Alan Lightman talked to neuroscientist Robert Desimone about attention, memory, and life’s big questions:
I asked Desimone about the strange experience of consciousness, to me the most profound and troubling aspect of human existence. How does a gooey mass of blood, bones, and gelatinous tissue become a sentient being? How does it become aware of itself as a thing separate from its surroundings? How does it develop a self, an ego, an “I”? Without hesitation, Desimone replied that the mystery of consciousness was overrated. “As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of ‘What is consciousness?’ will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction,” he said. As Desimone sees it, consciousness is just a vague word for the mental experience of attending, which we are slowly dissecting in terms of the electrical and chemical activity of individual neurons. As an analogy, he said, consider a careering automobile. A person might ask: Where inside that thing is its motion? But the viewer would no longer ask that question after he understood the engine of the car, the manner in which gasoline is ignited by spark plugs, the movement of piston and crankshaft.
I am a scientist and a materialist myself, but I left Desimone’s office feeling bereft. Although I cannot say exactly why, I do not want my thoughts, my emotions, and my sense of self reduced to the electrical tinglings of neurons.
I prefer that at least some parts of my being remain in the shadows of mystery. I think of a comment by Einstein: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”