Are you sure you’re conscious now?

British Council – From outer space to inner mind
Lectures in Toronto, Boston, Washington. Feb 28 – March 3 2005

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.

The trouble is, this cannot be true. 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. So perhaps consciousness is an illusion.

With demonstrations and help from the audience I shall explore some of the ways in which we misunderstand our own minds. 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. Finally, experiments on voluntary action cast doubt on the reality of free will.

Perhaps if we could only see through the illusion science might begin to make progress with its “greatest mystery”.