Talk about your book, Friday's Footprint: How Society Shapes the Human Mind
I think we might be at the beginning of a paradigm shift, away from understanding the mind and the brain as a sort of isolated, unto itself entity, and understanding that most interesting -- what we call mental phenomena -- really arise from social processes. And so we'll be looking to see what the social processing functions of the brain are, and then also how that leads to collective social processes that then circle back and affect the brain.
How does brain physiology fit into this view?
I think our personal experience arises from the material building blocks. The proteins, the neurons, how they fire together in patterns and all of that, but most important from the complex ways that these patterns are organized, and those have a reality of their own. And I think it is really that, and for example, how it is that you feel yourself to be a person. You know, as I was talking about earlier, sort of a subjective locus of experience. That's built up from these lower level building blocks, but its important reality is on a higher level, which is kind of the patterns of complexity.
Who influenced your ideas about society and the brain?
I most admire the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the reason is that he penetrated through a lot of the confusions that beset us in our analytical thinking and said we have to look at the language that we use. We have to look at our social forms of life and our linguistic forms, and that if we don't look at those, we're going to be confused. And so he brought us back to the level of our everyday social practices, and he's one of my big heroes.
Are animals conscious?
When we look in the brains of animals that we're pretty sure are conscious, we see a certain organization. And it's very similar to the organization in a monkey or a cat or a dog. So the answer to your question is I'm reasonably confident that mammals are conscious, any mammal. And I think it's part of being a mammal. And it's mostly because I think being conscious helps you learn things faster. Consciousness helps you acquire learning that you either wouldn't get or wouldn't get as quickly or wouldn't get as well, but at the moment I mostly think, it's mammals. I don't believe spiders are conscious, for example. They don't learn a heck of a lot, you know. They can do crazy, wonderful things, but I don't think they learn much.
You're a nuts and bolts scientist. You like to knock out a neuron, then see what's stopped working, but you're also a theoretician. That's unusual.
Probably, from a scientific point of view. The person I continue to collaborate with is Francis Crick, one of the few people I know that sort of -- that one might call "genius." The thing I admire most is the fact that he's willing to question everything that he's said, everything he's done, everything we've talked in Britain about over the last 15 years. He has this ability to have very little emotional investment in his own ideas. They're just another source of ideas, but they could also be rejected as much as anybody else's idea could be rejected. In that sense, he's totally fearless. And of course, his amazing ability to combine, to have flashes of insights that I could be looking at, but then he combines something. He brings two elements together that I never thought about and once he says it, I say to myself, well, that's obvious.
What are you finding out about animals and consciousness these days?
A development that's less noticed in the general public is the ability to differentiate hundreds of individual neurons in a behaving animal, like in a monkey. So while the monkey does a particular task -- looks at, for example, a colorful painting -- I can now discriminate between the activity of individual neurons. And that, more than anything else, has helped us and will continue to help us decipher the brain. We really need to look at the individual elements.