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AI May Have Just Decoded a Mystical 600-Year-Old Manuscript That Baffled Humans for Decades

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Sarah Cascone reports in ArtNet News:

One of the world’s most infamous mysteries may have just been solved, thanks not to human genius, but to artificial intelligence. Named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, the 240-page Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script and an unknown language that no one has been able to interpret—until now.

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta claim to have cracked the code to the inscrutable handwritten 15th-century codex, which has baffled cryptologists, historians, and linguists for decades. Stymied by the seemingly unbreakable code, some have speculated it was written by aliens. Experts have even posited that the whole thing is a hoax with no hidden meaning. Today, housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut, the manuscript’s delicate vellum pages are illustrated with botanical drawings, astronomical diagrams, and naked female figures.

When it came to tackling the centuries-old mystery, professor Greg Kondrak and grad student Bradley Hauer put their expertise in natural language processing to good use, running algorithms that compared the document’s text to the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in no less than 380 different languages. According to the computer, the Voynich manuscript was written in Hebrew.

Other researchers had previously hypothesized that the document had been encoded using alphagrams, the letters in each word rearranged in alphabetical order. Based on that theory, Kondrak and Hauer used an algorithm to solve each anagram in the first 10 pages.

“It turned out that over 80 percent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary, but we didn’t know if they made sense together,” Kondrak told the university. (He published his findings in the journal Transactions of the Association of Computational Linguistics.)

Their colleague, Hebrew-speaking computer scientist Moshe Koppel, took a crack at reading the first line to no avail. But, aided by a couple of spelling corrections, Google Translate had better luck.

If the Alberta team is right, the first sentence of the manuscript reads “she made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.” Weird, yes, but an impressive breakthrough nonetheless.

Of course, after all these years, the Voynich Manuscript isn’t giving up all its secrets at once. Last year, scholars quickly debunked the claims of Nicholas Gibbs, who announced he had translated the tome from an abbreviated version of Latin and that it was a women’s health manual.

In their paper, Kondrak and Hauer acknowledged that more work needs to be done to definitively prove the accuracy of their discovery, but called their findings “a starting point for scholars that are well-versed in the given language and historical period.” Hopefully, Hebrew experts will follow up on this groundbreaking research and solve this mystery once and for all. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 February 2018 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

Lead, Crime, and New York City

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The lead-crime hypothesis has been solidly verified, but journalists seem to remain ignorant of it. Kevin Drum in Mother Jones points out the most recent example of journalistic ignorance on display:

A whole bunch of people have emailed to ask what I think of Adam Gopnik’s latest piece in the New Yorker“The Great Crime Decline.” It’s a review of Patrick Sharkey’s new book, “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.” Sharkey’s basic point is that crime is bad, a view that I hardly need to be convinced of, but he seems to have an unfortunately conventional view of why it declined so much in the 90s and aughts:

What made the crime wave happen and what made it halt?…[Sharkey] is an enthusiast of the hypothesis that local community organizing was a key factor in the crime drop….He also finds that incarceration accounted for some of the crime decline, and so did more aggressive policing.

….Sharkey, as good as he is at explaining what happened—whom it helped, what it permitted—isn’t as good at explaining why it happened. The curious truth is that the decline in crime happened across the entire Western world, in East London just as it did in the South Bronx. At the same time, the relative decline in New York was significantly bigger than elsewhere. Sharkey’s guess that the crime decline can be attributed to the uncomfortable but potent intersection of community action and coercive policing seems about as good as any….With the crime wave, it would seem, small measures that pushed the numbers down by some noticeable amount engendered a virtuous circle that brought the numbers further and further down.

….We cured the crime wave without fixing “the broken black family,” that neocon bugaboo. For that matter, we cured it without greater income equality or even remotely solving the gun problem. The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities.

In some sense I don’t blame Gopnik for this. He’s primarily an essayist and critic, not a social scientist or a reporter who specializes in urban policing. At the same time, reviewing a book in an unfamiliar field and then shrugging his shoulders and saying the book’s guess about crime “seems about as good as any”—well, even an essayist might think about spending an hour or two googling to get up to speed on alternate theories.

Sharkey, of course, is a different matter. For some reason he doesn’t explain, he dismisses the effect of lead as “vastly overstated” and says he finds it “difficult to believe” that the crime decline was caused by either lead or any other exogenous shock. Ten years ago that would have been fine. Today it’s journalistic malpractice. And the weird thing is that if Sharkey had spent any time with the lead-crime hypothesis, he would have found that it was practically made to order for him. Check this out:

A real problem, going forward, is the one identified by Black Lives Matter and associated groups: police violence. As the social cost of stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration has become, rightly, intolerable, we ask if the crime decline, with its unprecedented benefits for the marginalized populations, can survive. Sharkey emphatically thinks it can, and so far there’s no evidence to counter his view.

….Effects that we don’t normally track are surely related to the crime decline, not least the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement itself. Without a general understanding that crime was no longer the real problem but that the response to crime might be, the movement could not have caught a surprisingly large, sympathetic audience….Ironically, though the urban crime wave is over, it still persists as a kind of zombified general terror, particularly in places where it was never particularly acute.

Sharkey very much wants to persuade us that the crime decline is permanent, and that we should change our policing and incarceration strategies to recognize this. He’s absolutely right, but the best evidence for this is the lead-crime connection. It was lead that poisoned young brains and produced a generation of criminals. With the lead mostly gone, young people today are back to normal. They just aren’t as dangerous as they used to be, and that change is permanent. It’s really peculiar that Sharkey dismisses this, given how strongly it reinforces his point. It’s also peculiar since it explains otherwise mysterious things like the fact that crime declined throughout the world, not just in the United States.

But in another way, this isn’t surprising. I don’t understand why this is so, but for some reason New Yorkers seem to be especially resistant to recognizing lead as a prime cause of crime. Part of this, I suppose, is that New York was ground zero of the great crime wave and New Yorkers have been bombarded with theories about crime for decades now: Bill Bratton, CompStat, Rudy Giuliani, broken windows, community policing, stop-and-frisk, the breakdown of the black family, etc. etc. More than any other city, they’ve been told over and over and over that the great crime decline is due to various interventions by the great and good. But the truth is that although New York’s crime rate fell faster than the national average, it didn’t fall any faster than it did in other big cities, all of which have seen violent crime rates drop by 70-80 percent since 1991:

I don’t know why Sharkey so casually dismisses the effect of lead, since it explains so much: the overall decline in crime; the decline in different cities with different policing strategies; the international decline in crime; the fact that crime rose and fell more in big cities than in rural areas; and the fact that crime rose and fell more among blacks. No other theory comes close to explaining all this, or to explaining why crime rose in the first place. In the end, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2018 at 11:09 am

“How One Book Changed My Relationship With Money”

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Concepción de León writes in the NY Times:

Last spring I picked up “Your Money or Your Life” [link is to inexpensive secondhand copies – LG], by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, because I heard it had recently helped one man make a fortune. Originally published in 1992, the seminal personal finance book teaches a nine-step, systemic approach to money management that was created by Mr. Dominguez, who died in 1997. Since its publication, the book has been translated into 10 languages and sold more than one million copies, and a fourth edition will be released later this month.

“Your Money” turned out not to be a vehicle toward amassing money, as I expected. Instead, Ms. Robin encourages readers to work toward having “enough” — a quantifiable amount that would cover their needs and wants — rather than an ever-receding goal of “more.“ She proposes people live more frugally, naming consumerism and its trappings as the root of many Americans’ financial challenges.

The idea seemed antithetical to the wealth I’d always aspired to. I grew up with my dad, surrounded by family, sharing two or three bedroom apartments with my cousins and aunts. Like many immigrants and low-income Americans, they worked long hours and relied on one another to get by. My dad and his sisters provided child care for each other. We ate at home every day — big pots of chicken, beans and rice that, if cooked well, left concón: crunchy, flavorful grains stuck to the bottom of the pan that we scraped off with a metal spoon. My cousins and I often clamored around the stove to get some on our plates.

I realized later that concón, or semi-burnt rice, wasn’t meant to be eaten. In the Dominican Republic, where my father grew up with his parents and seven sisters, they ate concón out of necessity, because there wasn’t always enough food to go around. But in New York, they built their new lives around the same thriftiness and communal support they’d learned back home, and they banked on their sacrifice paying off — if not in the fulfillment of their dreams, then in that of their children, who might help lift them out of poverty. I always hoped to be that person for my family.

So Ms. Robin’s suggestion that I should live a life similar to the one my family lived, stretching dollars and counting pennies, was a radical departure, and the idea captivated me. I pored through the book, extending my commute to get through more pages. I kept reading even during my walk to the office, weaving through rush-hour foot traffic with a highlighter in hand, placing Post-its on pages I wanted to come back to.

The cornerstone of the program has echoes of the common adage “Time is money.” In an early chapter, readers learn to find their “real” hourly wage by factoring the hidden time and money spent on work-related expenditures into their pay.

If you are paid $25 per hour for a 40-hour workweek, for instance, but spend 30 additional hours commuting, decompressing or nursing stress-induced headaches, and $300 goes toward your business suits, your “real” hourly wage is $10 per hour. That means a $100 splurge at Sephora costs you 600 minutes of your life. You’re forced to ask, at every turn, “Was it worth it?“

“Your Money” redefines not only your relationship to money, but also to work itself.

Ms. Robin calls our jobs, what we do to put food on the table, “paid employment,” and argues that our collective definition of work should be expanded to include “any productive or purposeful activity,” such as caring for a child or volunteering at a homeless shelter. Money and “paid employment,” then, should help us live fuller lives, but not dominate them.

For the writers, this realization manifested in a commitment to early retirement — not from work as defined by Ms. Robin, but from the nine-to-five grind. They zoned in on how much they needed, saved aggressively and invested smartly and early; now, Ms. Robin lives off the income she earns from those investments. And she is working with Millennial Money blogger Grant Sabatier (the millionaire whose story originally piqued my interest in the book) to create an online community for “Your Money” devotees. Mr. Sabatier famously increased his bank account balance from $2.26 to $1 million in five years, and he credits the book for lighting a fire under him. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 February 2018 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Books, Business, Daily life

Bill Gates: “Eddie Izzard is a comic genius”

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Bill Gates writes on his blog:

I’ve recently discovered that I have a lot in common with a funny, dyslexic, transgender actor, comedian, escape artist, unicyclist, ultra-marathoner, and pilot from Great Britain. Except all of the above.

Eddie Izzard is one of my favorite performers. Melinda and I had the pleasure of seeing one of his comedy shows live in London, and then we got to talk with him backstage after the show. So I was excited to pick up his autobiography, Believe Me. It was there that I learned for the first time that Izzard and I share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses.

As a child, Eddie was nerdy, awkward, and incompetent at flirting with girls. He had terrible handwriting. He was good at math. He was highly motivated to learn everything he could about subjects that interested him. He left college at age 19 to pursue his professional dreams. He had a loving mom who died of cancer way too young.

I can relate to every one of these things.

You might find you share similarities with Eddie as well. In fact, that’s the overarching point of this book. We’re all cut from the same cloth. In his words, “We are all totally different, but we are all exactly the same.”

If you’ve never seen Eddie perform his stand-up routine, you’re missing out. Like Monty Python, he often draws from real historical figures, such as Shakespeare or Charlemagne, and comes up with hilarious riffs, many of them improvised. And like other super talented comedians like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks, he’s also great in serious dramatic roles. (He recently appeared in the movie Victoria and Abdul, with Dame Judi Dench.) He even talks semi-seriously about running for Parliament.

Despite all those gifts, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book for those who’ve never seen Eddie perform. There are some comedians, such as David Sedaris and George Carlin, whose books would make perfect sense even if you haven’t seen their act. That’s not the case here. You have to witness his brand of surreal, intellectual, self-deprecating humor. Otherwise, it will be like you’re walking into the middle of a conversation.

But if you have seen Eddie’s stuff and you like it—here’s a typical bit, a riff on Pavlov’s dogs—I promise you’ll love this book. You’ll see that his written voice is very similar to his stage voice. You’ll also see that the book provides not just laugh-out-loud moments but also a lot of touching insights into how little Edward Izzard, a kid with only a hint of performing talent, became an international star.

The book begins with . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

3 February 2018 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Books, Comedy, Daily life

The cult of Mary Beard

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Mary Beard is a good writer and, based on the following article in the Guardian, and interesting person to boot. Charlotte Higgins writes:

The first time I saw Mary Beard, I was 17. It was 1989, and she was speaking at a joint open day for the Oxford and Cambridge classics faculties. She was utterly unlike the other speakers, who, as I recall them, were Oxbridge dons straight from central casting: tweedy, forbidding, male. Instead of standing at a lectern like everyone else, she perched rakishly on the edge of a desk. She was dressed in a vaguely hippyish, embroidered black dress, and a cascade of black hair tumbled around her shoulders. Greg Woolf, now director of the Institute of Classical Studies at the University of London, recalls another one of those open days, in the early 1990s. “I spoke, and then another big hairy bloke like me spoke. And then Mary came on and said: ‘Well, you’ve heard what the boys have got to say.’ And you could see that she’d already won everyone’s hearts.”

Everyone who has met Beard seems to have a story about encountering her for the first time – usually involving her rigorous intellect, her total lack of formality, and her sense of mischief. One of her former students, Emily Kneebone, remembers supervisions – one-to-one or two-to-one teaching sessions – at Newnham, the women-only Cambridge college to which Beard has been attached for most of her adult life, first as a student, then as a don. She would teach from a chaise longue: “At first she’d be in a normal position, but as the hour progressed she would gradually slide further and further down so you could only see her feet.” One junior colleague still remembers Beard introducing herself, at a conference almost 25 years ago, with the overture, “Give us a fag, darlin’.”

In public, in private and in her academic writing she is sceptical, wary of consensus, the kind of person who will turn any question back on itself and examine it from an unexpected angle. She is not afraid to take apart her own work: at that same conference in the early 1990s, she presented a paper that repudiated one of the scholarly articles that had helped make her name a decade earlier, an influential study of Rome’s Vestal Virgins. It was an extremely unusual thing for a scholar to do. “She doesn’t let herself off – she’s not one of those scholars who is building an unassailable monument of work to leave behind her,” Woolf said. “She is quite happy to go back to her earlier self and say, ‘Nah.’”

The learned but approachable figure you see on TV translating Latin inscriptions, carving up a pizza to explain the division of the Roman empire, or arguing about public services on Question Time, is precisely the Beard you encounter in private, except that in real life, she swears magnificently and often. (“She’s always spoken fluent Anglo-Saxon,” said Woolf.) In a Greek restaurant in London one January afternoon, her long grey hair uncharacteristically glossy and fresh from the stylist, Beard talked about everything from Islamic State to academic freedom. At one point, she sketched out an argument for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Her case rested on the very nature of democracy, for which the presence of a ballot box was a necessary but not sufficient condition. Democracy cannot properly operate without knowledge, she said – which the entire electorate of summer 2016 lacked. (“Aristophanes knew that!”) The referendum then, should not be treated as the final word, she said, but as a straw vote. “Sure, say we want to leave, but you can only in the end say we are going to leave when we know what it means. Otherwise,” she said, “it’s just wanking in the dark.” Thinking I had misheard, I asked her to repeat. “Wanking in the dark,” repeated Beard, at volume. Later in the conversation, she told me she was planning to get a pink streak in her hair. “I’m fucking well going to have one: it just feels like such fun.”

Beard is a celebrity, a national treasure, and easily the world’s most famous classicist. Her latest book, Women and Power, about the long history of the silencing of female voices, was a Christmas bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. In the eight years since her debut TV documentary, Pompeii, she has conquered the small screen. She is one of a trio of presenters who will, in March, front Civilisations – a new, big-budget version of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, the most revered cultural TV series in the BBC’s history.

A mark of her leap into the celebrity stratosphere is the avalanche of daily requests she receives. These have included, aside from several politely declined offers of a makeover from the Daily Mail, invitations (also politely declined) to appear on the diving show Splash!, on the celebrity version of The Great British Bake Off and on Celebrity Mastermind. Of the last she said: “God, just imagine it. Either you’d look like a complete nerd or everyone would be saying, ‘She doesn’t know a thing.’”

Out and about, she is regularly flagged down by fans, often, but not always, young women. (One admirer, Megan Beech, published a poem called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard – a phrase that now adorns T-shirts worn by her fans. Characteristically, Beard befriended Beech after they connected on social media, and Beech is now studying for a PhD at Newnham.) Caterina Turroni, a television producer who has worked with Beard since the Pompeii documentary, recalled filming with her in Tiberius’s villa on Capri in 2013, when a party of English schoolgirls spotted the cameras. “You could hear them saying, ‘What if it’s her?’ ‘Do you think it’s really her?’ and then they saw her and they went insane – it was like they’d seen a boyband.”

As recently as a decade ago, it would have seemed unlikely, even outlandish, that a middle-aged classics don, her appearance a million miles away from the groomed perfection expected of women in the public sphere, would end up so famous and, by and large, so loved. That unlikeliness was summed up by notorious reviews of her early programmes in the Sunday Times by the late TV critic AA Gill, who mocked what he called her “corpses’ teeth” and, in 2012, declared that she ought to be “kept away from cameras altogether”. But it was Gill who was out of tune with the times. Beard hit back in the Daily Mail, pointing out that “There have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds”, and that “The point is not what I look like, but what I do.” She struck a chord. “I thought that most of the readers’ comments would be negative,” she told me in December, “but many more of them were positive. The Mail’s demographic, after all, is women my age – and who look like me, not like Joanna Lumley.”

Since then, Beard has become a standard-bearer for middle-aged women, and beloved by the young – indeed, by anyone who wants to be seen in terms of their ideas, not their looks; anyone who think it’s cool to be smart; and by those who relentlessly ask questions and never reject a contrary opinion out of hand. Beard’s intellectual style, which suffuses all her scholarship – a commitment to rigorous scepticism that refuses to be cynical – has made her a model for those who worry that the shouting and bullying of the digital world make reasoned political debate impossible.

Beard radiates authority and expertise, but she does not hesitate to get mixed up in messy public arguments, which often puts her on the frontline of the culture wars. Last year, when a far-right conspiracy theorist attacked a BBC cartoon that showed a man of sub-Saharan appearance as a Roman in Britain – political correctness gone mad! – Beard calmly stepped in to explain there was in fact “plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain”. Her expert intervention was met with a what she later described as a “torrent of aggressive insults, on everything from my historical competence and elitist ivory tower viewpoint to my age, shape and gender”.

For most people, this would be a cautionary tale; for Beard, it was evidence that such battles cannot be shirked. Embedded in her refusal to be silenced, in her endless online engagement, is a kind of optimism: the idealistic, perhaps totally unrealistic, notion that if only we listened to each other, if only we argued more cogently, more tolerantly and with better grace, then we could make public discourse something better than it is.

Beard exemplifies something rare, said Jonty Claypole, the BBC’s director of arts and one of the executive producers of the new Civilisations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 February 2018 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Bill Gates names his new favorite book of all time

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Bill Gates writes:

For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature was the best book I’d read in a decade. If I could recommend just one book for anyone to pick up, that was it. Pinker uses meticulous research to argue that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress.

I’m going to stop talking up Better Angels so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book, Enlightenment Now, is even better.

Enlightenment Now takes the approach he uses in Better Angels to track violence throughout history and applies it to 15 different measures of progress (like quality of life, knowledge, and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better. It’s like Better Angels on steroids.

Pinker was generous enough to send me an early copy, even though Enlightenment Now won’t be released until the end of February. I read the book slowly since I loved it so much, but I think most people will find it a quick and accessible read. He manages to share a ton of information in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and easy to digest.

It opens with an argument in favor of returning to the ideals of the Enlightenment—an era when reason, science, and humanism were touted as the highest virtues. (Gates Notes Insiders can get a preview of this section of the book.)

I’m all for more reason, science, and humanism, but what I found most interesting were the 15 chapters exploring each measure of progress. Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.

I love how he’s willing to dive deep into primary data sources and pull out unexpected signs of progress. I tend to point to things like dramatic reductions in poverty and childhood deaths, because I think they’re such a good measure of how we’re doing as a society. Pinker covers those areas, but he also looks at more obscure topics.

Here are five of my favorite facts from the book that show how the world is improving:

  1. You’re 37 times less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than you were at the turn of the century—and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.
  2. Time spent doing laundry fell from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to an hour and a half in 2014.This might sound trivial in the grand scheme of progress. But the rise of the washing machine has improved quality of life by freeing up time for people—mostly women—to enjoy other pursuits. That time represents nearly half a day every week that could be used for everything from binge-watching Ozark or reading a book to starting a new business.
  3. You’re way less likely to die on the job. Every year, 5,000 people die from occupational accidents in the U.S. But in 1929—when our population was less than two-fifths the size it is today—20,000 people died on the job. People back then viewed deadly workplace accidents as part of the cost of doing business. Today, we know better, and we’ve engineered ways to build things without putting nearly as many lives at risk.
  4. The global average IQ score is rising by about 3 IQ points every decade. Kids’ brains are developing more fully thanks to improved nutrition and a cleaner environment. Pinker also credits more analytical thinking in and out of the classroom. Think about how many symbols you interpret every time you check your phone’s home screen or look at a subway map. Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.
  5.  . . .

Continue reading.

Later:

Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress—something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones?

Written by LeisureGuy

2 February 2018 at 10:08 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Susan Blackmore chooses five excellent books on consciousness

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Five Books interviews Susan Blackmore (who wrote The Meme Machine):

The ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – of how the physical matter of the brain produces the psychological phenomenon of consciousness – has dogged psychologists and neuroscientists for decades. But what if we’ve been posing the question incorrectly all this time? The psychologist Susan Blackmore discusses five key texts that tackle this quicksilver concept.

You had an out-of-body experience and that had some influence on your interest in consciousness. Let’s begin by discussing that experience.

It’s the whole story of my life, really. I’ve talked about it such a lot. It was a dramatic two-and-a-half-hour out-of-body experience that I had as a student­­, possibly provoked by a mixture of sleep deprivation and cannabis. Looking back, it’s hard to know what caused it. But it was so vivid and so completely and utterly realistic that everything I saw seemed to be more real than real. I felt more myself and more alive than I’d ever felt before. And, of course, I couldn’t explain it. This happened in 1970, which was my first year as a student of psychology in Oxford. I jumped to all sorts of wild conclusions about the paranormal, probably because the experience seemed so real. I became convinced of telepathy and clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis, life after death and souls and spirits and everything. So, I decided I would devote my life to proving all this stuff to the closed-minded scientists out there. That’s why I became a parapsychologist. I did my PhD on telepathy and clairvoyance. I trained as a witch and I got a crystal ball and read the Tarot cards and the I Ching. All of that. But my experimental results got me nowhere. I never found any convincing evidence of paranormal phenomena at all.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, there was no way I could understand how an out-of-body experience could be a natural phenomenon. I tried my absolute best and I wrote my first book on the subject called Beyond the Body which came out in 1982. I really tried there with what little psychology we had then – we had no neuroscience to speak of – to try to understand how it could be a natural phenomenon. The book is still read and still considered to be a sceptical classic, but it was very unsatisfactory. By then, I had more or less despaired of finding any paranormal phenomenon. I went on doing parapsychology for some time after that but eventually gave up because it was hopeless. This, to answer your question, is what led to me to think: well, I can’t see any evidence for astral bodies and souls and spirits that actually leave the body and go anywhere, and I can’t find any evidence of paranormal phenomena of any kind, so, what on earth was going on when I had that experience? I realised then that the whole excursion into the paranormal was a red herring and wasn’t helping me understand the experience at all. I began to realise, gradually, that the questions went much deeper than being just about out-of-body experiences. We’re coming on now to the early 1990s when it was finally becoming possible to mention the word ‘consciousness’ in respectable academic circles without being told to shut up.

Was it the influence of behaviourism that made psychologists reluctant to discuss consciousness?

Yes, indeed. When I was an undergraduate in psychology and physiology, from 1970 to 1973, there was no way that you could talk about consciousness to your lecturers. But that was beginning to break down for a variety of reasons. Research on imagery, for example, was a help. And the discoveries of internal things going on in the mind which challenged behaviourism and so on. But then in 1991, Dan Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained came out. And in 1994, the first Tucson conference on consciousness was started in Arizona, and it began to be possible to talk about consciousness. Meanwhile, I took over the socio-ecology course of a biologist friend of mine, John Crook at Bristol University, because he wanted to give up lecturing in order to devote himself to his Zen practice and run more retreats. His course had bits of consciousness in it, and I turned it into a consciousness course. And from then on, I started avidly reading everything on consciousness that I could get hold of.

Can we go back to your experience? When you felt that you were outside of your body, did you actually see your body lying down?

It was late one night and some of us in the student Psychical Research Society had been messing about with an Ouija board. This means you’re holding your arm out for hours on a glass that’s moving around. So, you get to feel a bit disconnected from your arm, and your body image goes a bit wonky. I was very sleep deprived – having such a good time staying up late, whilst getting up for 9am lectures as well. And I’d smoked a little bit of cannabis. I was sitting listening to the music on the floor with my two friends when I started going down a tunnel. It was when my friend Kevin asked me: ‘where are you, Sue?’ that I had to sort of think – yes, where am I? I couldn’t tell him I was in a tunnel. Everything was blurry and I was drifting. Then everything went clear as though I was on the ceiling looking down and I could see him, my other friend and myself sitting there on the floor. It absolutely seemed realistic. Later on, after I’d travelled for an hour and then came back, everything looked weird. My body was brown and didn’t have a head anymore. It had a jagged neck and was hollow.

It became weirder and weirder as it went on. It’s more like an impression. If you’d been able to take a picture of what I saw, I don’t think it would have been realistic. But, to me, it appeared the most vivid and most realistic thing you could imagine. Everything was absolutely bright and sparkly and clear. And from up there I could see the three of us. I could see a silver cord coming from the body down there going into my tummy in my other body up there. Then I went off travelling. And all the time, Kevin was asking me questions which I’m sure is the reason why the experience lasted so long. In these situations people usually get scared and consequently most out-of-body experiences, OBEs, last only a few seconds or a few minutes. Some experts can have long ones but most ordinary spontaneous ones are very short. But I think Kevin asking me questions like ‘what’s going on there?’, and ‘can you fly?’, and ‘have you got wings?’ kept me from being scared, and so I just kept on going.

I should add that the experience ended with a mystical experience of oneness. I had tried to get back into my body for a second time but became too small, so I tried to grow to the right size and instead I just got bigger and bigger, expanding and expanding until I became everything. At that time I knew nothing about mystical experiences, but like so many mystics have said, I felt I was not separate from anything else, there was no distinct ‘me’ and ‘it.’ It was a classic experience of non-duality. This final part of the experience was probably what drove me into trying to understand consciousness, because it provoked that question: who am I? If I can become one with everything, then who am I really? I remember having to tell myself to go back inside my body and look out through the eyes. It was as if I had to re-enact the illusion of self. I was re-enacting or revivifying what I take for granted normally: that I am somehow a conscious being inside my body, looking out.

Can you now give an adequate explanation of what happened?

Adequate, yes, but complete, no. We do understand the tunnel. It’s a common experience in altered states of consciousness and is induced by random activity in the visual system, especially in primary visual cortex due to the way the cells there are organised. That’s been known for a long time, but the mystery of the OBE itself is only now being solved. Indeed OBEs are at last being investigated by serious psychologists and neuroscientists – something I never thought likely to happen!

A critical discovery was made by a Swiss neurosurgeon, Olaf Blanke, when he was stimulating an epileptic woman’s brain with subdural electrodes, trying to find the epileptic focus. To his, and her, surprise, he found that when he stimulated a spot at the right temporoparietal junction with very low intensity stimulation, this produced bodily distortions – a sense of floating, drifting, getting longer or shorter, thinner or fatter. Then when he applied a stronger stimulus, it produced full blown out-of-body experiences. He could even control the experiences. From then on, the new research started, confirming the importance of this part of the brain. What makes this so significant, and really throws out all those old theories of astral projection and departing souls, is the role of this brain area in constructing the sense of self. This is where the brain maintains our ‘body schema’, the constantly updated model of our whole body with its changing position and actions. Without this we could not act or move at all. This is then connected with other brain areas to our memories, sense of agency, decision making and so on. So now things begin to make sense. If this area is disrupted the body schema goes haywire and we are no longer ‘in’ our own body.

I find it rather satisfyingly wonderful to understand that that’s what’s going on and we don’t need to suppose that anything actually leaves the body at all.  It also fits with the old astral projection literature where you find that people like Oliver Fox and Sylvan Muldoon, these famous astral projectors,  also reported bodily distortions and a sense of stretching and pulling and floating before their ‘projections’ took place. They didn’t have the science to understand it, so they invented the seven bodies of man and the different planes and the different spirits that inhabit the different planes, and so on. I can see why they did it. But it’s all tosh. It’s just not true. Some people find this sad and disappointing. To me, thinking of my own experiences and my continuing explorations of states of consciousness, it’s thrilling.

Let’s get to the five books. You’ve chosen some excellent ones. The first is Consciousness Explained (1991) by Daniel Dennett. It’s a bold title because if there’s one thing about consciousness it’s that people are struggling to understand what it is. The title suggests he’s just going to tell you that this is what the answer is.

Yes, he is going to tell you what the answer is to a point. But he’s not going to say ‘this is what consciousness is.’ He says ‘this is what you thought consciousness was, and you were wrong.’ The main point he’s making throughout is that you have to give up your intuitions. He uses wonderful examples that I love to make his points. I should say, though, that some readers don’t love them. If anyone is reading this and they try that book and hate it, then give up. It seems that people go in two directions: they either love the way he writes, or they hate it. I love it, with all his mad examples and neologisms. He’s dismantling a whole lot of illusions and saying that when you dismantle them the ‘hard problem’has disappeared. We still can’t solve all the mysteries about it; there’s still a lot more to understand; but the problem is not what you thought it was. At least, that’s my interpretation of what he meant by Consciousness Explained.

The ‘hard problem’ is how the physical stuff of the brain and the body could give rise to the phenomena of consciousness, the feeling that we are experiencing the world and monitoring it in certain sorts of ways.

And you’ve tied yourself into a problem there, as did David Chalmers who invented the term ‘hard problem’, by saying ‘giving rise.’ As soon as you say ‘you’ve got this matter’ and ‘you’ve got this stuff called consciousness’, and you’ve got consciousness arising from it, then you’ve committed yourself to a kind of dualism. It may not be substance dualism or ontological dualism, but it’s some kind of dualism that you’ve committed yourself to because you’ve still got two things – matter and consciousness.

Many people – myself and Dan Dennett included – would say that this is an ill-posed problem. We can’t actually pose the problem better yet, though we can ask better questions. Where I really agree with Dan Dennett is that this is the job that we need to do first. We need to expose all the illusions and delusions that we have about our own minds before we can even begin to know what the right questions are to ask about experience. What we’re talking about is this: this subjective experience…We’re doing this interview by Skype, and it’s your experience of staring at me on a computer screen, and my experience of staring at you on a screen. That’s what we’re trying to account for.

Dennett is not saying that that experience doesn’t exist. He’s saying it’s not what you thought it was. He begins the book with him sitting in a rocking chair and experiencing the light on the leaves and so on. That’s what he’s talking about. People accuse him of explaining consciousness away, but he’s actually talking about immediate experience and trying to understand it. He’s saying here are all the illusions, let’s get them out of the way first.

What kind of illusions does Dennett want to cure us of?

The main one is the non-existence of what he labels the ‘Cartesian theatre.’ I think his book is an extended riff on rejecting this illusion. The point he makes is this: nearly everyone rejects Cartesian dualism because, for obvious reasons, it doesn’t work. But when they do so, they fail to throw out the idea of the audience who sits in the brain watching a screen, as it were, in the theatre. He calls this the ‘Cartesian theatre’ because it’s a sort of vestige of Cartesian dualistic thinking that remains even if you’ve thrown out the ontological dualism itself. I think he’s right about that. He calls people who think this way ‘Cartesian materialists.’

I write ‘CM’ in every book I’m reading again and again when people say things like ‘and then this entered consciousness’ or ‘this perception became conscious’ or ‘this became part of the contents of consciousness.’ All these are dead giveaways that you are still thinking in terms something like this: there are some processes going on in the brain that are conscious, and there are some that are not consciousness. Therefore, what we have to do is understand the difference between the conscious processes and the unconsciousness processes. That is where the whole hunt for the ‘neural correlates of consciousness’ comes from. But if you take Dennett’s ideas seriously, as I do, then all this is complete nonsense.

In fact, where he ends up – and I end up somewhere similar – is saying that we’re so deluded about what consciousness is that we need to throw out this distinction and start again. In fact, I would argue, consciousness is an attribution we make. We attribute consciousness to certain perceptions that we have and certain actions that we do – usually after the fact or while we’re doing it – and therefore we believe in a continuous stream of consciousness, and we believe in a continuous self, and all of these things which aren’t true. This is how we become deluded. We imagine this stream of consciousness on the screen and we imagine ourselves having those experiences.

In reality, there are just brain processes going on. He develops his multiple drafts theory out of this to say that there are lots and lots of versions of any perceptions going through the brain. The critical point is that it’s not that some are really conscious, and the rest unconscious. That is only an attribution that we put on a perception if we get enough access to it, can speak about it, can act upon it and so on. That’s why he calls it ‘fame in the brain.’ When something spreads enough in the brain, then it can cause you to press a button or talk to someone and say ‘I’m conscious of looking at you now.’ There is nothing more to consciousness than that. That’s what he meant by ‘consciousness explained.’ That book came out in 1991 and has been widely read yet, 26 years on, I would say the majority of researchers in consciousness studies are still what he would call Cartesian materialists.

You’ve chosen William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) as your second book. He gives such a rich account of the phenomena of consciousness. I remember the “buzzing, blooming confusion.” . . .

Continue reading.

The other books discussed:

Your third book is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) by Julian Jaynes. This is the book that very influentially discusses the idea of separate roles for the two hemispheres of the brain, isn’t it? [This is a favorite book of mine. – LG] . . .

Your fourth choice is The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981). When I was studying philosophy of mind as an undergraduate, I found that book absolutely inspirational. It’s an amazing eclectic collection.  . . .

Your last book is a very recent one. This is Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (2016) by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Until he wrote this book, he wasn’t known as an expert on octopuses. . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2018 at 12:03 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

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