Friday, November 20, 2009

TV Viewing Diary: Horizon

This season's Horizon has been top draw — indeed, a full recovery has been made after the tie-up with Discovery had led initially to a downmarket drift.

Perhaps the best programme so far was the one presented by Marcus du Sautoy, who has replaced Richard Dawkins as the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. (And are far more down-to-earth incumbent of that chair he certainly makes.)

— Who, where, what am 'I'? the intrepid Oxford mathmo asked.

And so he takes himself off to Berlin in order to submit himself to an experiment which demonstrates the disconcerting fact that our brain activity indicates which way we are going to go on specific decisions some time before we are consciously aware of 'making a choice'. In the case of Du Sautoy the experimenter knew what he was going to do a full SIX SECONDS before he did. (He'd earlier sat beside the conveyor-belt at a sushi bar just so we knew what he meant by choice.)

As one would expect, he had some sensible things to say about the implications of this finding for our moral being. Although science has discovered that consciousness is in some senses a retroactive story that our minds tell themselves in order to justify a more 'parallel' process of interaction with the world, this kind of 'determination' should not in any way excuse the individual from any blame for the consequences of his or her actions — our consciousness is encoded in the deeper mind and in a sense our ethical biases become encoded in there too.

Therefore, in some ways our "I" is our brain's report on itself. Earlier however, Du Sautoy met up with Professor Henrik Ehrsson who has a trick for demonstrating that one's "I" might be said to be little more than an interpretative illusion.

Du Sautoy was made to put on a VR headset which treated his eyes to the images transmitted from a pair of cameras fixed on a chair directly behind him. "I am three feet behind myself," he observed, feeling somewhat transplanted.

Things got really fun when Ehrsson brought a hammer into the lab and started attacking Du Sautoy's displaced consciousness...and the out of body experience was complete when he wore the cameras himself, tricking Du Sautoy into thinking he'd become the Swede.

Professor Christof Koch also related the bizarre story of 'concept neurons'. One of his patients possesses a single neuron which will only fire whenever he sees either a pic of Jennifer Anniston or her name in print. (It remains obstinately unmoved by Brad Pitt however.)

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