The Grand Illusion:
Why consciousness is not what it seems

Abstract for The Edinburgh Science Festival, April 2003

Everyone thinks they know what consciousness is. It is a stream of thoughts, ideas, and images that pass, in rapid succession, through the mind, experienced by a conscious self who watches them come and go. We know it’s like this because we experience it all the time and act upon our experiences.

The trouble is, it cannot be this way. There is no room in the brain for a conscious observer, not enough time for us to act on our conscious impressions, and no way of explaining why some brain activity should be conscious while most is not.

Some people turn to quantum mechanics or extra dimensions for answers, and others to old-fashioned dualism. But perhaps we need to do something far more dramatic and accept that we got it wrong in the first place.

With demonstrations and help from the audience I shall argue that there is no stream of consciousness. The phenomenon of change blindness shows that the richness of our visual world must be an illusion. Inattentional blindness shows that we can look right at something and not see it at all, and some odd effects with clocks and rabbits show how wrong we can be about the timing of consciousness. Perhaps if we could only see through the illusion science might begin to make progress with its “greatest mystery”. But if we could see through the illusion would our consciousness itself be transformed?