Consciousness Squandered

Contributor Ben Ehrlich reports on Saturday evening’s “Consciousness: Explored and Explained” event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.

Sometimes it is helpful to be reminded that certain things can go wrong even in spite of right intentions.  Tell me that the appealing actor Alan Alda will moderate a conversation about consciousness featuring the expert neuroscientist Dr. Giulio Tononi and the inimitable screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and I might even offer to bring the donuts.  As part of the World Science Festival, such an event did in fact take place Saturday night in the Kaye Auditorium at Hunter College.  But a billing is never a guarantee.  Unfortunately, “Consciousness:  Explained and Explored” was infinitely less enlightening than it might have been.  I fault a lack of donuts.

In March I had the pleasure of watching Charlie Kaufman share a Brainwave stage at the Rubin Museum with the physicist Brian Greene (see our review of that event here).  I was moved.  Not only did the two men bravely explore a most enticing and daunting intellectual realm—Time, part of the Conceptual Pantheon that also includes Consciousness—they did so with the utmost respect for one another and for the spirit of intellectual exchange.  Their chemistry, born from a combination of mutual curiosity and humility, was refreshing to witness.  After all, such a public forum exists to hatch and incubate the hardest questions, not to engineer easy answers.  But the questions must lead somewhere that is definitively away from nowhere.

Charlie Kaufman, Alan Alda, and Dr. Giulio Tononi
Left to right: Charlie Kaufman, Alan Alda, and Dr. Giulio Tononi

That is why I was so frustrated to hear a moderator—Mr. Alda—who spoke too much and said too little.  Yes, he represents the layman and thus seeks out the simple explanations that sooth most audiences.  This is undoubtedly an important role.  But Mr. Kaufman is also a scientific layman.  Only, he has proven so naturally capable as a questioner.  Conversely, Mr. Alda cultivated a completely uneven discourse that was skewed towards Dr. Tononi and—it must be said—towards Mr. Alda himself as well.  This left Mr. Kaufman as tragically disengaged as a silent songbird.  Moreover, Mr. Alda was incapable of stopping himself from interjecting insistent shtick into the mix.  Why include such a performer, I wonder?  When there are but ninety minutes to discuss the most fascinating and complicated topic in neuroscience, a topic that inspires universal interest because of its inextricable essentiality to the human experience, why waste even a second on anything else?  The immoderate steering of Mr. Alda—who ought to have taken a back seat—leadfootedly zoomed the audience past the truly unique scenery that exists in the mind of Mr. Kaufman.

But, in fact, most of the words during the event belonged to Dr. Tononi, who made repeated, valiant attempts to provide a metaphorical tie-together for the scattered discussion by comparing our conscious experience to a film.  Dr. Tononi’s theory of consciousness—the integrated information theory—is based on two important principles.  First, there is the fact that we always experience consciousness as being wholly unified—integrated.  It is impossible to separately focus on the sub-components comprising a certain stimulus.  A red ball can only be interpreted as a red ball and not merely as a ball, or a red object.  Second, there is the fact that our brain somehow contains an innumerable repertoire of percepts.  Think of the diversity of distinct moments in a minute, or a day, or a life.  The brain is able to generate uniqueness, to chose from a seemingly infinite amount of information in order to form specific and coherent experiences.

One neuroscientist told me with appreciation after the event that Dr. Tononi does not dumb his science down.  This is true; although he used a quarter of his slides, he explained a few important concepts such as “binocular rivalry,” a bizarre and fascinating phenomenon of visual perception.  If a different image is presented to each eye, the brain can only alternate between them.  It cannot combine them to form one picture.  Dr. Tononi also introduced some relevant clinical examples of abnormal consciousness, staples of classical neurology that always serve as effective illustrations.

But the Internet can be such a teacher too; in my opinion, the reason to attend a live dialogue such as “Consciousness: Explored and Explained” is to witness the participating parties pushing themselves forward with the synchronized back-and-forth of an intellectual handcar.  Although this particular event ran off-track, it did lead me to once more appreciate when something like it was done so well.  After all, nothing can go right every time.  But that will not stop me from attending.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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