Consciousness: A performance lecture by Marcus du Sautoy, featuring music by James Holden

Barbican Hall. Two halves. Probably meant to be Left and Right: the first was an illustrated lecture on where brain science is today; the second a longish performance of some world-music-type music, designed to see if this could alter our brain states; I don’t think it altered mine.

The most interesting material in the first half was the mirror test. To see if organisms were self-aware, blobs of coloured paint were surreptitiously dabbed on subjects’ foreheads, which were then placed near mirrors. When they saw themselves, did their hands go up to their own heads to investigate the unusual colour, or to the heads in the mirrors?
Results:

Chimpanzees & orang utans more or less all show self-awareness in this way.
Bizarrely, SOME elephants, whales & magpies do same.
Humans start showing self-awareness in this way between 16 & 22 months; but self-conscious behaviour (e.g shyness) is different – earlier.
Chimpanzees LOSElose this self-awareness at c.15 years old. Is this an adaptation to stop them thinking of their own deaths? [Alzheimer’s…?]

It’s hard to know exactly though what all this shows, and what exactly self-awareness is. Presumably animals and infants can’t verbally express, even to themselves, what they are understanding, and presumably even lower organisms have some kind of self-awareness, or they wouldn’t lick their wounds or be able to function properly.

Other points:

Twins in the womb are aware of the identity of their sibling: they don’t kick each other as hard as they do their mums.

Vision dominates. This was powerfully demonstrated by a film of Marcus pronouncing “duh”, “buh” and “puh “(I think) with a soundtrack of him saying just “duh”, each time. We all heard it as our eyes told us, as three different sounds, ignoring the contradictory evidence of our ears.

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