Consciousness

I Think I Think, Am I Therefore I?

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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And whether ‘you’ exist at all, according to Susan Blackmore, a researcher of consciousness and paranormal experiences

I, or the entity that thinks itself to be I, am at the very beginning of this report about to do a disservice to you. Or to the entity that thinks that it is you. Perhaps, I—henceforth used for the purpose of convenience without conceding its existence—can still try to avert that outcome by suggesting that you go to YouTube and type ‘Daniel Simons’ plus ‘Selective Awareness Test’ and watch the video clip. Then, and only then, return to this page.

Ah, you are still here. Very well then, the responsibility for what is to ensue is therefore yours. If you had seen the clip, which is a little more than one minute long, you would’ve noticed six young men and women in all. Three of them are dressed in white T-shirts and the other three in black. The whites are passing a basketball among themselves. The blacks are doing the same. All of them are moving in a tight space that looks like a lobby or corridor, frequently crossing one another. Do note again, the ball is only passed from white to white or black to black. Your task is to count the number of passes the whites make.

I counted 17 passes at the Homi Bhabha Auditorium of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, where the clip was shown recently during a lecture. The person who was showing it was Susan Blackmore. There’s really no particular look to a scientist, but if at all a stereotype can be imagined, then she was not it. Her hair was streaked in multiple colours. She was dressed in a turquoise blouse and brightly patterned long skirt. When she left, you noticed that she hauled a backpack. Blackmore researches something she really does not believe exists—consciousness. She has 140 academic articles and book contributions on parapsychology and consciousness to her name. She has authored popular books on it and is also credited with a theory on how cultural ideas get transmitted. She was in India at the invitation of the British Council, TIFR, Pune’s Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), and Association of British Scholars.

At the TIFR talk, she paused the clip halfway through and asked the audience how many passes they had counted.

To 15, 16, 17, most raised their hands. To 18 and more, a few did, and likewise for 14 and below. She then asked, “Who saw the gorilla?”

I sure as hell didn’t. She showed the same clip again, and there it was—well, not a gorilla, but someone dressed in a gorilla suit, walking in nonchalantly as the ball was being passed. The gorilla is as tall as the others. It comes right to the centre of the screen, thumps its chest and then just as casually walks off.  You, who ignored my fervent plea to go to YouTube and watch the clip before venturing further, will never ever miss the gorilla because now your brain knows it must look for it. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to not see the gorilla,” says Blackmore.

The gorilla experiment is well known. Its creator Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, wrote a book, The Invisible Gorilla, which became a New York Times bestseller.  The implications of the experiment—just what are we missing—is a little worrying, of course. “How many times in your lifetime are you having equivalent experiences where you are not seeing nearly everything going on around you?” asks Blackmore.

The brain interprets the world for you. Everything that we see, hear or feel is a guess by it about what is out there. It can be good guesses—say, picking something up or holding an intelligent discussion with people—or it can be very far-off guesses, like what people with schizophrenia perceive. But the invisible gorilla leads to another question as well that goes to the very heart of being conscious. How come we never know that we are missing anything? Even if the gorilla is not there, there is no blank spot at that position. The world is always complete and continuous.

Consciousness, according to one definition, is the answer to the question: what is it to be like to be something? Inanimate things are ruled out. There is nothing to be ‘like a sofa’ for the sofa. But ask the same question of your pet dog. You have to pause. Is there something to be like to be Tommy? Does Tommy know it? There are fascinating experiments with animals to test their self-awareness. Psychologist Gordon Gallup put two red marks on chimpanzees under anaesthesia and a mirror before them so that they saw their reflection when they awoke. As Blackmore wrote in her book An Introduction to Consciousness, ‘You or I, in such a situation would immediately see the marks and probably try to touch them or rub them off. So did the chimpanzees.’ The experiment has since been tried with many subjects, including human babies. Children who are a year-and-a-half-old passed the test and so did apes. Monkeys didn’t. Dogs and cats failed miserably. At first, they think they’ve seen another animal, and then just give up with boredom.

Human beings think they know the answer to the question—what is it like to be human? If consciousness were a machine, then its components would be the processes of the brain, such as perception, sight, memory and so on. How these processes work is called the ‘easy problem’ of consciousness. Why all of them bundled together should lead to the creation of ‘I’ is the ‘hard problem’, which some say can never be answered.

A few days after her talk, I interviewed Blackmore over the phone over a bad network while she was on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. I asked her why the hard problem should be so insurmountable. I reasoned that if the brain’s processes led to the ‘I’, why not accept that consciousness is a natural effect of it. “But why should it happen?” she said. “That’s the big question we are all attacking. For most of the 20th century, psychologists said as much, that you just have to understand the brain and behaviour and then you will understand everything. But we cannot understand everything because we have our own different experiences. Let’s say you were drinking a glass of beer and it tastes a certain way to you. That’s a purely subjective experience at that moment. How does a brain, which is a physical thing made of physical neurons, make the taste of beer. That’s the mystery.”

There are many theoretical solutions to the hard problem, but no conclusive answer. One called the Global Workspace Theory imagines you to be inside the head and watching, or rather experiencing, a movie of the world outside by way of the brain. Another theory tries to correlate what is happening in the brain with the subjective experience to find out what exactly in the brain is connected to consciousness. Blackmore says none of them answers why the subjective experience arises. She thinks that the hard question itself is wrong and points out an oddity—we only know we are conscious when we check to see whether we are. The rest of the time, we are on a very ingenious autopilot that carefully creates the illusion that we are not on autopilot. Ask yourself how many times you were conscious over the past 30 minutes, and you will just not know. But the moment you ask it, you will know that you are conscious. As Blackmore puts it, “We can never catch ourselves not being conscious.”

She uses a metaphor to explain it—of opening the door of a fridge to check whether the light inside is on. You can do it as fast as possible, but will never see the darkness because the very act of opening the door turns it on. Consciousness exists when you look inside to see whether it exists. The rest of the time, there are invisible gorillas and neural paintings over it. This theory itself can lead to strange hypotheses. As she wrote in an article in New Scientist, ‘Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a ‘self’ who was apparently experiencing it. Of course, there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.’ In effect, she bypasses the hard question and changes it to ‘how the grand illusion gets constructed’, which is actually an ‘easy question’ and perhaps answerable.

Blackmore was stoned with hash when she had her first paranormal experience in 1970. She was a first year student, studying psychology and physiology at Oxford, and had been at a friend’s place listening to music when she suddenly went out of her body, and saw herself, her friends and the rest of the room from the ceiling. She then left the room, took an overview of the university town, did a world tour, and came back. In between, among other things, she also expanded until she incorporated the earth, moon, galaxy, universe and even a dimension beyond it. Her out-of-body experience lasted two hours. “It was so dramatic, it changed my life,” she says, “It made me absolutely determined to understand the mind, what’s going on.”

The next day when she checked the town to match it against what she had seen, there were discrepancies, but it did nothing to her belief that what she had had was a real experience. She did her PhD in parapsychology and continued to study paranormal phenomena in order to prove its existence. Thirty years later, when she gave up research on parapsychology, it was with an absolute conviction that none of it—from out-of-body experiences to near-death experiences to alien abductions—was in any manner real. Alien abduction, she has found, is just an extreme case of sleep paralysis. An out-of-body experience can be replicated in a lab by stimulating parts of the brain. A near-death experience—going through a tunnel with a light at the end—is just a trick of the brain. “We know exactly why it happens. In the visual cortex at the back of the brain, lots of cells are laid out towards the middle of the visual field. At the periphery there are very few cells and poor vision. When you come near death or take certain drugs like LSD or mescaline, the brain cells start firing very fast randomly. And that random noise looks like a white light in the middle where there are lots of cells, phasing out towards the dark of the periphery (which gives the illusion of a tunnel). As it gets brighter and stronger, the light appears to be coming towards you.”

The study of parapsychology, however, led to the study of consciousness. Besides the academic research, she has also been a Zen meditator for two decades. I ask her whether the brain changes physically because of meditation. “When you look at brain scans of people in meditation,” she says, “the whole brain is slowing down. There’s much more coherence and similar activity across the brain. In particular, there’s less activity in the frontal lobe, the part that deals with planning and decision making. So the science fits very well with the experiences that we have. There’s also a physiological change—breathing slows down dramatically in meditators who have been practising it for a long time.”

But then, she also takes a leap into a territory beyond science. To my question on whether, its mystic elements apart, the purpose of meditation is to eliminate thought altogether, she says that is a way station. In the end “thoughts come and go but you are not attached to them. You don’t believe that you are having a thought”, she says. I have heard this often before, but usually from people clad in ochre or saffron. It’s a statement that can never be tested except by meditating for 20 years.

I ask her whether enlightenment exists, and she seems to suggest it does because she has met people who are different. She asks me whether I think it exists. I say ‘no’. I could concede that the brain changes by virtue of a regular discipline, but anything beyond that would be speculation. In a strange way, while the answer to the mystery of consciousness is not available through objective study, Blackmore appears to also be taking a subjective personal path to arrive at it.

On whether the hard problem will ever be answered, she says there are three possibilities. “Either, as we get to learn more about the brain, we will just give up on thinking that it’s mysterious. The idea of life, or what makes something alive, was a great mystery in the 19th century. That question has just gone away because we understand enough. Or we will discover something fundamental like DNA. We never thought that a chemical was going to be the answer to the problem of life. But it turned out to be chemistry that answered it. Something like that could happen in consciousness studies.”

But the third possibility is the one she stands for, and that is that the question itself is wrong. You cannot see darkness by opening the fridge. “I am simply saying we are stuck because we are thinking the wrong way. Whatever we are doing, we need to think in a new way.”