maybe even reprogram some of the default mode network we should talk about that as well. But like, so my mission in life, if I'm really gonna put it in like sort of deep biological terms is to get people to rewire their default mode network. So their very sense of self is more productive. So that their identity, their beliefs, their value systems at a neurological level. So that they're getting like this neurochemical response that drives them towards something effective, right? So you can get a neurological response that drives you towards destructive behavior or you can retrain things and be going in a positive direction. Okay, so. - And I realized, yeah, sorry, I just realized now that the distinction you wanted to make was between consciousness in this very fundamental sense that I'm using it in the book and complex thought. - Correct. - And that we have to be very careful to not complete them that we must distinguish between the two. For many reasons, even in a human sense, we know that babies at some point, the people can argue about where it comes in, but at some point a baby that does not have language and who is not having the types of thoughts you and I are having or thinking through anything complicated at all is having a conscious experience. And then of course you can go through the animal kingdom and people tend to agree and disagree. The more simple the creature gets, but at a pretty simple level, even a mouse, something like that, most of us and most neuroscientists would say, yes, a mouse is having some kind of experience. It is, it's not an unconscious zombie or robot. We know that their brains are similar enough to ours that they're having some type of experience. And then in some of this work, we can start to postulate how far down an experience actually goes. And so when we do that, it's very important to distinguish consciousness just the fact of experience from complex thought or mind or anything like that. That it's certainly possible to imagine and feasible to postulate a scientific understanding of experience in a very, very minimal form. - Yeah, so that notion of experience, how much of that do you feel requires a recognized experience? So by recognized experience, I mean, so you've said very clearly that, hey, look, this whole notion of panpsychism where essentially consciousness may be a field like gravity and that things bring up through it. If that is real, then there are maybe this is like sort of little minds coming together and I'll let you explain that far better than I can and that we can get these collaborations between these which will change the nature of the consciousness. But what I want to tease out is like, okay, if there isn't a light switch moment or something either is or isn't conscious, there definitely seems to be the quality of that experience changes dramatically. And so when I think about if, so I'll stay in terms maybe I understand a little bit better. So if I think of-- - I just wanna ask the question to see if you're getting at something that comes up a lot, which I think is an interesting question, which is more kind of the meta-level, like an awareness of being aware in a sense part of what consciousness is. - Yes. - Is that your question? - Yes, which is precisely. - Okay. So I would say no. I think that there's a pure and more basic form of consciousness that does not necessarily entail an awareness of consciousness itself. And I think even within life as we know it in the animal kingdom, I think it's very likely that there are creatures, certain insects, things like that, where the brain processing is just not complex enough for that type of thinking to take place. But that doesn't mean there's no experience present.

Tools for Various Consciousness States (13:12)

And I think some scientists would argue with this, but there are definitely enough of them that would agree with me that there is the fact of experience needing to entail anything more than just whether there's something it's like. So I often will use the example of a worm. We don't know if worms are conscious or not. This is not something neuroscientists have a consensus on, but you can imagine, it's not that hard for us to imagine that worms slithering across the ground has this very, very minimal experience. And it either is or it isn't, right? So there is something about consciousness where you can say it is binary in a sense, even though there's this spectrum once you get on the spectrum, where the content can grow and get more and more complex. But as soon as you get to the end of that spectrum at its most simple form and then drop off of it, you're talking about no experience at all. So when we talk about rocks, whether or not we're right, we most of us assume there's nothing that it's like to be a rock. There's no experience present there at all, but we could imagine that a worm has some felt experience of its skin against the ground of cold and warm, temperature changing, pressure changing, something incredibly minimal. And so it's not at all easy to rule out in a case like that.

Nerdy talk about the pangolin swimsuit. (14:35)

And in that case, you wouldn't have this kind of meta awareness. - So now getting into that, there's one question that I want to explore, which I'm not even sure how to think about this so at some point, where does it go from just it's fascinating to think about to this really matters? And is there a line in there where you're drawn to this because you really think that it matters like with AI and things like that? Or is it just pure fascination? - It's definitely both. So I would just start with the simple fact, and this is really my reasons behind wanting to write a book about this are kind of split down the middle between these two things as well. So first, it's a little bit like what I was talking about before, just the fact that having more understanding of not just how mysterious consciousness is, but the specific ways that it's mysterious, I actually think can bring a lot of joy to our lives just in the form of awe and inspiration of that kind. But I know I am a scientist at heart, even though I'm not a trained scientist, and I really believe we can get a better understanding of consciousness. I think it's possible we'll never really be able, it's human brain is not designed to understand the fundamental nature of reality, and we may not be able to get there, but I'm optimistic that we can. And I think in order for this work to get done, one, we have to be willing to have the conversation, that touches a little bit on what you wanted to talk about, with it being kind of a taboo subject once you start postulating some more far out ideas. So this actually brings me to the focus of my book, which is at its core challenging our intuitions. And challenging intuitions is a very important part of the scientific process. So the short answer to your question is, I think it's wonderful for human beings to contemplate in the same way that it's good for us to contemplate all of the mysteries. I also think that mysteries are really uniting when all of humanity is facing something that they don't understand. I actually think there's something really beautiful about that and it really connects us in a way. And on the other side, I actually think we have a lot to learn. And I even think in some ways, we've learned a lot through modern neuroscience that is so counterintuitive, that we have not yet absorbed the implications of what we've already learned. And again, this is about challenging intuitions and how important this is in the scientific process. So this is true in any time we gain new knowledge that's groundbreaking. There always seems to be this period of time where we're wrestling with our intuitions in everything from when we finally understood that the earth is a sphere and not flat, to understanding the germ theory of disease, to understanding that space and time are warped by gravity. These are all things that when we discover them, when we encounter them, they're so counterintuitive. There's always this period of time when scientists are kind of wrestling with their intuitions before they can make progress because when things are so counter to our intuitions, we have a hard time accepting them. And so you kind of have to face the same evidence over and over again and then kind of reshape your intuitions in order to think about the world in this new ways of it, the science can progress. And so I think we're at a place like that with consciousness right now. So I think it's really important for us to be challenging our intuitions about consciousness. And that's really what my book does. And it begins with two questions that I think we have very strong intuitive answers for that then I spend the rest of the book kind of picking apart to see where it takes us.


- What are those two intuitions? - So they're related but they're slightly different questions. The first one is, is there evidence of consciousness in any system on the outside in the form of behavior or something else? So in a human brain and a human and a cat and a dog, is there something we can point to from the outside such as behavior that will tell us conclusively that consciousness is present in that system? And most of us, myself included, have a very strong intuitive response to that which is, yes, I'm not sure what all of them are, what that list is, but I can come up with an easy example. If I'm leaving for work in the morning and my daughter doesn't want me to go and she's crying and saying, "Mommy don't go." I think that behavior to me is absolutely evidence that she's having an internal experience, that she's conscious of her emotions and what she's going through and grief and all of that in that moment. And so we all have this, and I think this gets to the core of our intuitions about consciousness and what we think it is and where we actually could be wrong. And I think while that's likely a good way to test it, if consciousness is present, I actually think there's a deeper sense in which that is actually not evidence at all. And we can kind of pick that apart through looking at different areas of neuroscience. And the second question is similar, which is, is consciousness doing anything? Is it serving a function?

Is Fear Always Obvious? (20:16)

Is it driving our behavior? And again, all of us think, yes, of course, absolutely. I couldn't, there's so many things I couldn't do just in my daily life today. I think thinking through certain choices when we have a fear response to something, running away from a dangerous situation. I had my car catches on fire and I run in the other direction. We feel that consciousness is truly motivating so much of our behavior. And that's the one that I think is, we now have modern neuroscience telling us that intuition is at least off, if not completely wrong. And so-- - You need to go into that one. - Okay. - 'Cause some of the examples you give in the book are crazy town. - Right. I should say also that when people first encounter these, the science that we have, and also just the idea of messing with these intuitions, it can be uncomfortable. And some people don't like going down this path. So I just like to make a little disclaimer or to say that-- - How do we react? - I think people can feel very out of control. And I mean, there's something jarring about learning that everything, the things that feel most true to you about reality are possibly not structured that way. - Wait till you explain delayed measurement and people really lose their shit. Like that's where it's gonna get interesting. - We're not even in the crazy stuff yet. - Right. Well, I guess that's why I'm saying this now before we get there. - Before you drag him into deep waters. - Yeah, but what I've learned is that most people, if they're not excited about it to begin with, spending a little time thinking about it, that there's a way to kind of come around to the other side where this actually is very freeing, that upending some of these intuitions is actually, for lack of a better word, kind of similar to a spiritual experience. There's a positive way to view all of this, I should say. - Thousand percent. Okay, so this part is really interesting for me. So what is some of the science that we can look at that says, hey, are intuitions about how we think we are in control probably don't make sense. And because what I wanna put you and your idea in context, because people watching this probably don't realize you wrote a book of heresy. Like if you were an academic, you'd be lighting your career on fire. And the fact that you're talking about this, you've privately had people who just can absolutely not come out and talk about what you're talking about publicly saying, thank God somebody is talking about this because, like you said, and this is why I find your work so interesting is we have to explore this. So whether or not it's right is kind of irrelevant. We have to get outside of the box of our intuition, which while I don't wanna start here, the ultimate example of that to me is the delayed measurement experience in physics, which freaks me. I cannot tell you how many hours I've spent thinking about the double slit experiment, like it's insane. And that is a deeply spiritual moment for me where I go, whoa, I do not, my face is the chills right now. I don't understand something. So profoundly fundamental that everything that I'm looking at in the world is not what I think it is. I don't know what anything is anymore. - A thousand percent. - Right. - So I should say also just for your listeners and viewers that there are now some wonderful animations online that explain the double slit experiment if they don't know what that is and they wanna spend the rest of their lives wondering about it. It's a hard one to explain, it's a hard one to grasp, and now that we have YouTube videos, it actually makes it a lot easier.

Binding, Perception, and the Brain (23:54)

- Yes. All right, before we get there, there are some sort of double slit type things with the mind where binding comes into play and the conscious mind taking ownership of something that it actually didn't even know about until the very end. Walk people through some of that. - Binding is actually a great place to start just in understanding how the content of our conscious experience is really created by the brain in ways that are behind our intuitions where we wouldn't necessarily know it. And binding is a phenomenon, talked about in neuroscience. And David Eagleman is actually wonderful on this subject and he's written and given talks on the subject, they're fascinating. But simply, binding is really our brains attempt and successful attempt at taking things that are happening in the real world at different times and sinking them so that our present moment experience is of things in the world happening at the same time where those signals to us are actually coming in at different times. So the example in my book I give is a plain tennis. So if you're plain tennis and you hit the ball with the racket, it seems like this is all happening in one moment, but the truth is the sound waves from the sound of the ball hitting the racket are traveling at a different speed than the light waves of the light bouncing off the ball and hitting our retina and then being processed by the brain. And same with the sensory experience in your hand of feeling the ball hit the racket. That's a much slower process than we're talking about. The, your nervous system actually receiving signal through your arm and our experience is that that all happens at the same time. But the truth is the sight came more quickly than the sound and the sound came more quickly than the physical sensation. And so there's a process that we call binding whereby all of these signals kind of get woven together in a present moment experience that gets delivered to your conscious experience. There are unconscious processes that then cause you to have this experience. There are brain disorders that can interrupt these processes too. So there's something called agnogia. There are many different types of agnogia, but it's kind of a failure of the brain to do this type of binding for us. There's finger agnogia where you cannot tell the difference between two of your fingers. Sites and sounds can get confused or not arrive at the same time there. Have you read much about brosobagnosia? So it's like it's where the person can, I see your eyes, oh God, your eyes are so familiar, your nose. But it's not coming together as a face for them. Yes. I often tease my wife that she has brosobagnosia 'cause she can never recognize famous people, but like, to me. Is that specifically for recognizing faces?

Facial recognition. (26:56)

The face, yes. So brosobagnosia Greek word for face. Right, okay, yes. And that was one of the first times where I began to realize, okay, whoa, whoa, the brain has a lot of different regions. Like people, I don't know what this disease is called, but certain brain trauma will leave somebody where they can't detect motion. So they see completely normally, but everything is a snapshot. So if they're pouring something, it just looks like frozen liquid and then all of a sudden the cup is overflowing and there's like the essentially refresh rate on their eyes is so slow that everything is just these like static still images. Right, no, we're taking a ton of unconscious brain processes for granted that we don't realize all of these things are being woven together for us. There's something called disjunctivagnoja. It's similar to what you're talking about with the face, but these are objects in space. You can recognize all of the different parts. You can recognize the color, the shape, but you can't see it as an object. You can't recognize something as a cup. There are even minor things that can happen where you can recognize something as a tool for eating with, but you don't know whether it's a spoon or a fork. Anyway, so yeah, so we could go on and on forever with it.

24.02 What it's like to be a bat. (28:12)

- Let's go on a little longer because there are more that you talk about in the book that I think are super important. 'Cause where I want to get people, like my whole like thesis in life is to get people to understand, your brain is creating a virtual world for you. You have a mistake in this virtual world for the real world. And once you understand, we're talking about oomvelds here, homie. We're talking about you take the world in in a certain way, which is why the article by Nagel on what it's like to be a bat is so fascinating. It's asking you to step outside your own oomveld into something else's and say, how fundamentally different would this whole experience be? But what I really want people to understand, 'cause this was a huge breakthrough for me when I went from having a totally fixed mindset. And I just thought life is hopeless and I can't go where I want to go, 'cause I'm only so intelligent and I'm just not that bright. And so I'm stuck here and I spent a lot of time there. And then began to realize, wait a second, I started reading about the brain. I was like, whoa, like the brain is cobbling shit together. It's keeping me from bumping into too much stuff. And for that I am grateful. But ultimately like there's a lot of lies being told to me by this evolutionary machine. And once I could begin to think through them and go, oh, whoa, it's interpreting this, it's interpreting that. What is it interpreting that's creating an emotion for me that isn't helpful? - I think people also experience a lot of relief from this idea that they are responsible for all of that processing too.

Exploring The Concept Of Freedom And Consciousness

And so this gets into, when I talk about these examples in my book, I'm specifically talking about two illusions that I think inform our view of consciousness, which is why I spend a lot of time on them. And one is this illusion of conscious will. And one is the illusion of being a self. And I think that that's one place that relates to a lot of the work that you do because this false sense of a self is actually where a lot of human suffering comes from. And part of it is what I was just getting at, which is that we have this idea that, even though we understand that we're brain processing at bottom, somehow we have this very strong intuition that there is a me that is separate from the brain processing. And there can be a lot of guilt and regret and things like this that come about because of kind of a false way of viewing what in fact we are and what our conscious experience is. So the notion of this self that somehow can override whatever the brain is doing or make decisions somehow, I mean, it's an incoherent idea, but we all have it very strongly and we can assume it's there. It's related to the notion of conscious will. And I like to distinguish-- - Hey, free will? - Well, I was just gonna say, I like to distinguish conscious will from free will only because free will by my definition is a much more complex thing. And we could actually talk for a long time and I could explain why I think there's not much freedom in free will, but that free will is something that in some sense I can agree that the brain has. It's a complex processing system. It's responding to all kinds of stimuli and ideas and can change and mutate and make decisions as a processing device for lack of a better word. Conscious will is the idea that consciousness is the thing that is the will, that consciousness is the will. So we have, again, it's related to these questions that I ask in the beginning of my book, is consciousness doing something? And we feel that consciousness is behind our willed actions when in fact there's a lot of neuroscience to suggest that it's actually the reverse, that it's at the end, that all this processing happens, the decision gets made and then we're kind of the last to know. I have a chapter in my book called "The Long for the Ride" which can also be distressing to people when they first hear it. - When I get where people get free to write. - I get it too actually, but ultimately I actually think it's very freeing and it doesn't mean you can't. So the brain is not in any way a closed system. Just because our conscious experience is of what the brain is doing, doesn't mean at all that the brain is not influenced by ideas. And even in physical terms as you said, you can have a brain tumor that will dramatically alter what your conscious experience is. But more importantly, for this type of discussion, if I yelled and said, "Oh, that beam is about to fall on you," that's an idea that just gets communicated through language that suddenly changes your brain. So your brain is a physical system, but my words, my ideas get in and it completely changes the structure of your brain so much that you're gonna jump up. I could get you to jump up just by transferring that information. The thing that I think is a true illusion is that consciousness comes first and consciousness is again wrapped up in this idea of a self. So that there's this self that's kind of floating free from the material world somehow and is initiating everything that happens. And I think that is a false view. And so we could talk about some of those studies. The earlier ones are more controversial. The most recent ones are less and I think are the most interesting actually, the most recent study that I read about came out of Germany and so most of these studies I should say basically show that at the level of the brain, scientists can see markers or activity that reveal to them you're about to make a decision or make a movement and before you have become conscious of it. So the most recent study was subjects were in an fMRI. So an fMRI is an MRI with the track's blood flow and the subjects were given two numbers and then given a choice whether to add or subtract the numbers. And there's a special kind of clock that's almost like a second hand going around a regular clock so that they can mark that what their job is to have the experience of making a decision I'm going to add or I'm going to subtract and nowhere on the clock that decision happened and then they actually go ahead and do the math. So through fMRI neuroscientists were able to detect up to four seconds prior when not only, so they were able because they could see different parts of the brain, they were able to detect different types of processing, they could tell when that person would make the decision and whether their decision was to add or subtract. So that gives us a very different sense and the truth is a lot of neuroscience that comes to us is giving us this picture. We should have digested this a little bit more than we have already that there is a sense in which we are kind of just experiencing life play out. I don't know if I answered your question. - You did, I mean look, this is the exploration that I was hoping for. What becomes interesting to me in that is I think part of the reason that we haven't digested that more is what are you supposed to do with that? It's like some part of it is, okay wait, they're definitely like how does one make sense of this? Okay, I am literally truly me, Tom Billieu. I am completely prepared to say that I am simply a chemical processing plant that runs on algorithms. I have no problem with that. But there does seem to be what I'll call the Overwatch mechanism. There is some level of awareness, I'm sure my prefrontal cortex, some level of awareness that is watching things and saying it through and I'm very fine with given where I was born and the things I've encountered and all of that that it has built these beliefs. Okay, so I have sort of a default setting. But now once I have that thing, that thing can go in and make changes. So I have this sort of Overwatch algorithm processing machine that's been built up over my experiences, but it also has the ability to self-reflect and ask. Absolutely. Based on my value system, which is changeable by the way, based on my changeable value system, am I thinking about this in the right way or do I want to change something? And it has the ability to change. Now it has the ability to change. But that's all, we're all still talking about the brain, the idea and I think even the way you're describing it is partly a shift in the way we tend to think about it, which is there's a concrete self that is responsible for those changes rather than it's all brain processing. And the brain again is not static. It's not walled off from its environment. It is an ever-changing, ever-evolving, very complex system. It's the most complex thing we know of in the universe. But that just the fact that we can absorb the idea that it is brain processing and that our experience of how that brain processing is functioning is not necessarily accurate. I think is useful for letting go of some, I think deeply damaging psychological ways and patterns of thought that we can get ourselves into. But also just on the science side and on the study of consciousness side, it can start to get us to see how human beings and brains in general are possibly not that different from other processing systems in terms of consciousness. And it opens-- - Are we talking about other animals?

More on our knowledge about the 'consciousness' of different things. (38:11)

- Other animals and beyond. So it opens up this window onto-- - You know what you are? - Yes, well beyond in both directions. So beyond as in plants, plants is something that I talk about in my book in detail. - That's crazy. - That's crazy that they recognize their own children.

Plant Behaviors: Conscious or Unconscious? (38:30)

- Right, and so actually the reason I brought up plants in the book was not because I think plants are conscious, although this all really makes you wonder. It was actually to make-- - It's trying to start redefining things, no question. - Right, but for me it was actually to make the opposite argument, which is that this complex behavior that we see in plants, it's much more complex than we realize until we started studying it, is very closer to and more related to human behavior than we also previously realized. And now we know this is true mechanistically too, so in terms of the DNA. - Give people some examples. - Okay, so just to go on this path, Daniel Chamovitz wrote this book, What a Plant Knows, which I highly recommend. And he talks about this collection of genes that plants have that evolved so that they can sense whether they're in the light or in the dark. It's the same set of genes that we have for detecting light and dark. And then of course in us it's much more complex and it's their related to circadian rhythms and all kinds of other things. But so there are behaviors that are incredibly interesting. I can talk a little bit about the underground tree communication. - Yeah, this is so crazy. - I just wanted to make clear that the larger point is, in my first question in my book, I'm more talking about behavior, behavior as evidence of consciousness. If we see this level of similarity in behavior and other systems, and it's very hard to get conclusive evidence of a system being conscious, if it's not a human being who can speak and talk to you about it, we have to start to really ask the question whether consciousness goes much deeper than we imagine. But I actually, I brought up plants because I think it makes us, it makes us second guess whether all of the behaviors we see in human beings that we say has to exist. Sorry, consciousness has to exist for them to be there. If we don't need consciousness, if plants don't need consciousness to exhibit similarly complex behaviors, then we could be thinking about things wrong. - Yeah, okay, this is interesting, and I want to go a little deeper on this. So one of the things you talk about in the book is that plants will preferentially send nutrients to seedlings that they know came from them versus other seedlings that they can actually read that somehow. - Yeah, so these are specifically Douglas fir trees in Canada, Susan Samard has done some fantastic work and has a TED talk explaining some of his work. She was studying the underground tree, inter-tree communication, mostly facilitated through Michael Rizel networks, which are fungal networks, which is also incredibly fascinating, where they share carbon with different species of trees. And at some times of the year, the Douglas fir needs more carbon at another time of the year, another species may need, and they actually kind of send signals about when they're in need of carbon and share carbon. But yes, then, so seedlings will start to grow, and some of them have come from these specific trees, some of them come from other trees, but there are ways that she calls them mother trees can know which trees have sprouted from her own seedlings, which are her kin, and she will, I shouldn't say she, but these mother trees will send more carbon to their own kin. They will send stronger defense signals. This is another thing that's actually interesting, I didn't mention, that trees send defense signals to each other as well. If there's a poisonous thing that's growing in the area, they will send chemical signals that warn other trees of dangerous species in the area, they will send more of those signals to their own kin. They grow their roots differently, so they'll actually make more room for the roots of their kin. All of these things that, to us, would be behavior that gets described as psychological behavior, and that we assume we need consciousness for. To put it very simply, I'm making the point that you can't have it both ways, therefore going to use these behaviors in humans to be evidence of consciousness. We then have to question how far down it's going, and if not, which in some ways is a more interesting question, if not, then what is it that's different about consciousness? If we are these systems that are kind of going along in the same way that plants are, so IV is one thing that's actually very interesting. To study, it changes its rate of growth and direction depending on something that it can grow around and cling to. If those types of processes don't require consciousness, maybe we're wrong in thinking that all of the complex behavior in humans requires consciousness, and that there's another explanation for it. - And what would that other explanation be?

Is Consciousness Fundamental to the Universe? (43:36)

- The most likely one to me is that it's actually much more fundamental, and that it goes. - That consciousness itself is a fundamental property of the universe. - Yes. - Okay. - You said it very well. - Yes. - Now I want to talk about, so if it is a field like gravity, how do we test that? Like how does one, like, right? 'Cause at least breaking through our intuition to get to that insight, then opens it up to being tested. - Yes. - Because that's one where it's like, okay, now I'm so uneducated on this stuff. Like I can't tell you one way or the other if this is plausible. But my limited brain goes, yeah, that's not possible. - Right, no, me too. - But like-- - Me too, which is what, I keep saying I'm split 50/50 on it, and one reason is, I mean, my intuitions go so strongly against it. It's really through breaking through intuitions and following logistical pathways and talking to other scientists. So I should also say, this idea that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, could be another, in a sense, another property of matter, that exists in all matter because it's just a fundamental property. So it exists, and again, to clearly distinguish consciousness from complex thought. These ideas in no way suggest that atoms or electrons have any kind of thoughts or plans or anything human-like, they're nothing like a human. I sometimes will say, we wouldn't expect a rock to write a novel or to sing opera, that's not what atoms configured in that way do. And if there is some level of experience associated with the atoms in a rock, we would not expect it to be anything like what we experience. It would be completely unrecognizable to us. But all of this thinking falls under the umbrella term of panpsychism, which is a term people should know because historically that's the term that's been used. I don't like the term. - I get it, it's super woo woo makes it sound like. - I think from a scientific perspective, we can just simply work toward it not being taboo to ask these questions. So it should just be legitimate to ask the question, could we come up with a theory in which consciousness is fundamental because it's been so difficult, actually impossible to date, to come up with a theory of how complexity or how processes in the brain give rise to consciousness. Is it possible it was there to begin with? - Well, I'm definitely leading you down a garden path.

Double-slit experiment (46:13)

So where I wanna get to, so this is the moment in the book where if you hadn't set me up with something earlier, I would have been like, "Peace, I'm out." - That's crazy, yeah. - It was you talking about the delayed measurement experiment and I thought, wait a second. - So is this the first time you encountered that thought experiment? - Yes, so I knew about the double slit experiment. Yay, I was so blown away, my moment of awe, like just unbelievably cool to think that I could have existed this long and so fundamentally misunderstand the nature of things. So that was cool, but then you took it to like a whole another level. - Well, and by the way, physicists feel that way about it too. I mean, quantum mechanics is something that is deeply mysterious and a tremendous source of awe and mystery for anyone who finds that, you know, inspiring and fueling. There's a lot now to read because, you know, progress is being made, but it's still something that is really dumb-founding to scientists as well. - So I think if you walk people through what the delayed measurement experiment is, then they will-- - It's been a while, hopefully I can do a good job. - Well, to get 'cause I just read your book literally twice. So I will fill in any gaps from your own work, by the way, that you might not remember, but the, what it will do, I think, for anybody who's really listening is make you go, oh, there are things I don't understand. And one sign in the realm of, oh, there are things I don't understand, then it is quite possible. Well, I can't grab it from an intuition standpoint. Our greatest breakthroughs in science have always been the moment where you can shed your intuitions and really see the thing for what it is. - Yes. So I think we should probably start with a double-slit experiment because many people are not familiar with that. And if you do show notes, I can supply some visuals that might help 'cause it is actually very difficult to get just through one person, one person explaining it to another, but I'll do my best. So, light, most people know, our understanding is that it can act like a particle and it can act like a wave. So there are photons, which are the individual particles of light which have wave-like properties and particle-like properties. So the experiment is set up very basically, they're shooting photons one at a time at a screen and in between the photons that are being shot out and the screen are two slits. And so if you are going to put through a continuous light source, you would see a wave pattern on the other side. The light is kind of going through both slits and has a wave interference pattern. I don't know if I need to explain more of that, but basically-- - That would be very complicated. - But imagine, think of water in the way that it is. - So normally when you're, if you just have the screen there, you shoot the light through two slits, what you see when it gets recorded, if there's photographic material that records these photons, you see bars where the photons have hit, where they're weakest or lightest at the edges, but it looks as if you pushed water through these slits in terms of how it gets recorded. - So there's no clean delineation between what slit it went through, there's just a whole pattern along the screen, which is not a huge effect of the wave. - That is a wave like pattern. So it has a pattern to it, but it's a pattern of a wave. So then it turns out that if you shoot one photon at a time and you measure which slit each individual photon went through, you have a different pattern on the screen. And all of a sudden, it looks as if you were shooting individual pellets and some of them go through the right side and some of them go through the left side and there's no interference pattern at all, they just form two slits. - Now right now, you've already given people enough to have their brain leaking out of their ears. So I wanna say it one more time to make sure people understand. You take these double slits, you shoot a single photon through it, don't measure it. You get an interference pattern on the back as if you have pushed a wave through both slits. Now do the exact same thing again, but this time put a camera up, whatever, measure it. - You measure it. - Measure it, ring device. And all of a sudden it's a single photon. - Right. - That's crazy. That's one of those where I'm like, what? - Yes. - Just watching it changes its properties. Like that doesn't seem possible. - Right, so I would say it's measuring it rather than watching it and some people have interpreted this in ways that I think are, we just, we simply don't know the answer but some people have said it requires consciousness which I don't think we have any evidence for that at all. But clearly some interaction with other matter in the room, whether consciousness is present or not absolutely has an effect. And this is what quantum mechanics was born out of quantum physics. So there are many different interpretations of these strange things that we see. Many worlds is something that maybe some of your audience has heard of string theory, has been around for longer but they're, you know, this is just scientists trying to understand what's going on here. So the physicist John Wheeler proposed a thought experiment based on this, based on this experiment and the fact that we know that light, so there's a phenomenon where light goes around a quasar and causes an illusion, I'm forgetting the term but an illusion of-- - I think it's gravitational lensing. - Yes, thank you.

Gravitational lensing (51:53)

So if there's a quasar and in between us and the quasar as a black hole, the light will bend and it will give the illusion to us that there are two quasars rather than one because the light bends and causes this illusion to take place. His thought was if we were to measure which side an individual photon, which side of that black hole, the individual photon went around, that would essentially change the past.

The Ambiguity Of Consciousness

What if light is consciousness? (52:20)

- Because that thing's been traveling for millions of years. - Yes, so it's path, right, takes place over millions of years. Just by measuring it will then give it a distinct location in the same way that it gives a distinct location by measuring it when it goes through the slits. - That's like millions of years ago. - And so this was-- - That's crazy. - Right. So in some sense, and we don't know how to explain this in terms of the fundamental nature of reality and whether this means there are endless copies of the universe and the universe kind of splits every time. A quantum event happens, whether there are many dimensions of space, I mean this gets into string theory, which I'm not an expert on any of this. I'm explaining it as best I can but I'm not a physicist and probably shouldn't be explaining any of these experiments but the implications and the results, so this was a thought experiment and then they actually were able to do the experiment so it was confirmed. - That's where I literally was taking notes in the book and I was like this was confirmed experimentally, what? - Yeah. - Like, yeah, this-- - So there's something we do not understand. - Farestantamentally do not understand. - We don't understand about the fundamental nature of matter and what matter is and what light is and these are great mysteries. - So if when I really stop and think about like what the experience of consciousness is, what it would look like if we, if panpsychism is true and there's sort of consciousness all the way down, what it, the question that it begs for me is why is consciousness as an emergent property so problematic? Why, where do people get hung up? Because in my very limited mind-- - Yeah. - And I am very prepared to accept this as just ignorance on my part, but when I think about basically panpsychism would postulate something along the lines of, hey, you're getting all these low levels of consciousness and as they come together, their combinatorial effect is, it gives you some unique property and that can manifest as a tree, it can manifest as a dolphin, as a human, it's different amounts of and different types of consciousness coming together and different cell types and all that. So it's essentially purely a biological explanation of how it manifests so differently. But why do we have trouble with the postulation that the human brain is-- - It's just an emergent phenomenon. - Right, and that the lights coming on really does feel like a grayscale to me.

Why does consciousness elude us? (55:19)

It does not feel like one moment there is and one moment there isn't. Like if you've ever seen, have you seen a baby, did you ever watch Blackfish, the documentary? Don't, it will hurt your heart in ways I can't explain. But I will give you one cool punchline when they go to capture baby orcas, the pod is insanely intelligent about how they try to hide the babies 'cause they know they want the babies, they already understand that. They like split up and like some swim high and some swim low trying to hide the baby. So crazy. And then they stay and like scream and cry as they take the baby away. It was so gut wrenching. I could not fucking believe it. So to your point about what evidence do we need to be like, oh my God, that's conscious. I'm willing to say, yo, that's clearly conscious. So now let's slide down all the way we get to ants. And I'll be like, eh, there was never a moment where it was yes, no, but there's definitely the qualitative estimation of what their experience is like. Now is so removed. I don't really get it anymore. And then sure, it slides on into something I can't comprehend. Where does it blink out of existence? I'm gonna guess at a nervous system because there does seem some need to detect pressure. You have to have some kind of cell that sends some kind of signal saying that I'm experiencing pressure at even like the most basic level. So to me, it would seem, and by all means shut me down at the end of this-- - No, no, I mean, the truth is that many scientists have that exact intuition. And I would say most scientists think that explaining it as an emergent phenomenon is the way to explain it. And in fact, Sean Carroll, the physicist, who I just recently spoke with, that's the way he would describe it. There are a few reasons why there are problems with that. There are many ways I could take this at this point and I know we're limited on time. One issue is just the description of an emergent phenomenon in science. And there are two things about it. One, it is something that is observed from the outside. So it's an emergent property, is a property that you can quantify from the outside. Consciousness is partly what makes it so mysterious is that it has this internal character, that it's not something that can be viewed from the outside. We didn't talk about locked-in syndrome, but looking at someone with locked-in syndrome is a good way to kind of jostle your intuitions. Briefly, this is someone who had brain damage so that they're completely paralyzed, but it has not affected their conscious or mental life really at all. So they have as full conscious experience as you and I are having right now, are able to think clearly, perceive everything, see things in the room, hear everything, but they're completely paralyzed. So they're unable to communicate anything.

Locked-In Syndrome (58:18)

And the neuroscientist, Anil Seth, actually recently posted this picture that's very interesting, which is just the human nervous system without the rest of the body. And he said something to the effect of this would be conscious if it were alive. And it looks like the roots of a tree, right? And I'm not saying it is, it's a very different type of system, but the truth is we can't necessarily get information about a conscious experience always. So we assume because we are complex creatures and we are conscious, we assume that it is a complex phenomenon and we assume that the more something is like us, the more likely it is to have consciousness. I think that is an assumption that may or may not be true, but it's really just an assumption. We have no evidence for that being the case. And seeing someone in locked-in syndrome tells you definitively, I talk about the writer Jean Dominique Bobi in my book. In this condition of locked-in syndrome, he was able to figure out a way to write his caretakers notice that he in fact actually had one point of mobility, which was his eyelid. He was able to control his eyelid. And many people in locked-in syndrome do not have this, but he happened to be able to move his eyelid and so they figured out how he could type out the alphabet with certain ways of blinking. And he literally wrote this beautiful book that was turned into a film in this state. But without that eye blinking, so this is a man who can write a book and can experience everything that's happening in his room and has no ability to communicate. So we certainly can't rely on communication and behavior to tell us how possible it is that there's consciousness there, but emergence, so emergence is a physical phenomenon that can be witnessed from the outside and it's a complex phenomenon. It comes out of complexity. And again, we have no evidence that consciousness is due to complexity. It very well may be, and I am really split 50/50 on this, and the way you described it, I completely, my intuitions align there and I think it's why we need to spend some time challenging our intuitions because the evidence is actually not there and there are many reasons to think and many reasons why explaining this mystery there's a better path, there seems to be a better path to explaining it if it's a property that already exists in matter. I'm not sure how well I answered that question, but-- - Oh, well, this whole thing.

Understanding Consciousness (01:01:00)

- But yes, I mean, your intuitions are the intuitions that most people share and many scientists share and yeah, it's the reason I take the time to do as much as I can to undermine them in the book because I think those intuitions are likely leading us in the wrong direction. And at the very least, we've gone in that direction all this time and we haven't gotten any closer to understanding how it is that non-conscious matter that these atoms in the universe that had no consciousness all of this time somehow come together in a way. It's actually, when you look at the details, it's very hard to see how the addition of an experience associated with that processing comes into being at any point, why that would be. - Monica, I am so glad that you're exploring this topic and that you belong to a rare group of people that are, I think, entering the public awareness more and more that are capable of writing a New York Times bestseller and that are picking topics that other people just can't for their livelihood, they can't touch.

Outro (01:01:51)

So, I'm so grateful that you wrote this book. I really, really hope that it in a very enjoyable way jars people out of their, some of their intuitions and assumptions because I really think that the base assumptions people make about their life and the way their mind works hold so many people back from living a life that could be far more enjoyable and include far less suffering. But yeah, thank you. Really is a wonderful, wonderful book. Where can people find you online? Where can they get your book? - I'm just my name,, My book is available everywhere books are. But yeah, the best way to find out about my work and other work that I do in addition to my book is it's all on my website. - Nice. All right, what is the impact that you wanna have on the world? - I think bringing more awe and curiosity, I could probably, I could go on, but that seems like a good one. Awe and curiosity, I think we can always have more of. - I will take that all day. All right guys, trust me when I say that she brings the awe and the curiosity and what a wonderful entrance into that world, I cannot recommend her work enough. It is really extraordinary. And hopefully the success of this first book will get her to do more and more in this vein. I guess not first book, but first book aimed at adults. So very excited by what she's doing. She has a children's book. Like I said earlier, I wonder. So be sure to check that out as well. And if you haven't already subscribed, be sure to do so. And until next time, my friends, be legendary. Thank you. All right, I could thank you so much. - Yeah, thank you. It was really fun.

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Wrap Up

My First (01:06:52)

My first you can notice that anxiety isn't even that unpleasant. I mean, it's so close to excitement in its actual physiology. There really, the difference between excitement and anxiety is more or less just the frame and it's just the story you're telling yourself. You know, if you felt...

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