Sunday, September 28, 2008

Please do it again, Charlotte...

Charlotte Green is one of the best news readers in the world. She regularly reads the news authoritatively and dispassionately for BBC Radio 4, in a rich, resonant voice that never betrays a trace of emotion or of bias. She is a pleasure to listen to and, through her reading, all the news - good and bad – becomes a sober and unemotional record of events. She makes listening to the news a pleasure, and thus even manages to lessen the displeasure that one may have at hearing about certain events.

Except on one occasion (though I understand there have been others) when she got the giggles. Apparently, someone whispered something in her ear that made her crack up!

And what a pleasure it is to listen to her bursting into laughter, which I have done several times. I have read that many people wrote to the BBC that day, not to complain but to ask them to replay the excerpt, so much had they enjoyed it.

So they should!

Laughter is very infectious, and why it should be so is a most interesting neurological problem. But it also has other, more physiological, benefits. Apparently it boosts the immune system, reduces stress hormones, massages the heart and diaphragm (thus providing some “internal” exercise for muscles) and engenders a “feel good” factor.

Of course, it would be most interesting to find out many things about laughter - why it is so infectious, how nervous activity relating to laughter is communicated to the immune system in such a beneficial way, and through what neural mechanisms it changes one’s subjective state to make one feel good, or better, even in difficult times.

It will take a long time to understand these mechanisms. But, while waiting, we can go on and treat ourselves to a good laugh.

So, instead of sending a birthday or greeting card to a friend, just send them this link on the occasion:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/audio/2008/mar/28/charlotte.green

It will make them happy, boost their immune system, exercise their muscles, put them in a "feel good" frame of mind…and cost you nothing.

3 comments:

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Michael said...

"Charlotte Green is one of the best news readers in the world. She regularly reads the news authoritatively and dispassionately...in a...voice that never betrays a trace of emotion or of bias."

That's why I enjoy reading your articles and papers - at least, the ones I have read so far. I enjoy science, but so much seems to be infected by politics and personal biases.

A comment you made to the BBC did stray slightly from your usual neutrality, however:

"One [view] is that it [consciousness] has nothing to do with the nervous system, it's above it as it were. That's the way philosophers have on the whole thought about it.

"The other is the approach of serious scientists who think consciousness is the product of activity in the brain."

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/158615.stm

Serious scientists? A little dig at those of us who aren't atheists or scientists, but, in your view, rather unsophisticated thinkers.

If I put you in a chair and torture you - pull your nails out, drill into your teeth - you'll feel very much alive. It's not simplistic to believe that consciousness has to be more than just "corpuscles" of matter moving about.

Dennett even goes so far as to claim that we are deluding ourselves that we are actually alive and conscious - it's all some kind of illusion, a trick of the brain.

So, science goes from trying to explain consciousness as a distinct phenomenon to completely dismissing it - all without proof!

Scientists are now talking about a "Theory of Everything". This could fool the public into believing that physicists are on the cusp of knowing all there is to know about reality. A "few" problems remain, however. Scientists, for example, want to know how particles acquire mass, and so they have postulated the Higgs field, but they never question what is required to make anything exist at all. If something is needed to give particles mass, then surely something is needed to give those particles a reality, an existence.

Quantum theory poses more than a few problems for science. Some physicists imagine an infinite number of bifurcating universes to solve some of them (well, Hugh Everett did, and the scientific community initially laughed at him), but scientists never question why THIS kind of reality (matter, energy, space and time) - why not some other kind of reality?

Scientists actually know very little about the true nature of reality. And this isn't merely my opinion, it's what Richard Feynman, one of the greatest theoretical physicists that ever lived, had the honesty to admit in a lecture:

http://www.vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8

If you watch those lectures, Feynman brings up Newton. Feynman tells his audience how Newton went a bit "nutty" when trying to explain how light reflects off glass. Newton spoke of "fits of easy reflection and transmission". Newton proposed a "mystical" field that travelled along with the photon and influenced it in some way that made it either reflect easily or transmit easily.

Newton was not a philosopher, but even he was reduced to bizarre explanations for something he could not understand. Even to this day, the mystery is still not solved.

Therefore, it's a little unfair attacking those who come up with "bizarre" explanations for consciousness - it is, after all, a very mysterious thing. Scientists still have no explanation for it.

Aside from this, I have very much enjoyed reading your research papers - I hope I can find more. Perhaps, one day, you will put them all together in a book.

Michael said...

Just to add to my previous post. I said consciousness has to be more than mere "corpuscles" of matter moving about. I think this is a critical point. All scientists have ever done to date is explain how particles move about and interact. Even the theory of evolution is merely a description of how particles coalesce into larger and larger bodies under the laws of the universe.

Whether you're a religious person or not, evolution is perfectly understandable. Even if you don't believe in evolution, you can't deny that it is a perfectly comprehensible theory that attempts to explain - not deny! - the existence of something real i.e. life forms.

But what scientists want to do now - to come up with a theory of consciousness - is a completely new challenge, one not suitable for the scientific tools at hand.

I have a book, "Philosophy of mind (classical and contemporary readings)" by David J. Chalmers. The arguments are mostly by atheists attempting to deny the existence of consciousness as a distinct phenomenon. Reading the book was frustrating, to say the least, as very little science is presented, merely clever arguments to try to convince others that consciousness is illusory or that the behaviour of matter ALONE can explain the existence of consciousness, even though consciousness itself will always remain unexplained as a subjective experience.

And this is my point: scientists must deny the existence of consciousness in order to explain it. Science can only explain the behaviour and interaction of particles. They must, therefore, (metaphorically speaking) pour acid on consciousness so that the problem of its existence goes away for good.

Dennett writes: "I suspect, in fact, that many are unwilling to take my radical challenge seriously largely because they want so much for qualia to be acknowledged. Qualia seem to many people to be the last ditch defense of the inwardnesss and elusiveness of our minds, a bulwark against creeping mechanism...their last bastion of specialness will be stormed by science."

This is not what I think. But as Dennett has put words into my mouth, I will put words into his. Perhaps Dennett and others fear that science is not as formidable as they like to think, that there are certain phenomena and realities science cannot - AND WILL NOT EVER - explain. In other words, scientists will never become a "surrogate" god of the universe. Dennett, I suspect, is more interested in convincing the public of what he thinks than in doing research.

If consciousness is an illusion, then what Dennett is saying is that our minds are creating something that does not exist in the universe - anywhere! If this something does not exist in the universe anywhere, how can it be an illusion of the mind?

If I see a mirage - a pool of water in a desert - what I am seeing is not real, but pools of water do exist.

Dennett says that most people are not qualified to make judgements about what they are experiencing - we are not scientists, so what do we know?

This sounds more like elitism than science. It's not good science to dismiss - without evidence! - what others say they are experiencing.

My fear is that certain scientists know perfectly well that consciousness is extremely hard to explain, but will not tell the public this because they have their own agenda. They would rather mislead the public - tell them that science is getting tantalizingly close to explaining this phenomenon - than admit that they are as far away as ever, and, hence, NOT omniscient.

Richard Dawkins is a good example of a scientist lying to the public. He says there is no creator. How does he know? Science can never answer this question. He's effectively renounced science and become a politician.

But, despite what Richard Dawkins might think, I'm all for researching consciousness. I've always thought that, as the brain is physical, once it's processed the data from the body's senses, there's nothing else it can do. I never believed there was any central area in the brain that was responsible for creating consciousness - that didn't make sense! So, when I read about processing-perceptual systems in the brain, and micro-consciousnesses, rather than this coming as a shock, it came as a rather pleasant surprise.