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Consciousness as Controlled and Controlling Hallucination

My review of Anil Seth's "Being You."

Key points

  • Conscious perception of the external world is a hallucination constrained by the real world.
  • Perception of internal states such as emotions, selfhood, and free will is a type of hallucination as well.
  • Although consciousness is a form of hallucination, it nonetheless supports our survival and flourishing.

Anil Seth's Being You is an outstanding book. It explores one of the most difficult and perplexing topics, consciousness, in an accessible way without sacrificing scientific rigor. Amazingly, each chapter is better than the previous chapter, leading the reader to a crescendo by the end of the book.

Seth's Initial Insight About Consciousness Has a Long History

A key insight from the book (although not a new discovery) is that the mind models the external environment by predicting what kind perceptual experience is most likely to occur next, given prior experiences, in a Bayesian fashion. The result is our familiar subjective world of objects that have three-dimensional shape, size, color, relative position, movement, and so forth.

But this constructed experience is not a representation of the world "as it actually is," but, rather, a model that is good enough to allow us to navigate the environment and do the things that biological beings must do to survive and reproduce. Such a model is both a "controlled hallucination" in that it is an imaginary representation that is controlled or constrained by reality-as-it-is (prediction failures demand a re-imagining, so the hallucination cannot go wildly in any direction), and a "controlling hallucination" in that the hallucination is the basis for our decisions, controlling our behavior.

This is how I taught my students about perception when we covered that unit in introductory psychology. I learned this viewpoint from Walter B. Weimer and his associates when I was an undergraduate at Penn State. Weimer talked of "motor metatheories of the mind" that refuse to separate perception from action. On this view, we do not passively perceive properties of the world and then decide how to act. Rather, every perception is directly tield to what we can act upon, what J. J. Gibson called "environmental affordances." Seth did not mention Weimer but did mention his colleague Gibson and his concept of affordances.

Connections to "Ancient Wisdom" Traditions

My most frequently read blog post for Psychology Today was a piece on "Toltec wisdom" as communicated in books my don Miguel Ruiz and his family. The focus of that post was on Ruiz's methods for improving psychological well-being. But Ruiz also presents a view of reality that looks extremely similar to Anil Seth's discussion of consciousness. Ruiz and his sons use the word "dream" instead of "hallucination," but I believe that these self-described Toltec shamans are presenting precisely the same view as Seth.

There are also connections between Seth's ideas an Buddhism. More on that below in the section on The Self.

From the Perception of External Reality to Internal Reality

A more novel idea for me was to extend the concept of perception of external reality as controlled hallucination to the perception of one's internal reality—our inner sensations and feelings. If perceptions of external reality are controlled hallucinations, surely conscious perception of our own inner states works exactly the same way. Lisa Feldman Barrett has presented a compelling argument that emotions are constructed emotions, and Anil Seth mentions her work.

The Self as Hallucination

The next logical extension of consciousness-as-hallucination is to the self. Our sense of selfhood is just that: a sensing of some internal state of being. But this internal sensing, like all forms of internal sensing, is an imaginative construction, not a direct perception of some objective reality. Buddhists concluded long ago that the self is an illusion. Seth has provided a scientific way of demonstrating this point.

A related topic to selfhood is free will. If the self is an illusion and free will is allegedly a capacity of the self, then what we think is free will is not what most people think it is. Seth's treatment of this topic is fascinating and revelatory.

What About Computers and Robots?

Seth's book ends with a chapter on AI and machine consciousness. This topic is not as interesting to me, personally, as consciousness in biological creatures, but I thought he handled that topic nicely as well. All in all, this book was a very satisfying read and well worth your time.