Consciousness: Pushing the boundaries of science and pseudoscience

I attended a conference in La Jolla last week with the ambitious title, “The Science of Consciousness”. As it brought together neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, physicists (like Roger Penrose), mathematicians, linguists (like Noam Chomsky), and many others, I looked forward to a variety of perspectives, including those outside the mainstream, but I got more than I bargained for. It turns out that it also included people more involved in various kinds of spirituality, wellness, meditation, and…interesting artistic interpretations.

(Image by Robert Fludd, 1619, Wikimedia Commons.)

Instead of shedding light on something as perplexing and seemingly impenetrable as consciousness, which people have been trying to understand for millennia, these other approaches threaten to undermine the whole enterprise. I worry that some of the conference could be better characterized as “The Pseudoscience of Consciousness.” And the distinction between science and pseudoscience never seemed more blurred.

But what do I know. Science hasn’t really given us that much of an understanding of the murky concept. What is consciousness and do only humans have it? What about babies and the elderly and people with debilitating mental illnesses? Exactly what parts of the brain are involved (just the frontal cortex? microtubules in neurons everywhere?) and how did it appear in evolution?

Science is only getting us so far, and consciousness is a fundamental conundrum of the human condition, so why not consider other avenues toward probing it? But some people aren’t doing that argument any favors. There’s people like Deepak Chopra (who was at the conference) who add the word “quantum” to their speculative if not fanciful ideas to try to make them profound or something. That’s B.S. (And anyway, the interpretation of the quantum behavior of particles and waves remains disputed and poorly understood since their discovery some 90 years ago, so that’s not the best reference to make!)

I’m glad people continue to speculate and investigate different facets of consciousness, such as how we’re conscious about our perceptions of language and conversation, music, making and retrieving memories, etc. Some scientists are also studying the kinds of neuronal activity that are dampened by anesthetics and enhanced by psychoactive drugs, which sounds weird, but it might illuminate, just a bit, what’s going on in our parts of our complex brains.

I’m also glad that people aren’t limiting this endeavor science. After all, poets, philosophers, musicians can make insights no one else has thought of before, and we need to listen to them. But when there’s the risk of pseudoscience being passed off as science and gaining legitimacy at the expense of it, then we have a problem.

Maybe this sort of thing is inevitable when you’re pushing the frontiers of something unknown while answers remain illusive. For example, think of interstellar space exploration, which also naturally captivates the imagination of a wide range of people. At times the consciousness conference reminds me of parts of the “Finding Earth 2.0” conference organized by 100-Year Starship that I went to back in 2015. While some impressive people like Jill Tarter and Mae Jameson focused on space travel technology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), other people worked on things like “astrosociology.” I was expecting people to talk about what it might be like for a handful of people to be stuck in an enclosed spaceship for years or a slightly larger planetary colony for decades. Those are important and tractable questions—and scientists at NASA and elsewhere are studying them right now. But instead a handful of people spoke about giant ships at least a century in the future, like it was Battlestar Galactica or the starship Enterprise or something. Yes, let’s think about what things might be like in the 23rd century, but all that’s premature unless we figure out how to get there first.

New freelance writings: forensic science reform, planet impacts, earthquake forecasting

Check out my latest articles and writings this past month, for Undark, Nature, New Scientist, and Now.Space. As always, thanks go to my editors. If you read just one, I recommend the Undark piece, which I’m particularly proud of and took a lot of work to write and report on.


Bite Marks and Bullet Holes

The Attorney General ended the National Commission on Forensic Science, suppressing an opportunity for reducing convictions based on faulty evidence.

Forensic scientists working in the crime laboratory located in Ridgepoint House. (Source: West Midlands Police – Forensic Science Lab)

Keith Harward spent more than three decades in prison on the presumed strength of forensic dentistry. No fewer than six forensic dentists testified that his teeth matched a bite mark on a 1982 victim of rape and murder. But in April of last year, after serving more than 33 years in a Virginia penitentiary, new DNA evidence prompted the state Supreme Court to make official what Harward knew all along: He was innocent, and the teeth mark analysis was unequivocally, tragically wrong.

“Bite mark evidence is what the whole case hinged on and ultimately had me convicted,” Harward said. “But,” he added, “this stuff is just guesswork.”

Today, many forensic scientists would agree — and they’d say the same, or nearly so, about a menagerie of other techniques that are used to convict people of crimes, from handwriting analysis to tire track comparisons. And while some techniques fare better than others, everything short of DNA analysis has been shown to be widely variable in reliability, with much hinging on forensic practitioners with widely varying approaches and expertise.

[Read the entire story in Undark, published on 2 June.]

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Prison takes away what we need for a healthy life

As I was reporting on my Newsweek on the psychological and neurological effects of solitary confinement, I came to a realization. Prison in general, and solitary confinement in particular, take away the things we need to have a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

It should come as no surprise then that people who spend most of their lives in prison don’t live as long as the general population. With long prison sentences applied to a wide range of crimes, there’s more and more old people in federal and state prison in the US, and they lack the care and attention they need. Unfortunately, many people assume that anyone in prison is not worth any sympathy. That doesn’t make sense to me. (Plus, as I wrote in a new piece in Undark, some people in prison are innocent but were convicted based on flawed forensics or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

Anyway, I learned quite a bit from my reporting, especially my conversations with Brie Williams, director of the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Project in San Francisco and an expert on geriatrics at UCSF. In order to maintain our health as we age, we need both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, and we need meaningful social interactions. According to Williams, loneliness in older adults is associated with increased mortality, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

But people in prison are in extended isolation, with restricted movement and enhanced loneliness. Prisoners hardly get any exercise, and they have very few chances of keeping their minds limber. And their social interactions with people are extremely limited, the opposite of the way you might interact with a close friend or family member. In addition to people with decades-long sentences, nearly one in five prisoners is put in solitary confinement often for long stretches. Some people break down when they hear that metal door clang shut, while others find a way to adapt. But in the end, it’s a noxious environment that people are “exposed” to, as Williams puts it, and it takes a long time for people to recover, if given the chance.

So I feel like I’ve learned something, both for myself and for others. First, it’s important to try to keep up with regular exercise, activities that exercise my mind, and keep up with friends and my social life. Second, let’s remember that our elders need help to have those things too, and that’s what we’re here for. When we’re older, we’d appreciate that, too.