A Strange Experience…

I spent the majority of the last week at a conference called “Toward a Science of Consciousness 2008” in Tucson, Arizona. I had several reasons for going to the conference, none of which had to do with my research program (let’s get that straight right off the bat). Many parts of the conference were excellent. There were several really thought provoking talks given by neuroscientists on the neural correlates of different types of attention. Also in the mix where several talks, given mostly by European imaging groups, on what the brain looks like on a variety of psychotropic drugs — these were interesting, but not particularly well done so I’m not sure I really learned anything new from their data. There were even a few good talks by philosophers about experiments that they feel would help advance toward a better understanding of consciousness. On the other hand, I sat through what had to have been some of the worst “scientific” talks I have heard in my lifetime.

First, what the heck is up with physicists and their attempts to incorporate quantum mechanics into the brain? Now, I have no problem with this idea in general but its not enough to just talk about it… some experiments must be done to support the position. I think I sat through at least 4 hrs worth of lectures on quantum effects in the brain. I may have seen 1 data slide, but I’m not too sure that even that single slide was actually data. Instead of data, I heard all manner of overly complicated drivel about how time has no directionality, how ion channels may have quantum properties and truly wild quantum mechanical explanations for why humans may have precognition (as if the idea of precognition isn’t wild enough by itself). I wasn’t convinced that any of these exotic ideas were needed in the first place and the total lack of experiment didn’t help persuade me otherwise.

Second, philosophers of mind, get over your so called “hard questions” and learn a thing or two about modern neurobiology. An hour long talk about why we aren’t constantly conscious of the feeling of our foot in our shoe is ridiculous! This is easily explained by a single slide showing that nerve fibers that sense light touch and bodily position are rapidly adapting, in other words, they stop firing. That’s been in the textbooks for at least 3 decades.

Third, I heard some talks that were irresponsible (at best) or dangerous (at worst). Several of the speakers at the conference seemed to be obsessed with reaching a “god-like” state through the use of psychotropic drugs. Some of these talks claimed to have data on how humans could reach a higher state by using all types of wild combinations of 5HT, dopamine and histamine receptor agonists. First off, I don’t believe they were actually presenting data, what IRB panel would possibly approve such studies. Second, I suspect they were presenting what they had experienced themselves (anecdote is not data). One dude in particular (who will remain nameless) is likely lucky he isn’t dead if he has actually taken the drug combinations that he claims to have data on. If he has given these combos to others he should be in jail (several of the drugs are scheduled). I resisted the urge to walk out during his talk so I could stick around to comment and call him on his B.S.. Unfortunately the organizers cut the q and a session short and ended the session. I couldn’t track the guy down again to confront him.

So, all in all it was a strange experience and I don’t think I will be returning for the 2010 conference. I was left with the impression that most of these people don’t really know what they are studying at all (or even how to study it) and are in it to prove that their particular world-view is correct. Most strikingly, I left without any clear idea of why it is necessary to study consciousness at all. The theme of the neuroscience talks was that the notion of consciousness is really just a filter for attention. It was clear that many in the audience were not happy with this notion at all as they want consciousness to give them some sort of privilege for religious-type experiences. Perhaps I was misinterpreting but it left that impression, nonetheless… Either way, I’m happy to be back in the lab/office today and I can’t imagine I’ll be thinking about consciousness studies again anytime soon.

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9 responses to “A Strange Experience…

  1. One really pernicious thing I see many very prominent well-respected neuroscientists do is intentionally conflate two meanings of “consciousness”: “the state of not being asleep, i.e., aroused” and “the state of being aware of one’s own existence”.

    Why they do this obvious: the former is the only meaning of consciousness that they can study experimentally, but the latter is dramatically more interesting.

  2. I agree PP. I would just add that Rafael Malach (whose group at the Weizmann Institute has published a number of papers in Neuron on imaging of attention in the human brain — http://www.weizmann.ac.il/neurobiology/labs/malach ) showed some very interesting data on activation patterns (by fMRI) that are linked to interoception vs exteroception. He was very cautious in the interpretation of his results for the awareness of one’s own existence perspective but it was easy to tell that he was excited at the prospect that they might be making some headway on the problem

  3. I’m rolling my eyes at every discussion of consciousness until someone can explain to me what the hell anesthesia (in its many forms) does. Am tired of in vivo studies with wild claims about How Sensation Works or other similar, from data in anesthetized animals. (Not to say none of those studies are good, just that some make claims waaayy beyond their power.)

  4. if the “dude” was Shulgin, there’s no need to conceal his name and yeah, he probably did all that shit. just sayin’

  5. No, it wasn’t Shulgin… but you’re right, no need to conceal his name. It was Tom Ray at U of Oklahoma. You can check out his disgraceful wooness here http://life.ou.edu/

  6. this guy is begging for a visit from his local feds, isn’t he?

  7. So after all the chit-chat do you think there’s really a biological basis for “consciousness” or is it an illusion we create for ourselves? If yes, what does the word mean? What are people who “study” consciousness actually tying to study? What is the test of whether something is conscious or not?

    Sorry, I’ve probably gone well beyond the point of a simple answer here. But I’m interested as to your general opinion on these sorts of matters after attending such a conference. Sounded like you were diplomatically saying it’s bullshit.

  8. this guy is begging for a visit from his local feds, isn’t he?

    He most certainly is… I’m tempted to help them along. His talk was a disgrace and he is either lying, endangering himself or others.

  9. Bayman, Some of it was BS, some of it was high quality stuff that I was very interested in… I went partly out of a desire to hear some of the talks.

    To me, consciousness is nothing special (certainly not a unique human property). I would define it as awareness of yourself in the world that surrounds you. Problem is there are a thousand definitions and no one can agree on what they are studying. Many want to study paranormal events, precognition or other strange things that probably don’t exist at all. I was unconvinced by the talks of anyone studying such things.

    There were some important studies going on. The work on attention is important for basic neuroscience research and for medicine. People with a variety of diseases have abnormalities of attention and beginning to nail down the pharmacology of normal attention might lead to drugs or other interventions that will help these people. I would also say that the effect of psychotropic drugs on the brain is very interesting to me. I would like to see these studies make some progress because I think they can help us understand why certain people use drugs and become addicted. I could be wrong here but we have a long way to go before we will know the answer. Either way, it would be nice to see people who study such things really hunker down and start doing some well controlled work (which I don’t think I saw at the conference).

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