Consciousness & Being a Beast Machine with Neuroscientist, Anil Seth, PhD.

“…the contents of consciousness are a kind of waking dream—a controlled hallucination—that is both more than and less than whatever the real world really is.”  -Anil Seth

Name: Anil Seth, MS, PhD

Specialty: Neuroscientist and Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience.

Location: University of Sussex. Brighton, United Kingdom.

All right, welcome back. Today we’re privileged and delighted to have one of the world’s leading researchers in neuroscience, Anil Seth. Anil is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and Founding Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. He has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Neuroscience of Consciousness. His TED talk on consciousness and controlled hallucination has been viewed over 12 million times and stands as one of TED’s most popular science talks.

Today we’ll dig deep into (what Cal Fussman would call) the big questions of neuroscience: Is my reality the same as yours (do we see the same color red)? What does it mean to be you? Why did we evolve to have consciousness? Are different states of consciousness such as we see in comas, sleep, and general anesthesia measurable and clearly definable?  What is consciousness and where in the brain can we find it? Why does a brain adapted to basic, hunter gatherer survival also include the capacity to compose symphonies, write philosophy, debug software code, go to the moon and ponder questions about the nature of its own existence?  Will we ever be able to deconstruct the basic elements of consciousness and reconstruct them in a computer AI?

This episode was a lot of fun and will probably be one of my most favorite. To be clear, exploring our current understanding of the brain, consciousness, and the fundamental reality of who we are and how we experience the world around us is just not something you can knock out in an hour. That’s why I can’t recommend to you enough to check out Anil’s new book, “Being You.” With that said, let’s get started…

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Neuroscience & Innovations of Literature. “Wonderworks” with Angus Fletcher, PhD

Photograph by Sarah Lagrotteria. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Name: Angus Fletcher, PhD

Specialty: Professor of story science & Literature at Ohio State’s Project Narrative

Location: Ohio State University. Columbus, OH

Today we are excited to have Angus Fletcher with us on the show. He is a professor of story science and literature at Ohio State University’s Project Narrative. He completed dual degrees in neuroscience and literature before receiving his PhD in literature from Yale. In addition to his teaching and research, Angus also serves a story consultant for Sony, Disney, BBC, Amazon, PBS and NBC/Universal.  Unlike many literary academics, critics and perhaps your high school English teacher, Angus takes a very different approach to literary scholarship. He studies literature’s practical usefulness, and the science behind it.  

His new book, “Wonderworks. The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature,” explores literature as a series of unique and innovative discoveries. These literary inventions had, and continue to have, unique problem-solving functions. Problem-solving functions that can now be studied with the modern tools and methods of neuroscience. 

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Humanity’s R&D Department. Science & philosophy of childhood with developmental psychologist, Alison Gopnik, PhD

Today we’re exploring the world of childhood, a “protected space in which they [children] can produce new ways of thinking and acting that, for better or worse, are entirely unlike any that we would have anticipated beforehand.” A protected space that exceeds, in length, that of any other species. A space of time that today’s guest has spent her career studying and often refers to as humanity’s R&D department.

Alison Gopnik, PhD is likely a familiar name to many of you, especially those of you who are parents. Currently a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, Alison has published over 100 research articles and books including critically acclaimed bestsellers such as: The Scientist in the Crib, The Philosophical Baby and The Gardener and the Carpenter. Her public appearances include TED, Talks at Google, the World Economic Forum and even Stephen Colbert’s show. She is also a long-time contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Review section.

We covered a lot of ground in this episode. How do young children and babies begin to understand the world around them? We will learn about something called, “theory theory,” a process that allows children to develop and test intuitive theories about their world. We’ll see how this process resembles Bayesian probability and how understanding childhood cognitive development may be a key to developing advanced AI. This is also something Alison is researching. No surprise.  She lives and works in the Bay area and she is even married to one of the founders of Pixar.

Anyway, this is one of our more fascinating episodes. As a father of two young daughters, and a long-time fan of Alison’s work, talking with Alison was a real privilege. With that said, let’s get started.

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Waking Up to Psychedelic Medicine. Neuropharmacologist, David Nichols, PhD

david nichols- peerspectrum

Name: David Nichols, PhD

Location: UNC Chapel Hill, NC.

Specialty: Neuropharmacologist

All right, welcome back. We have really looked forward to this episode. Clinical research with Psychedelic compounds like psilocybin, LSD and MDMA have gotten a lot of press recently. Major institutions such as Johns Hopkins, UCLA and Yale are leading the charge with dramatic results in drug addiction, PTSD, end of life care, depression and other mental illness that is simply breathtaking.

When we think back to the psychedelic sixties, it’s hard to imagine that legitimate clinical research was taking place with psychedelics then, too; although much of it (think Timothy Leary) wouldn’t pass even the most lenient institutional review boards today. Much of this early research in the US came to a screeching halt with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Only now are we beginning to reawaken to the incredible healing and trans-formative effects these compounds can offer.

Today it’s our distinct privilege to speak with the researcher who carried the torch through a time when psychedelic research was nearly non-existent.

When it comes to the mechanisms of action, biochemistry and pharmacology of psychedelics, David Nichols is arguably the world’s foremost expert. He’s spent over 40 years researching and producing these compounds. And yes, all legally, as Nichols held one of the very few DEA licenses granted during this time.

If you’re skeptical about all this, hang in there. We’ll see how psychedelic tools can open new pathways to understanding neuroscience, mental illness and even perhaps change who we are and how we see the world. A majority of those who experience a psychedelic trip consider it among the most meaningful experiences of their entire lives. How is that possible? We’re going to find out. With that said, let’s get started…

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