NYAS Event: Human Consciousness

What do you get when a neuroscientist, a psychologist, an expert in primate cognition, and a philosopher come together to talk about consciousness? A lot of questions. Can we truly ever reach an acceptable definition of consciousness? Is consciousness purely subjective? Is consciousness solely a human trait? Can neuroscience alone explain consciousness? Can a robot be conscious? Every topic relevant to consciousness, except maybe The Matrix movies, was discussed last night at the New York Academy of Sciences lecture, “The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human Consciousness.”

The discussion covered human consciousness and it’s relation to neuroscience; our subjective versus objective understanding of consciousness; and why it is important to define, explain, and measure consciousness. The conversation took me on a mental rollercoaster. Coming out of the lecture I realized our understanding of consciousness is currently more of a complex idea than a scientific concept. Neuroscience research is allowing us to construct an understanding of the mechanisms in the brain that correlate with our views of consciousness. But because the notion consciousness is such an individualized, subjective concept, we are still far from truly defining what exactly we mean when say someone or something is conscious or unconscious. 

Each panelist offered a unique and often conflicting angle on the concept of consciousness.

  • Nicholas D. Schiff, M.D., a physician-neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College and a Dana grantee, focused on how the brain relates to consciousness. He has researched patients in comas and vegetative states; for Schiff, measuring and objectively defining consciousness is crucial.
  • Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., a Nobel laureate psychologist from Princeton University, focused on our psychological concept of consciousness. Kahneman saw consciousness as an emotional concept—more of a subjective state.
  • Laurie Santos, Ph.D., an expert in animal and primate cognition, was more concerned with the issue of human versus animal consciousness, and whether you can assign different degrees of consciousness to different animals.
  • David Chalmers, PhD., a philosopher at Australian National University and New York University, did what philosophers do best and essentially questioned everything. He went as far as saying that without a concrete definition of consciousness or the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes—or literally be a shoe—the cases of consciousness are, in theory, limitless.

The lecture was part of a four-part lecture series on “The Emerging Science of Consciousness: Mind, Brain and the Human Experience” (click links for dates and ticket information). All four lectures are moderated by Steve Paulson, from the Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. If you are in New York City this winter I encourage you to attend a lecture. If nothing else, it will get you thinking about thinking.

–Simon Fischweicher

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