Conscious Effort

New Scientist 16 March 2002 p 52

(This is the original version. It was slightly edited for publication)

I gave up my job to write a textbook on consciousness. This may sound daft, but my main desire in life is to struggle with “the greatest mystery left to science”; why do we experience anything at all? How can millions of objectively existing neurons produce the subjective experience of being me sitting here worrying about it? It’s terribly difficult even to think about. And the best way to learn about a difficult subject must be to write the textbook. I reckoned it would take two years even without a job, so I set to work.

The first step was to write the sixty page synopsis. The second was to respond when Oxford University Press sent it out to no less than fourteen reviewers, whose comments ranged from the ecstatic to the insulting. It’s to be a real textbook, aimed at third year undergraduates; with little boxes, exercises, questions to test your knowledge, and lots and lots of references. As far as I know, it will be the first ever on consciousness. There are lots of books (some say too many) that promote someone’s theory of consciousness, but no textbooks. After ten years of teaching courses on this topic I think I have a unique qualification for writing one. I have no theory of consciousness.

The task is unlike anything I’ve done before. All my previous books have pushed my own theories; on the paranormal, or memes. This time I have to explain theories that I think are completely wrong (which is many) as well as those I think may be half right. I have to criticise them all without allowing my bias too much free rein. Yet I cannot avoid all bias because I have to choose what goes in and what stays out. It’s agonising but I love it.

This life would not suit everyone. It means strict discipline, sitting alone for days on end, surrounded by books, reading, thinking, getting confused and writing. But this is all I want to do. And have I discovered what consciousness is yet? Not at all, but I’m getting more deeply perplexed.

Susan Blackmore is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster living in Bristol. “Consciousness: An Introduction” will be published by Arnold in the UK and Oxford University Press in the USA, probably in 2003.