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It's Make Your Mind Up Time: how much of our world is a figment of our imagination?

'Pencil Vs Camera - 30' by artist Ben Haine

“It’s make your mind up time” was one of the main events in the recent Brighton Science Festival. In a tour de force of consciousness, the day saw a series of 15-minute lectures detailing how we experience the world, or rather how the world we experience is a figment of our imagination. Speakers consisted of experts from Sussex’s own Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, as well as other notable brain researchers.

Dr. Sam Hutton kicked off proceedings with an insightful presentation showing the anatomical limitations of our visual system, and the immense ability of our brain to construct our visual scenes based on internal and external goals.

Steve Mould highlighted this point more saliently. The resident science expert for Blue Peter performed an energetic presentation of how we see, or rather construct colour. In illustrating our ‘invention’ of magenta (it does not actually exist in the electromagnetic spectrum!), Mould provided a clear tangible example of exactly how the formation of our visual world is entirely dependent on the machinery we possess to process it.

Next up was the protagonist of the flash-lag effect, Dr. Romi Nijhawan, whose demonstrative talk revealed the predictive nature of our visual system. Indeed, he described how visual processing delays are accounted for by extrapolating the trajectory of a moving stimulus into the future: feeding new concerns for any football lover with respect to the offside rule.

After a short break, Dr. Andy Field conducted a comedic lecture exposing the illusory nature of fear. He blindfolded two volunteers and asked them to place their hands into a mystery box, hinting that it housed a large spider. In reality there existed only a harmless flower; Dr. Field explained that fear is merely a product of our minds, built from our interpretation of cues in the world around us.

Following on from Dr. Field’s practical lecture, was a simple yet enthralling talk by Dr. Zoltan Dienes, uncovering the myth of absolute hypnosis. Far from being a state of consciousness in which individuals completely lose control, hypnosis is a powerful suggestive state created by our imagination and maintained closely within our own personal moral code.

Dr. Andrew Dilley next revealed that pain is a figment, determined by our current state of consciousness. This was comically demonstrated by member of the audience who was able to keep a hand in a bath of ice for a minute longer while crudely swearing, as opposed to repeating the mundane word table. It seems that swearing counteracts the experience of pain by switching on brain regions that release opiate-like chemicals and adrenaline.

The co-director of the Sackler Centre, Dr. Anil Seth, continued after lunch by deconstructing the illusion of body ownership. He used diverse examples ranging from phantom limbs and alien hand syndrome to experimentally induced out-of-body experiences to show that our brains make sense of the world by altering our bodily perceptions as necessary.

Barrister David Osborne provided an interesting talk, comparing the worlds of science and law to conclude that although science can pursue the truth, law can only aim for justice.

Subsequently Dr. Robert Stovold and Greg Marshall performed a scripted debate discussing whether God is fashioned by our minds; but clearly science and religion do not always exist harmoniously side-by-side.

The audience learned from Dr. Dennis Chan that memories truly shape who we are, and how we live our lives, but they should not be completely trusted. Over time our interpretations transform via numerous sins of distortion that essentially alter the consciousness of us: the past is thus as much a figment as the future.

Dr. Patrick Haggard closed the event with an exploration of the implications from an influential experiment, originally conducted by Dr. Libert in 1985. The study showed that free will might be a delusion: our actions are preceded by brain activity 206 milliseconds before we are consciously aware of the decision. Volition is therefore a consequence of unconscious brain activity, fuelling a philosophical debate on moral responsibility: should our society abide by laws based on the notion of conscious free will?

All in all the event was both diverse and fascinating, thoroughly guiding the audience around “the mind’s forest of preconceptions and instincts”.

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