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With ever more refined techniques for measuring complex brain activity, scientists are challenging the understanding of thought, memory and emotion–what we have traditionally called “the self.” How do electrical and chemical currents translate to self-awareness? And why does the brain produce consciousness at all? Join a discussion among eminent neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists who are redefining what it means to be human. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

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BILL BLAKEMORE, JOURNALIST: Hello and welcome to my neuron’s, myself. Not my neurons, of course, and not myself. I-oh my goodness. Look at all these cells out here. Look at you. Look at all these cells. And I suspect that each one of you would probably say that you are a self just like- or you claim, at least, that you’re as much of a self as I am. That’s my guess anyway. All these cells. Well. Whatever self means. Whatever self is. This is this is making me perhaps self conscious. And you maybe too. And whatever self means and whatever conscious means, much less consciousness means. Whatever “means” means. It’s so hard to describe these things. So therefore, before we start, a couple of basics about our time our title: My Neurons, Myself. A neuron, it turns out, is not only a brain cell, as many of us had thought until we looked it up. But a nerve cell anywhere in the body, arms, legs, the spine, that is somehow linked to the 86 billion neurons that are packed into the brain. That’s the latest close estimate. 86 billion neurons packed into the brain inside the skull. And the neural network, which links up those cells in the brain, is astonishingly similar as you can see here to the recently discovered networks of billions of galaxies, which are the latest discovery by the astronomers and physicists, of the overall structure of the universe. The galaxies seem to line up in the same kind of filigree network that are-brain cells and their connections seem to. And there are already some serious articles in scientific journals that suggest this may not be a coincidence, but possibly they’re exploring whether it shows a common pattern of forces shaping things great and small galaxies-like neurons so to speak. But this is new information. And of course, there’s an enormous amount of skepticism coming from all angles about whether that is a coincidence or not. Whether we are just each a proton in the brain of some oaf sitting under another tree.

Dr. Seuss has been there in a lot of other thinkers as well. Who knows. Secondly, a quick word about the nature of words themselves. We want to get every detail in. The nature of words themselves, especially the words that may have attracted you to this program, such as neurons, self, memory. What is memory? Soul, soul. You must have thought about that emotion. Mind. What is the mind? Consciousness. Scientists and philosophers have been pointing out for a long time that just because we’ve got a word for something doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything there, including self, consciousness, for example. We may feel we know what the word means and use it freely and even use it very well. But, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything there. But each word has been evolving in its usage for centuries and our human ability to constantly change and create their meanings. Well we have to keep that in mind, so to speak. We have to constantly remind our- so to speak, we have to remind ourselves about the fact that words themselves don’t necessarily tell us about something that’s there. As our panelists use words here, this evening, and gestures, and emotions, probably to try to enlighten us. So, to put this all into perspective, though it may give us a headache or blow our minds at some point, so to speak. I wonder what that means? Some of these neuroanatomist may have ideas about that. To put this into perspective, we spoke to Dr. George Makari who directs the Institute for the History of Psychiatry for the past 20 years at least, while at Cornell. He points out that we often tend to think of the mind as a natural, even a biological, part of who we are. But, he says this is actually a relatively modern concept. He has written a book about the history of these words and ideas and about how the rise of brain science in recent days and recent centuries has helped the modern world to emerge from the old medieval world. Let’s take a look.

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[00:04:32] NARRATOR:In the medieval world, there were two things. Body and Soul. The soul was the knot of the universe, because it integrated belief in God, cosmology, life on Earth, psychology, the difference in life and death. All those things. That started to crack with the scientific revolution. The world started to change. Historian and psychiatrist George Makari’s new book is called Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. The third entity, the mind, started to emerge as a natural alternative for the place for inner life. In the 1500’s, notions of a secular mind were already lurking. Johann Weyer of Holland dared to suggest to the Church Fathers that not all witches should be burned at the stake, because some of them might not have made covenant with the devil ,but just be suffering from a disease that crippled their reasoning. In the 1600s, Oxford Medical Doctor, Thomas Willis, began dissecting and mapping the brain, launching modern neuroscience in the West. And his most famous student, philosopher John Locke, developed a science- based theory of mind and of self that said they were based partly on imperfect, subjective impressions. The mind was highly scandalous, very dangerous as an idea, and was one that very much had a lot of political and scientific, medical and theological implications that made it quite explosive. Why? It challenged absolutism, both in terms of political power and in terms of clerical power. The mind was fallible. It could not make absolute claims about truth. It demanded, therefore, tolerance. Because if I can’t know the absolute truth, I should tolerate you and you should tolerate me. It allowed for secular ethics like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The idea of a center of reason and will that was not immortal caught on and, says Makari, helped change the way the West was run. It’s the centerpiece of the emergence of secular culture. But there was a problem. Could you locate this new sort of mind in the brain? Well the brain is easy to define. I mean, you could make the cut where you want, but the brain is an empirical object. The problem is interior experience and mind is not like any other object in the natural world. Because it’s not available to the external observer and always available to us. Today,  we have technologies that can amaze us with new discoveries of how some parts of the brain work and are connected. What we don’t have yet, I would argue, is a way of bridging mental experience with the brain in a coherent model that allows for mental intention. And so, I would say we still are a ways off from solving the mind- brain problem. Evolving  concepts of mind and self, spurred by scientific explorations, have helped to change how societies are governed. Basing our hopes more on the real world. The exciting question now is whether our dazzling new technology can help us understand what we’re really talking about when we speak of the mind, the self, and even perhaps, the soul.

BLAKEMORE: Dr. George Makari is in the audience tonight. If you have questions afterwards, he and some of our other panelists will be able to stay around and talk in the in the in the lobby afterwards. So let’s get down to business. Tonight, we’re going to be talking with four scientists and philosophers all, in one way or another, working on the cutting edge of neuroscience, of psychology, and philosophy to help us understand some of the latest thinking on the self and consciousness. Our first participant is a neuroscientist and the head of Yale’s Brain Function laboratory. One of the early adopters of functional magnetic resonance imaging, she is now pioneering the use of near infrared spectroscopy to study the brains of two humans as they interact. Please welcome Joy Hirsch. Oh, no, no, that’s my chair, actually. We’re working out our neural connections. Our next guest is a neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Psychology at the Zuckerman Mind, Brain, Behavior Institute at Columbia University. Her work has yielded insights into how the brain changes with learning, how memories are created and retrieved, and how memory shapes our decisions, our actions, and ourselves. Please welcome Daphna Shohamy. Also joining us, is a neuro-ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Guggenheim fellow and recipient of the Association for Psychological Sciences Lifetime Achievement award. She’s currently studying the way neuroscience is changing how we think of ourselves as physical, mental, and moral beings. Please welcome Martha Farah.  And our fourth participant is a philosopher from the City University of New York and a leader in the growing field of experimental philosophy, which brings empirical methods to bear on philosophical questions. He’s the author of several books including Furnishing the Mind, Gut Reactions, and The Emotional Construction of Morals. Please welcome Jesse Prinz.

[00:10:22] BLAKEMORE:So let’s take a look at how one new technology is advancing our understanding of the brain and helping us to look for new ways to approach consciousness. In your work Joy, you’re asking whether there is a neurobiology of collective consciousness- consciousness. Tell us what your experiments aim to do.

JOY HIRSCH, NEUROSCIENTIST, YALE : So just to start with, the last three decades of neuroscience, particularly systems neuroscience, where we try to understand the workings of the brain by putting people in scanners and watching the brain respond, has really been dominated by techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging for example and these are wonderful technologies that taught us a great deal about principles of neural organization. But the one really important function that we never can connect with, or understand with this technology, is the most important function I think of all of us as humans, and that is how we connect to each other. So that we are social beings, looking and talking to each other, are never studied in the conventional magnetic resonance imaging or imaging techniques that that we have available to us. So one of the frontiers that’s been lurking for a long time, has been the frontier of how in the world are we going to understand what goes on in the human brain when two people are in front of each other looking at each, other talking to each other, and interacting in a social way. So. Enter a new technology. And this new technologies- see, I’ll get to your question in a minute- this new technology allows us to put what we call up, optodes, on people’s heads. We don’t have to put people in the scanner and we can actually use reflectance. Do you want to explain what this is? Is that going to be your next question?

BLAKEMORE: Well, light goes in, right?

HIRSCH: Yes. OK. I’m glad you asked that question. Because I don’t-

BLAKEMORE:This is not fMRI, but the next stage.

HIRSCH:Oh, okay, there’s a picture here. OK this is terrific. So these are two people that are set up in the near- infrared spectroscopy situation. Now, you can see they have these little things on their heads. We call them optodes. And what a little optode is, is a little laser emitter. So it emits a wavelength of light. You know if you take a flashlight, you just shine it in your finger and you kind of see it diffused through your through your finger. It’s the same principle as that. Just a little wavelength of light that goes into the brain. And from that, we can infer what’s going on in the brain.

BLAKEMORE:So this light goes through the skull.

HIRSCH:It goes through the skull. And let me just divert here and just tell you one principle. In order to understand this, you need- need that you only need to understand one thing about how the brain works. And that is, that when active neural tissue is involved, like say your visual system is working, it’s active neural tissue. When that happens, your brain is recruiting blood to that locally active area and that blood is highly oxygenated. As it turns out, that change in oxygenation is the signal that we use in fMRI, which is the traditional imaging technology. It is also it is also the basis for the signal that we use in near-infrared spectroscopy. So, we shine a little light into the brain that it goes all the way through the skull, it goes down about three centimeters. And then it bounces back up and when it bounces back up, part of it has been absorbed. But what has been absorbed depends on whether it has gone through highly oxygenated blood or whether it has gone through blood that is deoxygenated or parts of the brain that are not working.

BLAKEMORE:So- so sorry go ahead.

HIRSCH:No go ahead.

BLAKEMORE:So you’re looking at brains while people are, two brains, when people are talking to each other.

HIRSCH: That’s  exactly right. So now, we’re free from the scanner and we can actually put people in front of each other and put these lasers, like little swim caps, on their heads and have them talking, interrelating, looking at each other.  And we have a whole new neuroscience in front of us and this is the neuroscience that aims to understand activity of the human brain when we’re actually interacting in real time, in natural situations, we’re behaving in ways that connect us, not just ourselves, but connect us to other people.

[00:15:30] BLAKEMORE: So what you find goes on in the brains of people who are talking to each other?

HIRSCH: Well, partially that the- the- the tradition the traditional work in neuroscience, has taught us a great deal- oh good- has taught us a great deal about what we know about how the language system actually works. We know we’ve got tools for Wernicke’s area, for reception, we got tools for production. And these guys kind of work back and forth in a single brain. Well, as it turns out just as you might expect, they work back and forth when they’re talking to each other. And so we can see two brains when- using Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in ways that are taking turns with each other as we’re communicating.

BLAKEMORE:There’s a picture of Wernicke’s word comprehension and Broca’s brain speech production. So in conversation, they would naturally come alive.

HIRSCH: They do. They work back and forth. Now that isn’t too surprising. You would expect that is so. And so, we’ve used these are these first level experiments to just to document our methodologies. You know if you know an answer to something, as a scientist, it’s a really nice thing to find it, particularly when you’re starting something new. And so we’ve used these talking back and forth experiments to document what we know about the brain already.

BLAKEMORE:And what these measurements, these wavelengths, actually show. Do they line up or?

HIRSCH: Yes. What- what happens-I think there some other slides there that show what happens when two brains are actually in in a dialogue with each other. You have to remember that- the our two brains are a little bit like cell phones, because what we’re doing is sending and receiving wireless communications. So we’re talking to each other, we’re looking at each other. So you can think of two people as kind of as kind of cell phones. And you think what is- what are those signals that are going back and forth across people? Well there’s the sound signals, there are the visual signals, and so on. And you watch the machinery of the two brains actually receiving and sending and receiving and sending. Just very much like the original. Yeah that’s interesting. That’s an interesting picture- sending and receiving like you would expect a model cell phone to do. What we learn from these techniques, I think that was the question you asked, is that in the case of dialogue when people are looking at each other, that parts of our brains are in synchrony with our partner. So if I’m talking to you, my production area, Broca’s area, is resonating with your Wernicke’s area, your reception area. And when you’re talking to me, it alternates. And so our brains, in some sense, fuse. They fuse as we become a unit by talking, by sending and receiving and sending and receiving.

BLAKEMORE: So forgive me for asking a little bit ahead here, but that means ourselves. Each of these two selves become somewhat overlapping. If our self is involved with what our brain is, our brain changes when we’re talking.

HIRSCH: I believe that that’s the new idea that comes from this new opportunity in neuroscience to study two brains together. Because what we see, is that partners become a unit. They become a unit and our brains tend to work in a partnership. Sharing mode.

BLAKEMORE:Are we looking at a picture of world peace?

HIRSCH: I- I wish it were so simple, but I do think that as we begin to understand the neural machinery that is involved in interpersonal interrelationships that we can begin to understand better the biological nature of conflict and perhaps this resolution between humans.

BLAKEMORE:I noticed you had face recognition up there also as something that goes back and forth.


BLAKEMORE:I’m thinking about how we can now talk to Syria and say I’d like to talk face to face with a friend of mine who’s on the other side of the planet. We are now living increasingly in something called Web World, so to speak, where we can in present time communicate throughout the entire species, the human species. I’m leaping ahead here, but if you all are beginning to show us on graphs that our minds get into sync with each other when we talk, that might give us hope that we could explain this to each other that it matters what we say to each other and you’re showing us how we change when we get angry or get out of sync.

[00:20:32] HIRSCH:Well that’s the hope. I think we have to understand that these are very early days with this new technology. Turns out, the technology has been around for quite a while, but it hasn’t been used in this application. So we’re just beginning as scientists to understand how to use this new tool. It’s a little bit like 15 years ago or so when functional MRI was relatively new. We didn’t quite know how to use it. And so, it is the hope that we can open some many new doors in neuroscience to directly answer some of these questions. How do we- how do our brains work differently when we’re working together? Whether we’re face to face or whether we’re on some media on the other side of the planet

BLAKEMORE:Or how does television affect us? Or when we identify with a movie star? Or- or when advertising affects us? Or-this is a family show so when you haven’t yet figured out how to get Masters and Johnson involved here yet, I suppose, but more intimate- I mean or between people. I mean the mind is blowing my mind, so to speak. The- the idea you could eventually have these two people connected who are on different sides of the planet talking to each other on a cell phone on Skype.

HIRSCH: It’s really interesting. I had a summer student last summer who wanted to know how our brains differed when they were talking face to face and whether they were- when they were texting each other. And I started this with the notion that, oh texting really didn’t involve much of the social brain. And what we’re going to see is this active social areas of the brain when we’re face to face, but we’re not going to see very much in texting. Well I was plenty wrong. As often times, students show the professors are wrong and this was one of them. The texting actually involved a lot more what we call the temporal parietal junction, that’s a sweet spot in the brain that we think is sensitive to social interactions. So it turns out, that in all the people that were texting each other, they were involving this very special part of the brain. And we interpreted this as a greater involvement of theory of mind, ways of projecting yourself into another person. But anyway, so the moral is, we don’t really know very much about what goes on the brain the social interactions and we have an awful lot to learn.

BLAKEMORE:But you’ve opened the door here

HIRSCH: We’ve opened the door. And that’s what is really exciting. It’s very humbling. As a scientist, it’s very humbling to start at the very beginning of kind of a new area.

BLAKEMORE:Your hypothesis was basically proved would be something they’re looked at.

HIRSCH: That’s right.

BLAKEMORE: Dr. Farah, how does this change your understanding of consciousness? Why were you so surprised?

MARTHA FARAH, NEUROSCIENTIST, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: I always do that when somebody says the word “consciousness.” Well let- let me let me let me answer a similar question, not exactly that, if I may. Which is, you know, how does how does it change the way I think about, you know, sort of how people think about people, how people think about the message that they’re trying to convey to somebody else, and whether or not that somebody else has received it. Those kinds of issues which I’m sure consciousness plays a role in there. But it is- I think we can figure out a lot about the kinds of things that Joy is studying and the kinds of things that make us human. Right? You know we- a simple conversation actually involves all kinds of processing of not only what’s on your mind, but what you think the listener already knows, needs to hear to have what you’re saying to her be clear. So that back and forth is-, I mean yes it involves the sort of nuts and bolts of the language system, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, auditory etc. But as- as Joy, was just mentioning towards the end, so much more all the social areas. Our brain has a ton of hardware, you know, neural wetware that’s dedicated to just representing people’s selves our own selves, other selves, the temporal parietal junction that she mentioned is specialized for thinking about what is on somebody else’s mind, and what they’re trying to do, and where they’re going et cetera et cetera. My TPJ is just noticing little finger raised, which tells me Bill wants to ask follow up, change the direction. That’s my TPJ. So it’s- it’s part of communication, but it was language per se.

[00:25:48] BLAKEMORE:What was that acronym again?

FARAH: TPJ. Temporoparietal junction.

BLAKEMORE:And that’s going-

FARAH: Yeah, that’s pretty- pretty good anatomy, yeah. You know, the temporal lobes are the kind of long sausage-y things on the side.

BLAKEMORE: Oh, yes, yes, right. So, to go back for a moment to the slippery concept of consciousness that made you sit up. I’ve heard some people say that consciousness is basically “awareness” whatever- we’re using words to try to get into this concept her. But Dr. Prinz, what’s the difference between awareness and attention, for example?

JESSE PRINZ, PHILOSOPHER, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK: Well I think they’re actually the same. I mean one of the things that we’ve- I think been able to do with the science of consciousness is start to relate this very ethereal concept, consciousness, awareness, experience to things that we understand much better. How does consciousness relate to memory? How does it relate to attention? Those are questions that we can ask scientifically and even- even if we never get a full handle on how a physical thing like the brain can give rise to experience, we can understand what processes in the brain are taking place when we are conscious. And doing that, we can learn a lot of things about consciousness that are very important. So suppose we’re using Joy’s new technology on somebody who’s watching a magic show and there’s this sleight of hand. So a very good magician might ,you know, pull- pull a card out of thin air. And how do they do this? Well of course, the card was somewhere and if they had a camera trained on the sleeve or wherever it was located, it would be very easy to consciously experience its original location. But a good magician is going to distract. A good magician might use hand gestures or even voice to get the viewer to miss out on the trick. I think conversation is like that in general. When we’re having a conversation, we’re directing each other’s attention and there are many things we might be attending to. Might be attending to the emotional expression of our conversation partner we might be attending to to ourselves. How do we sound? How are we self presenting? We might be attending to social hierarchy. Is this somebody who has a higher status?

Neuroscientists, psychologists studying conversation very rarely study attention. They very rarely study power. They very rarely study social dynamics. They rarely study things like compassion or aggression or impatience. So conversation isn’t just a string of words, it’s a it’s a kind of a multiple channels of information that are directing what people notice and what they tend to. The conscious experience you have, what you notice, the content you take away, is not just enumerated in the words that are presented to you, but in all of these other cues that are telling you what the meaning is.

BLAKEMORE:So- and consciousness is…?

PRINZ: So attention is, I think, something that allows information to flow in the nervous system. When you’re having a perceptual encounter with the world, a lot of what gets in gets in subliminally. We’re totally unaware of it. You can measure this you can show that if you present something very quickly say for 17 milliseconds, followed by a mask- people have no capacity to experience it whatsoever.

BLAKEMORE:As a journalist, I noticed-I asked you- so consciousness is? And you very suddenly said attention. So attention is this?

PRINZ: So attention is the difference between something getting stuck in your perceptual systems and sort of hanging out there indefinitely and passing forward to other parts of the nervous system where you can think about it, use it in reasoning, use it in deliberation. Consciousness is attention and attention is this doorway that opens that allows perception to access the rest of

BLAKEMORE:Consciousness is attention and this all sounds very logical-

FARAH: Can I disagree?

BLAKEMORE:Yes, yes please.

FARAH: I mean, so I would say attention is maybe necessary for consciousness. But, you know, I don’t get the heebie jeebies when people talk about attention. That’s a good mainstream cognitive neuroscience concept. The- but consciousness means in these kinds of discussions, that subjective sense of what something feels like.

BLAKEMORE:How do we know-I

BLAKEMORE:know that I’m paying attention? Is there a subject- usually subjective?

[00:30:01] FARAH:So you know Ned Block, a colleague of yours. Yes at NYU philosophy, distinguishes between consciousness of A for access. Or you could say attention too, that is consciousness in the sense that we can access some information, we can access that somebody looked surprised by what we’ve just said, or you know whatever, and consciousness of P for phenomenal or phenomenology. Right? That kind of feeling of what it’s like to be experiencing that. And I think whenever we’re talking about subjective mental states, phenomenological mental states, I think that’s- that’s when I do jump when people hit me with “consciousness.” you know, when I’m not expecting it

BLAKEMORE:It’s spooky.

FARAH: It is spooky. I think we are profoundly ignorant and probably always will be about how you get that subjectivity out of it.

BLAKEMORE:I’ve been thinking about this problem before, I felt a great relief when I heard there was a philosopher named Thomas Nagel who solves the problem. He said consciousness is simply one of the irreducible of the universe, is just there like gravity and mass and various creatures tap into it and reconstruct it in various ways. So

PRINZ: This to me, is a few-Tom Nagel was a teacher of mine. He brought me to this subject and I’m very much in his debt. Ned is a colleague, Ned Block and we’ve talked together and work together on various things. I think there’s a way in which we get ourselves into this air of mystery. It’s needless. And it creates problems that aren’t really there. When people used to talk about life, they were absolutely mystified how life could figure in the physical world. And when things like the structure of DNA were discovered, it was a major intellectual breakthrough because suddenly this thing that seemed absolutely mystified, absolutely impossible to explain, was understood in physical terms. Descartes thought the big mystery of the mind was not conscious experience but reason. Descartes, maybe one of the greatest minds in the history of Western thought, could not figure out how reason could be physically explained. Then computers came along and we have a program. That in a very simple way, is doing complex derivations of mathematical proofs. That’s reasoning. So I think we’re going to get to a point with consciousness where once we found out what are the psychological processes and the neurobiological processes that take place that make the difference between seeing something and not. Then we’re going to be in a position to say that some of this sort of wallowing in mystery was really unnecessary. And other very exciting questions can be answered.

BLAKEMORE:Well, I know that you’re nodding and so maybe you get- let’s say you’re half agreeing with him maybe? But let me ask Daphna. We’ll come back. So Daphna.

DAPHNA SHOHAMY, NEUROSCIENTIST: I just, I guess I think I wanted to back Martha up. It’s not just that it’s difficult to define and maybe lose, maybe in that sense I’m backing both of you up, but I think one of the important discoveries from psychology and neuroscience over the past decade or two, is not just that it’s hard to define semantically and phenomenology, but then actually it’s not as required or central as we thought it is. Whether you find it as awareness or even attention or consciousness.

BLAKEMORE:What’s not as required?

SHOHAMY: A consciousness that a lot of things we thought required conscious awareness actually don’t. And my perspective on that comes from research on memory.

BLAKEMORE: I was going to ask you- to get back to our title, Neurons and Self. How does memory define the self and what you’re- you were just about to go there, I guess.

SHOHAMY: I was, I will. What I was going to say is that you know if we think about memory in many ways, in the most kind of mundane ways. So if I ask everyone here if they remember where they were when they bought their tickets to this show or received their tickets to this show. We can actually now- you’re thinking about it. You can bring back that memory and that in of itself is an interesting process that we can understand in neurobiological terms. So you brought it to conscious awareness, because I asked you to. But that’s really just one way in which we remember that results in some kind of conscious awareness or attention. But we know that those kind of memories influence our behaviors all the time without having brought them to mind in any conscious way. So it’s something that we used to think that consciousness is an incredibly central feature of memory retrieval and we now know that those same neurons that allow you to create and retrieve memories are actually also supporting a whole host of behaviors that are not consciously aware that are related to memory. But we have to kind of redefine what we mean by what a memory is.

BLAKEMORE: You mean, it’s doing a lot of thinking without us- asking our permission and without us being in charge?

[00:35:05] SHOHAMY: Yes I think that’s the good news and the bad news.

BLAKEMORE: So. So how do memories contribute to the sense of self? How do they get connected?

SHOHAMY: It’s a it’s- it’s- it’s a great question right. I mean in many ways what we’re trying to understand is if I ask every person in this room in one week what they remember from this event tonight. Most of us will remember very little, that we know for sure. But probably what we do remember will be very different. My memory of tonight will be different from your memory of tonight would be different their memory of tonight individually, and I think that’s sort of interesting, because the reason for that difference has to do with our expectations, our interests, our motivations, so I think things that I would think of as a kind of representing ourselves. So who we are is a filter on what we meant- what we remember, the memories we create, but that filter doesn’t come out of nowhere. It itself, I’d say, is built on memories from what happened before. And it’s this ability to link memories over a lifetime. And that kind of endless dialogue between what we expect, what happens, what gets remembered, and how that shapes our memories. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Marcel Proust who said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily remembrance of things as they occurred.” Right? So the idea is that we have biases in our memory. We change what we remember in subtle and idiosyncratic personal ways that relate to ourselves

BLAKEMORE: And episodic memory?

SHOHAMY: Episodic memory is a jargon professional term in memory research to describe your memory for an episode. Like when you bought your tickets or when I was asked to participate in this. So it’s memory for an event in time and what the picture on the screen is showing you, are the parts of the brain as identified and healthy human beings with functional magnetic resonance imaging, which Joy mentioned. Those are the parts of the brain that show significant activity associated with the creation and retrieval of these sorts of memories.

BLAKEMORE:  Creation and retrieval. I mean I’ve heard it said that memory is not like a tape recorder. It’s not just feeding back over and over. Every time you remember something, you’re reconstructing it and never exactly the same twice.

SHOHAMY: Well, it doesn’t have to not be the same twice, it can be, but it doesn’t- isn’t necessarily the same. And this is where these biases I think play out. And I think this is where we start to get to a connection between memory and self in a more obvious way which is when if- I did that, you know, I now did a test on everyone and said, “Remember when you bought the tickets.” By doing that, you’re bringing up a memory and you’re bringing it up in this context and your brain is now linking those two memories together because it’s retrieving a memory in a new context and kind of recreating the memory, rewriting the memory.

BLAKEMORE: You’re beginning to be able to show some of this with neuroscience, looking at the brain. You can see this happening?

SHOHAMY: To some extent, yes, right? So we are we work in a lab and these are difficult questions and so we take these interesting questions, like what it means to have a self and connect memories across a lifetime, but we don’t put you in a scanner for your lifetime. Which we-that would be fun if you ever want to volunteer. What we do is we create computer games that simulate this kind of process over the span of an hour or two or a few days where we have common elements come up and we can ask- when common elements come up and experiences you see on the screen, when we track the retrieval of the memory and then it’s- it’s connection with this new situation that just came up and so we can kind of track how in that sense how two memories get networked together, get linked. And what that means for how we use memories later on.

BLAKEMORE: And how do, how do memories affect our sense of the future?

SHOHAMY: The I think the really interesting discoveries in memory in recent years is, you know, we think- coming back to that is that example, instead of thinking of memory as like just memory for one event in time in one moment, it turns out that the same neurons, the same brain tissue, the same regions of the brain that we know are absolutely essential for creating these kind of episodic memories have a much broader role in behavior. They’re essential for planning and, what we call prospecting, or imagining events in the future. And that’s- I think a really good hint to the importance of memory and how essential memory is not just for a sort of reminiscing about the past, but for planning. And in a way, it’s a more mundane role. But I think a much more central one in imagining what will happen when this program is over, what’s going to happen tomorrow, what decisions should I make about my retirement. That we use memory and leverage it to make predictions about the future.

BLAKEMORE: Right. And this slide we have a connectivity between the hippocampus the striata.

[00:40:03] SHOHAMY: Right. So let me define some of that. It gets at this point. So the heart of the brain that is probably most central for creating these kind of episodic memories that we saw, in part on the earlier slide, is called the hippocampus. There are fascinating stories that sort of- the history of science of how we discovered that the hippocampus is important for memory. It’s really interesting. It goes back to your famous patient, H.M. We can maybe come back to that, explain this. So the hippocampus is important for those kind of memories. The striatum is a separate part of the brain, that for a very long time, we thought was important for completely different sorts of behavior. The striatum is the part of the brain that’s disrupted most significantly in Parkinson’s disease, for example, and it’s in charge of kind of planned actions, motivated actions. So many of us have shown that there is important crosstalk, correlation, connectivity between the hippocampus, creating memories and the striatum, planning actions. And suggests that there is a way in which memories are feeding into many of our behaviors, even when we’re not consciously aware of that.

BLAKEMORE: After all, the past doesn’t exist in a sense except in the present tense instant of our mind. It’s gone. You look for is not there. You go to the Gettysburg and all you find is McDonald’s and so on. We often play it over as if it was, in our own life.

SHOHAMY: Right. Right now I think that’s exactly right and in that you know to quote another very wise man, Daniel Kahneman the economist, once said, you know, “We make we make most decisions not based on our experiences, what we think we’re doing, but we make decisions based on our memory of those experiences.” So again memory is sort of this important filter for-

BLAKEMORE: And you’re now able to show that some of the workings of this dynamic in the brain what connects, what doesn’t connect.

SHOHAMY: Right. And what this image that you’re viewing now shows you, is kind of another angle on this story and another reason why we believe it’s very useful and important beyond the philosophy to, nothing wrong with philosophy, but that understanding these brain regions, even though, you know, many of us really just want to understand just want to understand how the mind works. But that by understanding the differences between the behaviors that these different parts of the brain support, we hope we can use that to understand disease better and this is showing for example that the hippocampus and the striatum differ not just in, kind of, where they are, you can see there the hippocampus is in teal and the striatum is in purple. So they differ in their support of episodes and inferences for the hippocampus and habits and kind of actions for the striatum. But they also are by virtue of being different structures, play roles in different kinds of disease. So that is very helpful for us for using what we hope are kind of behavioral tests of cognition and reasoning and behavior to probe the roles of these areas.

BLAKEMORE: Joy, at this point what Daphna has just said, do you think it’s going to help us narrow in zero in on what self might be if it does exist? The concept of self that we’re trying to zero in on?

HIRSCH: Well certainly to back Daphna, yes. I mean the that the notion that we are. That we are what we remember we are what our experiences. But -what our experiences contribute to our sense of well being, certainly yes. And I’m always thinking about this now and sort of my new lens of how these- these ideas of self and who we are- are communicated to another person. And one of the new ideas that builds on this, is that we as individuals in the communication with another, actually engage in a very active process of sharing. Some of the recent experiments that we have done is having people just look at each other. You ever wonder what happens when you just look at someone somebody else? That wonderful glance. Have you ever heard of love at first sight? It’s actually, probably true. That there is so much that goes on in a look that we share with another person about ourselves. So very, very poignant aspect.

BLAKEMORE: Face to face.

HIRSCH: Face to face.

BLAKEMORE: I’ve heard some scientists say that one of the things that distinguishes our species, is that we have evolved by far the most expressive face. Of any species. Is that- that’s part of what you’re talking about.

HIRSCH: That is exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know how- if we have the most expressive face on the planet, but it’s a very expressive one. And what that tells us is that our brains are very much designed to capture those expressions and we tell other people about ourselves through our facial expressions. That’s one of the things that we’re seeing with this new study is how active we are- how active perceptions are. So that as we look at somebody else, as we talk with other people, we share who we are. But we also  actively interrogate the person that we’re talking to.

[00:45:39] BLAKEMORE: And you can see- you can see in your experiments how the brain does this.

HIRSCH: Yes. Yes. That’s that’s- that’s the goal. And we do see new levels of specificity for engagement of that kind.

BLAKEMORE: Fascination. Before we get into philosophy. Quick question for Martha, what you’ve heard so far, I’m watching you nodding and being fascinated. So why? And does this conversation, you’d think, add to the potential for understanding what self might be.

FARAH: I do. Maybe that’s why I am nodding so much. I also nod to kind of just say I hear you I hear you. I disagree with you, but I hear you. But, no. But yeah, you know, I mean, you know, this actually I’m going to defer to the philosopher here about this, but my sense is, in philosophy when people try- when philosophers try to define what makes a person the same person over all kinds of changes from, you know, relaxed because they’re just back from vacation to you know madly finishing a grant proposal to, you know, you at age 5, you at age 85. That. The- the best account seems to have something to do with this chaining of memories, this kind of fabric of memories and that has really interesting and sad implications for diseases that impair the formation and survival of memory, like Alzheimer’s, and I don’t know

BLAKEMORE: Exactly. All of this just made me think of- we- we have an opposite case. We talk about thinking that people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s lose their sense of self apparently. And you’re all nodding. That that’s what seems to happen is when memories go, self goes. Or large parts of it, or something like that. Is that?

FARAH: I’d like to ask Jesse about that. Yeah, Jesse, help.  

BLAKEMORE: We’ll now hear from the empirical philosopher.

PRINZ: John Locke who is mentioned in the introductory film, wrote a book in 1690 that became the textbook for the mind for the next 200 years called An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

BLAKEMORE: Called? Say that slowly.

PRINZ: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In that book he advances a theory of what a self is and what makes somebody the same self over time. And his answer, as it’s most usually interpreted, is memory. Memory is what links us to our past. So as good students of philosophy, my collaborators and I assume something like this was right and we wondered is this really how ordinary people think? About identity. And we started to test it. We started to test it in various ways, but typically using questionnaires. We ask people about a bunch of traits.

BLAKEMORE: A bunch of?

PRINZ: A bunch of traits- your memories, your cognitive capacities, your personality, your vocations in life, your occupation, where you live

BLAKEMORE: And you’re not using the word “identity” as synonymous with self.

PRINZ: We -our interest is in the question, “What makes somebody the same self? What changes take place? All of us are changing all the time. Human beings are radically dynamic. We are the most capable of learning of any creature we know and that means we’re constantly just sitting here- every time you hear a sentence, your brain has been rewired, something is getting stored, a new trace is there, but you feel like you’re the same person. So part of understanding what the self is, is understanding what remains constant such that you can say, “I’m still me this morning. I’m still the same person I was this morning. Even though I’ve been learning all day.” So we wanted to know what- what matters there and we wanted to know what our ordinary intuitions about that. So we asked, “Suppose you lose all of your memories. Or consider a relative who is in advanced age and losing memories through- through neural degeneration. Are they the same person? And for a question like that, the answer was usually, “Well they’ve changed a little bit, but they’re pretty much the same.” And we asked about other capacities, “What if their personality changes? What if their interests change.” Pretty much the same. The one thing that really seem to have the most dramatic impact on identity, according to our ordinary judgments, is morality. Values. If your values change, or if you imagine a relative who suddenly- who spent a life dedicated to left causes, to voting for Democrats, to suddenly become a right wing Republican. Right. That’s our that’s our response.

[00:50:21] BLAKEMORE: OK. This is a very current subject. Yes. How long before we could avoid mentioning it but. But first, not to take it for granted. I wanted to give Father Brown approach to solving things and not using any terms presuming that we know what they are. You just talked about morality and values synonymously. What is a value? Give us a handy definition.

PRINZ: I think of value as some- some kind of preference for how people should be or behave. It’s a preference related to or social aspects approach.

BLAKEMORE: So it’s better to be like this than that.

PRINZ: That’s right.

BLAKEMORE: And the morality is the same?

PRINZ: The judgment of good and bad. This is a better way to be. This is a worse way to be.

BLAKEMORE: And morality is roughly the sense of-

PRINZ: Morality. I mean some of our values are good and bad, but other like other demands like good and bad art or good and bad food. But morality is about- about the social domain and the values that we have and morality are very related to- to reward and punishment. So when somebody transgress, when they- they violate our preferences for good and bad we think they deserve to be punished in some way. So morality is- is really about regulating social behavior in a way that concords which concords with our preference.

BLAKEMORE: All right. So you’re talking about identity political.

PRINZ: So we’ve measured in a lot of ways. If you look at political values, there are very often moral, because policy is direct in behavior. But religion too is very important for morality. People have all kinds of values just about what counts as a good human life. How should how should we live? Somebody who is not ambitious, not pursuing goals, not trying to add something to the universe, might be frowned upon as- as- as lazy, as a failed human being. So we have a lot of-anything that involves some belief about how to live.

BLAKEMORE: Well we’re getting into areas that we’ve got to get into. They’re large, rather large. Religion of course, causes- is believed to cause a lot of disagreement. But there’s also been a lot of studies or what they all have in common. For example, I’ve seen studies that show that all the major religions have some version of the Golden Rule, basic compassion, don’t kill don’t kill yourself don’t be killed, can be found in some version or another in all the major religions, at least in the non extreme versions of them.

PRINZ: There are certainly overlaps, but I think it’s very important to see the difference. Because one of the things we do in constructing itself- when somebody says, “Who are you?” If we all were the same, if our values were all the same, that wouldn’t be a question worth asking. So somebody who asked about your identity is asking, “Which of these slots do you fall into? Which of these are your values? What are the things that you really care about?” And most importantly, behind that question, you’re trying to find out, “Is this somebody who’s like me or somebody who’s different? Is this somebody with whom I can collaborate, cooperate, form a friendship, form a romance? Or is it somebody who’s so morally different from me that I can’t imagine relating to them?” When you discover that a person you’ve just been having a long conversation with is voting for the other party. How many of you who are,  say Bernie’s supporters, discover that a close friend supports Hillary and had this jarring moment where you really wonder can I be friends with this person anymore? We won’t even mention the other New Yorker on the ticket. I mean there is, there is a way in which our selves are not just these individual things. They’re all about forming these social connections.

BLAKEMORE: I have to ask you at this point, as an empirical philosopher, do you test these things using brain images or using some other kind of empirical data?

PRINZ: We mostly use other kinds of empirical data. So where we’re asking people questions, we’re looking at -right now we’re looking at parole decisions. So, why do you let somebody off from a prison sentence? Maybe it’s because their behavior has changed. Maybe it’s because a lot of time has passed and you think they’ve suffered enough already in prison. But maybe it’s because you think their values have changed and they’re no longer the same person. You’ve actually kept somebody in prison who didn’t commit the crime.  

BLAKEMORE: So your idea about who their self really is just suddenly changed or you heard about who they’re going to- what they did or what they didn’t do or that they- you know, judges are making decisions about what the self, the other self is. That’s right. Or a conversation about who to vote for. Suddenly you switch. The other self is evil.

PRINZ: Well that there is a lot of that kind of judgment. So one of the reasons why we worry so much about moral change is- is there is this anxiety that somebody who we cared about we felt close to, who we trusted, is now on the other side.

BLAKEMORE: So forgive me for asking this, but it sounds to me like you’re describing a basic dynamic of human history and it’s horrendous cycle of war and more war.

PRINZ: I think one of the one of the really important discoveries at social psychology- wasn’t a discovery, we’ve known it through human history- but one of the things that we’ve been able to measure is how people form groups. And old results dating back decades of what’s called the minimal group of facts and you can just arbitrarily assign people to any group, they form strong allegiance with anyone who’s in the same group, and hostility towards others. Morality is the ultimate of group membership.

[00:55:09] BLAKEMORE: And these findings are universal for the human species wherever we are on the planet.

PRINZ: I-you know, as somebody who really is interested in culture, I’m really interested in how human minds are shaped by experience. Values are created through history, created through the cauldron of culture. To that extent, I’m- I’m reluctant to speak too much in universals. I would like to hope that we can find ways of getting along and forming affiliations with people whose values differ dramatically from ours. But it certainly has been the case that this fault line has led to a tremendous amount of conflict and violence in human history right.

BLAKEMORE: Martha, I see you nodding again. Which suggests something you might disagree with.

FARAH: No, no, no. That’s- how interesting, nod.

BLAKEMORE: So- so. While we stay on the subject of self, you’ve done-you have an experiment of some kind that you’ve- you’ve done some study with regard to political identity?

PRINZ: Well, we’ve done a lot of studies showing that what people consider most important for identity is their moral values, including their political values. And then it occurred to us that this really serves a function and the function is forming social alliances. So it’s not only important to you that you vote a certain way. It’s important that others know this about you. So how do we signal that? How do we make sure that everyone I meet casually, no matter how quickly, has a pretty good chance of guessing correctly about what my moral values are. So for instance if you drive a pickup truck, are you more likely to be a Republican or a Democrat? If you drive a foreign car-

BLAKEMORE: Are you asking me?

PRINZ: Well I- ask yourselves, you know. If you drive a foreign car, more likely to be a Republican or Democrat? If you, say, eat sushi, more likely to be a Republican or Democrat? If you like red meat, if you read military history, if you like NASCAR racing and what do these things have to do with morality? NASCAR racing? But, we can guess that in NASCAR enthusiasts is more likely to be conservative than liberal. Why? And the reason is, all of these aspects of human taste are signaling, they’re trying to communicate to others what sort of group we belong to.

BLAKEMORE: So you’re saying that one’s enthusiasms or groups you join have a big element in them of which group do I want to identify with and signal thereby to others for a warm fuzzy group feeling and an antagonistic feeling. You have some, I believe some pictures to give us a taste here?

PRINZ: Yeah so we got interested. Can you tell by looking, whether somebody is a Democrat or Republican? So. We elected dozens and dozens of faces. We use an arbitrary method of generating a big picture set of faces and we don’t even know the political party that these people belong to. So it’s all it’s all just whether people have an opinion about it. And we found overwhelmingly that people do. So we can take a look at some examples and

BLAKEMORE: Should we bring up the house lights?

PRINZ: Yeah let’s let’s have a let’s have a look. So. Now what you’re going to do now is you’re going to vote. You’re going to vote by show of hands.

So this person isn’t wearing any political buttons or any- any kind of paraphernalia that would tell you. How many of you think this is a Republican raise your hands. How many of you think this is a Democrat? So why? You know that’s really weird.

Let’s look at another example. OK. So in some cases maybe- maybe. Let’s see how this one goes. How many think this is a Republican? How many say Democrat? OK. So still big, big, big majority. Next one. OK.

So what do we have here. How many you say Republican in this case? OK the house goes up. And Democrat anyone? So yes, I mean, obviously we know we all know counter-examples. We all know people who spent their- their- put their lives on the line for this country working for military causes, even though they vote for the Democratic Party, that’s not unheard of. But the fact that we can signal this in some way, is an indication that- the fact we have such consensus on these opinions shows how important this is in social decision making. Let’s look at another case.

OK how many say Republican? How can say Democrat? Wow. So overwhelming. It’s just that she’s wearing black. Right? We’re trying to figure out what drives these decisions. Let’s look at one more example and you’ll get a kind of complete. For this. OK how many say Republican here? OK so here we got the majority. Anyone want to say Democrat here? A few. And I think there’s one more. OK so how many say Republican? How many say Democrat? So very very- for those of you who have not been able to see the hands go up- we’re probably- if we measure this room, we’d probably be in the 90s percentile in terms of agreement on which one is a Republican and which one is a Democrat. Sometimes it’s ethnicity, sometimes it’s occupation, like the military commitment. But what about the beard? What about the black hat? The fact that randomly chosen people on the street are conveying to others what party they belong to, I think is one of the most revealing things I’ve encountered in my investigations about the self. How many think I’m a Republican?

BLAKEMORE: This raises a lot of questions to me. Why are you applauding?

PRINZ: What are you applauding for?

[01:00:39] BLAKEMORE: Why were you so amused that you laughed at each one of his questions? I mean this is a very serious question. What was so amusing about this. I’ve got other questions such as if you showed these pictures to somebody in a different time in a different century.

PRINZ: Very important.

BLAKEMORE: Even if they didn’t have- they might have looked conservative for some people, whatever that means. So in other words, you’re also showing us if this empirical data is building up some of the understandings of some of the ugly sides of human nature or parts of it, such as stereotypes and judgmental-I mean this is talking about the basis of our judgment. Martha? Once again, you’re nodding a lot.

FARAH: That’s my striatum, right? I have to reprogram my striatum. Get out of that habit.

BLAKEMORE: No but I mean- you also definitely- you were.

FARAH: Oh since you are probing, I’ll say that I thought the most-I think there is- what’s in one of the interesting things, if I may, is I’m outside of my neuroscience area of expertise here, was that I think people were laughing because we all recognize it’s silly to reach these conclusions, at least in part. But I actually think that Jesse’s last comment was the most interesting one. The point is not that we have strong opinions about this. We know that people use stereotypes and all kinds of ways. I think the point is that all of us use- take advantage of those cues in our choices every day. So it’s a social projection of that, which I thought was actually directly related to what Joy was saying about how we communicate nonverbally and verbally and in that way because we’re soliciting -are- people like us to know- we’re signaling to them.

BLAKEMORE: So you three brain scientists who actually look at the gray matter in the purple and green and dark matters and white matters. Find something to talk about with this philosopher that may be able to match your scientific data from your brain labs with the type of data that he’s turning up from these. Could you explain the connection there?

HIRSCH: Let me just say little bit that. I think that one of the things that fascinates me the most about what you’re talking about, is what it tells us about our brains and how actively we interrogate and seek information about others and how we relate that to ourselves. It’s as if in that seeking process, we become unified in some way with who with the other and I think that’s the next stage of neuroscience is going to tell us a lot more about those very fundamental mechanisms. And one of my goals in neuroscience is to move this most fascinating idea from the hands of philosophers and put it- well maybe- maybe empirical philosophers are different, and but put it in the hands of neuroscience so that we can understand the neural machinery, the neural mechanisms that drive this connection that we have with other people and how it is we interrogate other people to understand who they are.

PRINZ: If I can if I can quickly come to the defense. Well I mean I really look forward to that day and I think the stuff you’re doing with really the kinds of methods that can study social interaction with brain imaging are extremely exciting. One of the problems that I’ve had with neuroscience, as a field, given its current technologies, is it really misses out on the social. We have in this culture, biophilia. We think that if something is biologically explained, it’s real and if it’s cultural or about ideas or even about the social, it’s somehow less real. So we have for instance, if you look at- the National Institute of Health funds studies on addiction, like alcoholism. Overwhelmingly, that money goes to studies looking at genes and brain circuits, right? It’s looking at those factors. But we know that sociogenic factors, factors about where you live, factors about poverty, which Martha studied. All of those things are at least maybe more important studies of genetic relatedness show that if you’re an alcoholic, there there’s about a 15 percent chance that your offspring will be alcoholics. That means the overwhelming majority of them are not. Those studies, if they’re done with adoption, the effects are tiny, often go away, or very- very inconsistent across studies. If they’re done cross-culturally, the numbers begin to look ridiculous. So America has about a 5 percent alcoholism rate. Russia is about 16 percent. Islamic countries are mostly under 1 percent. So we can have a 16 times increase in whether you become an alcoholic if you’re born in Russia as opposed to in Iran.

[1:05:19] BLAKEMORE: And you’re looking forward to the time when the neurological brain scientists can- can connect why these things happen.

PRINZ: That’s the future I’m excited about, bringing culture into the brain, showing how the circuits of the brain are playing a role in taking that cultural information and driving behavior with them.

SHOHAMY: This is not what the neuroscientists, or one of them is supposed to say, but I’ll say it anyway. Which is yes, I would like very much for us to understand this at a neural level, and many of us would, but I think maybe I’d kind of back up Jesse’s point and say it even more strongly, which is there are many societal questions about behavior that we know that that behavior emerges from the brain, because it’s not coming from anywhere else. But when understanding the brain doesn’t necessarily help us treat that behavior. And there’s a lot of other information that’s necessary and so I argue that for things like understanding “is there a self? What is a self? What does this have to do with how we socialize.?” And any questions at that level, the complex questions about what it means to human. We’re never going to understand them only in terms of neurons. Maybe not never. Maybe one day. But when that day gets closer, it will be the psychologists and the philosophers who have set us up to start thinking about those questions in intelligent ways. Just saying that something happens in the brain in of itself doesn’t tell us how it happens.

BLAKEMORE: It’s neutral it doesn’t have morality connected to it. And also, the more you guys have talked about learning about the brain, the more potential dangers of hacking into the brain, of misusing this information. The old human problem, learning things that, I mean, you could learn how to control minds or you could do DNA.

SHOHAMY: So Martha’s done some thought in depth about these issues of sort of the ethics of neuroscience.


SHOHAMY: That’s right.

FARAH: Yeah, well.

BLAKEMORE: How do you apply them?

FARAH: You know to understand a system, to thoroughly understand a system is to be able to control it. Right? To predict it and even potentially to control it. And, you know, you can you can rest easy tonight knowing that we neuroscientists are still pretty clueless about how this incredibly complex system works, you know. But, we are learning something. I mean, I think the things that you’ve heard from Joy and Daphna, you know, show that neuroscience is beginning to get a handle on some of these things. You know, there’s a lot of ways to manipulate brain function. Drugs is sort of the time honored way you sort of tweak, you know, the neurochemistry. But people are now using brain stimulation to do that. Even noninvasive brain stimulation, which sounds almost like an oxymoron, right? Like how can you stimulate the brain but not open up the body? Except that you can do that with electrical fields and magnetic fields. And there’s a lot of research now and a lot of actual just people doing it. You can go online and buy devices that will electrically stimulate your brain from outside of your head. And so that’s, you know,- now that’s people doing it for themselves. But you could imagine going back to your judges sentencing people. You know, you could imagine a sort of well-meaning policy saying, “We’re not going to just lock you up. We’re going to actually try to rehabilitate you.” We just need to sort of, you know, regulate your, you know, left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. And- so we’re going to just, you know, put an electrode there.

BLAKEMORE: Indeed, and sometimes it’s good- people who buy full spectrum light to look at it in the morning to beat the winter depression that- there’s all kinds of good benefits here. But,


BLAKEMORE: It could be abused.

FARAH: Yeah. I mean you have to ask like who has the right to, you know, who’s brain is it anyway? Kind of like who has the right to-

BLAKEMORE: And now we’re going to get back to self here, but this is already reminding me of that- this is a beautiful peaceful conversation about something that is not always so peaceful, I gather in the academic world. What is it called? What is it? Neuro-Skepticism? I’ve- I’ve shown the books of some neuroscientists to some psychologists who are very thoughtful people who say, well this person knows enough about the brain to be dangerous and maybe someday. But these neurologists think they can control things and they can’t. You all are nodding. You’re aware that this these fights are going on, right?

[01:10:02] HIRSCH: Indeed. In fact I think that the term is called NeuroBollocks.

BLAKEMORE: NeuroBollocks?

HIRSCH: NeuroBollocks is a very popular term that is in a way a way of trashing neuroscience and the notion that we can learn about ourselves.

BLAKEMORE: I could see how a psychiatrist and shrinks would be threatened by you guys, because they’ve- they’ve figured out they have to just talk to a patient about some event in the past and get them to just talk. And they fear that you all are going to come in and say no, no. But I’m not representing it correctly.

SHOHAMY: I don’t think it’s fair to reduce it to insecurity or threat. I think there’s sometimes as a society, we get so carried away and how exciting this all is and it’s potential down the road that there is a feeling that we’re already there. When in truth, it’s a very young field, understanding complex psychological mental phenomena is really it’s early stages. Right, right that’s where we started by saying- not long ago we thought some of this was in the heart. So we know it’s in the brain and we know where in the brain. Between that and understanding the how of how these things happen, there’s a long way and I think a lot of the Neuro Skepticism, both outside but also within the field, is really a healthy sign of a growing field. Sort of like in its adolescence, maybe, rather than its infancy, where there’s a lot of rebellion. Which I think it’s healthy for advancing the science.

BLAKEMORE: Right. You’re reminding me of an ancient- was it the Egyptians or I forget who- used to think that thought and reason happened not here, but in the liver and that the soul was based in the liver. They hadn’t quite figured it out yet. You all of you got a different idea about it, but perhaps you’re connecting some of these things. Because the conversation we’re having in the greenroom about next year was about how actually it’s all the little microbes inside of us that are really controlling us, using us just to walk them around. So we have to study the minds and the brains of the neuro- of the microbes. But that’s it. That’s next year. I mean.

PRINZ: I just want to come on the point that the anxiety about neuroscience is connected to brain control. I think we also need to remember that behavior is more typically, and quite powerfully, controlled by social forces. So you know, many of my family members were killed in the Holocaust. Had they been of a different creed, they would have been the perpetrators, not the victims. And I think we all need to remember- so you are guessed my political orientation, maybe not correctly maybe correctly, I won’t say. But I will say I was born and raised in New York City and had I been born and raised upstate or in the Midwest or in the South where I’ve also lived, I might vote for the other party. And so it’s very important to remember that human behavior is dramatically affected by things without direct biological intervention. Right now we’re so far away technologically from changing behavior by altering brain circuits that we should be much more worried about the social forces than the biological.

BLAKEMORE: And you raise a great hope here, which is that if general acceptance among the world’s scientists, and philosophers, and economists, and psychologists of some of these basic patterns that are true of all humans, then we see horrendous behavior that could lead to great damage, such as storm troopers marching in perfect unison. We could possibly, on the new web world, this new global brain or global mind, if we can talk about it in those terms. Spread the knowledge that, look folks, this is a known disease. Let’s all get together and be open about it and stop it before it happens. That’s very optimistic. But why not, right? That’s not impossible. A reasonable hope.

PRINZ: I think though-again, the biophilia is at work here, because when we start to think about the bad things in the world as a disease on the model, it’s some sort of biological anomaly, we focus on interventions that are at that level. But most of it- so take violence. There’s a lot of work on criminal genes, or people born bad, and maybe there is some variation in tendency toward aggressive behavior that has a base in biology. But the effect size of social causes, like poverty, which Martha has worked on- and I want to say this is that an extraordinary panel, because all of the neuroscientist on this panel study things, like anorexia nervosa or poverty, that are social factors that show that the brain is not fixed but is constantly changing and adapting to the social setting. If you want to change things like the violence that exists in the world, we need to not be thinking about the cure at the biological level, but at the biosocial.

BLAKEMORE: And the scientists- and all of you seem to be telling us more and more that you keep discovering that the brain is much more flexible than anybody imagined. There was a headline recently that said that they’ve discovered that there is one organ in the body that has a different DNA in it- in the same organ you have a lot of different DNA in the cells. The brain. So that your DNA is not-it is not the DNA in every brain cell but- in other words, there is there’s all kinds of ways evolution has taught our bodies apparently to take advantage of as much flexibility as possible to adapt to what’s needed. So to get back to our central promise, to figure out what about the self and- and what we think about the self, and consciousness, we have a quote from Thomas Huxley, who is a biologist who, if I’m not mistaken, is the fellow who advertised how interesting Darwin was. “How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about by irritating nervous tissue is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Genie when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.” Do you three brain scientists think that still pertains? It still is unaccountable are you beginning to account for it?

[01:15:39] SHOHAMY: Well I don’t think I’m going to shift to studying lamps.

BLAKEMORE: For the state of consciousness. I guess the question would be for him- what did he think he meant by state of consciousness?

FARAH: I mean I think this gets us back again to this question of subjectivity versus objectivity, which I know sounds like dialogue from an old Woody Allen film and Diane Keaton says, “Yes, but subjectivity of objectivity.” You know. If. If what he means by state of consciousness, is basically the focus of your attention, then I think it’s wrong. What he’s saying. I think we have certainly in sort of a broad sketch of, if not a detailed account, of the way in which the neural networks of our brain can kind of sift and select for certain subsets of the information impinging on your senses. Focus on certain memories that you’ve encoded in the past that you become “conscious” of in the sense of aware or attending to. But, I think what he’s probably talking about, is that people usually at some point in your childhood, you’ve puzzled over the following question: What if what I see when I look at something that I call red is- looks to you like what I see is what I would call green. Right? Does this? I can’t even see people up there, but, you know, it is kind of amusing that, you know, when we’re 10 years old and we’re all philosophers and. So that difference between the experience of red and the experience of green, which you can never sort out just by talking to somebody, right? Because I say, “Well does it look red to you?” And you say,  “Of course it looks red.” Because all your life, you’ve called that, to me green color, red. Right? OK. It’s- it’s that difference between the experience of red and green. OK. That completely subjective experience that I don’t think we have a clue how that results from the material world.

BLAKEMORE: So the first I think most people thought of this problem. But for the first time, I’m beginning to realize that you guys may be on the beginning of a track that could one day figure out how to do that to get into the brain to get an image out and matches against spectra, or something. But I don’t know. I mean is the subject of prison is really, really hard to break out of.

FARAH: The subjective prison, and that’s a great, yeah. And I think even if you started poking around with micro electrodes and recording the activity of neurons you still would- I mean you’d say, “OK that -so that’s firing action potentials now. What does that look like to you? And you’d say red. But it’s the same problem. You know, so that, I think, we’re never going to get at.

BLAKEMORE: Never? Never

FARAH: Well, ok. Never say never. You know I read a really interesting article recently, I think it was the New York Review of Books, by a philosopher named Galen Strawson. And basically, he had a really interesting take on the mind- body problem. He just turned it on its head and said you know what, consciousness isn’t mysterious, what’s mysterious is the physical world. So like we- we, you know. He says, and I think yes- there’s something to be said for this- we don’t really understand the physical world. And that’s why we don’t see how consciousness can emerge from it. And you know, he points to the fact that quantum physics is really weird and you know, I think it was-Feynman said you know, “If you really understand quantum physics, then you are totally confused by it.” Or something to that effect, right? ,,So. Yeah. So I think I I don’t think our humble human brains wonderful as they are, well adapted as they are to all the things that we have to do in life, from like negotiate the physical world, to use language to develop social relationships. I don’t-I think they can do a lot of great things, but I don’t think they’re ever going to understand how consciousness in that red -green sense emerges from networks of neurons.

[01:20:35] BLAKEMORE: Very quickly before we get to Q&A, we just have 10 minutes left to go to questions from around the planet. Talk about a new planet consciousness. Because we have them on our iPad here from people who’ve been watching live all over the planet and in this auditorium. Of the three of you who have not just been talking, do you all agree with what she just said in general about the permanence of the subject at present?

BLAKEMORE: Or you have -or do you doubt it? Or, Joy? Or do you know- know?

HIRSCH: Well, the most truthful answer is of course that I don’t know. I mean, this is clearly what’s been called the “hard problem” in in neuroscience and the “hard problem” is how does my subjectivity compare with yours? I- I like the gravity comment that-and it is related to your notion that what consciousness really isn’t as important to understand as the outside world and that is, how we perceive the outside world and how we perceive others is perhaps the hallmark that we’re interested in. You know, when in science, when we when we take on a problem, like say we want to understand consciousness, usually we have an idea of what the answer looks like. And I think that that’s part of our problem here. If consciousness stared us in the face, would we know it? Would we know if we really have the right answer?

BLAKEMORE: If there is it- there  

HIRSCH: And I’m not sure we would. And so and so I think that maybe studying that the physical world might be a faster route to consciousness and maybe someday consciousness to come knocking on our door and some data will say to us, “Hey I’m consciousness. You’ve missed me all along.”

SHOHAMY: I’m a little more optimistic.

HIRSCH: Are you? Okay.

SHOHAMY: Yeah, I think we might change. You know, we when we find the answer, it might be because we’ve changed the question a little. But I think, you know, yes we’re in the infancy, there a lot of things we don’t know. But the progress has been amazing. At the same time, I think I think there’s reason to think we’ll understand a great deal about the subjective.

PRINZ: I really want to echo that. I think it’s actually an easy problem in the following sense. Of all the things we’ve studied biologically, this is one where we’re really getting very close to being able to say this is the exact process that makes the difference between being conscious and not. We also understand why studying that process doesn’t fully feel explanatorily satisfying. So we have stories about that too. But the main thing is if you want to know which are the mechanisms of consciousness in the brain, we’re pretty close to an answer. If you ask, how does culture affect the brain? How do you cure racism in the brain? Those are things we don’t know. Those are really hard problems. They’re big complex multifaceted problems. I think we should stop worrying about consciousness maybe and turn attention to those.

BLAKEMORE: And when we asked the question, “Can you define consciousness, we’re asking for a verbal answer to a verbal problem, but there may not be a problem- it may just be one of the basics of the universe. All right. So we’re going to take- we’re going to go over by about four minutes. You really only have 6 minutes left and I want to take 10 minutes to answer questions from around the planet to expand our sense of self in some way. Here’s a question from, I don’t know where on the planet. If there was an exact clone of someone with the exact same brain, would they still have the same mind? Would they be the same self? I think I know the answer.

PRINZ: Bill, why don’t you tell us?

BLAKEMORE: I’m just a journalist. If there was an exact clone of someone with the exact same brain, would they still have the same mind? Would they be the same self? For no more than a nanosecond. I think the answer from what you will have said is no. They wouldn’t be the same self, if they were two different people. They’re in different places, they’re experiencing- is that- am I right

SHOHAMY: I was going to say something similar, but it depends I mean what they mean by the question. Do they have the exact same experiences? A full replication of the brain with its memories and identical experiences up to that moment, then yeah

FARAH: Yeah, same- same brain means you know, same traces of experiences embedded.

SHOHAMY: Right. Yeah exactly. You know, in that case I’d say that

BLAKEMORE: But for a moment, but very soon they’re in two different places, they’re not getting exactly-

[01:25:00] SHOHAMY: Right, you put them into different rooms, and it’s no longer the same brain, I guess.

FARAH: Unless you feed them by artificial means. The same virtual reality, or something.

PRINZ: I think I’m the least philosophical person on this panel.

FARAH: Well there’s a wonderful science fiction novel that has a lot of fun with exactly that pre-text called Mindscan by Robert J Sawyer.

BLAKEMORE: All right. Well so here’s another question from somewhere on the planet. I don’t know anything about the person. I presume it’s a human. Can’t be sure these days. Is the rise in digital communication affecting our signaling to others? Have some of you done work on this?

SHOHAMY: I just want to jump in on this question because a lot of what I do, in addition to memories about learning and I get questioned- I also have a kid-kids at a particular age where a lot of other parents ask me you know, in panic ,is it true that my kids using their iPads is changing their brains? And the answer is obviously yes, because everything we do is changing our brains. So.

BLAKEMORE: What about-do you know if it’s bad, if it’s changing it in a bad or diminishing away.

SHOHAMY: You know I think that we don’t know but that’s because it’s very hard to know for anything. And Jesse earlier before this panel gave a great example of addiction. Right that addiction can be seen in a particular context is really bad undesirable thing but if somebody chooses to pursue it or drug use I should say for any particular reason it might be a goal in of itself. So I think one of the interesting things, we don’t have a whole lot time to elaborate a whole lot on, is that there are these- the- the neural perspective is not about judging the behaviors that emerge. It’s about understanding what happens in the brain to support that. A lot of things you can look at.

BLAKEMORE: I mean, we haven’t even begun to ask whether what you’re- what you’re studying can begin to explain to us whatever the word “intelligent” might mean. You’re all nodding. In other words, that’s a big question. From around the world from someone on Twitter, somewhere, I would like the panel to talk about what neuroscience has to say about determinism and free will and how that relates to the self. The old free will question. And how does that relate to the question? What does neuroscience have to say about any of this?  

SHOHAMY: It’s a whole panel.

FARAH: I mean in so far as, the claim that, you know, all of our behavior is determined by the brain. You know, insofar as the brain is a deterministic physical system, then yeah, the neuroscience view of people is a view that our behavior is all determined and therefore, free will makes no sense.

BLAKEMORE: That we are all what?

FARAH: Free will makes no sense. I mean-

BLAKEMORE: Free will makes no sense?

FARAH: Yeah. I mean, you know, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just saying that, you know.  I’m just saying that of-

BLAKEMORE: So the presidential vote that’s coming up makes no sense. There’s no free will involved?

FARAH: We’re just billiard balls bouncing around on a table. And, you know.

BLAKEMORE: I’m- I’m sorry, you’re smiling and I just can’t accept this because I can’t accept it. Myself doesn’t like this idea.

SHOHAMY: So subjectively it doesn’t-  subjectively what Martha’s saying doesn’t make sense doesn’t make sense. We have choice.

BLAKEMORE: So all three of you neuroscientists who look into the brain all day, Joy, free will make sense to you?

HIRSCH: Well, I don’t I’m not I don’t have any data in my head that speaks to free will. As an individual, I like to think that I’m in control, but I’m not sure that the data that I have as a neuroscientist as- answers one way or the other

BLAKEMORE: And the microbes that we’re being used to walk them around may, in fact, be in charge.

HIRSCH: Yeah that’s right. That’s right.

PRINZ: I mean, I think the free will debate is another one where we’ve gotten very obsessed with this, and maybe it’s a kind of Western individual obsession, we’re obsessed with this total control. Can I determine my behavior? I think the anxiety that we don’t have free will is based on a false pretext and the pretext is that without free will we can’t hold people responsible. Without free will we can’t change. Those are fundamentally false claims.

BLAKEMORE: That’s interesting. You mean, in other words, what really matters is is can we figure out what’s good and healthy and compassionate, maybe.

PRINZ: Well, also what do we do when somebody does something wrong? Are they- should be- should we hold them responsible? And also, who should be held responsible? Is it just that body, that person, that organism that did this thing? Or is it also the social conditions that led to that behavior? Giving up on free will allows us to see how responsibility is sometimes distributed across broader groups. And that’s an effective tool not for being stuck and fixed in human behavior, but an effective tool for change. By studying how behavior is controlled, we can better understand human potential, human flexibility.

BLAKEMORE:Something kind of- and indeed, I wish Thomas Jefferson was here right now because we assume that endowed by the maker that all people are- have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Is that required or-does it not require free will?

[01:30:10] PRINZ:I think, I mean, there’s a long answer to that question. But the short answer that question is,: if we do set out a series of ideals What is it to live a good life? We have things like positive psychology that study human learning, human well being. To achieve that isn’t about having freedom in the sense of this metaphysical ability to control your fate. It’s about social capacity to create a form of governance that allows humans to live better than they’re currently living. And we’re pretty far from those goals.

BLAKEMORE: We are. But the new neural net may help us. The Web world may help us get closer to them. And this comes very close to something that’s central. Compassion. In the end it’s possibly always about, at the very least, survival. Because we know this kind of behavior with compassion helps us survive as a species. Because we don’t suffer a lot and die a lot and concentrate on bad things and feel like not wanting to live. So there may be some survival advantage. God’s Darwinian tautology, you might call it, for us to see that life is good and go on, we have to throw out how to be compassionate and want to go on living. Which is not unrelated to this question asked from Twitter, somewhere on the planet, “Can you talk about what parts of the brain are activated while experiencing compassion and experiencing a sense of mor-morality? Are brain scientist- would like to take- what parts of the brain are activated while experiencing compassion and experiencing a sense of morality?

SHOHAMY: I think if that person were-I would return that question with a question. So there have been studies that have done sort of brain mapping of social cognition when you’re thinking about others, when you’re judging others, when you’re experiencing positive feelings versus negative feelings that point to particular regions. But I think what I want to do is, really ask the question in return and say, “Why is it important to understand those regions particularly? And I think the reason is, you know, that what’s driving that question is this idea, I think, that if we understand where something happens we understand how it works. And I think that’s a really good first pass. That’s kind of where we were 10 years ago. But I think what we really want to understand is what else are those areas doing? What do those neurons do? What are they connecting with? Because that same map that, one would see in the brain for compassion, social cognition, overlaps often with goal pursuit and other kinds of functions. I think one of the fundamental things to keep in mind when we think about brain mapping is that it’s not- one part of the brain never does one function there’s not a compassion center in the brain.

BLAKEMORE:Wow. It means, you know, I’ve heard all that for the whole time- as you’re finding that any one part of the brain does a bunch of things. It’s connected to a lot of other things.

SHOHAMY: Right. I mean-

BLAKEMORE:It’s multitasking.

SHOHAMY: There is specialization, absolutely. But it’s not specialization that necessarily maps are terms.

BLAKEMORE:So the part of the brain doesn’t solve the problem. It’s the connections between that part of the brain an other parts of the brain.

HIRSCH: I want to back Daphna up on this with the additional comment that I think one of the things is really interesting here is the study of individual differences. Certainly with respect to a trait like compassion or empathy, for example, we all differ a great deal. Some people are very compassionate and very empathetic and others not so much. And so one of the things that’s very difficult to explain from questions like, “What part of the brain does this?” is why are we so different? And the nuances that sort of lead to our- our individual selves I think is part of that part of the answer here that yes, there are certain major systems of the brain that are engaged when we’re empathetic or compassionate, but it’s executed in many different ways, in many different brains, in many different times and that’s where the fascination is partly

BLAKEMORE: You all are giving me the feeling- you’re just at the beginning of a whole new world. The doors are opening up. One last question for all the world and we’re out of time. But don’t worry, our panelists will be available in the lobby for a few minutes to ask a few more questions from. This is from Twitter. Don’t know what continent or or or boat or plane this question comes from. What is the connection between illness like PTSD and the experience of memory and consciousness? Can you can your brain be then rewired?

SHOHAMY: It, I’ll jump in on the memory angle as someone else wants to- again could be a whole, kind of, hour long conversation. A very short answer is that that’s something we understand some things about and people with a smaller hippocampus, we mentioned, have a greater propensity for PTSD. And in some preliminary experimental work, people have shown that you can exploit the fact that memories change to start to rewire traumatic memory.

[01:35:07] BLAKEMORE: And you can see that in the brain.

SHOHAMY: Nothing clinical yet.

BLAKEMORE:Your neuroimaging- and you can see this effect.

SHOHAMY: There has been a- most of the important work was developed in animals with pharmacology and people like Liz Phelps, who’s here at NYU, have used that approach to try to create a very simplified model of creating a negative memory and then rewriting it by figuring out what the parameters are. How we can rewire within how within how much time of when the memory was created and so forth. But it’s definitely related to the hippocampal wiring.

BLAKEMORE: Sounds like a positive and helpful answer. So quick question for each of you and we’re done fulfilling the promise of our title. Your quick short definition, if you have one if you don’t, don’t be ashamed to say it, of self.

PRINZ: I am my values. The self the self is the set of our deeply held values.

BLAKEMORE:The self is the set of deeply held values.

PRINZ: Yes, the values that connect us to to others who are like minded.


FARAH: I’m not sure there is a self in the way we’ve been talking about it. I’ll just leave it there.

BLAKEMORE:Question, Is it a verb or a noun? Is self a verb or a noun?

FARAH: You know, if if by self, we mean something that does endure over time, some essence of a person that makes them the same person. I’m kind of with David Hume, I guess, and Buddhists and various others. I’m not sure there is such a thing. Although I admit, that we certainly have the intuition that there is.

BLAKEMORE: That there is, right. A part of the subjective prison, perhaps. Daphna?

SHOHAMY: I’d say, you know, that the self is- we are what we’ve learned from our world and what we remember from our experiences. But with the, with the specification that that’s reflected more in what we actually do that defines who we are rather than what we’re- what we- who we think we are.

BLAKEMORE: More towards verbal or?

SHOHAMY: Action.

BLAKEMORE: Action. Joy?

HIRSCH: I’d like to turn the question upside down. And think of myself as what other people think of me.

BLAKEMORE: Oh. Something to think about. Well, in three or four minutes the most of these good folks will be in the lobby to answer a few more questions. I think there’s nothing but- not a blown mind, but a blossoming mind. Thank you very much.

Big Ideas
My Neurons, My Self

With ever more refined techniques for measuring complex brain activity, scientists are challenging the understanding of thought, memory and emotion–what we have traditionally called “the self.” How do electrical and chemical currents translate to self-awareness? And why does the brain produce consciousness at all? Join a discussion among eminent neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists who are redefining what it means to be human. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

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