This past week was amazing. I am so proud to have been a part of this year’s Global TEDxWomen Event. To watch each of my sisters stand up and take the stage, telling a crucial story about her own experience or her own discovery in the world, was incredible.
I heard stories that broke my heart and I heard stories that gave me a lot of hope for this world. I heard how strong women in Denver and all over the globe are fighting to make this world a more inclusive place – a place where each of us can feel secure, empowered, and free to build our lives and our careers.
When it was my turn to take the stage, I spoke about my own work in theoretical neuroscience, presenting an outline of how consciousness arises from neural activity in the brain. The response was attentive and engaged – and I am truly confident that the video, when it comes out, will only spark more conversation about this topic.
Before my talk, during the lunch break, I stood by a poster in the lobby of the Newman Center – the organizers had come up with this brilliant plan to engage discussion on the topic of each talk. The top of my poster read ‘What is Consciousness?’ and a cup with several markers was taped to the side of the board. A woman stood there, facing the poster head-on, with a deeply concentrated look on her face. I approached her from one side, asking what she was thinking.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I just don’t know what consciousness is.”
“I think it’s awesome that you’re able to exist in this state of uncertainty, that you’re able to stay with the question,” I said. “It feels uncomfortable not to have an answer.”
“Well, it’s definitely a problem worth thinking about,” the woman responded. She picked up a marker and wrote, “I don’t know, but am open to all the ideas.”
That wasn’t the only thought-provoking interaction at my poster. One woman came up to me at the following break – after my talk – and said, “I feel like you came from the future to teach us something.” We laughed and talked about the implications of my theory for physics, engineering, and medicine.
One of the other speakers came up and introduced me to her two sons, who are studying science in school. They expressed so much confidence in their studies – and I realized that many of the difficult concepts we struggled with in previous decades have become second-nature to us. These newly-established facts are now simply part of our knowledge base. And now, these kids are ready to tackle new problems and new challenges. The upcoming generation, Gen Z, has so much energy, so much hunger for knowledge, and so much appetite for change – I hope they will succeed in building their dreams.
Other conversations directly challenged my theory. In particular, several people approached me, having read Deepak Chopra and subscribing to his views. Chopra espouses the belief that consciousness is in all things and is primary to reality – that is, it is consciousness that creates reality, not reality that gives rise to consciousness. He has stated that we are not “physical machines that have somehow learned to think”, but rather “thoughts that have learned to create a physical machine”. As such, Chopra believes that our thoughts have power over physical systems and that our minds can stop aging and disease through thought alone.
Being confronted with a counter-view forces a person to clearly articulate their own philosophical position. I believe that existence is primary – once space and time came into being, matter came into being; then particles could interact with each other and create thermodynamic systems; these systems grew more complex, giving rise to ever more interesting emergent properties, including consciousness. The mind, then, is something that arises from the physical world.
As I explained in my talk, we gather data about our world through our senses. These data are encoded in neural signals, and that neural activity generates the amazing experience of perception. Our brains are thermodynamic systems, with a certain volume and temperature, exerting pressure as neurons send messages to each other in the form of electrical signals. Our brains produce information in a very real, physical way – and that information obeys natural laws when interacting with the thermodynamic system that generated it.
If my theory is correct, then we are able to exert our wills in the physical world – but we can only do so through the physical effort of information processing. We can only do so by engaging our minds and doing work. In this view, our minds can exert change in the world – but only through the actions of the body. We cannot just think a thought and expect things to change – we must take action to change our world, to find new treatments for disease, to develop more sustainable technologies, to help others in need. We cannot just wish these things to happen. We must use our minds to come up with solutions, then put them into practice through action.
If my theory is correct, then we should be able to build better quantum computers based on physical laws and we should be able to build a better framework for understanding neurological disease too. If Deepak Chopra is correct, then we should be able to affect the physical world with our minds alone, thereby staving off aging and disease indefinitely, as discussed in his book Quantum Healing.
If instead the reductionists are correct, then the mind does not exist at all – consciousness is an illusion, mental states play no role in the physical world, and we are nothing more than biological machines.
Simply put, we can phrase our philosophical positions as scientific hypotheses and then determine which theoretical framework provides better predictions for how the world works.
If we work as a team, cooperating through respectful argumentation, we can move closer to the truth.
And that is exactly what TED is about – spreading ideas and sparking discussion!