Catalyst Club hat trick – 3 brilliant speakers on 3 brilliant topics
Once again Dr Bramwell scores a hat trick at the Catalyst Club (Brighton’s hot ticket for debate, drink and deviancy) with three brilliant speakers on three brilliant topics.
Speaker 1: Anil Seth on Consciousness
First up an academic, Anil Seth, who talked us through the problems of consciousness. Anil has big eyes, bags of enthusiasm and an abundance of wit., so gave us a wonderfully accessible introduction to the subject; jargon free, and packed with good analogies and jokes. "Consciousness is the appearance of the world” was his opening distinction. A good phenomenological start, soon to be undercut by scientific hypothesising. Then a cartoon of a cat claiming it was the “annoying bits between naps”. Brilliant! What followed were eight problems that our own consciousness throws right back at us.
1. Where is consciousness in the brain?
The big numbers came out on numbers of neurons and even larger number of connections. What was more fascinating is that some regions of the brain are vastly more important than others. The cerebellum contains more neurons than the rest of the brain put together but seems quite benign. The thalamus, however, the walnut sized bit in the middle, is critical. Thankfully, we have moved on from the left/right brain model that became part of modern consciousness and still hangs around in the minds of teachers and those who want to see themselves as ‘creative’ (read superior). Things are very much more complex than this, involving flows across the entire brain. Glad to see that he also knocked Freud into touch.
2. Why does anaesthesia work?
We know that anaesthesia works, we just don’t know how it works. But it’s the fact that consciousness is lost, but the brain keeps on functioning, that’s puzzling. It’s as if the workings of the cinema and projector keep on rolling, without the film being seen by the audience. Quite a conundrum. This he attributed to a sort of ‘cognitive unbinding’, similar to what happens in non-REM sleep.
3. What is the self?
We can be induced into thinking we have an extra hand and experience out of body experiences. This playing around with the sense of ‘self’ tells us much about whet the ‘self’ is. We feel that the ‘I’ is some sort of single executor. In reality it is lots of different things; sense of body shape, thoughts, memories and imagination. We are beginning to unravel this complex rope into its constituent parts. For example, we now know rather a lot about memory, the many different types of memory, their limits and fallibility. Although he did make a serious error by claiming that ALL memory is subject to decay and alteration as they are dynamically recalled. The fact that I have recalled 2+2=4 for over 50 years, flawlessly and without error, puts paid to that simple assertion. What you have to do when talking about memory is always talk about different types of memories.
4. Do we have free will?
The Libor effect was brought in, rightly, as it has thrown the whole issue of conscious volition into the air. This quickly becomes a serious philosophical issue but is being informed by newer models of decision making, largely computational, where actions are selected from invisible, probabilistic options.
5. Why consciousness?
We have it but why? Could we function without it? Given the fact that it has evolved, possibly many times, and exists, surely suggests that it has a necessary role. That role may be one of pulling things together, a sort of manager and curator. Although, oddly, many things can take place without consciousness.
6. What is consciousness?
This is where it gets seriously philosophical. There are all sorts of problems with seeing brain scans and lab work as in any way revealing the true nature of ‘consciousness’ as opposed to brain structure. We have to be very careful of adopting too readily the computational model, without adequate criticism. This happened centuries earlier when we adopted the mechanical model of the brain, in Cartesian dualism. We then saw the brain as a tabla rasa in the era of behaviourism, led by an obsession with animal experimentation. We may now be doing exactly the same thing, just because computer science and information processing is currently popular.
7. Are other animals conscious?
Interesting one. It would seem as though octopi and birds have consciousness, although how we’ve cracked the solipsistic puzzle is open to debate. Anil suggests that cephalopods an birds are indeed conscious which means consciousness has been selected in evolution several times. What then is its adaptive advantage?
8. Are vegetative patients conscious?
He made an error here by claiming that there were 150,000 vegetative patients in the US. The figure is actually nearer to one tenth of this (a fraudulent slip?). But that’s by the by. What really matters is what’s going on in the minds of these patients. Are they conscious? Brain scans, comparing them with normal patients, suggest some (not all) are. This raises all sorts of moral questions about people in such states.
Speaker 2: Barbara Moore
What a double act! The vivacious interviewer had 'found' Barbara Moore, languishing in a flat in Bognor, and talked, sang and played clips while interviewing her fascinating subject. No one has ever heard of Barbara Moore but she played a bit part in the music of the sixties, singing as a backing singer in The Ladybirds, then as an arranger for TV theme tunes and a couple of hits. The curious thing about this interview wasn’t the music at all, it was Barbara, who’s in her eighties, is as spritely and irreverent as John Lydon. She hinted at a rather wild life, selling her five homes and taking off to France where she bought a Chateau with her French lover, all ending in disaster. She ended up in a flat in Bognor Regis. She was grateful that she’d been saved from an ‘early cremation’ by this renewed interest in her work. The strangest anecdote was of her doing backing vocals on Hey Joe, with Hendrix wandering in and being roundly ignored by arrogant BBC session musicians, then blowing them away with the first few bars from his wailing guitar. She told how she had to take him up to the BBC canteen to feed him up as he was so painfully thin from his heroin habit. Beneath the fun loving image is a wily, old bird who made sure she was paid royalties, and was paid royally, for her work. What a trooper.
Speaker 3: Ulysses Black
This was a weirdly subversive talk from a man with a great name and beguiling manner. Ostensibly about the the ‘rituals’ of Padstow May Day, Ulysses played with the concept and talked us through his day at Padstow, all the while playing in the background an accordion and drum tune, that played all day long at said May Day. Damn clever the way he matched his delivery, in a slow, faltering style to the rhythm of this one, relentless tune. It was a tale of local factions, exclusion, drinking and above all, that damn tune. I’m sure the audience were lulled into some sort of trance as the questions got very strange. At one point Dr Bramwell said “Give us a round of applause for that rational question” after a series of oddball qureies that were more stream of consciousness than questions. I’m sure Danny Boyle is up to something along these lines in his Olympic Ceremony. He has a Maypole and England’s green and pleasant land, I’m sure will erupt into something darker and feistier.
What a great night, crammed into a basement club in the dark, with a few beers, talking with friends, and strangers, A wonderful lad, sitting opposite me, claimed to be a drummer who was, “between punk bands at the moment…although I’m not so sure that there’s one on the other side”. That's Brighton for you.