Being You by Professor Anil Seth review – the exhilarating new science of consciousness

Every stoner has experienced profound insight and drawnled. Reality is a construct. Here is the amazing affirmation. According to neuroscientist Anil Sext, Reality, or at least our perception of it, is a controlled hallucination. Our entire world is a lie. It's a constant version of The Truman Show that our brains create to make us feel comfortable and allow us to live our lives.
Seth says that our minds create a world of sounds, colours, shapes, and feelings for us through which we can interact with the world around us and relate to one another. We even invent ourselves. Understanding that our reality is an illusion requires us to address the difficult issue of consciousness, which means understanding what it means to be.

Philosophers, priests, poets, and artists have long held consciousness as their exclusive domain. Now neuroscientists are trying to unravel the mystery of consciousness and answer the difficult question of how it all began. This may sound a little daunting, but it is not. Seth weaves together the personal, philosophical, and biological with an enviable clarity and coherence that is captivating to read.

Seth defines consciousness as any type of subjective experience that is relevant to our existence and identity as animate, sentient beings. What does it look like to be you? How does the feeling of being you arise from the dense conglomeration cells in our skulls. These kinds of intrinsically experiential questions have been largely ignored by science, partly because it is not clear how sciences tools could be used to explore them. Scientists love to pursue objective truths and realities. They don't want to explore the subjective realms of subjectivity in search of the truth of nostalgia, joy, or the perfect blueness on a Yves Klein canvas. It is also hard. Seth may use other words but the essence of his mission is to discover the science behind people's souls.

Yves Klein blue paintings hanging in Tate Liverpool. Scientists prefer to find objective truths and realities rather than, for example, probing the subjective realms of subjectivity in order to discover the true blueness of a Klein canvas.

All this makes consciousness one the most fascinating scientific frontiers. And nobody is better equipped to help us get there. Seth is an acknowledged leader in this field and has been studying the cognitive basis for consciousness for over two decades. Seth has created new methods of measuring and analysing the inexplicable, as well as new ways to analyze the inexplicable. With compelling writing and accessible theory, this much-anticipated book presents his radical theory about our invented reality.

As if we are the main character in our own biopic, we take it for granted that we travel through life and inhabit a world that is truly out there. Seth explains that this hallucination is caused by our minds. The brain is a prediction engine that constantly generates best-guesses causes from its sensory inputs. Our reality is generated by the brain's predictions based on sensory information. It then continuously verifies and modifies it through sensory information updates. He writes that perception is a continuous process of minimising prediction errors.

These perceptions shape our conscious experience. We call reality when we agree about our hallucinations; if we don't, we are called delusional.

Sometimes, these disagreements can allow us to see beyond what William Blake called "the doors of perception". #TheDress was one of these confusing events you might have witnessed. It was a 2015 overexposed image posted on social media. A striped dress appeared blue and black to some, while others saw it as white and gold. The reality that people see depends on how their brain adjusted for ambient lighting. Because their prediction machine was programmed to account for yellowish lighting, people who spend more time indoors are more likely to see the dress in blue or black. People who spend more time outdoors have their brains ready to adapt for the bluer light spectrum.

Seth claims that the dress phenomenon is convincing evidence that our perceptions of the world are internal constructs, shaped and influenced by our biology and past. The dress does not have any physical properties such as blueness, blackness and whiteness. In the same way that mass is, colour isn't a physical property. Instead, objects reflect light in particular ways which our brains consider part of their complex Technicolor creation of reality.

Seth writes that we perceive the world as useful, not as it really is. This means that we created this world because our ability to see through it improves our survival by helping us recognize food and avoid danger.

It is still a new science, and Seth is kind to fellow navigators, even those with opposing theories. He gently guides us through the fascinating optical illusions, magic tricks, and fascinating experiments that make up his case.

His research has shown that we are more likely to see things we expect. A study where people were shown short flashes of images in their right and left eyes showed that they were more likely to see the image in question, but were unaware of the one in the opposite eye. Sometimes our hallucinated world can be so out of tune with reality that we lose touch with reality. A hallucination can be described as an abnormally strong perception that overwhelms the sensory data. This causes the brain to lose its grip on the world's causes.

Seth has tried to shift his reality. He describes using virtual reality headsets, and taking LSD. To my surprise, hallucinogens can take you to higher levels of consciousness. You can now measure your level of consciousness independently of your wakefulness. Seth explains that this has had life-changing effects, as it allows locked-in patients to become conscious despite being inert.

Surprised, I discovered that hallucinogens can actually elevate your consciousness to a higher level.

Is there a ground zero for consciousness in living beings or artificial ones? It is, at its core, an awareness of yourself, knowing where you end, and where the rest of the universes matter begins. Seth examines various forms of self-perception, from parrots and octopuses, whose suckers attach almost to everything except their skins, since they can taste. Seth examines self-knowledge inside and out. He discredits the notion that emotions are bodily expressions like tears. Seth contends that emotions are actually a response to our minds perceptions of bodily reactions. We are sad because we see ourselves crying. We are also afraid because our heart beats faster, a survival mechanism that prepares us for a threat from the visual cortex. Even though we feel free will, many of our feelings are hallucinations that the mind creates to control us.

Therefore, the self is another perception. It is a controlled hallucination that has been constructed from a combination of prior beliefs, perceptual best-guesses and memories. Seth recounts with emotion his mother's episodes of hospital-induced delusions and delirium, as well as the story of a gifted musicologist who lost all of her memory. Seth explains how the loss of memory affected his self-perception and led to a breakdown of his personal identity.

Seth's often counterintuitive, but nonetheless convincing argument in this well-researched book is that we perceive ourselves as being in control of ourselves. But, our perceptions of others are equally important. Seth briefly mentions that our behavior is influenced by what others think about us. However, the social context in which we live is much more important. In a large way, we are the creation of other minds.

It's not about how you feel, it's also about your uniqueness. Two years had passed since the death of my grandfather, who suffered from a stroke in 2012. Dementia had taken a clever, funny, gentleman and left us with someone who was rude and insensitive. Although he was clearly conscious of his surroundings, he wasn't himself. We, without his conversation and advice, know who we were and what we have lost.

Being You, however, is a thrilling book. It's a wide-ranging, remarkable achievement that will undoubtedly be a landmark text.

Gaia Vince is author of Transcendence. How Humans Evolved Through Time, Language, Beauty, and Fire (Allen Lane).