Spotlight

The Magic of Consciousness

Is consciousness real? Could it be just an illusion manufactured in the theatre of our minds? And what use is it – why did it evolve in the first place? Professor Nicholas Humphrey explores the mystery.

Consciousness is at the core of our very existence. An intangible constant that underpins our experience of the world. But for centuries it has been the frustrating source of a seemingly impenetrable explanatory gap – it is largely a scientific mystery.

As we interact with the world, stimuli trigger physical processes in our body. Nerve cells transmit messages around the body and through the brain. But how do these physical interactions give rise to the conscious sensations we experience? Can we get conscious sensation from nerve cells alone?

In this video theoretical psychologist Professor Nicholas Humphrey asks whether consciousness could all be an illusion. Could it be a mirage constructed in the theatre of our minds? Perhaps the questions we should ask are not centred on sensations themselves, but merely on the appearance of those sensations.

And why does consciousness, in any form, exist at all? How did it evolve? The answer might lie in our social interactions. Consciousness elevates our interpretation of the world and the people around us. It alters our psychological profile and breathes joy into our experiences, and makes us value life itself.

22 Comments

  • …in quite a predicament! How do I define reality, the realness of a thing, its being there in and by itself, objectively present so to speak, WITHOUT HAVING RECOURSE, if only in some sly and subtle way, TO AN OBSERVER in my definition? Just try it. You’ve just described an apple, say, as green and then more or less defined greenness. Now try and explain what it means when you say the apple is real. Can you do it?

  • …in quite a predicament! How do I define reality, the realness of a thing, its being there in and by itself, objectively present so to speak, WITHOUT HAVING RECOURSE, if only in some sly and subtle way, TO AN OBSERVER in my definition? Just try it. You’ve just described an apple, say, as green and then more or less defined greenness. Now try and explain what it means when you say the apple is real. Can you do it?

  • i don’t mean to get in the middle of this and i’m not even sure what you two are arguing about. just touching on this comment block “what is an ‘environment’ without an observer?”
    aren’t you saying that if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, it does not make a sound? seems like it to me. i thought that was a philosophical question to which there is no real answer. seems to me you feel there is an answer. is that correct?

  • Yes, that is indeed the philosophical problem under discussion. In this case I picked up on the word environment of my esteemed opponent because that word itself implies that at its centre there is some entity to which that environment is indeed an environment. It definitely is a philosophical question and not a scientific one, which is something that some people find hard to grasp. They think that since we can at any time come back to a tree and measure and remeasure it, that thereby we can….

  • ….we can suficiently establish scientifically that there is a fact in the form of a tree there which has nothing to do with an observer and is an invariant with respect to an observer. On closer inspection that is obviously not true. To put it differently, talking about facts, in whatever circumstance, YOU are the primary fact! All other facts are secondary. I think this is a basic and inescapable experience, which however is so general and non-specific that, for many people, it becomes an…

  • …it becomes an irrelevancy. I’m always there in order for there to be anything at all. So what? I’m interested to find out whether the tree is an oak or a beech, whether that fluid is drinkable or not drinkable. We are interested in differences, not in what something always and necessarily is – to the point of forgetting even that we are the only guarantors of reality. Butting in is ok. That’s how I entered this conversation.

  • re a) Stars did not form beyond or outside the scope of our observation. Obviously, because if they did, we wouldn’t know anything about it and couldn’t say anything about it. re b) It’s somewhat bold and premature to say that our brains create consciousness as long as we don’t understand exactly what consciousness is and by what process the brain creates it ad c) Beware. We use our senses and brain to form a picture of the world. This modeling instrument is undoubtedly part of the world…

  • …part of the world. Not only is it limited and probably defective. Those are problems that might in theory be remedied. But it is essentially of the same nature as the world, being made up of atoms etc. Now think carefully about the following question: can a full and proper and ‘real’ understanding of something come from a part of that something? In logical/mathematical terms can a subset be used to adequately map the whole set? re d) True, but since the environment AS UNDERSTOOD by us is….

  • …as understood by us is the only environment we have, because we can’t speak of an environment that is beyond our understanding and unmediated by our intellect, your distinction between “the understanding of the environment” and “the environment itself” does not yield two separate realities. WE CAN’T FALL BACK on ‘real’ reality. Reality as such, torn loose from us the observers, is a chimaera.

  • re e) “Therefore” suggests a logical conclusion as in a syllogism. We don’t have one, at least not explicitly, in your post. e certainly does not follow logically from d. ‘Reality’ arises WITH consciousness. Check it out yourself! 🙂 The world, our bodies, the stars now or a billion years ago, they’re phenomena. A phenomenon (Greek for ‘appearance’) is only a phenomenon if it appears. It can’t appear without someone to appear to. re f) Therefore “without consciousness there is nothing” is true.

  • There is a point beyond which any further conceptual elaboration is superfluous. “Can the tooth bite itself?” Experience, Reality, EVERYTHING…whatever we want to call it….is not a symbol for – or an arrow pointing to – something ‘beyond itself,’ or more profound. It doesn’t require or tolerate predication. But, Hey, what do I know?

  • We had better turn to understanding Metaphor and World Construction (a side trip?) to untangle the stories we tell ourselves. It seems we can only explain/model (understand?) Brain within our current metaphor, ditching the animal spirits of animanism, angels, Descartes mechanics, on through the Wizard of Oz movies in our heads – to reach a computer or quantum model.
    The ONLY ‘clue’ here is that the Brain’s job is to COMPUTE the world in the best possible way for you to get along in it everyday!

  • I stopped watching when he said at 3.28–how can mindless unconcious little robotic cell…

    It’s wrong and shows these so called philosophers are way far from real experience. Every cell is is life in itself and has it’s own mind and conciousness…

  • Why do so many philosophers and deep thinking have thick big bushy beards? Or maybe he doesn’t REALLY have a beard … hmmmmm

  • It’s not circular reasoning, it’s simply pointing to a loop that we’re caught in. We’re caught in it necessarily, inextricably, not just accidentally or provisionally. That’s the reason maybe that people like you don’t seem to fully get it. It’s such a general fact or condition that it doesn’t really yield any specific knowledge and therefore, unlike science and its findings, it is not ‘interesting’. It doesn’t ‘make a difference’. But a philosopher investigates underlying assumptions.

  • SewerCom’s post is the source of that “The brain does not create consciousness. Consciousness creates the brain” quote.

  • It’s from SewerCom. I responded to his post. So YOU go ahead and look back. Your irritation is fuzzing up your brain.

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