Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Science as we know it can’t explain consciousness – but a revolution is coming

MRI scan of the brain. MRIman By Philip Goff, Durham University Explaining how something as complex as consciousness can emerge from a grey, jelly-like lump of tissue in the head is arguably the greatest scientific challenge of our time. The brain is an extraordinarily complex organ, consisting of almost 100 billion cells – known as neurons – each connected to 10,000 others, yielding some ten trillion nerve connections. We have

Materialism alone cannot explain the riddle of consciousness

Adam Frank writes: Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of

Your brain chooses what to let you see

Jordana Cepelewicz writes: Last week, Quanta reported on the filtering mechanisms that allow us to focus our attention on stimuli of interest — that let us tune out the music in a room to listen to a nearby conversation, or disregard greens, blues and yellows in a crowd when searching for a friend wearing red. That kind of processing, which involves the suppression of some sensory data to highlight signals

Consciousness doesn’t depend on language

Christof Koch writes: The contrast could not have been starker—here was one of the world’s most revered figures, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, expressing his belief that all life is sentient, while I, as a card-carrying neuroscientist, presented the contemporary Western consensus that some animals might, perhaps, possibly, share the precious gift of sentience, of conscious experience, with humans. The setting was a symposium between Buddhist monk-scholars and Western

The whole-planet view from inner space

Rosalind Watts, Sam Gandy, and Alex Evans write: In 1966, on a rooftop overlooking San Francisco, the writer Stewart Brand felt that he could perceive the curvature of the Earth, an effect of the psychedelic substance he had consumed. He wondered why no one had photographed the Earth from space yet, and realised how much this might help people feel connected to each other and to their shared home. Later

First major center for psychedelic research opening in the U.S.

Discover magazine reports: The launch of a new privately-funded research center dedicated to investigating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs was announced today at Johns Hopkins University. The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research will be dedicated to understanding how psychedelics alter consciousness, behavior and brain function. The bulk of the research will focus on psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, which has been demonstrated as a powerful tool

Universal emotions are the basis of our profound affinity with other animals

Stephen T Asma and Rami Gabriel: Charles Darwin closed his On the Origin of Species (1870) with a provocative promise that ‘light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’. In his later books The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin shed some of that promised light, especially on the evolved emotional and cognitive capacities that humans shared

The mystery of free will

Brian Gallagher writes: In The Good Place, a cerebral fantasy-comedy TV series, moral philosophy gets teased. On YouTube, the show released a promotional video, “This Is Why Everyone Hates Moral Philosophy,” that gets its title from a line directed at Chidi, a Senegalese professor of moral philosophy who suffers from chronic indecision: The pros and cons of even trivial choices have long paralyzed him. We see him, as a precocious

The power of seeing what is not there

In a review of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s, Out of Our Minds: A History of What We Think and How We Think, Philip Marsden writes: Wallace Stevens called it ‘the necessary angel’. Ted Hughes thought it ‘the most essential bit of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings’. Coleridge described its role a little more vigorously: ‘The living Power and prime Agent of all human

The interoceptive turn is maturing as a rich science of selfhood

Noga Arikha writes: In 1926, Virgina Woolf wrote about how, when one is ill: All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane – smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or

Like humans, ravens mirror the distress they witness in others, study suggests

Katherine J. Wu reports: Seeing someone else suffer a big disappointment can have a pretty damaging effect on your own morale. That’s definitely the case with people—and it might be true for ravens, too. New research suggests that, like humans and many other mammals, common ravens (Corvus corax) can read and internalize the emotional states of others. In the study, published today in the journal PNAS, ravens watch their friends

The value of attention and the cost of giving it away

Franklin Foer writes: I can say definitively now that I faltered in pursuit of my New Year’s resolution. My self-improvement project for the year was to read a fresh poem every morning, before glimpsing the accumulation of unresponded email and lifting the lid off Twitter. My purpose, when I explained it to my wife and kids a few hours before midnight, was to ritualistically remind myself of emotions other than

Descartes was wrong. ‘A person is a person through other persons’

By Abeba Birhane According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am

How the body and mind talk to one another to understand the world

By Sarah Garfinkel Have you ever been startled by someone suddenly talking to you when you thought you were alone? Even when they apologise for surprising you, your heart goes on pounding in your chest. You are very aware of this sensation. But what kind of experience is it, and what can it tell us about relations between the heart and the brain? When considering the senses, we tend to

Frans de Waal embraces animal emotions in ‘Mama’s Last Hug’

Sy Montgomery writes: The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She

The blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience

Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson write: The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total