Teaching Consciousness

Toward a Science of Consciousness – Tucson 2006


Teaching courses can be fun. Even the (sometimes) difficult and abstract topic of consciousness can be taught by using interactive sessions, games, and demonstrations. During more than ten years of teaching third-year undergraduate courses I have developed many class activities to bring abstract arguments to life, and personal exercises for developing insight. In this workshop I shall enlist the participants as students (and critics) to discuss course structure, and to try out some of the activities, including the following.

Mary the colour scientist. Re-enacting “Mary amazed” and “Mary-know-it-all” emerging from their black and white room makes the thought experiment unforgettable.

The cutaneous rabbit is easy to demonstrate (with practice) and illuminates arguments about the timing of conscious experiences. This is useful before trying …

Libet’s experiment on voluntary action. With the teacher acting as the clock face, students act “spontaneously” and time their “will to move” – leading to all the classic criticisms of this famous experiment, and discussions of free will.

Split brain twins. Two people act as the right and left hemispheres respectively, with one hand restrained and a taped-over mouth.

The imitation game. Setting up a class Turing test is impossible, but Turing’s original game (guessing the sexes) works well. When the students have to decide which questions to ask they discover the big issues in machine consciousness.

Positioning the theories. Students fill in a blank version of Varela’s scheme and discuss their differences.

Personal exercises for students to practice at home, from “Am I conscious now?” to “Who made that decision?”.

These, and many other activities, are in Consciousness: An Introduction. Some lecturers may think that these “games” waste time and trivialise the subject. Trying them out will enable us to discuss this. Others may object to the intense personal exercises, or wish to discuss the ethical issues that arise when students’ deepest beliefs are challenged. I hope that the workshop will be fun, while helping us to learn from each other about the teaching of consciousness studies.


Each activity takes 15 – 20 minutes.     If you have a copy of Consciousness: An Introduction page numbers are given for each activity.

  1. Introduction

Are you conscious now? What is it like to be you now?
Explanation of the personal exercises (3-4)

  1. Some philosophical exercises
    These exercises help students to think about such questions as “What is consciousness?” “Is consciousness an added extra?” (i.e. are they functionalists, identity theorists, dualists, etc ?). I remind them that there is no right answer (or if there is we don’t yet know what it is). So the purpose is to help them explore their own thoughts rather than give them information.

Defining consciousness – an exercise in pairs (14)
Mary the colour scientist – mock up of the thought experiment (27)
The teletransporter – would you press the button? (111)
The sentience line – which objects or creatures are conscious? (154)

Coffee break

  1. Some scientific demonstrations

These exercises help students to understand some of the experiments they read about. Libet’s experiment, in particular, is difficult to understand. This exercise helps both with understanding the method and thinking up criticisms.

The cutaneous rabbit (61)
Libet’s experiment on spontaneous deliberate action (127)
The imitation game (192)
Split brain twins (107-8)  (we may not have time for both these)

  1. Concluding task and discussion

Positioning the theories (377-380)

Ethical issues arising in consciousness courses

Which worked best, or worst, and how could they be improved?

The value of the home-work exercises.

Questions and general discussion