Christof Koch – Consciousness and Free Will

May 28, 2012

Recently, there has been a flurry of neuroscientists declaring that free will is an illusion in the popular press. But before we can assess the extent to which we are zombies, we need to first tackle the question of what, exactly, is consciousness. To get up to speed on the state of the art, we talked to Christof Koch, a colorful pioneer in the application of scientific tools to delineate the neural correlates of consciousness, whose famous 18-year collaboration with Francis Crick helped legitimize the field. Koch has never shied away from controversy, commenting on sentience in machines and dogs without skipping a beat.

Christof Koch is Professor of Biology and of Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and Chief Scientific Office of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. He is the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and The Quest for Consciousness, among other books.

This is point of inquiry from Monday, May 24th, 2012. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Indre Viskontas point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. 

And at the grass roots at the annual neuroscience meeting, when tens of thousands of people converge to talk about how the biology of the brain gives rise to the workings of the mind. There is one individual who stands out, and it’s not just because his hair is often shockingly green, red or other, often neon color. It’s not even his propensity for a garish purple shirts among a sea of blue jeans and concert tees, or a gray flannel pants and crisp white shirts. If one is on the job market, it’s his radical ideas concerning how the soup of chemicals and the circuit board of wiring in the brain gives rise to the subjective experience of being alive. Christof Koc is known for publishing some of the most innovative and exciting experiments in neuroscience. He’s also known for causing many a colleague and in my case, first graduate student and then postdoc to furrow brows and roll eyes at the sweeping statements that he sometimes makes. But despite my initial skepticism, his rigorous pursuit of the neural correlates of consciousness has won me over. Like every good scientist, he has tweaked his theories as the data have enlightened him. In the 1990s, along with his Nobel Prize winning mentor, Francis Crick, he published a seminal paper in which he suggested that perhaps the key to consciousness lies in the synchronization of firing among neurons in the brain. In particular, he felt that the 40 hertz isolation was one of the neural correlates of consciousness. But as time went on and studies were published, he soon realized that in fact, this signature might not be indicating consciousness as a whole, but rather the way that information is selected for further conscious processing. It’s been my pleasure to watch Christoph’s career twist and turn as he tries to understand how the subjective experience of being conscious is represented in the brain. Now, as some neuroscientists have gained media attention by suggesting that one of the fundamental aspects of human kind that is our ability to choose what we want to do next is simply an illusion. I felt that it was time to check in with the flamboyant frontiersmen of the scientific study of consciousness himself. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Christophe Carr. 

Thank you for having me. 

It’s a real pleasure to speak to you. I know that you’ve been studying consciousness now for the majority of your scientific career all the way from being a pioneer when it was still a very taboo topic among cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. And in that time, I’ve noticed that you’ve shifted. You know, you’ve had some theories that you felt were strong candidates and then you’ve shifted your thinking. And I’m wondering now, what do you see as the most likely candidate for the signature of consciousness in the brain? 

Well, let me before we come to that, we I guess we should talk about the idea of whether it was kind of looking for and what they’re looking for is what’s now called a new owner correlates of consciousness of often abbreviated entity. The idea is that for anyone conscious percept, whether it’s, you know, I’m having a toothache or I see red or I’m angry. Those are three different conscious states. Each one is distinct. Quote, what of called call you associate with them. We can ask whether the call it’s in the brain. What is the minimum, Your Honor, mechanisms in the brain for me to either feel angry or see, read or have a toothache. And this is a purely imposed strategy, no matter how exactly you define consciousness or what exactly. This is just Haiji that you can do. So, for instance, with respect to seeing red, I can look at what part of the brain are necessary for me to see that my eyes, if my retina, which the other recipient of the four times a day necessary for being conscious of that. Well, if I’m looking at, you know, at a red sunset. Yes. But I can close my eyes and imagine that sunset and at night I might dream about it. I’ve had some sedentary dreaming. And certainly you’re very conscious in each case that China is an active. So the retina might often be involved and the effect on humans might often be involved in in seeing conscious head. But it doesn’t seem to be necessary if your spinal cord necessary. You know, it’s part of your nervous system. Well, if you lose a job, you know, you’ll be unable to walk. You’ll be paralyzed, but you won’t you won’t have any trouble seeing red. And we can ask for different parts of the brain. What are the parts of the brain that are strictly necessary? And so this is has been a very successful strategy. You can do this and people you can put them in prognostic scanners. You can do it on occasion in the in the clinic where you a from individual nerve cells in patients or you can do it in animals. You can send a monkey to tell you what it seemed that you can talk, but, you know, a baby can talk, you can talk to you directly either. But there’s no question the baby, you know, a baby continuously its intention. And so you can do the same thing with a monkey or you was it was a mouse. And so people are focused on on on this very important poll project, you know, discussing to the old colleagues of consciousness. Well, then, in the context of your questions that people are focusing on on on the so-called signature. No, they haven’t really found it. Simple signature early on. As you said, Francis Cake, with whom I worked for 20 years on this. And I we put a lot of emphasis on this, on this phenomena called Photios isolation, that very often nerve cells, the way they communicate is using these Clixby, these spikes that ended and the Kinnison see these Clixby spikes become very regular. They they become every 20, 25, 30 milliseconds. And of the, you know, one over that period is 40 hertz. And so people will. People sudden. We specifically proposed that, that every time this is 40, that’s among Manion’s, then they are directly involved in consciousness. That does not seem to be the case that that that’s has passed him to pull it closer to attention, whether when you attend to something which is linked to but it’s different from consciousness. The underlying yawn seem to signal his 40 hertz, 40 hertz a manner. So right now, people are looking for this. No, call it to Congress. In other parts of the cortex, not everywhere. So turns out many, many parts of the neurons of your brain can be very active, can fire away. It could be literally millions of new and firing away. Yet you’re not conscious. Consciousness seems to relate to the firing of the activity, in particular parts of the city, the cortex and associated thalamus. 

So what what is the unifying, I guess, experience or process that brings together these different components of conscious awareness that that we can sort of find a neural signature for? For example, you talked about experiencing the color red, imagining the color red versus seeing the color red. Do you have a sense now of what is that unifying process, whose signature we’re looking for? 

Yeah, I feel relieved. Ultimately, it’s not what the brain is made up of, whether it’s, you know, it’s happened to be made up by lipid membranes and proteins. It’s clearly the way they interconnected. I think that’s sort of the secret to consciousness, that ultimately consciousness arises from very complex system complexity. Yes. To be defining this specific mathematical way, that system for the highly interconnected, that a highly integrated because it will that highly both integrated and highly differentiated. What I mean by that is that if you think it would consciousness, it’s highly different state that if you think about all the possible conscious states you could have, if you think about all the movies of every frame of every movie you’ve ever seen or will ever see. Each one of superspeed conscious state in each one has its distinct conscious feel and conscious experience. He had all these complex splinters. What’s interesting about him is what philosopher to us, unitary or holistic or integrated. When I’m conscious of something, I apprehended this a whole. And so you want to look for for for for a substrate that that has these two properties that’s both highly defensible as well as highly integrated in the language to really think about. This is information theory. Ultimately, I think any theory of consciousness will have to be prominent in the language of of of information theory. And the language of information theory doesn’t depend on whether on the underlying substrate. You know, you can this information theory for computers, for for wires or for axons and nerve cells. And ultimately, what would give rise to conscious consciousness is immense complexity of specific aspects of the brain. 

So what makes you think that there will be something that unifies all these distinct experiences? For example, you know, we know that memory comes in different forms. And what unifies different types of memories is that, you know, it’s essentially experience that changes our future behavior. But the memory that I lay down for the way that I ride my bike is very different from my memory of my birthday party last year. And we know that the actual neural correlates of those two memories reside in different parts of the brain. They involve different processes. They’re injured in different ways. So one of the questions that I still find unanswered is, is there something unifying about consciousness that we can learn, that we can find common to all conscious expenses, the fact that they’re subjective, that there that that that they are highly integrated and both highly differentiated. 

And so whether you’re conscious of yourself or conscious of an external event, all of them have this commonality. It seems like something to be angry at. Feels like something too sedated, feels like something to have to see. You know, this this is this is subjective phenomena, correct? I mean, that’s a defining hallmark. In fact, the only way you know that you exist is the most famous deduction in the Western world. And cuts to passed on to see is that I’m conscious of something that I know I exist and that is what I’m conscious of. Could be, you know, could be and they could be. That could be having a toufik. It could be any more familiar from other states. That’s really what makes all of them similar. And so the proposition is that this is something that’s common to many, many organisms, not just us. In fact, we don’t know where we’re sort of which you know, at what level of complexity it ends. And and they’re much more elaborated in us. But my dog is is conscious and you can ask, what’s he what what’s the commonality between your dog and you? Your brain is roughly 20 times pick up at the fact is the conscious experience of pain or pleasure that that my dog and have when my dog’s excited or running, or I’ll kill you for fearful I lose all different conscious states. And what’s common to all of them that they’re experienced. And so we always have to ask what is the underlying causes of expense? And they are you’re you’re correct at the expense of red put down. It’s generated by different part of the brain and expense of having to think of the expense of of being angry. We know this because the until patients who’ve lost part of their brain due to disease or gunshots or a tumor or sold for something, and then they’re unable to see read or they’re unable to have pain or they might have trouble was with their with their own person. They might have what’s called depersonalization. That’s all. Because the specific local aspects of the brain that are involved in generating eatables, be conscious percepts is is destroyed both by and by some sort of trauma. But the underlying phenomena always is always the same. It’s the same type of phenomena. 

So now we get to this what they call the hard problem of consciousness, which is how do we reconcile the subjective experience of being aware or having consciousness with this by all biological matter of the brain. And in your book, I actually was really interested to hear the conversation you had with philosopher David Chalmers, who coined the notion of the hard problem of consciousness. And you reported that he said that there is no way that you kick you can provide any kind of evidence that he feels will solve this. Problem. It sounded to me very much like a faith that he has. And do you do you encounter this often in people who just say there is there is no evidence that you can provide for me that will convince me that, you know, there that the subjective experience comes from the biological matter of the brain. Yeah. 

So it’s as though Joseph knows, of course. He is a philosopher. Argued it’s a hard problem. Now, historically, you have to be skeptical when philosophy is something can be done by philosophers have made this point a different philosophy. All ages have argued that many things cannot be done, that later on we explain the time I took up early. I’m very skeptical when a philosopher says this cannot be done yet. Might be difficult problem. Yeah, it might be more difficult than, you know, kind of to study, you know, proteins or patterns that it’s a black hole. But there’s no reason that science and principle can’t answer this. And ultimately, I think there will be a theory that that leads to wealth on the one world. One hand is my world. My brain is a world of physics. And we’re familiar with in science, which includes my brain, in your brain and new in the waiting to act and all of that. And the other hand is my world of my of conscious expense that’s unique to me. You have another world. You have your own world. If you’re conscious expenses. And the project that we fighters are trying to do is turn to a kind of enables two worlds. Well, you know, what event in the physical plane has to happen for you to have a conscious expense? That is a is a it’s a scientific project is happening right now. And I just don’t believe anybody who says it can be done. I know many people believe it can be done, some people for conceptually do, some people because, you know, psychologically, they don’t want this project to succeed. But so far, you’ve assigned to solve all sorts of other problems. I see no reason the worldwide should not solve this particular problem. 

And so what do you see as one of the major steps that we’ve made in the last, say, 20 years toward solving this problem? 

Well, either to that day that we know the only empirical poll project to try to discover these old colleagues, this is something that, you know, we can do in the lab. We can do an analyst, we can do and people we can do in on. Ultimately, we will have the answer. Ultimately, we will know what what part of the brain is thinking. You know, if necessary, in any one case or at least sufficient to give rise to to consciousness. So what we’ve learned over the last 20 years are things like, you know, the primary visual cortex, the primary cortical areas are not sufficient to get to consciousness. And this is a big deal because it helps that it just be proud of. Many people thought that anytime information enters into the cerebral cortex of the thing on top of our brain, the thing there’ll be a more part that we must call it off. It’s sort of, you know, that the difference is us from the great apes or from other mammals. It’s not just any electrical activity or any yorn activity, just part of the brain that sufficient for consciousness. Some parts of the cerebral cortex seem to have a more privileged access to consciousness to others because the higher parts of cortex why that is. So there are some theories that on the salmonsen relating to information, too. But really beyond. Sure. We’ve also learned. And so I said probably. We’ve found that there can be lots and lots of newel activity in your brain that’s unconscious. In fact, I would say the majority probably at any given point in time, the majority of activity in Ukraine is not going to be constantly perceived to really have mechanisms in your brain that are active at any given point in time, including right now that do not give rise to consciousness. A subset of people like to think of those two consciousness. We’ve also learned that things like fulcrum, attention and consciousness are different. You mentioned before the study of memory into what was very important in the study of memory is to see, you know, which part of memories are we actually talking about and what is directly related to memory and what type of memory do we think seeing consciousness is an important tool to study which phenomena are really necessary for consciousness and which phenomena are not necessarily for consciousness. And so we learned that attending to something is important in everyday life. But it’s really different from being conscious of something. And so this is how science works. You kind of isolate the phenomenon till you really have to call of the phenomenon on the investigation. 

Exactly. And I think we are coming much closer to understanding attention, if not consciousness itself, because we’re starting to see how our attention is drawn in different ways, how, you know, even things that we previously didn’t think we were aware of can come into our attentional sphere when we need them to. So we talk about bottom up processes, things from the outside world that capture our attention or top down processes where we use our our thinking and our cognition in order to focus our attentional spotlight on parts of the environment that are important to us. 

And I still don’t have a really good sense yet of how awareness and attention, if you know where the lines are drawn between consciousness and conscious awareness versus attention. And I’m hoping that maybe you could speak to that. 

Yeah. So. I time to film any organism. Why do we have attention? What’s the function of selective attention? We are bombarded by, you know, literally millions of bits of fancy information on my skin, on my on my E.R. in particular, on my eyes. I can’t pass off all of that in your time into what my brain does and what brains of any organism, including what applies to these selected subset of that information for further processing. And most of the nonattendance information is sort of sort of relegated to oblivion. You although sometimes you can show that some inference of the organism party, but typically you only focus on the information that you are there to attend to. And typically what you attend to is what you’re conscious of. But what psychologists and ingenuity have discovered over the last 10 years are all sorts of places where you can attend to things. You can show that selective visual attention going on that you don’t become conscious of it. So I think it’s now sort of accepted in the field that you can that that attention by itself does not guarantee that you become conscious of something that you can attend to things without necessarily being conscious of that. The converse is much more controversial. So the converse would be that you can be conscious of something without without without attending. I think that’s possible. But the evidence for that isn’t it isn’t all that strong. But there are two different phenomena. Attention is a phenomena of selecting information for further positing and thereby neglecting the vast majority of information impinging on your sensory apparatus. Consciousness is something different. 

So I guess I feel consciousness of a heightened form of attention. It’s sort of like attending to what you are, you know, aware of in your in your mind. It’s your mind’s eye in that sense. And so I, I find it very compelling when I think about the stream of consciousness and Daniel Dennett’s view that really you can become conscious of the different thought processes that are happening in your mind. But if. An illusion that you’re always conscious. It’s a little bit like the refrigerator light. You know, it seems like every time we open the refrigerator door, the light is on. But when the door is closed, the light is actually off. So do you do you agree with that sort of idea of consciousness that it’s a stream and that we have an illusion that it’s always going? But the reality is, is that it’s only we’re only really conscious of or self-aware when we query that stream. 

No, I think clearly the people, when we’re not conscious, sleep, for instance, and figments off of that that we can measure outside of being unconscious. 

So every night I go, you know, for 20 minutes, you know, you’re going to be sleeping in a surface of MSNBC. I’m conscious again and go into deep sleep. When I’m anesthetize. I’m unconscious during a time, a major blow to my head. I’m unconscious, but otherwise toward normal Day-To-Day life. I’m I’m conscious now, but the content of my consciousness changes constantly. But but I see once again, no reason to believe it’s it’s an it’s an illusion. There are probably of this and we can measure them. And people, in fact, are trying to build devices, so-called conscious or meter based on information, theoretical theories that Tommy. Exactly. Is a patient in front of me. You know, is she you know, she might be she has been in a bad traffic accident and she can sort of moan, but I can’t really communicate with her on a regular basis. You know, if the patient is actually conscious or not and people are trying to develop signatures once again definitively, we’ll call it a conscience signature that I can pick up using EEG or some other tools to tell me this piece in front of me is actually conscious or she’s not conscious right now. So, no, I don’t think it’s. 

So that brings me to my next question, which is, you know, one of the things I think that maybe you’re thinking of was a recent effa MRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging study looking into the brains of patients who are have locked in syndrome. And they try to train the patients to indicate whether or not they could understand the instructions given to them by the people who are running the scan by either imagining that they were playing tennis or imagining something else. And of course, they were looking for the correlate of imagining. In your mind, if you imagine that you’re playing tennis in the NAHJ imaging scanner, you’ll see that the correlate of activity in your, say, smatter sensory or motor cortex. And in fact, they did find that in one of these patients, at least they they could when they asked the patient to imagine playing tennis versus some control task, they’d actually did see this activation in the appropriate cortical regions. So it suggests that even if a person can’t communicate at all, we might be able to use neuro imaging to see this sense of agency or the sense that they are that they are trying to be in control of their actions. 

This is actually this is actually patients that are in so-called vegetative state. 

This was not well, I guess is I guess that’s different from locked in syndrome. I apologize for my mistake, but my what I took from that study is that, you know, you have we can sort of. Even though there’s no observable behavior, the person still is able to have this sense of control over their thoughts. And so it may be think about this question of of freewill and the sense of agency. And and you talked a little bit about free well in your book, but also in a recent Scientific American mind, Artecoll, which was adapted from a chapter in your book. So I wanted to turn a little bit to that discussion because there’s a controversy now among neuroscientists and among people who stay, who understand that a lot of the brain works outside of our consciousness. A lot of the things that the brain does are not available to us, to our conscious awareness. And it’s it’s giving us the sense that perhaps freewill itself is an illusion. 

Yeah. So this is the other part of this age or the mind body conundrum? Firstly, what is at the heart of mind body its consciousness? I mean, are we seen what do we mean by that? Yes, health first. I guess one should emphasize that these forms to certain extent independent of each other. So you can perfectly well imagine, for instance, that freewill is a complete illusion, but that doesn’t really tell us how consciousness works. Or conversely, we can assume you have free will. But again, this doesn’t help us all that much with time. Understand what’s the cause of of consciousness. So so I think it’s important to to to keep this problem somewhat separate, not be for for my money. The two key key discoveries in the field of of freewill are one, of course, that very often if I take a conscious decision to leave my right hand of my left hand and your signature, I can I can pick up well before I myself become aware of this. That this goes back to this famous experiment by Benjamin Libbard in the in the 80s that you ask people to, you know, to volunteer to lift ego voluntary whenever they feel like it on left to the right thing. And I can pick up the signature a couple of seconds in Ichi’s before. So this is facility before this self became conscious that they were going to decide to move left and move by. So that’s really close up a whole range of questions. The other one is that that neurosurgeon, such as it’s succeed and others have discovered places in the brain that you can stimulate that give rise to this conscious sensation of of an urge to to want to. To want to do something, to want to lift my hand, for want to twist my tongue. 

And so here the discovery is really that that that that feeling of being free. What psychologists call agencies of books. And when I lift my right hand, the number of feelings that go hand-in-hand with that. One of the feelings that goes hand in hand is a feeling of agents. You have the feeling that I could solve conflict. Wanted to lift my hand and say, hey, I’m looking. My hand is actually rising. Now, if you take my hand and move it up, I don’t have a sitting of agency. I know it’s my hand. I feel what’s called ownership, but I don’t have the feeling of of agency and defensive agency. You know, the feeling that I’m in control, that I’m in charge. It’s a subjective feeling like any other city, just like this thing up there that the feeding off of the computer to take. And lo and behold, as I mentioned, this neurosurgeon and all psychologists have discovered there’s going to be a new coverlet. Certain parts of my brain are effectively involved then necessary to generate the feeling of the agency. And when I when this part of the brain this is the start of something, then I might have a feel of agency in Marzo. You know, I’m still moving my hand up, but I think, well, I don’t know why somebody else is moving my hand. That’s a well known clinical symptom. That’s right. So I think that’s one of the interesting discovery that that feeling of being free itself is the feeling that has the same degree of validity as any other people, including the feeling of seeing that or having to think. 

But it did know, of course, this does not solve the problem of am I really free. Right. And to what extent? Am I free? And this is a phony problem I need. Depends what I mean by free. People, of course, have very confused ideas of it. 

You know the consulate. Yes, it is sort of my my soul. You know, like the ghost, you know, sort of hovers above the waters of the brain. And then Phoebe comes down and touch. This is part of the brain or that part of the brain. And I think the left half of the hole that I Farkle to. 

Oh, of course, that doesn’t work like that. As you pointed out, we’ve now discovered untold portions of unconscious processes that help me make decisions all the time. I’m certainly much, much less likely than I than I think I am. 

Right. And I think where the the the to consciousness and the sense of agency intersect is again. I feel like senses the sense of agency as a sort of a distinct aura or a sort of a form of consciousness, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have control over our actions. 

So, for example, in the LIBET studies where they have this 300 millisecond EEG response, that maybe corresponds to the sense of agency, which happens, of course, after the brain has already initiated that processes required to move. But that doesn’t mean that the person wasn’t in control of their movements because, of course, in the experiment they’re told. I want you to move your wrist at some point. You just need to tell me when exactly you thought that you were going to move your wrist. But the the person still has some sort of control, even if it’s not available to consciousness over the. The moving of the wrist. So sometimes I feel that by saying we don’t you know, freewill is an illusion. What we’re saying is the sense of agency that we have comes after we’ve made the decision somewhere outside of our consciousness to do the action that we are doing. It doesn’t mean that we’re not in control of it, but rather that this sense of agency is the way that our brains, you know, maybe interpret what’s going on sort of lower down or in another part of our minds. 

Yes. And you put it rather well. I mean, ultimately, it’s still my brain that made the decision. It’s not the brain of the experimentalists or the plane of pound for my peers. 

It’s me. I mean, no one can really, you know, swim with it to the clothing line of this poem, Invictus. I’m the master of my fate. I’m the captain of my soul. I think that certainly applies to my brain. 

Yeah, exactly. And so I think that by calling freewill simply an illusion, I think I think the illusion maybe is the sense of agency, but rather that, you know, we still have free will. 

It’s just it maybe isn’t as open to some sort of conscious processing or sort of that that kind of narrative consciousness that we think of as being the only awareness in our brain. And so I think that there are different levels of awareness to which we, you know, we are available to us. And the sense that, you know, that sort of self talk or the language based consciousness is just at the very highest level that we’ve been born. 

Do we know so that we are much less free? We are much more determined than we’d like to believe by the what outcome told us or believe our habits that we built over a lifetime are really a terribly important determinant in, you know, in your day to day action, what you think, what you eat, what you listen to on the radio, what you do, you know the way you do that. Those are all determined by untold previous actions and habits. And. Call it in the brain. I think that is an important realization. I think we can. I think what what ultimately what it means to freewill is to be able to reflect upon decisions, to take important decisions all day. You could argue across it most of the all the expanded done in the under laboratory conditions involved trigo decisions involved, you know. What what what people called picking it rather randomly. It’s like going to a supermarket. I’m going to pick one copart part of the other Coke bottle. They’re both identical and there’s no difference which one to pick. But then of processed choosing. Am I going to pick, you know, wine or or coke with potential people? Consequence. I’m going to move to a city of CTP or marry this person or not marry her. I go so much from conflict, consequential decisions for our life. And they are saying what freedom what he was means being able to reflect upon the decision to the extent that Honokaa a cognitive capable upon of this action. And then in the light of everything I know about about this particular scenario, then make a decision. 

Interesting question is extreme empathy also, you know, can animals have freedom of choice of my dog and have freedom of choice of my dog all determined? Or is it a great thing that the more the more intelligent you are, the more conscious you are, the more you presumably it relates to the complexity of your brain, the more you can sort of dissociate yourself from the parts similar causes and the more you can reflect upon it and sort of the more clear you are. 

Mm hmm. And in that sense, you know, a baby and a child wouldn’t be very conscious and a fully conscious, no smart, intelligent adult who that is possible. This would be much more free than than a baby who’s much more free than a than a dog. 

So you talk about this complex, a vacation that comes with systems as they become more and more complex, they are more or more likely to have enhanced consciousness. 

And what of the parts of your book that I found most intriguing was that there was a hint that perhaps even machines that don’t have a biological basis could at some point be considered conscious. Could you talk a little bit about that theory? 

I mean, Genoveva. So, once again, it depends how you think about consciousness. If you think consciousness is not tied to a specific medium. In other words, it is not directly tied of content, does not arise because we are made over by lipid membranes and proteins. There’s nothing magical about by lipid membranes and proteins and newborns and skin and and bones and all of that. But ultimately, it’s the relationship of the parts inside my skull that make all the difference. The fact that I roughly 100 billion parts that are amazingly complex, that they talk to each other in these very complicated ways. That’s what matters. And in principle, I can replicate this in a different medium. I can simulate it on a computer. Ultimately, I can build, you know, things out of copper and silicon and titanium. And then then, of course, it’s a peculiar concept, but it’s trivial, but very important consequences follows. And these things would also be conscious. And that would imply that other that nonorganic that I could also be conscious. 

I see no reason why that should not be true. 

In fact, almost any by any account, unless you believe that there’s a soul and the soul of someone uniquely tied to us. Homo sapiens seeps inside. Unless you believe something like that, then I see no see essentially no reason. It’s almost an inescapable conclusion, at least in principle. Oh, we don’t know what the impact aside now, but at least in principle, other system, including organic ones, should should in principle be able to become conscious. 

And so do you think that there is an ethical dilemma if we do end up creating, say, avatars that are conscious? Do we have to treat them the way we would treat another human being in terms of avoiding painful experiences for them or giving them some kind of freedom to choose different directions in their lives? 

Yes, ultimately, I do think that if we could conscious entity that has complex or something, of course, and become more complex than we are. I think it would focus on the complexity of the Internet today. And in principle, if we become conscious and I think it’s on asked, you know, to make sure that these that these entities, you know, don’t experience aversive states, you know, painful states and and that we we have a responsibility not just to turn them off and kill them. 

And what this clean. I think that ultimately in the far future, that’s going to be the case. You can well imagine that’s our future. 

You know, you can imagine all sorts of scenarios where there’s also the boundary between organic, conscious entities, like often inorganic ones is very clearly iwobi, more computers. Some people do. Some patients do it now with brain interfaces, with implants because they’re paralyzed, that we begin to move machines into our particular computers, into our bodies, into our brains, and that we have this integrated consciousness, even in principle. From an information, theoretical point of view, there’s no reason why any of this should not could not occur. 

And is that one of the goals? I notice that you’ve now become the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute in Seattle. Is. 

Ultimately, one of the goals in that institute to create a sort of an avatar or a sort of a conscious non biological entity. 

No, we we hear thunder, as you point out, that to some degree also the unfit for brain science. So its goal is to understand the brain, the human brain and the brains of related species like like like mice who were starting this very large project involving a few hundred scientists, but all focused on trying to understand the cerebral cortex in mice and in humans. It’s a it’s an empirical, biological based program to understand how, you know, this amazing complexity that our brains and how it hides us and what is sort of the secret, the secret behind behind the success of our brains. Why are we so good at doing so many things? And and, you know, what is a biological substrate of that? 

So your your goal is to essentially understand. 

In my new detail, the cerebral cortex of the mouse, of the mouse and ultimately of humans that we have posed to them focus on them also, not on the humans here. So the biggest realization, biology over the last several decades is just like we have skin cells and liver cells, heart cells. And the difference is that they aren’t just one or two types of brain cells and maybe a thousand different types of brain cells. And they connected an incredible, intricate details in our one. One of the things we wanted with a high school put industrial skills. You can do this at university. You should try to have a taxonomy to have a complete accounting of all the brain cells. How do they look? What’s the shape? What’s the input? What is the output axon? What’s the morphology? How did the interconnect? And to do that is very large scale since we put the first time have a complete accounting, a complete taxonomic piece, all the different cell parts of the brain. This is how they’re connected. And then to selectively intervene with them in them, in the brain, in them, in a living brain to study, studied in great detail in a way. You know, by building these large observatories to observe the electrical activity, to observe the optical activity in a living baby brain. And Way said, you can’t be too in in in humans. That’s why the bulk of this research is focused on on on mice. With brain, after all, is very similar. It’s a thousand times smaller. If I give you I mean, just the amazing thing, if I give you a little piece of my mouth pain or a little piece of monkey brain or a human brain, nobody but a few experts can tell the difference that the brain itself is really very, very similar. They all of neurons all fine the same way they all express roughly know 20000 different genes for that’s all. It’s by and large, the same people have studied and kind of sort of point to many differences between people and monkeys and mice. And there they are. But the but by far by far the biggest difference is size, which is a thousand times bigger than than than the brain of the mice is. 

And so do you feel that you are moving away from studying the neural correlates of consciousness? 

Or is this simply another tool that you are using in order to get closer to a more unified theory of consciousness? 

It’s another way of approaching it. I’ve been fascinated with the human brain for obvious reasons. You can look, but don’t touch it. So we can put people in a magnet. And, you know, when you see that, I can see this part of your brain lights up. But then I want to know, while Akie Abe, that part of the brain that lights up actually contains, you know, a hundred million, you know, all of them necessary. Which one is necessary? And what’s really necessary is that the type of wiring is a particular subset of this. Is that the feedback upon these neurons to lower part of the brain that’s necessary. And in humans, of course, I can do that because my instruments are so cool. No, my in my mind, these other techniques are very crude and not even have a special resolution. Particular I want to go from series had just observe two series that I’d like to move to Corzo series. I can see what I know. If I act with these new ones and only these new ones, then you’ll see that you need to either move those new ones and you’ll never be able to see that. Those are the sort of theories that I’d like to ultimately have as interesting. Well, every time you see that, it’s part of the brain lights up on humans for obvious reasons. I can do these experiments. But now this is that is fantastic. Technologies like wizardly so-called Opta Genetics, where you can turn off using light, using a fantastic marriage of light and molecular biology, where you can with different teams of laser beams of either blue or yellow of headly. That means you can turn on or off specific groups of cells with millisecond precision. So I can turn off this set of neurons with, you know, I, I shoot a laser beam at it and and those complicated things happen and these new ones will be turned off for the next ten milliseconds, 100 millisecond or one second. And over here I can activate a group of specific milkmaids and the five subset of cells using a different color laser beam. And so I can play now this is sort of this piano. I can literally begin to play piano with the different neurons in the brain in an often often experimental animal and particularly mice. And so I can I can really now do very, very, very subtle experiments to try to explain things such as, you know, what is a mouse can’t be conscious of. And in a way I can never do in know using brain scanning. And so that’s the ultimate. Why a move from from study humans to studying mice? 

And this technique you’re describing, I believe, is called opto genetics. And is it ever gonna be usable in humans? I mean, does it does it create. 

Does it cause permanent damage or do you think it’s something more like transcranial magnetic stimulation where it’s only temporary and that in that way might be someday applied to the study of consciousness in humans? 

Yeah, will be one of the personal discovered and protected is called Dizengoff at Stanford. It’s actually a psychiatrist. And he works on on on on patients. So. So they are grave, you know, ethical issues here we have to look at. So you’re introducing, you know, pieces of of a pill to you from other species, like from bacteria into your brain. And, you know, you have to make sure that there are no adverse effects in mice and even in monkeys, it can all be done routinely in mice. And the monkeys seem to be fine. But of course, we have to do the appropriate study. But it is in principle, there’s no reason why in a decade or two we can use this, for example, for to a BCBS. He brings families. I mean, think of it like PBS on steroids. Deep brain stimulation is still fairly cool to be brainstem companies. It’s not done with people come for parts and patients, as you know. But it it’s still cold as it activates lots and lots of neurons. And, of course, also the side effects in principle. Yeah, I can with optogenetic once I have the molecular identifiable cells in my side. I could just turn off those or turn turn on those with millisecond precision. Sometimes they can be much more finely controlled and then depress. So yes, I’m pretty sure in a decade or so we will use these techniques routinely in patients to help them. 

Well, it’s fascinating. And I have to say that I really enjoyed the confessional nature of your book, Consciousness Confessions of a Romantic Reduction. I think it was it was a little bit you know, it really got God help me get to know you as a person a little bit better, but also helped me reflect on my own consciousness. 

And I’d like to let our listeners know that they can find your semiautobiographical book, Consciousness Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, through our Web site at point of inquiry, dawg. Professor Cork, thank you very much for being on point of inquiry. 

Thank you. Andrew was a pleasure. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show on consciousness and freewill visit, point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org on Twitter, at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Wayland. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Indre Viskontas. 

Indre Viskontas