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Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality - Anil Seth

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When you wake up and open your eyes, a world (or at least your bedroom) suddenly appears. This is the mystery of consciousness: how do the billions of brain cells inside your head generate the experience of "being you?" Join neuroscientist Anil Seth for a delightfully disorienting talk that may leave you questioning the very nature of your existence.

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Consciousness is one of the most captivating mysteries in all of science and philosophy. Ever since René Descartes distinguished between ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’ way back in the 17th century – in fact long before this too – people have wondered about how conscious experiences relate to the physical ‘wetware’ inside our brains and our bodies.

You might therefore find it surprising that, for most of the twentieth Century, the study of consciousness was largely excluded from psychology and neuroscience. Things started to change in the late 1990s, when new technologies like brain imaging became more widely available. These days, research into the biological basis of consciousness is once again thriving, and is at the heart of the mind and brain sciences.

There are many ways to study consciousness. We can look at what happens in the brain when people lose it, such as when they fall asleep or go under general anesthesia. We can explore what shapes our conscious experiences – how the brain generates conscious perceptions from the flow of sensory signals in which it is immersed. And we can ask what it means to be a ‘conscious self’ – to have the experience of being me, or of being you. Science – guided by philosophy – is providing new answers to all of these questions, some of which you will have encountered in this TED talk.

You can listen to Anil Seth’s TED Interview with head-of-TED Chris Anderson from July 2019, or – if you really have time on your hands – his 2018 conversation with neuroscientist and author Sam Harris. He has also written about his approach to consciousness science in a 2016 article for Aeon called ‘the real problem of consciousness’, and a 2018 article for Scientific American on ‘the neuroscience of reality’.

For some other perspectives, check out neuroscientist Christof Koch’s Scientific American piece ‘what is consciousness?’ or this video of philosopher Daniel Dennett on the same question, for New Scientist. Perhaps most fun of all, check out the Rap Guide to Consciousness by peer-reviewed rap artist Baba Brinkman – for which Anil was a scientific advisor.

There’s more to explore on Anil’s webpage (www.anilseth.com) including the option to sign up for news about his books, including Being You.

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How much of what you see is a hallucination?
A condition called Charles Bonnet Syndrome can cause blind patients to hallucinate scenes in vivid color. fMRI studies show that these hallucinations activate the same brain areas as sight — areas that are not activated by imagination. Other hallucinations also involve the same brain areas as real sensory experiences. What's going on? Elizabeth Cox details the science of hallucinations.

What is consciousness?
Patient P.S. suffered a stroke that damaged the right side of her brain, leaving her unaware of everything on her left side. If someone threw a ball at her left side, she might duck. But she wouldn’t have awareness of the ball or know why she ducked. Where does consciousness come from? Michael Graziano explores the question that has vexed scientists and philosophers for centuries.

Are you a body with a mind or a mind with a body?
Our bodies – the physical, biological parts of us — and our minds — the thinking, conscious aspects — have a complicated, tangled relationship. Which one primarily defines you or your self? Are you a body with a mind or a mind with a body? Maryam Alimardani investigates.

How close are we to uploading our minds?
Imagine a future where nobody dies— instead, our minds are uploaded to a digital world. There they could live on in a realistic, simulated environment with avatar bodies, calling in and contributing to the biological world. Mind-uploading has powerful appeal— but what would it actually take to scan a person’s brain and upload their mind? Michael S. A. Graziano explores the challenges.

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About TED Talk Lessons

TED Talk Lessons are created by TED-Ed using phenomenal TED Talks. Do you have an idea for a lesson? Create it now using any video from YouTube »

Meet The Creators

  • Speaker Anil Seth