Are we machines? Advances in computer technology have seduced us into thinking that the brain is just a very clever computing machine. Advances in neuroscience have given us a better understanding of the structure and processes in the brain, again leading us to think of the brain as a machine.
But we know – don’t we? – that the brain isn’t just a machine, it’s the seat of our consciousness. And consciousness isn’t a “function” of the brain, as movement might be the function of a car. Movement can be quantified with a single unit of measurement. Consciousness can’t. And the reason for that is that conscious experience is not just one kind of thing, and so it can’t be measured in just one kind of way – as McGilchrist puts it:
I have a different experience of what the human body is depending on whether the body is that of a patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my aunt, an artist’s model, or my lover... ... Each calls forth, and expects to receive, a different kind of attention, which governs what, in the end, it is that we experience.
To make the brain more like a machine, we would have to reduce down these different ways of having conscious experience – distil them until we arrived at single function. Is that what 21st century living is doing to us? Are we increasingly inclined to focus our conscious experiences on manipulating the world around us, rather than understanding it? Are we turning ourselves into machines?
Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of the acclaimed Master and his Emissary, explores the nature of the brain and the changing nature of conscious experience in this lecture.
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