Patrick House on Consciousness
Dec 5 2022

412OoW-WMWL._SX331_BO1204203200_-200x300.jpg How does the mind work? What makes us sad? What makes us laugh? Despite advances in neuroscience, the answers to these questions remain elusive. Neuroscientist Patrick House talks about these mysteries and about his book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. House's insights illuminate not just what we know and don't know about our minds--he also helps us understand what it means to be human.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Todd Weiler
Dec 5 2022 at 11:10am

Perhaps I’m missing something but it seems to me that, with respect to the experiment involving the epileptic who remains conscious whilst electrodes are used to carefully probe various regions of her brain, the events in which she engages in ex facto confabulation to explain her involuntary reaction to electrode stimulation need not be of great concern.

Concern would only seem appropriate if we assume a single, and singular, method of action – in which all human actions (e.g. laughter, speech, even feelings of love) are the result of such stimulation. So, for example, we could all be at least somewhat concerned about the possibility that we are all living in a Matrix movie world, in which our perceptions of reality (right down to laughing, loving, etc.) are actually dictated by “someone” using a physical means of intervention to dictate what we perceive from without. In this scenario, we’d regard the aforementioned experiment as just a particularly primitive version of what the sentient computers in the Matrix world could do.

But why should we assume that the neural “system” being probed in this case only works one way, viz. that the human experience can be extrinsically  dictated via medical intervention? It seems to me that this view of the experiment negates that fact that we all appear to autonomously experience our existence respectively. Sure, disease, physical trauma, or medical intervention may each impact the brain’s ability to serve this function (of maintaining consciousness in such a way as to support individual autonomy, rather than just a perception of it), but – absent such complicating factors – it seems that we all continue to participate (at least to a certain extent, autonomously) in our own, respective lived experience as humans.

… which leads me to wonder what I’m missing?

I suppose I’ll just have to read Dr House’s book to figure it out.

Luke J
Dec 6 2022 at 1:16am

Each chapter is a different take on the same experiment — that is a really neat idea. And, I was not aware of so many different interpretations of consciousness. But, is it plausible that the test subject made-up reasons to explain behavior induced by artificial stimuli simply out of fear or embarrassment? Seems the theme of this episode is that we don’t really know what is going on inside someone else’s mind, so maybe they were small lies because that’s what people do.

Dec 6 2022 at 8:49am

Thank you for this great conversation. Fascinating and I learned a great deal, and unlearned even more.

Too much to unpack to have any cogent comment on most of it but one comment brought me up short.

He said “‘I don’t know’ is not a useful answer for learning, ever.” This struck me because I think the opposite is exactly true. “I know” is not a useful answer for learning, ever, because if you think you know something, you are not open to other possibilities, a precondition for learning.  In context of the conversation, his comment made more sense. He was saying, I have no idea, is not a useful answer but it I did want to comment that our [mistaken] belief that we know things is probably the biggest obstacle to learning. And, as this discussion illustrated, our presumption that we know what is going on in other people’s heads — the presumption, generally, that it is similar to ours — is a major obstacle to communication and understanding.

This discussion drove home how little we really know and so opened our possibility of learning.

Dec 7 2022 at 12:40am

i was surprised that Russ made reference a few times to the “few ” listeners out there – this was my favorite episode, i have to listen again.  although I agree w/ Todd Weiler above as to the importance placed on the epileptic girl’s explanation (it was probably more complicated than his description in the podcast), i was amazed by the entire topic & House’s approach.  I need to find out more about so many things eg, the parasite that hitches a mouse ride to the cat, the lost Chinese poem, the Wittgenstein quote etc.  And of course, i especially love the take-away, at least this was my take away – that we have to appreciate the huge gap in understanding anyone, it’s like we’re working w/ pickaxes through conversation, it’s amazing that there is ever a meeting of the minds.

Shalom Freedman
Dec 7 2022 at 4:16am

Toward the end of the conversation Russ raises the question of the meaning of life. He asks why human beings care about this and when they might just focus on enjoying their lives. One of the answers he cites that of Agnes Callard who says she wishes to be part of that chain of humanity engaged in exploring and understanding ourselves is I think a quite strong one.

But it seems to me a more general answer for those outside traditional religious frameworks is the basic existential one that each of us has to make a meaning for our own lives through our own choices and decisions -through our use of our freedom to create meaning.

I would also say the desire not to die seems built into the nature of most animals.

As for the bulk of the conversation it contains many interesting bits of information – i.e. the brain does not feel pain, our inability to say, ‘Do not know’ when asked about the cause of our feeling even if there is no such cause, Isaac Asmov’s visualization incapacity or the Nabakovs’ synesthesia or Patrick House’s enjoyment of 3-D watching. But all this does not add up to a real explanation of what human consciousness and self-consciousness really are.   In this I think the conversation however interesting did not really add to my basic non- understanding of the subject.

As a minor detail on the side, I would suggest taking a look at Wallace Stevens’ poem “Nineteen ways of looking at a blackbird’ which too suggests how strong a part difference in perception is in our seeing and translating reality into something meaningful for us.

Dec 7 2022 at 10:27pm

It’s “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird” a poem by Wallace Stevens. Not “Nineteen ways… “, as mentioned by Shalom. 🙂

Luke J
Dec 7 2022 at 4:53pm

Two additional comments:  It is frightening to consider that many people might not have Adam Smith’s impartial spectator speaking to their internal thoughts and actions. Or maybe they do.

My wife pointed out that the brain is surrounded by the meninges which is highly sensitive to pain. “Ana” would have received some form of anesthetic, thought it was implied othwise in this episode

Keivan Karai
Dec 7 2022 at 5:07pm

In German there is a word for vivid mental imagery, especially when it is related to future events and uncertain situations: Kopfkino, which literally means “head cinema”.

Barry Fay
Dec 8 2022 at 8:05am

Brilliant episode.

Russ, you have no peer as an interviewer. I somehow monitored the path of the conversation (while paying closer and closer attention to the content) and was amazed to watch what sounded at first to be dull and lacking coherence to be intensely and finely woven conversation.
While some may think the conversation was about some  minor factual matter, I came away with a better appreciation of how incapable we are of knowing just what it is we just heard or read, just how daunting a task it is to understand even those we best know, let alone those we encounter in passing.

Thank you for this and all the great work you have given those willing to learn. Rest assured there are many out here listening.

Michael Wengler
Dec 9 2022 at 1:03pm

The reason Ana says she laughed because it was funny is because the researchers stimulated the path in her brain that lights up when something is funny. If they had stimulated the part of the brain that detects red, she would have told them she was seeing red and when asked why, would have said “because its red,” not “I don’t know.” This seems like such a more straightforward explanation for what was going on than seemingly unsupported claims that the brain doesn’t like to say “I don’t know.” I don’t like to say “I don’t know” when asked why I think my shirt is red, because I do know, I can SEE that it is red. Light up the funny-path in the brain and I would KNOW my shirt was funny if I was looking at it when you lit up that path.

Dec 13 2022 at 4:03am

If you enjoyed 19 ways of thinking about consciousness, you might enjoy 40 ways of thinking about death in David Eagleman “Sum: Forty tales from the Afterlives”.

PDX Listener
Dec 16 2022 at 4:01pm

Great interview!

Two takeaways for me are:

The idea that all human brains want to provide a reason for what is happening.
Our cerebellum stores information about our experiences and our intuition comes from our brains using that stored data.

Looking forward to reading Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness.

Jurgis Karpus
Dec 16 2022 at 6:34pm

Wonderful! Thank you for another brilliant episode! I study the theory of rational choice and this conversation sparked so many doubts and thoughts about what the theory of rational choice is really all about. If we rationalize events post factum, after things merely happen to us, how can we make sense of what is rational and what is not to begin with? Do we make any choices at all based on pre-existing beliefs, preferences, and reasons that we truly “hold”?

Incidentally, the day after I listened to this episode, I Googled Orbital to see whether this (fairly “old”) duo of electronic dance music composers had any recent releases. I came across a piece that uses the recording of the physicist Brian Cox’s story about the far future (and end) of the world as we know it. That put me at peace, at least on some level of thinking about these questions. Reason, rationality, and passed knowledge through generations, after all, made us discover these amazing predictions about our universe 🙂

Orbital feat. Brian Cox:

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: October 31, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Today is October 31st, 2022, and my guest is neuroscientist and author Patrick House. He is the author of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, which is our topic for today.

Patrick, welcome to EconTalk.

Patrick House: Thank you for having me.


Russ Roberts: Tell us very briefly your background in writing this book. You've worked in neuroscience labs. You've got a Ph.D. Just give us a little bit of the flavor of that.

Patrick House: Yeah. Kind of: how'd I get here?

So, I studied mind-control parasites during my Ph.D. I was most interested in, basically, why people do the things that they do. And, of course, when you're a neuroscientist, you can't really directly study--it's difficult to directly study--people. You can do it; your tools are a lot better with different kind of models. So, I was really interested in this idea of whether or not people are the accumulation of their own preferences; and, whether or not, when one shapes or changes those preferences, identity falls out or falls away with it, as those things are shaped and changed.

And so, there's this kind of--in nature, there's a kind of handful of these cases of these little mind-control parasites, where something will get in and kind of shape or change the behavior of the organism--that is, its host, effectively.

And this is not--yes, it's straight out of, like, most 20th-century sci-fi horror. But also, it's real, because evolution is the original kind of horror auteur, I think.

And, what I loved was this idea that there was this parasite that could actually change mammalian behavior. So, it infects a mouse, and it makes them possibly more attracted to and possibly less afraid of a cat. And, the parasite has to get to a cat. So, in order to complete its life cycle, it's using this mouse, kind of as a on-call Uber or Lyft to get from one cat to the next cat.

And, this really started me down this path of frustration. And, the reason is: I have this mouse. I'm trying to understand, what are you afraid of? What do you like? What are your preferences? It's sitting in front of me in the lab. And, I can, like, stare at it, and I can name it, and I can ask it things, but of course, it's not responding. And, it was just so obvious and frustrating to me that so much was going on--obviously--inside each of these animals' heads, that we don't have access to.

And, this bubbles up to people. Right? And, I started to just get, really, just bothered by the fact that some of the best tools for human neuroscience are still just language. We still just use words. We diagnose people, often from the DSM--which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health and Mental Illness. We diagnose people mostly with words.

And, this kind of intractable and never-ending problem of, how do we get inside someone else's head, and how do we truly understand what's happening there--that just became more and more of my interest, as I became kind of flustered and frustrated with, kind of, neuroscience tools.

Of course, it's miraculous what we can do. But it's still the case that I feel we're in the--it feels like we're in the Babylonian era of neuroscience. It feels like we are the astronomers from, you know, 1000 AD, staring up at the sky, and knowing where stars will be but not why. Which is to say: You know, we have this grand mystery in front of us, and it's obvious and present. We all know what it's like to be conscious. We all have our own version of it. But, we have so few actual answers.

So, I kind of navigated a twisted path from that scientific side, which is studying this mind-control parasite thing, to a kind of journalist side where I wrote a few essays for the New Yorker, the L.A. Review Books, and Slate, and various places, where I just really started to want to understand why science--and why neuroscience in particular--has--the pace of discovery is slower than it seems to be in other fields.

And of course, the brain is a kind of punk of intractable matter that's really difficult to understand, of course--one of the more complicated pieces of matter in the universe.

But it is still the case that, in neuroscience, we haven't solved anything. We haven't cured a single disease. We haven't solved--really, in the way that the virologists can claim that they're really close to eradicating smallpox, the way the physicists can say they can study the origin of the Big Bang and unfold the James Webb Telescope, which is a modern marvel of the world, one of the best, most complicated things humans have ever done. And, they're just casually sending autonomous cars to Mars, and they're casually splitting the atom, and they're casually giving us GPS [Global Positioning System] and rockets and planes. And, over in neuroscience, we can't even tell you what being sad is.

And, these things, they just kind of--they just started to bubble up.

And, so, after a long time, I thought to myself, what do we need to do different? And, I kind of wanted to approach it like a translation problem. And, I think we're getting it wrong. I think we're often talking past each other. And, I wanted to kind of zoom in on that moment.


Russ Roberts: So, there's 19 chapters, roughly, of different ways of looking at consciousness. You do not particularly say this is the right way or this is the wrong way. As you point out, we haven't exactly nailed this. So, some of what we're going to talk about is not truth. It's speculation, obviously. Some of it, you're probably more sympathetic to than others, some of the ideas.

But, at the heart of this is a mid-1990s--to use as sort of a framework, we're thinking about this--a mid-1990s, very short scientific paper about a patient, AK, which you call Anna--we don't know her real name--who has a surgery. Describe that surgery and what happens. It's rather extraordinary.

Patrick House: Yeah. It really is rather extraordinary.

And, so, maybe as a fun, actually coincidental backdrop, I was asked to, one year, give a talk on Halloween--so, we're speaking today on Halloween, October 31st--at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences. They were like, 'Hey, you study mind-control parasites. Do you want to give us a scary talk about parasites?' And, I was like, 'Well, I would love to talk about'--the theme of the event was monsters. And, I said, 'That feels a bit overwrought. Yeah, I'm the parasite guy, but I'm not going to just straight up one-to-one talk about the thing I know.' And, I actually gave a lecture on this paper. And I said, 'I want to explain and give a lecture on what I believe is the scariest result in study in all of neuroscience.'

And, this was a decade ago. This was long before I even had the book in my mind. But, I've been teaching and talking about this study. It's been my favorite for so long.

And so, first of all, it was performed by a neurosurgeon here, in Los Angeles actually, which is where I live, Dr. Itzhak Fried. And, he kind of takes on very difficult and intractable epilepsy cases. And so, there's a teenage girl--I think she was 16--and she had epilepsy. And, again, to the point about the dearth of tools that we have, when someone has epilepsy, you ask them, 'What's that like? When does it happen?' And that's as good as we have. There are certain clues, of course. Neurologists, they're brilliant Sherlock Holmesian detectives when it comes to this stuff. They can tap your knee and tell you you have a very specific cranial nerve problem. But, like, when someone has a seizure and it kind of happens randomly and they don't exactly know why, it can be very hard to figure out where in the brain that's actually starting.

And so, when you have a treatment, it's called a drug-resistant epilepsy of unknown origin. Which is to say: We don't know where in the brain this epilepsy is starting. And, epilepsy is sort of like an electrical storm. I think of it a bit like an earthquake. And, you want to put seismic monitoring stations around the brain to figure out exactly how to kind of triangulate where the epilepsy is or where the focus is.

And so, they literally do a surgery where they drill holes throughout the skull, insert electrodes, and then they can listen. And they hope--they just wait and hope, while the patient is in the hospital--for them to have a seizure. Kind of like, you put a bunch of seismic monitoring stations around the world, and you just kind of wait for the volcano to go off. You wait for the earthquake. And, then you can say, 'Okay, it's exactly here.' Right?

And, while they're doing this, you have--I kind of lionized the James Webb and Hubble telescope a bit ago, which is to say, like, 'Oh my God, these physicists,' I get, like, physics envy, right? Which is to say: They get to do these incredible experiments investigating the origins of the universe, things like that.

But, when you actually have a human brain open and a person awake, and you have these electrodes implanted and you're just waiting, this is a James Webb moment. This is a moment where you can ask: What is going on inside the human brain? You never otherwise will get--there's no moral or ethical way to open a skull and do these kind of investigations, so you have to wait. And, the surgeon himself told me that he sees it like his bubble chamber moment--which is a old physics kind of particle accelerator thing--qhich is to say, like, you know, over at LHC [Large Hadron Collider] and CERN [Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a.k.a. European Council for Nuclear Research] and things like this, they're smashing particles together and looking for this tiny nanosecond-long moment of anomaly where a clue to how the universe is constructed pops out.

And, the surgeon was explaining to me that this to him is the same thing: when this woman--when Anna--laughed, that was his bubble chamber moment. He said that was his anomaly, that was his Higgs boson. Because, he saw in it so many different stories.

So, what had happened was, they have these electrodes, and they're mostly for listening. But, imagine if you put seismic monitoring stations around the world, but they didn't just listen: they also had, like, fracking capabilities maybe, or they could induce small earthquakes. That's very similar to what these electrodes are. They can actually stimulate the brain. They can stimulate the electrical kind of current in the brain.

And, what pops out the other side is, like, consciousness. What pops out is changes in consciousness, alterations in behavior.


Russ Roberts: But, you want to mention, I think, that this experience is taking place without anesthesia. And the patient is not just awake, but is alert and talking through this. Because this is shocking to me. The brain doesn't have any pain sensors? Is that correct?

Patrick House: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, explain that setup, and what they were doing before that she laughed.

Patrick House: Yeah. So, one of the remarkable things about neurosurgery is that, the brain itself does not feel pain. It's where pain goes. Pain is interpreted by the brain. The brain itself does not have the--where would it send the signal, right? You feel pain in your periphery. You feel pain in your big toe when you stub it. And, it's because that big toe is sending a pain signal, an electrical signal that is unique to pain, from that big toe all the way to the brain.

But, when the brain feels pain, it's kind of lonely. It has no one to tell. And, so, you don't need to anesthetize the brain during brain surgery. It feels nothing.

And, so, while these electrodes are in, and while the surgery is ongoing--the surgery, you could functionally say, takes place over the course of a week--right?--sometimes two. Because, the person is basically in the operating room for two weeks. Yeah, there's a bed and they can, like, go to sleep and everything, but they're effectively in operation for two weeks.

And so, what they're doing is they're kind of probing and stimulating and activating and listening, and all these things simultaneously--as she's awake, as she's talking, as she's doing whatever she wants to do. And, one--they're kind of probing around various different areas of the brain, to try to figure out, 'Okay, does this make you see red? Does this make you hear Bach? What does this do? Does this make you stop being able to speak? Does this--?' Etc., etc.? These are the basic moments of human experience. And they were probing--

Russ Roberts: And, that's important because they want to make sure she keeps talking, because if she stops talking while they're probing, it means they're in a sensitive part of the brain they don't want to harm when they try to reduce the risk of a seizure.

Patrick House: Yeah. There's this--so, again, they don't know where the seizure is starting. Right? They have guesses. So, they're literally probing around.

And, every time they're doing this, the blunt and honest truth is: they're killing neurons. When you're inserting an electrode, you are going through the brain to do so, if you insert it deep in the brain. And, you don't want to kill those that seem to be the most useful to be a human in modern society. Right? Like, language is a tool. It's a brutal, realist, almost like insurance/actuarial-chart thing. If you're going to ruin something about the brain for medical reasons--if you're going to go in there, you're going to take some losses, you're going to kill it, you're going to damage a few neurons--you do not--you want to preserve, more than anything, the ability to speak.

And so, everybody has their speech center in approximately the same place, but it varies, slightly, by millimeters here and there. Everyone's got slightly different shapes and sizes and things going on, and architecture as well to the brain.

And, so, they're keeping her talking and talking. And they want to keep going, and they want to make sure, as they're stimulating, that they're not interfering with speech, or they're not interfering with, like, a basic human capability and emotion.

And, as they're doing this, they get to one area and they probe it, and she laughs. And, they ask her, 'Why did you laugh?' And, she says, 'Because you guys are just so funny standing around like that.' And, then, they're going around, they're probing. The surgeon is sitting back there on a computer, pushing buttons and entering the stimulation protocol, and how many hurts, and at what rate, and everything.

And, then, they do it again and she laughs again. And, then they ask her why she laughed, just to keep her conversational. And, she's like, 'Well, the picture of the horse there is funny.' And, I've seen video of her giving these answers, and she finds--I think she's holding a fork because she's eating. And, at one other point, she laughs and then says, 'Well, this fork is really funny.'

And, the reason I gave this talk on Halloween--the reason I gave this talk and have spoken about it as this result basically is the scariest in all of neuroscience--is because, to me, that means that--so she's confabulated. It's called 'confabulation,' is the technical term of art, which is: She's confabulating these reasons. The real reason is the surgeon has an electrode and is stimulating the supplementary motor area, which is causing those neurons to respond to that electrical current, which connects down to her throat, which discharges the stereotyped central pattern generator of muscular activity, which bounces air around, and her throat encompasses it and expels it such that we, in the room who are listening, perceive it as laughter. That's the mechanistic, almost like David Hume-an, 'billiard balls striking each other'-way you might describe it.

But, from the inside of her subjective experience, she doesn't know when they're stimulating or not. Right? Again, no pain. So, she doesn't know when it's coming. She just knows she laughed. From her point of view, she laughed for absolutely no reason. And, she had to give it a reason.

So, there were two terrifying things there to me that, I think, explain all of interpersonal conflict probably, or maybe a vast majority, which is, like, she couldn't say, 'I don't know.' The brain doesn't say, 'I don't know.' And, the brain comes up with some reason that is plausible, that is efficient, that makes sense on a storytelling kind of basis. Those are good stories. It's plausible that the horse was funny, that the doctors standing around were funny, that the fork was funny. They weren't, but they could be.

So, what's so scary to me about that is the idea that you then ask yourself why you laugh, ever. You ask yourself why you love the person you say you love. You ask yourself why you like the activities you like. And, the question is, are your answers correct? Or are you lying to yourself? Right? How do we know, when we laugh and our brain comes up with the reason why we laughed, and then we explain it because someone has asked us--how do we ever know that that's really the reason?

And so, I kind of ended up in almost like a Zeno's paradox where I was unpacking each--each of the reasons I gave for doing something felt half true. Every time I asked myself, 'Why did I do something? Why do I like something?', I found myself with half the confidence I had previously, because of this study. And then I asked myself again--half, half, half. And it basically went down to zero.


Russ Roberts: So, we all understand there are moments when we're with someone who laughs--in fact, we have a name for it: it's called 'nervous laughter.' It's not because something was funny. It's some anxiety in the part of the laugher. And, if you're thoughtful, you can notice it in yourself. And, you can realize, 'Gee, I wasn't laughing because I thought something was funny. I was laughing because I was nervous.' And you can--in theory, you could try to control that in the future. You could observe it in yourself and try to understand why and in what situations that kind of laughter gets provoked. But, that's such a trivial example of the wide expansive human experience, reaction, facial expressions, things we blurt out, and things we do.

And, of course, it raises deep, deep questions about free will and about our scientific understanding of something that is not merely a small corner of our world. You could argue it's the most important piece of our humanity, the feelings we have inside us and how those feelings manifest in our behavior and reactions and comments. And, the fact that we don't quite understand them, or maybe even worse, hardly understand them at all, is deeply disturbing.

Patrick House: Yeah. And, language is a highly compressed, like, kind of low bit-rate tool that we use to try our best. Right? We try our best. And, language kind of has mimicked the pros and cons of evolution by natural selection. It is good enough. It's not how you might design[?define?], how to understand respective interiority from scratch. We might come up with a different or better way.

These things are important, and we use language as this kind of infallible--there's a presumption of infallibility with our language, where we assume that when you ask someone--unless they're directly lying--we assume that there's something close to the truth there, in terms of what they're feeling or experiencing.

And, the hard part is recognizing that occasionally, language is in the service of a mind tricking itself.

So, when we are then two steps removed, or one step removed, it's a game of telephone. And, this to me is--you know, I don't care about people, deceit or lying. And of course, the world is falling apart because of such things. But, on a scientific level, the thing I want to know is what is actually happening inside the brain.

And, if you think about language as like a non-invasive tool--non-invasive, actable, imaging technology for the brain, which it kind of is--fMRI [Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging] is one way. You have all kinds of tools and technologies to kind of peer into the mind. But, we use language because it's cheap, and it mostly works. But it has flaws.

And, what I find so fascinating here, and the reason I have Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, and the reason why this story is told 19 times, is because of this--mostly, it's the homage to this book that I read a long, long time ago called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, who was a poet in, I think, the 800s China, an ancient Chinese poet. And, he wrote this very, very short poem. That's what I loved about the Nature paper, "Electric Current Stimulates Laughter." It's also short. Like, for a scientific paper of such amazing finding. Some of the biggest ones in the history of science are the shortest. The structure-of-DNA [Deoxyribonucleic Acid] paper I think is similar length. I think it's one or two pages, right?

And so, you have this, like, highly compressed knowledge.

And, you could think of a poem similarly. And so, there's a four line poem, and this book, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is the same poem translated 19 different times, by various authors of different languages, and time and context and places and different countries throughout 1400 years.

And, what I loved is that, the unwritten premise of the book is that, none of these translations are correct. The original is lost. So, the original poem, there is no copy. Like consciousness, right? The original--whatever creature was the first to experience a subjective feeling of self, that creature is lost to us. It is 3 billion years old, probably. The original is lost. All we have are translations. And, I think there's something to the fact that you might be able to take the methodologies and toolkits of translation science--which is its own thing, where they are confronting many of these same questions. What are the limits of language? What are the fault lines in language? What does it mean to translate something?

How do you--when an author writes something, they're engaging in a translative act. And then, you have to take that language and do it one more time and one more time. And, it's like compressing an image or a bitmap or sound. You do it too many times and it's lossy.

And the question to me being, how do we, from--like, if you took a raw image, a very high resolution image, and compressed and compressed and jpeg and jpeg, you'd end up with some bitmap that you couldn't understand. And, my worry is that, when we use things like language, we're basically getting the bitmap version of what it's like inside someone's head.


Russ Roberts: I think I've quoted this before--it's George Steiner, the essayist and author from the last half of the 20th century, fascinating writer. He has a book called After Babel, which talks about translation, and basically says that when you read a poem from the 1500s, you can't understand it. You get an idea about it, but you can't understand it because you don't have the language. There's a lot of words in there that are different, don't exist anymore or have died off. But, then when you read 1920s--he gives the example of Noel Coward--you read a scene from a Noel Coward play, because you're not fully immersed in 1920s culture, there are expressions and intonations in that dialogue that you don't fully understand.

And, his point is quite simple, which is that all language is a form of translation. That, as you said, you have a thought, or what you think is a thought--it's a deep question. But, you have a thought in your head, you blurt out--I'm being cruel--you say something to me. I hear it. I interpret it in my own way. I translate it into my brain. And, it's not what was in your brain. I'm pretty confident about that. I'm not sure if the differences are small, insignificant, or large, but I'm pretty sure they're not the same thing. And, that's troubling.

And, it's fascinating to think about it. And, you said--you kind of smiled when you said it, I think--that this is the root of all problems of human interaction. But of course, you're right, because half the time, the things I say aren't the things you hear, or the things that I want to say are not the things that you've heard. I mean, it's just a deep essential aspect of the human experience: that you can't get into my brain and I can't get into yours. And fMRI is never going to do it. It will show you the physical things that are happening in the brain. The problem is that, there seems to be more going on, or the physical parts that we understand, at least today in 2022, are not sufficient.

And, just to use one more example, long time EconTalk concept which I love, this idea of suitcase words: the idea that, you use a word that, 'Of course, I know what that means.' And, I use that same word 10 minutes later. And, 'Of course, I know and you know what that means.' But, we don't mean the same thing. We've crammed something else into it. Each of us--I put my clothes; you had your dirty laundry, I have mine--and we mean something quite different.

And, you could be depressed about this. I kind of go the other way. It's a miracle that we can--forget the fact that you're sitting in LA and I'm in Jerusalem. That's amazing by itself. But, the fact that we can actually have some semblance of cooperation, intellectual cooperation, is extraordinary. So, I'm going to look at the bright side.

Patrick House: That's a very good point. That's a very good point. I don't wish to malign the language fully, with respect to what it has accomplished.

So, what's funny is, probably, right now, people are listening, or watching, and thinking, okay, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, say--'consciousness' is a suitcase word. Of course, every single person--this was a literal conversation we had to have in the marketing meeting about this book, which is, depending on the city, 'consciousness,' the word, is loaded. It's an extraordinarily loaded word, that everyone is going to take their own interpretation into just their deciphering of the title. And so, how do we indicate that what we mean here is the scientific version, not the kind of self-help-y version? And, I do believe fundamentally that science can be self-help-y, so I don't [inaudible 00:29:31] that distinction again. The book's behind me: I don't do genre, rather, I don't categorize by genre.

I mean, to that point, I actually almost want there to be a book--maybe I have to write it--which is, like, phenomenological relationship counseling, right? Which is this idea that actually, when two people are talking past each other, it's quite possible that a way to figure out why they're talking past each other is to unpack how differently they see the world: truly how they see the world differently. And, what's funny is, I know there are some people right now--because I've had this conversation thousands of times--even neuroscientists, who are thinking tha, what I mean by that is something very different than what I actually mean by that.

So, let me explain what I mean by that, with examples.

So, about 15% of people cannot see 3D [3-dimensional] if they go to a 3D movie. So, this seems very simple. They put on the glasses, and the movie looks exactly the same to them. I love 3D movies. I have a 3D projector. Behind this screen right now is a large huge screen that comes down, and I paid twice for this projector that could project in 3D because they give me ecstatic, incandescent pleasure. I love them. I've hosted dinner parties and movie screenings where people come over and they can't see in 3D, so they just don't like it as a technology or tool. And, when we think about the critical--when I say 'critical,' I mean, do you or do you not like something--differences, and we think about how many different kinds of ways to see and interact with the world there are, it's quite possible and plausible, I think, that our preferences are shaped by this underlying phenomenology--this underlying way of seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling the world.

There are people out there that have no inner monologue, that have no voice on the inside of their head. Zero. It's empty. It's mute. Silent. Aphantasia was something discovered in 2016 by Adam Zeman, a U.K. scientist. And, the idea is that, over and over, there's this observation that some people don't seem to have mental images on the inside of their head. They close their eyes, and nothing pops up. There's no visual image. There's no mental image. And, this doesn't seem like it's that big a deal maybe. It's like, 'Oh, okay.' It's kind of like, 'Oh, is that just like colorblindness? Is that just--? Who really cares?'

So, let me just give a personal example. This is, I guess, where I wanted to--maybe it should be in the self-help section, actually. Let's put it there. I was dating a woman. We had an argument about FaceTime. And, I hate FaceTime. We were not in the same room. Remote communication, on my phone, on this little laptop--I hate the FaceTime communication with the tiny little picture of myself on the bottom. I find it awkward and weird, and they're mirrored. She kept saying, 'Can we FaceTime?' And, I kept asking, 'Can we please,' I implored, 'Can we please just talk on the phone?'

And, clues here, which we should have unpacked these earlier: She used to keep on her laptop a folder with my name on it, with just pictures of my face. And, while we were speaking on the phone, she would cycle through the pictures of my face.

At first, I was, like, 'Okay, that's maybe endearing.' Maybe that's a little weird, but I didn't want to pass judgment. It's like a little creepy--at first, that was honestly my interpretation.

So, we eventually ended up having this kind of spat about whether or not we would FaceTime, me saying, 'I hate it', she saying, 'I would really love to do it.'

Halfway through our relationship, we discovered she has aphantasia. So, she has zero images. She didn't know this until reading it on the Internet. Some article came out about it. And, she was, like: Oh, wait a second. You close your eyes. We're in our thirties. We are adults in our thirties, successfully operating in the world, both of us, and we had entirely different inner pictures. She had none, and I have an extraordinarily rich visual imagination.

So, when I was sitting on the phone, I could imagine us going for a walk. I would sit and play in our memories and our nostalgia and revel in everything that we had ever done, and to me that was richer than anything FaceTime could offer. Whereas, she thought and had interpreted my negate--my disinterest--as, I didn't want to see her. And she said, 'When you're not in the room, I have no idea what you look like. When you're not in the room, I cannot picture your face.' The reason she cycled through photos while we were on the phone was because she wanted to see my face as we were speaking.

So, this little thing--so, here's the thing. Imagine yourself as the relationship counselor. Right? She and I go in, and we're telling our sides of the story. The actual answer is that, we have different vividness quotas on the insides of our heads with respect to imagination, which is bubbling up into this interpersonal conflict about how we share the world.

Russ Roberts: And, it has nothing to do with your willingness to be considerate of the needs of the other person. You're clueless, both of you.

Patrick House: Yeah. And, as soon as she discovered that and we had this conversation, I said, 'Oh my God, is your desire for FaceTime because you can't see me? Of course, we can FaceTime. Forever.' Like, of course. I had no idea.

And, you know, if this sounds like a one off anecdote, I think there are so many examples of this.

There are two interviews I read about with Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, the great writer of many and all genres. And he says a few interesting things. One, he says, 'I can never write a script because it's a visual medium. And, on the inside of my head, there are no images.' And, there's a critic who said his work is talky--literally, talky. And, he was responding to that, saying, like, 'Yeah. Of course, it's talky. That's all that happens,' on the inside of his head. And, he's being interviewed again, a separate interview, with Charlie Rose. And, Isaac Asimov says, 'Yeah. I can be standing next to my daughter, and I don't even recognize her. Like, I don't know what she looks like when she's not there.'

And, in my retroactive mind, I'm, like, 'He obviously has aphantasia,' right? And so, his books end up being talky. And, the critical response, the person who read Isaac Asimov's book and called it 'talky' probably did not have aphantasia.

And so, you have two people, one person who is panning his book, and another guy who is just trying to write, and you have this mismatch. And that mismatch, I think, is everywhere.

The first time the phrase 'stream of consciousness' was ever used, the author wrote back an angry letter to the editor, saying, to her, 'consciousness sits stiller than a tree.' Vladimir Nabokov, he got this story rejected by the New Yorker, called "The Vane Sisters," a short story. I think the editor at the time was Katharine White. And, he wrote her--again, an angry letter--I guess that's what slighted novelists do. And, the angry letter was him saying, 'How could you not see what I was trying to do with this piece? In the last paragraph, I hid an acrostic, and the first letter in each of the words in the last paragraph spells out a code. And, if you take that code and apply it to the rest of the short story, then you kind of reinterpret and reassess the characters in the plot.' And so, to him, it was this beautiful, elaborate puzzle. And, she was, like, 'I didn't see it, honestly. I didn't know there was a code.'

Of note, potentially, Nabokov had color grapheme synesthesia. So, every single letter is colored, to him. He, his wife, Vera, and his son, Dmitri, all had color grapheme synesthesia. So, what that means is that, every writing, no matter where it is--on the keyboard, on text, in print--it's differently colored. Each letter has its own associated color. And, if you look at that acrostic that he made, it pops out to him. It's obvious to him, potentially because it was a color pattern. He saw it immediately when he was looking at the printed out text, because he sees it as colored. Whereas the editor and most readers don't. So, this idea that the New Yorker rejects your short story because they don't understand it might have been a phenomenological difference.


Russ Roberts: But, I think, as you point out--at least as I understand what you're saying, and I'm doing my best--certain abnormalities, color and letters, inability to form pictures in one's mind, colorblindness, these are just dramatic examples of how the architecture of my brain is different from the architecture of your brain.

I want to read a quote from Wittgenstein. He doesn't get enough credit here on EconTalk. He doesn't get mentioned often enough, so I'm very excited about this. Let me see if I can find it. This is a letter--from a letter he wrote to his sister. And, I described it--I said to someone, I said, 'This is the human condition in two sentences.' So, this is Ludwig Wittgenstein writing his sister:

You remind me of someone who is looking through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passerby. He doesn't know what storm is raging out there, or that this person might only with difficulty be keeping himself on his feet.

And, I really think that is--the less poetic version is: Everyone's in a battle, so be kind. You don't know what people are going through.

But, this is an even more profound--and foundational--challenge of human interaction, which is: By definition, it's not just that you don't know what other people are going through. Other people are not just like you. This is a truism that would seem not necessary to observe.

But, if you kept it front and center in your mind, which I suspect someone like yourself is more prone to doing, because you're so immersed in it, it can change the way you make your way through the world. Because, you're more likely to remember that people are prone to activity, words, facial expressions that are not easily understood by yourself because they're not you.

Patrick House: Yeah. Tom Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"--there, the kind of--what I take to be the argument that comes out of them--

Russ Roberts: It's a hard paper--

Patrick House: Yeah. And so, what I take--one of the arguments that comes out of that is this idea of just, 'Well, we don't have the kind of underlying hardware. We're trying to understand, we're trying to mentally imagine what it's like to be a bat. We don't have that hardware to do that because our brains are kind of evolutionarily configured differently.' But, we don't actually have the appropriate units or ability to describe the degree of difference between human minds. So, whatever that argument is, about what it's like to be a bat and the difficulty in actually understanding that, it applies equally to people. It applies equally, I believe, to someone with aphantasia. And not, for example, to someone with colored grapheme synesthesia--and not. It's equally hard to understand what it's like to see the world through those lenses.

Because, like, you know, one of the difficulties here is the degree to which these differences matter. We want to be able to say, 'Well, okay, sure there's differences in how you see color. Okay. You see 3D or not 3D, who really cares? Don't go to 3D movies. Hollywood loses a couple of ticket sales, who cares?'

Russ Roberts: 'You like FaceTime, I don't, so we won't use FaceTime.' Or we will. But who cares? I mean, it's not the essential thing.

Patrick House: Right. But--okay, so--

I was listening to this one interview by a chip designer in Silicon Valley, and he was talking about his visual imagery. So, this scale of aphantasia, there are people out there that have kind of the flip side of this, which is very vivid inner images, such that they're almost as vivid as reality. Like, you give them a scale and you say, 'Okay, here's a picture. And, then now, close your eyes and imagine that picture. How close is it to the picture as you're seeing it?' And, some people put it very, very close to just as it's perceived in real life, live. And, this guy was saying--he is a titan in Silicon Valley. He's been doing this in Intel, HP, Apple, for a very long time, designing these chips. He's the lead of everything. He's like, 'Yeah, my dad used to make bridges.' So, he was a bridge designer. He's been dealing with blueprints his entire life. He grew up surrounded by blueprints. And, he's like, 'Now I just make blueprints of chips instead of bridges.'

And, he said two interesting things. One, he mentioned that, when he is driving to work, and he's imagining a chip design, the visual image of the chip gets more pronounced and strong. It interferes with his actual vision, with his ability to see. So, he has to pull over to the side of the road because it's so strong.

So, I believe, he--I'm guessing from afar, I never met him--is like a--so the scale, that aphantasia scale, goes from zero to six. Zero is aphantasia, six is, you see the image as live as it is in real life. He's probably a six or a five, right? I cannot experience that. I do not know what it's like for my mental imagination, my visual imagination, to become so rich and vivid, that it interferes with my ability to move around the world.

And then--here's the interesting part--he then says, 'Yeah, when I interview people'--he's the head of this chip production of these major Silicon Valley companies--'when I interview people, I put them in a room. I take away their cell phone and laptop. I give them a pen, or a chalk and a chalkboard, marker and a whiteboard, and say, 'Draw for me a schematic of the last thing you designed that did not work.' Which sounds like one of these tech-riddle tests. But, he is selecting for people that think like him. If it is true that he's selecting for people that can or cannot accomplish this task, this task is easy for him. This task is something that his brain was created with the ability for.

Magnus Carlsen, the greatest, highest ranked chess player in history, says he can practice on chessboards in his head. He doesn't even need a chessboard. He doesn't own one. If I do that, I can hold onto an image of a chessboard, and then it kind of fades really quickly after a couple of seconds. I cannot hold the pieces in [inaudible 00:45:33] position as I move them around, or even abstract them out. So, the question is--

Russ Roberts: But, I can't even see them all on the board when I'm alive and awake watching it in front of me. It's a very small space. There's only 64 squares. My vision encompasses all of it. And, strangely enough, I can still give away my queen. It's an illuminating shortcoming.

Patrick House: Right. I know the lowest hanging fruit of responses to this, which is like, 'Oh well, Magnus probably has an abstracted, compressed--he probably doesn't see the chess board. He sees, 'Oh, I'm going to play queen's gambit or do a thing.' You know, like, he probably sees it in abstracted and therefore more efficient units of chess play. Like opening, it's compressed.

But, no, no. Yes, it is true that people have tricks to increase the efficiency of their learning. That is not what we're talking about here. What we're talking about is differences in richness and vividness of mental imagery, and how--

Again, you can say, 'Okay. Well, great. Let Magnus be Magnus. Let the couples break up over FaceTime. Let all these things happen.' But, when you're talking about there potentially being a kind of almost diversity, a higher quotient where people are selecting in almost a central casting way--not people that look like the job, but people that think like me--it's an interesting addition to the difficulty of embracing and cultivating kinds of ways of thinking. So, there's a potential for this to be more than just interpersonal relationships, to be more about--

I firmly believe, anecdotally, but I firmly believe, as a scientist, I will undo this opinion if I see the data to the contrary. But, I believe that people with aphantasia are more likely to be programmers. I just ask people now, I do my own kind of non-invasive neuro [inaudible 00:47:36] at cocktail parties now, where I just go around, asking people, like, what it's like on the inside of their heads, whether or not they dream in color, which a quarter of people say they don't know--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I don't know--

Patrick House: Because they don't have visual imagery on the inside of their--you don't know?

Russ Roberts: I have visual imagery in the inside of my head. I can see my wife and children pretty well when I want inside of my head. I don't know if I dream in color. No idea.

Patrick House: How--to me, to help[?] is so hard. And, that doesn't mean you don't remember them, right?

Russ Roberts: Oh, no. I remember them vividly, especially since COVID. Since COVID, my dreams are [inaudible 00:48:14] and very vivid when I wake up.

Patrick House: It's just like, every time, I'm floored by this idea, because to me, it's like a first person video game. To me, it's not distinguishably different than walking around during the daytime.


Russ Roberts: Well, the next time I remember a dream, I'm going to think really quickly about whether it was in color or not. But, part of the reason is I've never thought about it. I can remember dreams. I can remember dreams right now, certain dreams that repeat in my experience, and I can't tell you if they were in color. That's weird, isn't it?

Patrick House: See, that's the thing. Is like, here I am, some guy in LA, talking about consciousness and dreams. But, you're not allowed to do that anymore in neuroscience. Like, yeah, you could be a sleep researcher, but the kind of Viennese[?], in the turn of the 19th-20th century, like, they ruined that for us. We're not allowed to have this conversation. People will turn it off if we're talking about dreams.

But, this is fascinating. It's the only control-condition for consciousness. It is astounding, and does not have to be the case within an individual brain. There's two major epochs of wake and sleep. And, that when we're asleep, despite not moving at all, where it conjures its own version to be fully conscious. Right?

My experience is that, I'm also, again, fully conscious in that state. Which means, if we embrace all of this hermeneutic translation difficulty of using language and these crude Babylonian neuroscience tools that we have right now, one of the best, cleanest things to study is the fact that consciousness can pop into--we have the control condition within ourselves every single night. It's kind of remarkable.

And, just these little simple things like dreaming in color, or when you close your eyes and you mentally imagine something, how far away is it from your eyes in feet? I have asked this--yeah, maybe I can ask you before I seed you with answers.

So, when you close your eyes and you imagine a picture of your wife and kids, how far from your eyes is it, in feet?

Russ Roberts: About a foot.

Patrick House: Where is it? How does it happen?

Russ Roberts: It's about a foot away. But, I think that comes from--

Patrick House: And, does it--

Russ Roberts: I think that comes from looking at photographs of them. I don't know if I'd say that if I didn't have such a vivid interest in photography and so many pictures of my family, that I often see in our digital frame, and thereby, I think in my head. Right? If you said to me, and if I had no pictures of my children and you said, 'What do your children look like when they were younger?', I'm not sure I could find anything. Now I have a very vivid image of all of my children at various ages that I could conjure up whenever I want.

Patrick House: That you think might be memories of pictures?

Russ Roberts: I'm 99% sure it's not my own memories. It's memories of photographs.


Russ Roberts: The other thing, by the way, that your book says, which is startling to me--this is like the dreaming in color--you claim in your book--and I'm saying this like I'm a big skeptic--but you write in your book that, in dreams, the other characters don't talk. Only the dreamer talks. Is this true? I have no idea. If you'd said to me, 'In your dreams, do the other people that you see in your dreams, do they talk?' And, I'd say, 'Oh, I don't know. I never thought about it. I've never noticed.' 'Do you talk?' 'I don't know. I've never noticed.' I have no idea. But, you're telling me that when people wake up and remember their dreams, the only people who talked are the dreamer. Is that true?

Patrick House: So, that's a bit slippery, which is to say, that's me, cheekily in the book, saying that, no matter what's happening, your brain is doing the conjuring of that character, and therefore, only you are doing the speaking.

Russ Roberts: Oh, okay. I mean, literally, if I'm dreaming about an encounter with my dad who has passed away two years ago, he could talk to me, but you're saying that's me anyway. That's what you meant?

Patrick House: You are creating that conversation, both sides of it, despite there being different cadences and different speech patterns and everything.

So, when I was in grad school, I used to make martinis for my guests in my apartment, and, I guess, for myself, when I treated myself to one. And, I would do this thing where I would keep a list. I was bad at making these things, and I wanted to make, like, a scientific protocol and just kind of keep an archive of what I had done. And, I wanted to be a bit experimental with them. So, I made, over the years, this long list, and I would put the ingredients and the method, and then I would have an objective and a subjective column for the rating. And, I would rate it, and I would have everyone who tried one, I said, 'I'll happily make you a martini. My only request is that you rate it, objectively and subjectively, on a scale of one to a hundred when it's over.' And, what I found so interesting was that, most people, 90%--I think 100% actually--of people would give different numbers for objective and subjective.

Russ Roberts: I don't even know what the question means. I'd have been a terrible guest. I would've said, 'What do you mean objective and subjective? I've only got subjective.'

Although, hang on: the only way I can relate to that is, I saw Top Gun: Maverick on the plane a couple of days ago. It's not a good movie, and I enjoyed it immensely. So, is that what you mean?

Patrick House: Yes, actually. So, what I mean is, for example, some people know that they don't like cranberry. They have experienced in their life that everyone else seems to like ingredient X or flavor X, and they just know that they don't. And, so, the martini comes and it's flavor X; they would say, 'Okay. Well, objectively, I'm pretty sure that most people would like this, but I personally don't.' Or that divide the other way, which is what you just said for the movie, which is like, you can enjoy something immensely and allow it to be a bad movie. So, you might give it an objective lower rating than you personally were like, 'You know what? I'm hypoxic. I'm on this plane. We're at 10,000 feet altitude. It's really fun to see Top Gun while on a plane. I'm going to give it a subjective rating higher than I imagine the whole world would.'

Russ Roberts: I'd give it an eight and a half, even though I saw it on my phone. They didn't even have--would you say Top Gun: Maverick is a good airplane movie? Most people would say, 'It's a horrible airplane movie. You've got to see it on the big screen.' Not only am I seeing it on a small screen: they don't have screens. You used your own device and tied to their wifi, and I still loved it. I'm giving it an eight and a half.

Patrick House: Well, that's the thing. To your point about chess boards, how you don't see all the pieces at the same time, when you're staring at a screen, your brain treats it like it's as big as you need it to be. Your brain's very good at kind of expanding experience relevantly.

And, so, on this martini list, I would always give the exact same number for objective and subjective, because, to me, it's like--well, let's unpack what we mean by objective. What we mean by objective is, I mentally model what I believe the world would do. I mentally model, in a theory-of-mind way, what I believe other people like or dislike. But, to the point about it's only you doing the speaking, that mental model of the objective world, and what the preferences of the objective world are, is fundamentally just still happening on the inside of your head. So, it has to be the same answer.


Russ Roberts: So, I want to shift gears, because there's too many good things we're not going to get to. Although--and I don't know if anyone's still listening--I'd be happy to talk with you, Patrick, for another three or four hours if I didn't have to get home for dinner. But, I don't want to miss some of the really cool parts of this book.

So, you say that medieval castles, which have those slits in them for shooting arrows, so that people could hide in there. They could shoot the arrow out, but it'd be really hard for an enemy down below to shoot back through the slit and get you because it requires a very high level of precision: That has nothing to do with the slits. Could you explain that, and explain what we learned about the brain from that? Because I thought that was extremely cool.

Patrick House: Yeah. So, one piece of context is that, these 19 chapters are--just to explain to the listeners--each of these 19 chapters is an attempt to explain Anna's surgery and her answer, back from earlier in this interview, as if you believed in one of the modern theories of consciousness or some of the smattering of a few. And, so, each of the chapters is kind of me--ghostwriting might be a slightly inaccurate term, but kind of ghostwriting, as if I'm collaborating with the person whose idea it is or whose theory it is. Were we to explain Anna's surgery and her answers, how would we do it as best as we could, if you believed in that one way of thinking about the thing?

So, the chapters actually--there's contradictions in them. Like, I'll say something, and then say the opposite somewhere else because people believe different things. To me, I wish to embrace that complexity. People believe different things. So, if you're giving a kind of survey of modern consciousness research, you should reflect the fact that people think different things.

And so, that story comes from Sydney Brenner, Dr. Sydney Brenner, the Nobel Laureate, who is a contemporary of Francis Crick and was one of the, I think, the popularizer of C. elegans, the worm, as a model for neuroscience. So, I think he won--like, he might even have two Nobel Prizes. He at least won one. And, he was a contemporary of Francis Crick, and good friends with him, who, Crick, after a lot of all of his work in genetics, kind of went over to the dark side and started to study consciousness. Right? This tends to happen in kind of twilight era of people's career, because you become concerned with mortality and death, and you start to think, what is life and what is not life?

Russ Roberts: This is like Newton trying to understand the music of the spheres--the noise that the planets made when they rotated on the spheres that they were suspended on. It's a very common phenomenon. It's fascinating, actually. Go ahead.

Patrick House: It is. And, Newton spent the last 20 years of his life trying to solve alchemy. It's like Einstein spent the last 20 years trying to do that unified constant or whatever the thing is, a cosmological constant maybe. You know, people do the wacky stuff at the end of their career. Anyway. It's true. They have tenure. They already have the Nobel Prize. They can pawn it if they need to.

And, so, Sydney Brenner, I think, just got so sick of listening to these people get fascinated by consciousness: He thinks consciousness is not a problem that is definable or worth even thinking about. He's a worm guy. He's an evolution worm- and history-guy. You know, like, he spent his entire career, staring through microscopes at worms, and just thinking, like, 'They probably have it. Who cares? We are just a bunch of worms stitched together.' You know: The thing that we think of as thinking, the thing that we think of as consciousness, it's just a bunch of worms together in our brain kind of moving against each other. It's just a bunch of neurons. It's a collection of neurons, a bag of neurons.

So, that anecdote about, or that kind of history lesson about these castles and these beams--which I'll explain in a second--came from Sydney Brenner. So, I went to interview him. Basically, he was getting old, and he was on oxygen and he decided to kind of retire to the Shangri-La Suite in Singapore, where they just gave him a suite and were like, 'Do whatever you need. We love you.' People had heard of him. He had helped introduce science education into Singapore as it was kind of transitioning into a more modern cosmopolitan place.

Russ Roberts: This is going to be--

Patrick House: And so, he was well-known.

Russ Roberts: This is going to be a movie with a 9, objective and subjective. This guy on oxygen who was a Nobel Prize winner, into worms, who had a huge impact on Singapore, is sitting in the suite at Shangri-La. So, go ahead. So, you go to interview him.

Patrick House: Yeah. So, I'm there for a couple of days, and we just talk about consciousness and brains. It was so remarkable because--you know, he's in a wheelchair on oxygen, and he would still, he would spend every single morning trying to discover new things about genomes. Like, he would sit there and compare different aquatic genomes. He wasn't just lazing about. He didn't have a margarita and stare at the sunset. When he grew up, the idea that you could have a magical box where you could type into it--think about--he was a student in the 1940s and 1950s; and now here he is, he can type in the name of an organism and it spits out its genome. When he was studying with Crick back at Cambridge, there was no such thing as this, right?

So, he is the equivalent of--like, he was ecstatic, every single time he would look at the Internet, because he did not take it for granted at all. And, he's like, 'Oh my God. There's so much still to be discovered.' And, I can literally, like, troll for a genome of any creature and organism I want on the entire planet. That gave him such joy that he spent the last few days, I think, of his life, just trolling through genomes.

So, he told the story about how he thinks consciousness, and he thinks, when we try to give a purpose to a modern brain, like a human brain, and we say, 'Oh, this is for this reason. This region of the brain is for this,' his idea is that we are caught in a kind of cognitive bias. Because if you, for example, look at the way that castles were built, you need to understand that they did not have kind of scaffolding and modern construction equipment or design or anything: that they would build these wooden scaffolds, and then they would have to layer the castle bricks on top of it. And, that when construction was done, they had to remove the wooden planks. And, that when we look and see these arrow holes to shoot arrows out of, those were actually just where the planks were. And, they had to remove them, and then they didn't know how to fill in the hole.

So, you end up with all these holes, which we, from hundreds of years, our vantage, our expert vantage, hundreds of years later, are, like, 'Oh, look at that very intentional, purposeful hole that they must use for function.' And, sure, you can shoot arrows out of it. Yes, it got co-opted. Yes, it's now co-opted to be functional and maybe even useful. And, it looks like it was designed that way. But, if you go back and look at the historical origin of it, it is not for the reason or purpose you think.

And so, he applies that to all of genes, all of biology: that, consciousness is not what we think. Consciousness is like those little arrow holes. He thought my whole enterprise was bunk. He was like, 'You don't even have a definition.' He's very much a believer in kind of randomness and chance, and that the human capacity to explain is one of our biggest weaknesses actually. Our need to explain is one of our biggest weaknesses.

Russ Roberts: And yet, he devoted his whole life to trying to understand stuff. So, well.

Patrick House: But, as a historian with as little interpretation as possible.

Russ Roberts: I hear you.

Patrick House: With as little assumption as possible, so I think that was his--


Russ Roberts: So, let me ask you a question I asked Alan Lightman, and that I should have asked Agnes Callard a few weeks ago when I interviewed her. That episode hasn't aired yet, but it will by the time this episode airs. We were talking about, I would say, both of those interviews at some point, futility. So: The world is going to come to an end. The sun will go out. If we go to other solar systems, other galaxies, eventually the universe will slowly lose its heat. And, I always put a footnote: This is for people who don't believe in God, don't have a mystical perspective on life; it's a materialistic view. And, of course, it could be true.

And, both Lightman and Callard are interested in life's meaning. And, so, Agnes was making the case for why, how we find meaning in being part of--in her case--the enterprise of discovery, the enterprise of exploration. And, that, even though she may end up not having any ancestors 10,000 years from now, she is part of a great chain of human effort to understand ourselves. And, that gives her life meaning, as I think would be fair to say.

And, my question is: Why do we care? This is what I should have asked her. I did ask Alan Lightman. Alan Lightman, his answer was basically: It's just a byproduct of our consciousness. There's no reason that we care. It's just something that came along for the ride. Which is an answer a materialist, or, I think, Dr. Brenner, Professor Brenner, would also give.

So, the fact that you're going to die, the fact that life is finite, the fact that the human species might be finite, the fact that life on earth might be finite, why should that trouble a human being? Shouldn't a human being just enjoy life while it's alive? Well, here she is alive. Why do you care that there's meaning to it? Why would you care that there's purpose?

We're just animals, in this view of the world. We're just material creatures, the product of evolution--as you point out a number of times in different chapters. We're just trying to keep from cooling off, which is what death is. Death is when our temperature just goes down so far we're gone. It's over, and our relentless effort to stay warm through movement, food, and activity is eventually futile. It's over.

So, we all know that, most of us. It's reality, unless you're religious. But, if you're a materialist, that's it. So, why shouldn't you just enjoy it? Why would you care about virtue? Why would you care about ethics? Why would you care about meaning and purpose?

And I think--and I don't want to be unfair to Alan Lightman who I have great respect for--but I think his answer was basically, 'Eh, it's just a piece of your software you get stuck with somewhere along the way.' What are your thoughts on that?

Patrick House: Um. Back with the story with Anna, I skipped over this moment, or I said something very definitively, and I think, really, that phrase, that sentence is the heart of the matter, which is, said: The brain is uncomfortable saying I don't know. Right? The surgeon is stimulating her brain with an electrode [inaudible 01:08:22] her laugh, and they're asking her why. And, every single time, she gives a reason. Confabulated or not, real or not, the interesting thing--one of the interesting things--there to me is that the brain never says, 'I don't know.'

When I ask myself, why do I like--I could come up with a list of the things that I do, the things that I like for some reason--the things that make me me, the things that people who are in my social circle and my friends know me as the person who likes doing X or Y or Z; and I say, why, we just don't say, 'I don't know.' We always give story, structure, and purpose to something.

And, if I reduce it down to the brain being a learning machine, I think I have a very simple explanation. Or, I could imagine a very simple explanation, which is that: When you're tuning--like, these new modern AI [artificial intelligence] systems, the way that they learn, they kind of tune different variables and weights, and they just keep learning and learning and learning until they've got this kind of complex, highly-tuned system of variables. It's like a long if-statement, basically. And, the thing that those AI need more than anything is outcome.

When you don't--let's say that they are trained on chess or Go [the game of Go]--they need to know that a given move is for a reason down the line, or else, statistically, it's meaningless. It's divided by infinity. It means nothing, if they don't have outcome, if you're not trained on success, if you're not trained on something.

So, one possible explanation is just simply that, 'I don't know' is not a useful answer for learning, ever.

So, confronted with a mysterious experience, confronted with something inexplainable that either happens to you or you hear about, the least comfortable answer is, 'Actually, I don't know.' Because, you can't learn from that. You don't know--at the very least, if you start to believe, you experience something--let's say you're proto-caveman, you're experiencing a ball lightning or a storm, and the question is, 'Why did that storm happen?' And, if you just say, 'I don't know,' there's no theory to then disprove with later inquiry.

What you want is some semblance of an answer. For example, 'Oh, maybe there's a higher being, higher force.' And, then, there are times you can begin to unpack, 'Oh, actually, now I have evidence against that, or for that.' But, if you just keep saying, 'I don't know,' then you have nothing to compare against.

When you're learning, you're trying to evolve and [inaudible 01:11:20] prove and disprove. You need an underlying theory to work against. You need a story to begin with. The brain is terrified of the absence of story.

So, my guess is that, the reason we have so many non-physicalist, non-reductionist explanations for things is that, we don't know how the world works down on every level. But, the brain abhors a story vacuum and will always give a reason, in the same way Anna always gave a reason for why she laughed. She never said, 'I don't know.'

So, when you hear a door creak--you're alone in your large house, and a window closes or a door creaks up on the second floor--it's probably, like, because of temperature gradients and air currents, and some pressure has changed causing the door to slam, to equilibriate. That's the real reason. But, the way your brain interprets it is, 'Oh, maybe someone's there,' or, 'There's a ghost,' or there's something that--it gives the story. It gives a plausible, confabulated story.

And, you can imagine just expanding that at scale, up and up and up, to get many religions or kinds of thinking or magical thinking, or, I live in LA, you get astrological thinking. You get all kinds of interpretations of cause and effect, and interpretations of meaning, and interpretations of story.

So, I think fundamentally, these possibly come from the fact that we're a learning machine--the brain is a learning machine--and that it doesn't learn on 'I don't know.' It would rather be wrong than say, 'I don't know.'


Russ Roberts: But that doesn't explain why I can't just enjoy life. And, many people can, by the way--many people can, I think. I have a colleague who likes to wonder whether the unexamined life is not worth living. It's sort of a credo for the philosopher. But, many people have unexamined lives and are quite satisfied, quite pleasantly surprised. And, I think, for many of us, we can't get there from here. For whatever reason--and I would not begin to give one because it's what forces you to be agnostic about your reasons--but, many of us don't like the idea that we're no different than an animal that seeks pleasure and avoids pain. And, we want to have a higher purpose. We want to matter. And, it's weird. Why should we want to matter? Just have a good time. Life is short. Enjoy yourself. I find that conclusion--

Patrick House: But, we always matter for a story. We always matter for something else.

You know, death is the end of the story. Death is the--that's what, to me, is so terrifying about it. And, I think to the brain [inaudible 01:14:22] is it can't--death is the end of its ability to give confabulated reasons for things.

Russ Roberts: So, and this is why death is terrifying? Because I can't tell myself stories anymore, right? That's an interesting argument.

Patrick House: I think so, yeah.

Russ Roberts: That's a very interesting argument.

Patrick House: And, it requires that the brain's most--its strongest driving force is to generate and tell stories, to itself and to others, etc. And so, I think that's what's so existentially terrifying--the void that came before and after is just like, there's no more story.

Russ Roberts: But, that suggests, by the way, it seems to me, that people who are not good storytellers, who don't live--just like there are people who have better visual images inside their brain and people who don't, there are also people who are better at confabulating and those who aren't. The people who can tell really great stories should be more terrified of death and be less happy. And, the happiest people are those who are not afraid of death because they don't tell good stories, and they're not afraid of dying because the end of the storytelling--not so important for them. What do you think?

Patrick House: There's this funny question, Philosophy 101: Would you live forever? And, I know people who are so uncomfortable in their modern life and body and self, that they think about ending their own life decently. Highly successful people, they contemplate this often because it just seems like a perpetual pain. Yet still, if given the opportunity to live forever, they would. And, they don't even care if it's as a head in a jar with just a Twitter feed piped in. Like, they just want to know.

And, this seems contradictory. But, I think there's something to our earlier point and your point specifically about this kind of default mode of forgiveness: you kind of have to forgive that contradiction and maybe actually start from the premise that it's not a contradiction. So, that's not hypocritical. So, what is the actual difference? How could you both want to live forever and end your own life?

Russ Roberts: Or be miserable--just to make it easier. It's like the army food: The food's horrible, and the portions are too small. That seems to be the conclusion here.

Patrick House: Right. It is. And, I think it's because: even the sad story is a story.

Russ Roberts: I like that.

Patrick House: And--

Russ Roberts: And, we like sad stories. That, we don't just want comedy; we like drama and tragedy.

Patrick House: Absolutely.

Russ Roberts: Not sure why.

Patrick House: Just all of it.


Russ Roberts: I want to close with two things I don't want to miss. I just want to say, by the way, that this book--often, when I interview an author, my goal is to capture the essence of the book, so that the reader can get the main ideas, and ideally, some extensions that emerge from the conversation with the author. And, we've gone way far field here--which I've enjoyed immensely--but I want to say that, if you have any interest in these kind of topics, this book is a beautiful book. It's a fascinating book, but it's also a beautiful book. The style and tone of the writing is full of wonder about the human experience and what it's like to be a human. So, I would encourage anyone who is interested in these kind of questions to read Patrick's book because it is not like most of the others.

And, it's not just because he doesn't have an ax to grind. He has 19 axes to grind. More than that, you grind them very beautifully. So, I just want to make sure that I said that. I'm sorry I said it so late in the interview when we might have lost some listeners, but a few people are still listening.

There's a remarkable story you tell that gets to something I've been thinking a lot about, which is a soldier, I think it's in Iraq, who is driving someone on a relatively deserted road, and just has a sort of what appears to be a panic attack and says, 'I don't like this,' and turns around. Just talk about what happened there, and his ex post explanation, and what you learn about that for, what you call, intuition.

Patrick House: Yeah. So, I don't have axes to grind per se, but I do have pet peeves. One of them being, 'Oh, there's the reptile brain'--of course, it's not a reptile brain unless you eat insects as a kid. You just never have that. You're 100% a human brain, always. We've co-opted a bunch of genes from a bunch of different organisms. We are a panoply of all of life together in one thing. But, once you're a human, you're a human. There's no reptile brain. We use 100% of our brain always, that silliness about 10%, or that movie Lucy with Scarlett Johansson, where she ascends--there's, like, a card throughout the movie where it's the amount of percent of her brain she's using, and she slowly gets to a hundred percent and can bend all of space and time around her.

And, another pet peeve I have is, 'Trust your gut.' Do not trust your gut, ever, unless you, like, need a sack of highly acidic fluid to dissolve something very quickly. Like, that's what it does.

What you're trusting is your cerebellum, which is hanging off the back bottom part of your brain, which contains probably two-thirds of the total number of neurons you have. These estimates are kind of dynamic and changing, but there seem to be about--if we have, let's say, 80 to 90 billion neurons, the cerebellum is about 50--40 to 50. So, it's a huge chunk of our brain, with respect if you're just looking at individual counts.

And, that part of our brain is basically--I think a nice way of describing it is: it's paying attention to everything that has ever happened to us. And, it's encoding it in a way that we don't have access to, but it does. And, we take for granted that ability to--we do something. Let's say we play chess for the first time ever. You play tennis for the first time ever. Tetris for the first time ever. The next day, we're better at it. We're slightly better at that thing. We're slightly better at language, the more we do it. When we move to a new city, the next day, Day Two, we're slightly better at understanding and knowing the area and terrain.

It doesn't have to be that case. That is a remarkable feat of intelligence and capacity. And, it's the cerebellum that's doing much of that kind of listening and watching and learning from everything you have ever done. And so, you're not trusting your gut, ever. You're trusting your cerebellum. That's where intuition comes from.

And so, this story was told to me by the passenger of the car. So, he was in the intelligence community. He was a high-ranking member of the intelligence community, the U.S. intelligence community. He was in Iraq. And, he was being driven around by a Navy Seal in a Humvee between two of the U.S. bases. I think this was around 2008 or so. And, the driver was, I think, a Navy Seal, kid, 20--adult but kid with respect to how this guy described the story. And, he said, they're driving in an armored Humvee as fast as they can. And, the guy slams on the brake with no warning, makes a U-turn and drives back to the base they came from. Visibly shaken: something tipped him off. [More to come, 1:22:11]

And, the person I'm interviewing, the IC--Intelligence Community--member says, 'Why did you do that?' And, the guy's, like, 'I don't know.'

That moment's interesting. Right? He allowed himself to say, 'I don't know.' I love that. I love when people will admit that they don't know. And, in a situation like that, it's even more fascinating because that kind you want to both train into people in various different vocations. And then also, we want to understand where that's coming from. Like, on a methodological level, you almost want to be able to give people more--how do you give people more situational awareness? How do you train into someone that kind of intuition?

So, what he had done was trust his cerebellum, right? And he turned around.

And, hours later, the IC guy asks, 'Okay. It's been a few hours. Why did you turn around? I need you to tell me.' And, the driver says that he drives that road every single day. And, he noticed that there were no kids playing soccer on the side of the road. And, some part of his brain thought that was wrong. Didn't know why. And, now, with a little bit of retrospective ability [inaudible 01:23:40], he had a few hours now, they're back at the original, he said, 'You know what? Maybe they're not playing on the side of the road because something's up, and the moms know, and there's a community knowledge that something is up.'

It's kind of like, maybe in Vietnam, when you hear the stories of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], not for sounds, but for silence. Because all the creatures in the forest know something's up. When a raid is about to happen, they get silent. So, people get scared and are traumatized by the sound of silence, not the sound of machine guns or people.

Similarly, I think this guy had an observational response to there being no children playing on the side of the road, where he was, like, 'Something's wrong. I don't know what it is, but something's wrong.'

There's this other story of a race car driver who [inaudible 01:24:32] bend in the road, a very sharp turn. And, if you watch the video of the professional race car driver, he--and there's a horrific accident right around the bend, but it was blind to the driver. No driver should have reasonably, at 250 miles an hour, been able to know that there was a huge accident here.

And, the guy, if you watch the video, stops before he's even able to see the accident. And, people asked him later, 'How did you do that? Did you have knowledge, forewarning? Did you know this crash was going to happen?' And, his answer was, 'When I drive, the audience members in the crowd are always looking at me. When I was approaching that bend, I noticed that every face was turned to look on the other side, at the accident.' And he is, like, 'I don't know what that means, but all I know is they're not looking at me, and they usually do, so I'm going to stop. Something's wrong. All these people, they're looking at an accident--or they are looking at something. So I'm just going to stop.'

So, in both of these cases, what I find so interesting is that, these were not explicit rules that were trained. This driver, he's a military man, he's a Special Forces, he's very, very highly trained, they did not say ever, explicitly, in, like, a rule-based way, 'If kids not playing off side of road, then turn around.' Right? 'Then danger.' But, the brain picks up on these things. And, the only way the brain can pick up on these things is if it has paid attention to everything that has ever happened before. Notice in each of those cases, the description is, 'Every time I drive this road, this is what's there. Every time I drive this race car, the people in the stands are looking at me. That's what they're here for.' And, so, the brain is noticing these distinctions.

And, to me, what's so beautiful about that is that, the conscious explanation comes later. And so, when we're talking about consciousness--what is consciousness, where is intelligence or thought or intuition in the brain--it's so interesting that what's happening is, consciousness kind of picks up the debris of behavior--of quick, intuitive, rapid behavior--and then tells a story about it. And, to me, the heart of my book, what I hope people respond and come away from Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness with is this idea of: 'Who is the storyteller? What story are they telling? What genre is it?' And, 'Can we trust it?' And, I think we mostly can, but it's fascinating to ask when we can't.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Patrick House, who has a really interesting brain, and it's been a privilege to share a part of it through reading his book and talking to him during this conversation.

Patrick, thanks for being a part of EconTalk.

Patrick House: Thank you. This was fascinating. Thank you.

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