Ed Boyden on Minding your Brain

I listened to this absolutely fascinating podcast yesterday. Tyler Cowen is a great interviewer and he and Boyden cover such a huge range of neuroscience topics: from mental illness to optogenetics to ketamine to meditation to blowing up bits of your brain using a material like the use in diapers so that the bits are large enough to study under a microscope. Really, really great discussion. Definitely worth your time, give it a listen.

BOYDEN:I think one of the things we have to figure out is how can you detect consciousness, and how can you create consciousness? Alan Turing proposed the Turing test, where you would converse with something and you could try to decide whether it was conscious. But with Siri and Alexa and all this stuff in homes and on phones nowadays, I think everybody would agree that’s probably not enough. You need to know something about the internal state as well, but we don’t have a firm grasp on that yet.

I also loved this exchange:

COWEN: Is there a puppet master in the theater, or is it a kind of nominalist reality, where all there are are the different desires? And maybe the film involves a kind of illusion that someone’s in control, but that’s just another actor in the play?

BOYDEN: Here’s another way of looking at it, which is there’s so many things that we’re consciously aware of, but the vast majority of the things that the brain is doing, we’re probably unconsciously aware of.

For example, here we are in my office, and there’s all sorts of stuff around. Your brain has been processing a lot of it. If I point at that blue highlighter over there, you probably saw it earlier but were not paying conscious attention to it. But now that I point at it, you are consciously aware of it.

I actually think that something that we have to understand is, how are all these unconscious processes — this roiling sea of stuff that we have no access to — how are those processes contributing to the emergence of consciousness?

That’s one reason why I’m very excited to study the process of consciousness, if you will. What are the processes in the brain that lead to it that happen beforehand and that might help us understand, in a causal way, what gives rise to consciousness? But again, this is just an idea right now.