Last week, I linked to Antonio Damasio’s TED talk in which he spoke about his theory for how “self comes to mind” to generate consciousness. This week, we get a different picture of consciousness, from Dan Dennett. Dennett has two main points to make in his talk. First, even though you think you’re an expert on your own consciousness, you’re really not. Second, a good amount of the time your consciousness is not only inaccurate, but it is fooling… “you.”
Dennett’s evidence for his argument comes from visual tricks or illusions that show that what you think you’re looking at is not really there. Your brain fills in gaps and plays tricks on you to help make sense out of the limited view you have of reality (in this case, artistic images).
The evidence is quite clear. My favorite example is shown below in two images, the first a view of a painting from afar and the second a closer up view of the same painting. Your brain makes you think that there are people on the bridge from afar, but when you look more closely, it’s just blobs of paint. You “create” people that aren’t really there. We don’t just do this with visual inputs, but also with audio inputs, as anyone who has camped out can attest to! We think there is someone out there when it’s just the wind (or if you’re in Texas, an armadillo).
However, I don’t agree that the inaccuracies presented in the talk can then be extrapolated to say that all of our consciousness is mistaken. It’s one thing to show that processing of relatively complex inputs can be faulty from time to time, it’s another entirely to say that our understanding of consciousness is mistaken or that consciousness is an illusion (which he does not say within this particular talk, but is a logical conclusion). Nevertheless, a very interesting talk and one that should generate a healthy discussion!