A Carnival of Consciousness ; Mysteries of the Mind, with Deepak Chopra and Philosophy Set to Music

By Johnson, George | International New York Times, May 18, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Carnival of Consciousness ; Mysteries of the Mind, with Deepak Chopra and Philosophy Set to Music


Johnson, George, International New York Times


Mysteries of the mind are the topic at a convention in Tuscon, with Deepak Chopra and philosophy set to music.

CORRECTION APPENDED

At the Science of Consciousness conference last month in Tucson, I was faced with a quandary: Which of eight simultaneous sessions should I attend?

In one room, scientists and philosophers were discussing the physiology of brain cells and how they might generate the thinking mind. In another, the subject was free will -- real or an illusion?

Next door was a session on panpsychism, the controversial (to say the least) idea that everything -- animal, vegetable and mineral -- is imbued at its subatomic roots with mindlike qualities. Running on parallel tracks were sessions titled "Phenomenal Consciousness," the "Neural Correlates of Consciousness" and the "Extended Mind."

For much of the 20th century, the science of consciousness was widely dismissed as an impenetrable mystery, a morass of a problem that could be safely pursued only by older professors as they thought deep thoughts in their endowed chairs. Beginning in the 1990s, the field slowly became more respectable.

There is, after all, a gaping hole in science. The human mind has plumbed the universe, concluding with absurd precision that it is 13.8 billion years old. With particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, scientists have discovered vanishingly tiny particles, like the Higgs boson, that underpin reality.

But there is no scientific explanation for consciousness -- without which none of these discoveries could have been made.

Faced with this vacuum, hundreds of people gathered in Tucson where wild speculations and carnivalesque pseudoscience were juxtaposed with sober sessions like "Agency and Mental Causation" and data-filled talks about probing conscious brain states with PET scans and EEGs.

Because I couldn't clone my brain, I found myself sitting, late one afternoon, in "Vibrations, Scale and Topology," where a musician from Tulsa, Okla., who called himself Timbre' Wolf, was strumming a guitar and singing the "Bing" song.

"Bing" is a word that Stuart Hameroff, the University of Arizona professor who organizes these mindfests, uses to describe the moment when the spark of consciousness lights up the brain. Imagine a mad scientist hooking together neurons one by one until suddenly they reach a threshold of complexity and -- bing -- consciousness emerges.

We all know the feeling, one that science has been powerless to explain. The audience seemed familiar enough with the words, and so they sang along in 4/4 time.

Before launching into the tune, Timbre' Wolf played a recording of an eerie composition called "Brain Dance," derived from vibrations generated by tiny molecular structures called microtubules, which are part of the scaffolding of brain cells. The music, to his ear, was reminiscent of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Cuban rumba, Gustav Holt's "The Planets" and the visual rhythms of strange mathematical objects called Penrose tiles.

All of this, he suspected, had something to do with quantum mechanics and consciousness, an idea that Dr. Hameroff has long been pursuing. There even seemed to be undertones of the Devil's Triad, a discordant combo of notes known since medieval times that forms the opening riff of "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix.

That all made for good metaphysical fun. …

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