The Corner

End of Consciousness

Saturday’s topics were ESP, altered states, and the development of consciousness.

“Consciousness Studies” has a problem with its boundaries. If you’re trying to get a science of consciousness going, what do you leave out? There has been some good rigorous stuff here at the Tucson conference: brain imaging, neuroscience, experimental psychology of a pretty traditional sort, solid philosophy. Obviously, though, a topic like this is going to attract some New Ageism, magic-mushroom types, and the sort of people whose claims get lengthily debunked in Skeptic magazine. How many of them should you let in?

The organizers seem to have taken a fairly generous line, giving time to a few oddities like the Mayan calendar guy I wrote about last time. I think that’s reasonable in a conference titled “Toward a Science of Consciousness.” I just hope the organizers know that once you let the cranks get a foot in the door, it can be hard to get rid of them.

So here we were Saturday morning with biologist Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge University, probably best known for his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Dr. Sheldrake came to us with a limp, and delivered his address from a chair, having been stabbed in the thigh by a lunatic at a different consciousness conference earlier in the week. The incident didn’t seem to have affected his good humor, and he gave us a witty presentation on the dog business, “telephone telepathy,” and the awareness some of us seem to have that we are being stared at from behind, even though we can’t see the starer. (“Telephone telepathy”:  you find yourself unexpectedly thinking about someone when suddenly the phone rings, and it’s the person you were thinking about. For the younger telepath, Dr. Sheldrake has extended his inquiries into “email telepathy” and, yes, “texting telepathy.”) Sheldrake has done some experiments, and showed us his results in summary.

I confess I can’t be much bothered with this kind of thing. ESP investigations have been going on for over a century, some of them very elaborate and well-funded, like those of J.B. Rhine, whom I mentioned a couple of days ago. Yet nothing ever seems to come of it, and whenever any really interesting result shows up, it always evaporates on careful inspection, as Rhine’s did. Heavyweight intellectuals, like Arthur Koestler in the 1970s, sometimes lend their support, but the sheer lack of good reproducible results, or of any coherent, testable hypotheses, keeps ESP out on the fringe.

So as entertaining as Sheldrake’s presentation was, I got more from the three following speakers, who all debunked him to various degrees. Dick Bierman of the University of Amsterdam had repeated some of Sheldrake’s experiments, with deeply unimpressive results. John Allen of this university (Arizona) threw more cold water, noting that to explain these odd anecdotal events by ESP is “conclusion by exclusion,” a statistically very weak procedure. Steven Barker of this same university was especially effective, demolishing Sheldrake’s being-stared-at “results” with a neat bit of Bayesian analysis.

Mind you, though, it is funny the way dogs know when we’re coming home …

The second of today’s three sessions was on “Psychedelics and Consciousness.” The main presentation was zoologist Thomas Ray of the University of Oklahoma, taking us deep into neurochemistry. The key words here are receptors, which are protein molecules on the surface of nerve cells, and the neurotransmitters that go with them. A lot of these little devils affect consciousness. Did you know, for example, that those antihistamines you take for hay fever “may inhibit one’s ability to form gut feelings about people”? Or that one way to lose your religious faith is to get Parkinson’s disease, because dopamine, the thing Parkinson’s sufferers don’t have enough of, enhances religious sensitivity?

Ray claims to have found what he calls a “meta-receptor,” modulating the effect of other receptors. His meta-receptor turns joy into ecstasy, anger into paranoia, ordinary religious enthusiasm into the conviction that you are the Messiah. He hasn’t published yet, though, so he wouldn’t tell us much more about it.

The other presentation on this thread was a New Agey thing from a fellow calling himself a practitioner of “transpersonal psychotherapy.” Uh-huh. His chief enthusiasm is something called Ayahuasca, “a shamanistic psychedelic brew.” I made a bet with myself that we’d hear something about the Dalai Lama before the end of the lecture. Sure enough, there he was, in a video clip with the lecturer. You can’t avoid Tibet these days, it seems.

The wind-up session was three talks on the development of consciousness in babies, infants, and adolescents. This was all very down-to-earth, and a relief after shamanistic brews and the Dalai Lama.

The best of the three lectures was Alison Gopnik of Berkeley on “What’s it like to be a baby?” I should explain here that Consciousness Studies folk are very big on “What’s it like …?” inquiries. There was a very famous 1974 paper in the field titled What Is It Like To Be A Bat?. However, these lectures were real dev-psych research, with brain scans, beepers, questionnaires and all, not mere philosophical ruminating.

Well, what is it like to be a baby? Something like being in a foreign country, where everything is new to you: a flood of sesnations, making it difficult to fix your attention on any particular thing. Babies are good at exogenous, “bottom up” attention, but not much good at the endogenous, “top down” variety. The “bottom” here is raw sensory input; the “top” is the executive self, the “I.” Babies don’t have much of an “I.” Sample quotes from the very quotable Ms. Gopnik:

  • Consciousness narrows as a function of age.
  • As we know more, we see less.
  • Babies are designed to learn, not act. Adults are designed to act, not learn.

We ended up with Sarah Akhter of the University of Nevada telling us about adolescent consciousness. She’d done one of those beeper studies to probe the inner lives of adolescents. I tell you, these researchers know no fear. Her most alarming results were from an adolescent girl who, from her self-reporting, seemed to have no inner life at all. I know that girl.

I learned a new word here: “alexothymia,” the inability to describe feelings in words. Academic conferences are great for your vocabulary. I picked up some lovely words here at Tucson, though I think “alexothymia” is my favorite. Runner-up: “anosognosia”.

All in all an excellent conference, with a good broad variety of topics and some great speakers. There’s an “End of consciousness” party this evening (Saturday), but I have to miss it as my plane leaves in the wee hours. My thanks to the University of Arizona for organizing this great event, and to Stuart and Abi for letting me sign up.

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