Has Consciousness Lost Its Mind?

Tom Bartlett:

Start with Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, and a robot that loves you no matter what. Add a knighted British physicist, a renowned French neuroscientist, and a prominent Australian philosopher/occasional blues singer. Toss in a bunch of psychologists, mathematicians, anesthesiologists, artists, meditators, a computer programmer or two, and several busloads of amateur theorists waving self-published manuscripts and touting grand unified solutions. Send them all to a swanky resort in the desert for a week, supply them with lots of free coffee and beer, and ask them to unpack a riddle so confounding that it’s unclear how to make progress or where you’d even begin.

Then just, like, see what happens.

The cover of the program for the Science of Consciousness conference, held recently in Tucson, shows a human brain getting sucked into (or perhaps rising from?) a black hole. That seems about right: After a week of listening to eye-crossingly detailed descriptions of teeny-tiny cell structures known as microtubules, along with a lecture about building a soundproof booth in order to chat with the whispery spirit world, you too would feel as if your neurons had been siphoned from your skull and launched deep into space.

Oh, by the way, attendees could also take a gong bath, during which you’re bathed in the musical vibrations of a gong being struck. Or lie down in a curiously unsupervised and unstable-looking sensory-deprivation chamber. Or take a black-light yoga class, which involves — as the name suggests — doing yoga in a room illuminated by black light accompanied by a DJ pumping out frenetic techno beats. Meanwhile, a company offered demos of a brain-stimulation device that had to be inserted way too far up one nostril. And an enthusiastic fellow demonstrated his Spontaneous Postural Alignment technique, in which a misaligned subject’s elbow is tapped with a gold medallion while the healer intones, “boy-yoi-yoing.”