Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Alva Noe

Alva Noe came to Kepler's on April 16, 2009 to read from his book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain and other lessons from the biology of consciousness. Event host Marilyn Alexander filed this report:

The author was passionate about the ideas he discussed and was pleased with the turnout. Alva Noe (pronounced no-a (long A)) began his presentation by quoting from Francis Crick who believes that consciousness is nothing more than brain cells. Noe argues that we need a broader perspective. The brain is necessary but not sufficient. Consciousness comes about in the dynamic interaction between our brain, our body, and the world. People don't develop in isolation but rather are gradually integrated into the world, learning and expanding their understanding as the go. He used the example of going to an art museum. One person might look at a painting and not really "get it". Another with more knowledge of the artist might find it meaningful and in a sense see more in it. To illustrate that what we bring to a situation can affect what we see, he showed a projected image, saying that part of it was changing. The image was of a street scene showing a man and part of several cars. It turned out that as we watched the color of the car in the foreground changed gradually from blue to red. Most people do not see it because they don't expect it to change.

Noe said that consciousness is more like dancing than digestion, i.e., more of an interaction than a simple, mechanistic, input/output model. In his book he describes the work of air traffic controllers and shows that the awareness they develop is cooperative work, a combination of the individual mind, tools and other people - their co-workers. Noe said that before computers can compete with humans they will have to develop habits. There are many things we do in a day that we don't have to figure out from scratch. We respond to cues from the environment and over time develop habits and skills. "The hallmark of expertise is its fluency: it is engaged and precisely non-deliberative..." Noe feels that rather than being confined to neuroscience, discussion of consciousness needs to expand to include biology, psychology, and cultural anthropology.