Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Matrix that is Your Mind

I have been banging on about how our brain constructs our reality in my books, lectures and most recently the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (which are now permanently up on the Ri Channel). This reality even includes our sense of self – book out in a couple of months! The examples I usually give come from Gaetano Kanizsa’s seminal work with subjective contours. Not only do you see illusory shapes but you can record from brain regions that register these illusions as if they are really there.

Recently, a group of vision scientists demonstrated that individuals who were told that there were faces present in half of 10,000 random dot images believed that they detected them. Not really that surprising because we tend to believe what people (especially scientists in white coats) tell us. For me the interesting finding was differential brain activity on trials when they thought there was a face present.

Differential brain activity is a bit of a methodological nightmare as the past decades of brain imaging research has proven. What does that activity mean? There are a number of real problems unpicking what this activity reflects. I don’t think imaging by itself is going to convince critics. But here is one demonstration that I learned about this week that blew my mind for elegance. Take a look at these images.

A brightness illusion - the centre on the left looks brighter

This is beautiful brightness illusion. The centre of the pattern on the left looks much brighter – but it isn’t – it’s an illusion. But here’s the kicker. If you measure pupil size of the viewer, there is significant decrease in pupil size. This is normal response to brightness and has always been considered a basic low level reflex to calibrate for the amount of light entering the eye. Clearly, an illusion produces a change in the brain and its activity from the top-down all the way to lower level mechanisms.

The British philosopher Julian Baggini recently presented a great TED talk on the self “Is there a real you?” which I highly recommend. It is aimed at a young audience but none the less makes some critically important points. However, I think that he has misrepresented my position (and Susan Blackmore’s) when I say that the self is an illusion. That’s because I don’t think that Baggini (and many other smart people) understand my use of the term “illusion.” An illusion is not what it seems and I make this point explicit every time I talk about the mind.

The experience of self is very real, just like illusions, and this sense may even produce changes that are measurable. But consider the reality of ghosts. If we think we see a ghost, then to all intents and purposes, effectively we have. That does not make ghosts real. In the same way, if we think we have a self, and indeed measure activity of the self, that also does not make it real. Just like the Matrix, you do not have any direct contact with reality.


Filed under General Thoughts

Beware the Spotlight

It has been sometime since I posted a blog rather than simply a link to some article or media clip related the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. The lectures were a great success with some of the best audience viewing figures both for the lectures and for BBC Four over the festive period. In fact, the lectures are being broadcast again next week on BBC2 which generally has a much larger audience, though with a time slot of 11.20pm, I doubt there will be many families staying up to watch. That said, it is the first time the Xmas lectures have been re-broadcast and everyone involved has been delighted.

So now I am receiving lots of emails, lots of enquiries and a few criticisms. Why did I dumb it down? Why did I not have more female scientists? How can I possibly say on national television that supernatural powers do not exist? People are interested in my opinion.

Today the Guardian newspaper asked me to write a commentary on the reports of the Italian captain who abandoned his ship before the passengers and generally behaved in a way that most would regard as cowardly. I was not there. I do not know this captain. I simply pointed out that if he panicked (and it sounds as if he did) then it is not too surprising that he was unable to control his urge to flee. That’s the definition of panic. I simply stated that panic is difficult to reign in with reason.

I agreed to write the commentary so that readers could reflect upon what they would do in the same situation. I have a book coming out on “The Self Illusion” – the narrative we all generate about who we are. Most of us have beliefs about how we would react but my point is that these beliefs are part of the self story we tell ourselves which may or may not match up to reality.

Anyway, the commentary has attracted a lot of mixed opinions. Most of the negative criticisms seem to think that I am condoning his actions. I am not. But it does make me question whether it is wise to place one’s self in the public light to face the brunt of criticism and focus of prejudices and grievances.

The trouble is that when you become a public figure, you become fair game. Guess I was asking for it.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

Lecture One “What’s Inside Your Head”

If you live outside the UK and want to see the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, they will be posted on the Ri site over the next few days. Here is the link to the first one.

What’s In Your Head


Filed under Television

Blind Every Time You Move Your Eyes

For those of you outside the UK, here is an excerpt from the first of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures explaining what happens each time you move your eyes. I’ll get back to regular blogging once I clear the backlog of chores.


Filed under In the News, Television