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Being You, Anil Seth

"This book is about the neuroscience of consciousness: the attempt to understand how the inner universe of subjective experience relates to, and can be explained in terms of, biological and physical processes unfolding in brains and bodies."


"The practical strategy stems from the insight that consciousness, like life, is not just one single phenomenon. By shifting the focus away from life as one big scary mystery, biologists became less inclined to desire, or to require, one humdinger eureka of a solution. Instead, they divided the "problem" of life into a number of related but distinguishable processes. Applying the same strategy to consciousness, in this book I will focus on level, content, and self as the core properties of what being you is all about. By doing so, a fulfilling picture of all conscious experience will come to light."

p. 33

"Then there's conscious self--the specific experience of being you, and the guiding theme of this book. The experience of "being a self" is a subset of conscious contents, encompassing experiences of having a particular body, a first-person perspective, a set of unique memories, as well as experiences of moods, emotions, and "free will." Selfhood is probably the aspect of consciousness that we cling to most tightly, so tightly that it can be tempting to confuse self-consciousness (the experience of being a self) with consciousness itself (the presence of any kind of subjective experience, of any phenomenology, whatsoever)."

p. 33

"In this view, the "what-it-is-like-ness" of any specific conscious experience is defined not so much by what it is, but by all the unrealized but possible things that it is not. An experience of pure redness is the way that it is, not because of any intrinsic property of "redness," but because red is not blue, green, or. any other color, or any smell, or a thought or a feeling of regret or indeed any other form of mental content whatsoever. Redness is redness because of all the things it isn't, and the same goes for all other conscious experiences."

p. 56

"Mix these ingredients together and we've cooked up a Copernican inversion for how to think about perception. It seems as though the world is revealed directly to our conscious minds through our sensory organs. With this mindset, it is natural to think of perception as a process of bottom-up feature detection--a "reading" of the world around us. But what we actually perceive is a top-down, inside-out neuronal fantasy that is reined in by reality, not a transparent window onto whatever that reality may be."

p. 88

"What's going on here is that the perception of grayness is determined not by the actual light waves coming from A or B--these are the same--but by the brain's best guess about what caused these particular combinations of wavelengths, and--as with The Dress--this depends on context. B is in shadow, A is not, and the brain's visual system has inscribed deep in its circuitry the knowledge that objects in shadow appear darker. In just the same way that the brain adjusts its perceptual inferences on the basis of ambient lighting, it adjusts its inferences about the shade of B on the basis of prior knowledge about shadows. This is why, in the left-side checkerboard, we perceive B as being lighter than the (shadow-free) A. By contrast, for the checkerboard on the right, the shadow context is disrupted by the superimposed gray bars, so we can see that A and B are in fact identical."

p. 94

"Why do we experience our perceptual constructions as being objectively real? In the controlled hallucination view, the purpose of perception is to guide action and behavior--to promote the organism's prospects of survival. We perceive the world not as it is, but as it is useful for us. It therefore makes sense that phenomenological properties--like redness, chairness, Cilla Black-ness, and causality-ness--seem to be objective, veridical, properties of an external existing environment. We can respond more quickly and more effectively to something happening in the world if we perceive that things as really existing. The out-there-ness inherent in our perceptual experience of the world is, I believe, a necessary feature of a generative model that is able to anticipate its incoming sensory flow, in order to successfully guide behavior."

p. 143

"The self is not an immutable entity that lurks behind the windows of the eyes, looking out into the world and controlling the body as a pilot controls a plane. The experience of being me, or of being you, is a perception itself--or, better, a collection of perceptions--a tightly woven bundle of neurally encoded predictions geared toward keeping your body alive. And this, I believe, is all we need to be, to be who we are."

p. 160

"The final, and crucial, step in the beast machine theory is to recognize that from this starting point, everything else follows. We are no the beast machines of Descartes, for whom life was irrelevant to mind. It is exactly the opposite. All of our perceptions and experiences, whether of the self or of the world, are inside-out controlled and controlling hallucinations that are rooted in the flesh-and-blood predictive machinery that evolved, develops, and operates from moment to moment always in light of a fundamental biological drive to stay alive."

p. 198

"Intriguingly, this proposal may generalize to other, higher levels of selfhood beyond the ground-state of continued physiological integrity. We will be better able to maintain our physiological and psychological identity, at every level of selfhood, if we do not (expect to) perceive ourselves as continually changing. Across every aspect of being a self, we perceive ourselves as stable over time because we perceive ourselves in order to control ourselves, not in order to know ourselves."

p. 200

"Faced with this mystery, philosophy has provided a range of options, from panpsychism (consciousness everywhere, more or less), to eliminative materialism (no consciousness, at least not how we think of it), and everything in between. But the science of consciousness isn't about choosing from a set menu, however swanky the restaurant or skilled the chef. It's more like cooking with whatever you can find in the fridge, where various bits and pieces from philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, computer science, psychiatry, machine learning, and so on are combined and recombined in different ways, and turned into something new."

p. 278

"Everything in conscious experience is a perception of sorts, and every perception is a kind of controlled--or controlling--hallucination. What excites me most about this way of thinking is how far it may take us. Experiences of free will are perceptions. The flow of time is a perception. Perhaps even the three-dimensional structure of our experienced world and the sense that the contents of perceptual experience are objectively real--these may be aspects of perception too. The tools of consciousness science are allowing us to get over close to Kant's noumenon, the ultimately unknowable reality of which we, too, are a part. All these ideas are testable, and whichever way the date come out, simply posing questions of this kind reshapes our understanding of what consciousness is, how it happens, and what it is for. Every step chips away at the beguiling but unhelpful intuition that consciousness is one thing--one big scary mystery in search of one big scary solution."

p. 282

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