February 02, 2007

Consciousness hits the big Time

A former Hampshire colleague points me to the Jan. 19, 2007 of Time magazine, whose big story is The Mystery of Consciousness. It includes the cover article by Steven Pinker, in which he defines (in layman's terms) the Easy Problem & the Hard Problem:

"The Easy Problem ... is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved." (which can likely be done with existing technology)

"The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, "That's green" (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn't reducible to anything else. ...
"To appreciate the hardness of the hard problem, consider how you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do. Sure, you and I both call grass green, but perhaps you see grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as purple. Or ponder whether there could be a true zombie--a being who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything."

- A Clever Robot, Dan Dennett's response to Pinker -- they disagree on whether the Hard Problem exists.
- How The Brain Rewires Itself, in which Sharon Begley explains neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone's experiments with real and imaginary piano players. Turns out that the brains of those subjects who actually practiced the piano for 2 hours at a time and those who simply thought about practicing were expanded in similar ways.
- a short history of Understanding The Brain via various aspects of brain science, including ancient beliefs, psychology, anatomy, and neuroscience.

Plus a short definition of various aspects of consciousness by scientists such as Michael Gazzaniga, Antonio Damasio, and Bernard Baars, as well as some additional graphics and videos. It's a good introduction to consciousness and some other aspects of cognitive science.

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