Neuroscientist Anil Seth: ‘We risk not understanding the central mystery of life’

Philosophers have been discussing the mind-body problem for centuries. They discuss the relationship between brain's physical material and conscious mental activity. Despite advances in neuroscience, brain imaging techniques, many aspects of this fundamental relationship remain elusive. David Chalmers, a cognitive scientist, coined the phrase "the hard problem" to describe the mystery of how brains create subjective conscious experiences. Philosophers continue to maintain that mind is intrinsically distinct from matter. However, dualism is being undermined by advances in neuroscience.
Anil Seth is a professor of cognitive neuroscience and computational neuroscience at Sussex University. He is at the forefront of this research. More than 11 million people have viewed his Ted Talk on Consciousness. His latest book, Being You, presents the idea that the human mind is a highly evolved prediction engine, rooted in the functions and functioning of the body, and continually hallucinating the self and the world to create reality.

Your book is a great read. I loved the way you explained many phenomena that arise from your own experience. You can see how your mother experienced delirium and the feeling of coming back to consciousness after anaesthesia. Is it important to remember this real-world context?

My interest in consciousness is intrinsically personal. I want to understand others and myself. I am also very interested in mathematical models and statistical models for characterising things like emergence. This is behavior of the mind that goes beyond the capabilities of individual parts.

Neurological patients often see the mind built from processes that we don't see in normal life.

Your team at Sussex has been established as a multidisciplinary team, including psychologists, computer scientists, and pure mathematicians. What is the reason for this?

Because of my experience in education, I was skeptical of academia. When I was 15, I had to choose between science and arts. It seemed absurd. My biggest fear was that academic science would require me to learn a lot about something that no one else is interested in. It was a huge relief to find that this was not true. It is important to remember the question and use different tools to answer it. We don't need to worry about which discipline they belong to.

Is there a question you all should be asking?

It is the question of how to create a scientific explanation that is satisfying of conscious experience.

It seems that the mind-body issue is not going to be solved completely.

Yes, but I would like to move forward. This is the boring answer to continuing to do rigorous science rather than proposing a eureka solution for the difficult problem [the question about why and how our brains create subjective conscious experience]. My view is that we may not be able to understand the core mystery of life if we resort to magical thinking. Science is a slower process than science, but there are still many things that can be done to understand the brain's relationship to conscious experience.

Your section on memory, especially about Clive Wearing, was very interesting to me. A person who has lost all of their conscious memory due to a brain infection and is now living in the present tense. It's like he is constantly waking up from a coma. However, studies have shown that he still loves his wife deeply. How can that be explained?

Clive and his wife have never been in person, I've only read about their story. It does however show that not all of the things we believe are essential for selfhood are. There are many types of memory. One of the many forms of memory is explicit conscious recall, also known as autobiographical memories. You often see the mind constructed of processes that we don't see in normal life.

Clive Wearing (who cannot form memories) with Deborah. Photograph: Ros Drinkwater/Alamy

Nicholson Baker once said that thoughts are worth having if they are as big as a wardrobe but have the complexity of an entire wheelbarrow. What do you think about thoughts

William James, the philosopher, said that thoughts are themselves the thinkers. Thoughts are produced and observed by an internal self. This is perhaps a mistake. Thought is fundamental to psychology but it's one of the most difficult things to study. Thought cannot be controlled in the same way that you can manipulate perception in a lab. Therefore, I have tended not to investigate how the mind wanders.

But as you study, do you notice how some sort of playfulness is incorporated into your consciousness?

Certain aspects of our mental lives are influenced by an internal creative spark. Where do thoughts come from? Psychoanalytic explanations leave me a little cold, as they suggest that there is a subconscious trying in there to give you some thought that might otherwise be suppressed. They seem to be the most abstract form of perception.

Your book is filled with great aphorisms. Your argument about consciousness's how and why is centered around the notion that I can predict my own future, so I am. What is the I?

It's a collection perceptual predictions. It's a playful sentence. It is ambiguous because it implies that there is an experience of me as a single, unified person, with all the different attributes such memories, emotional bonds, and experiences of my body. They seem to be united for this little piece of flesh and bone here, if I don't think too hard about it.

It is foolish to assume that everything will follow a mechanistic program of explanation.

This first-person feeling can be very stubborn. Many of us feel a strong sense of continuity between childhood and current self. Does this perception of unity actually represent a Darwinian strategy?

There is a lot of debate about evolution of consciousness. The answers to this question will depend on the distinction you are trying to make. The hard problem is back if you want to ask why there is any conscious matter, and not just how mechanisms evolve in the dark. If you frame it as "What is the evolutionary benefit of an organism having these particular experiences?", you will see that selfhood is essential because it maximizes the organisms survival chances.

Artificial intelligence cannot at least replicate that organising perception, and thus mimic other aspects conscious selfhood.

It is possible for AI to imitate that, I believe. In fact, I discuss the speed of AI's ability to imitate that being very scary. This is due to the use of both deep fake things as well as natural language processing machines. However, instantiation is another matter.

What does instantiation mean?

An AI system is a robot that subjectively experiences having a human self. This is in contrast to a complex machine that appears to have a self but has nothing going on.

A surgeon checks MRI scans during brain surgery. Photograph by Science Photo Library/Getty Images/Science Photo Library, RF

If we accept Daniel Dennett's definition of consciousness, it is a trillion mindless robots that dance, then where is the difference?

Dan Dennett is a mentor and inspiration to me for many years. It has been an honor to have had the opportunity to debate with him over the past few years. In 2017, I gave a Ted Talk and was terrified of Dennett. I knew Dennett was there and I was one of many investors and founders in the room. It's a right thing. One point during the talk, I described perceptual experience as a type of inner movie. He said, "Ah, that was all great except for the movie." It's because: Who is watching the movie? That's a very fair criticism. Because there isn't anyone watching the movie, there is no movie.

However, there is an inherent narrative.

Dennett is somewhat ambiguous about his perception of phenomenal or perceptual experience. If it exists, Dennett will explain whether or not. Once you have explained the system's functions and how they behave, then there is still much to be explained. That is something I agree with. It makes it possible to explain the various functions and dispositions that cause things to behave in certain ways. However, I am unsure if there will be any mystery at the end of this program of trying to account for physical properties of experience.

Did you ever think about that in terms of the spiritual why of something being more than nothing?

More than that, I believe there is hubris in thinking that everything will follow a mechanistic program of explanation. It is intellectual honesty to admit that conscious experience exists in a universe where we have physicalist accounts. This seems strange to me.

Thomas Nagels' famous essay "What Is it Like to be a Bat?" asks whether humans are the most evolved form of consciousness. What are your thoughts on different types of beings?

I hope very. Animal experiments are the basis of a lot of our knowledge about human consciousness. One of the stories is about my time studying octopuses. It was amazing. They truly do show a completely different way of being. I find it increasingly difficult to balance using humans as a reference point and acknowledging the fact that humans are not the standard by which all conscious species should be judged. It is important to recognize that other species will be able to experience pain, pleasure, or suffering if they have experienced it. This is in addition to complex, intelligent thinking. It is important to remember that animals are not smarter than humans.

You describe in the book how you first saw a live human brain after being invited to participate in an operation. That was a surreal experience.

Yes. This is where awe enters. This is the material object that I have written about, described, and studied data for for more than 20 years. One time, while the surgeon was performing the surgery, which involved removing damaged parts of the brain, he cut off a portion and gave it to him to hold. It was an incredibly moving experience that reminded me of the fact that everything is happening right now.