Monday, June 24, 2024

Being You by Anil Seth - brilliant introduction to contemporary neuroscience

I’ve seen a lot of ‘Neuroscience’ talks at learning conferences, and am a bit weary of the old-school serotonin-dopamine story, strong conclusions and recommendations based what often seems to be correlation not causation (beware of slides with scans) and claims about neuroscience that are often cognitive science. I’ve also found a lack of real knowledge about the explosion in computational, cognitive and contemporary neuroscience in relation to new theorists and theory, the Connectionists, such as Daniel Dennett, Nick Chater, Karl Friston, Josh Tenenbaum, Andy Clark and Anil Seth.

Copernican inversion 

By far the best introductory book on this new movement in neuroscience, what I call the ‘Connectionists’, is Being You by Anil Seth. It is readable, explains some difficult, dense and opaque concepts in plain English, is comprehensive and all about what Seth calls a ‘Copernican inversion’ in neuroscience.

Starting with a stunning reflection on the complete dissolution of consciousness during general anaesthetics, he outlines the philosophical backdrop of idealism, dualism, panpsychism, transcendental realism, physicalism, functionalism and, what I really liked, the more obscure mysterianism (often ignored).

He’s also clear on the fields that prefigure and inform this new movement; NCC (Neural Correlates of Consciousness) and IIT (Integrated Information Theory). After a fascinating discussion of his LSD experiences, along with an explanation for their weirdness, he shows that the brain is a highly integrated entity, embodied and embedded in its environment.

Controlled Hallucination 

His Copernican Revolution in brain theory, that consciousness is ‘Controlled Hallucination’, builds on Plato, Kant, then Helmholtz’s idea of ‘perception as inference’. The brain is constantly making predictions, and sensory information provides data that we try to match against our existing models in a continual process of error minimalisation. This Copernican Inversion leaves the world as it is but sees the brain as an active, creative inferencing machine, not a passive receiver of sensory data. 

There is the usual, but informative notion that colour is in the hallucination not the real world and a series of illusions that prove active, predictive processing and active attention including the famous invisible Gorilla video experiment. 

He then covers most of the theories and concepts in this new area of neuroscience informed by the computational theory of the mind; abductive reasoning, generative modelling, Bayesian inference (particularly good), prediction error minimalization, free energy principle (also brilliantly explained), all under the unifying idea of a controlled hallucination as the explanation for consciousness.


There are some really well written asides in the book, one on art expanding on Riegel and Gombridge’s idea of the ‘Beholder’s Share’, where artists, such as the impressionists and cubists demand active interpretation by the viewer, confirming the perceptual inference he presents as his theory of perception and consciousness. Art surfaces this phenomenon. Another is a series of fascinating experiments on time, showing that it is related to perception and not an inner clock.


The section on AI is measured. He separates intelligence from consciousness (rightly) as he is suspicious of functionalism, the basis for much of this theorising and is sceptical about runaway conscious AI, as an overextension. However the book was published in 2018 and AI has progressed faster on the intelligence scale than the book suggests. At the end of the section he introduces 'cerebral organoids', anticipating Geoffrey Hinton's Mortal Computer.


The only weak part of the book is his treatment of the ‘Self’. It is less substantial, not really dealing with the rich work of those who have looked at personal identity in detail, philosophically and psychologically. I was also surprised that he doesn’t mention Andy Clark, another ex-Sussex University theorist in the field, especially as he is closely associated with David Chalmers, who rightly gets lots of plaudits in the book. 

However, the fact that Anil lives in my home town Brighton is a plus! It covers a lot of the bases in the field and interleaves the hard stuff with more digestible introductions. A really fascinating and brilliant read.


If you are generally interested in the theorists in this new field, John Helmer and I did a podcast on the Connectionists in the Netherlands, in front of a live audience. It was fun and covers many of the ideas presented in this book.

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