BY AZRA RAZA
Gaia Vince in The Guardian:
For every stoner who has been overcome with profound insight and drawled, “Reality is a construct, maaan,” here is the astonishing affirmation. Reality – or, at least, our perception of it – is a “controlled hallucination”, according to the neuroscientist Anil Seth. Everything we see, hear and perceive around us, our whole beautiful world, is a big lie created by our deceptive brains, like a forever version of The Truman Show, to placate us into living our lives. Our minds invent for us a universe of colours, sounds, shapes and feelings through which we interact with our world and relate to each other, Seth argues. We even invent ourselves. Our reality, then, is an illusion, and understanding this involves tackling the thorny issue of consciousness: what it means to, well, be.
Consciousness has long been the preserve of philosophers and priests, poets and artists; now neuroscientists are investigating the mysterious quality and trying to answer the hard question of how consciousness arises in the first place. If this all sounds a bit hard going, it’s actually not at all in the masterly hands of Seth, who deftly weaves the philosophical, biological and personal with a lucid clarity and coherence that is thrilling to read.
Consciousness, which Seth defines as “any kind of subjective experience whatsoever”, is central to our being and identity as animate sentient creatures. What does it mean for you to be you, as opposed to being a stone or a bat? And how does this feeling of being you emerge from the squishy conglomeration of cells we keep in our skulls? Science has shied away from these sorts of intrinsically experiential questions, partly because it’s not obvious how science’s tools could explore them. Scientists are fond of pursuing “objective” truths and realities, not probing the perspectival realms of subjectivity to seek the truth of nostalgia, joy or the perfect blueness of an Yves Klein canvas. Also, it’s hard. Seth might use other words, but essentially, he is exploring the science of people’s souls – a daunting task.