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Neuroscience tells us the thing we take as our unified mind is an illusion, that our mind is not unified and can barely be said to “exist” at all. Our feeling of unity and control is a post-hoc confabulation and is easily fractured into separate parts. As revealed by scientific inquiry, what we call a mind (or a self, or a soul) is actually something that changes so much and is so uncertain that our pre-scientific language struggles to find meaning.

Buddhists say pretty much the same thing. They believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’  One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect.

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“The idea of consciousness as a “show” is ultimately derived from the bankrupt representational theory of the mind – a notion that things are present to us by virtue of being “represented” or “modelled” in the brain. You cannot get to representation, however, without prior (conscious, first-order) presentation, so the latter cannot explain the former. Neuroscientists of consciousness try to elude this obvious objection by asserting that representations are not (necessarily) conscious. In fact, all sorts of aspects of consciousness are not conscious after all.

According to Nicholas Humphrey, “before consciousness ever arose, animals were engaged in some kind of inner monitoring of their own responses to sensory stimulation”. What is “inner” about unconscious processes, material events in the material brain? And how can they amount to monitoring? These questions are not silenced by the author’s reassurance that consciousness is “the product of some kind of illusion chamber, a charade”. Nor does Humphrey tell us how he awoke from his consciousness to discover that it is an illusion.”

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It would certainly seem so if you are reading these words online, but in fact you are not actually “seeing” the computer screen in front of you. What you see are photons of light bouncing off the screen (and generated by the internal electronics of the screen itself), which pass through the hole in the iris of your eye, through the liquid medium inside your eye, wending their way through the bipolar and ganglion cells to strike the rods and cones at the back of your retina. These photons of light carry just enough energy to bend the molecules inside the rods and cones to change the electrochemical balance inside these cells, causing them to fire, or have what neuroscientists call an “action potential.”

From there the nerve impulse races along the neural pathway from the retina to the back of the brain, leaping from neuron to neuron across tiny gaps called synaptic clefts by means of neurotransmitter substances that flow across those gaps. Finally, they encounter the visual cortex, where other neurons record the signals that have been transduced from those photons of light, and reconstruct the image that is out there in the world.

Out of an incomprehensible number of data signals pouring in from the senses, the brain forms models of faces, tables, cars, trees, and every conceivable known (and even unknown — imagined) object and event. It does this through something called neural binding. A “red circle” would be an example of two neural network inputs (“red” and “circle”) bound into one percept of a red circle. Downstream neural inputs, such as those closer to muscles and sensory organs, converge as they move upstream through convergence zones, which are brain regions that integrate information coming from various neural inputs (eyes, ears, touch, etc.) You end up perceiving a whole object instead of countless fragments of an image. This is why you are seeing an entire computer screen with a meaningful block of text in front of you right now, and not just a jumble of data.

According to the University of Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, however, not even science can pull us out of such belief dependency. In his new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with the Caltech mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking presents a philosophy of science he calls “model-dependent realism,” which is based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events and assume that the models match reality (even if they do not), and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions “we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” Employing this method, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.”

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Schoolchildren who struggle to grasp mathematics could benefit from having their brains zapped with electricity, scientists say.

A study of university students found that gentle electrical stimulation to the rear of the brain boosted their ability to learn and use numbers for up to six months.

The findings could lead to new treatments for children and adults who fail to master mathematics because of learning disabilities, or mental impairments caused by stroke or neurodegenerative disease.

“I am certainly not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks, but we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings,” said Roi Cohen Kadosh, a neuroscientist at Oxford University.

“We’ve shown before that we can temporarily induce dyscalculia [a mathematical disability], and now it seems we might also be able to make someone better at maths. Electrical stimulation will most likely not turn you into Albert Einstein, but if we’re successful, it might be able to help some people to cope better with maths.”

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17th-century British scientist Robert Boyle was many things: the father of modern chemistry, a founding member of the Royal Society, an inventor, the discoverer of the eponymous gas law, an alchemist, an experimenter on his own body fluids, and a friend to necromancers who offered him sex with demons. Now we can add “clairvoyant” to that colourful list.

Last week the Royal Society displayed for the first time a remarkable document: Boyle’s 24-point wish list for the future of science.

The list, which dates back to the 1660s, was found among his private papers and predicts the inventions of GPS navigation, flight, organ transplants, commercial agriculture and hair dye, among other things.

We were inspired and began to wonder, what could the next 400 years hold? So we asked several of today’s prominent scientists to emulate Boyle and write their own wish lists.

David Eagleman, neuroscientist and fiction writer

  • Download consciousness into a computer to live forever;
  • Travel to extra-solar planets in a reasonable amount of time;
  • Determine how to get by on zero sleep.

Steve Jones, geneticist

  • Understand the science of human emotions broadly enough to put an end to war;
  • A universal abandonment of religious belief as science triumphs over myth;
  • A healthy old age followed by an instant death;
  • The end of the need for grief;
  • The ability to grow fingers as well as we can fingernails;
  • An insight into why snails vary so much genetically from place to place.

Sean Carroll, physicist

  • Understand dark matter and dark energy, which together comprise 96 per cent of our universe;
  • Understand consciousness and intelligence, so that we could mimic it in computers.

Seth Shostak, SETI astronomer.

  • Discover not only abundant biology throughout the cosmos, but at least one instance of extraterrestrial intelligence within the next 100 years;
  • Invent regenerative therapies to cure problems related to aging such as hearing and vision loss and the degeneration of skin tone;
  • A population ten times that of Earth now living in orbiting space colonies within 200 years;
  • The ability to control local climate and alter Earth’s topography.

Jim Al-Khalili, physicist and broadcaster.

  • The convergence of nanoscience and biology enabling nano-robotic surgery and drug delivery to specific locations within cells in the body;
  • Learn whether string theory really lives up to its promise of being a “theory of everything”;.
    The realisation of a true quantum computer;
  • Crack the mystery of life itself: discover how something so unlikely could have emerged by chance on Earth three and a half billion years ago.

Lastly, here are a few of Boyle’s original suggestions: some have come true, while some we’re still holding our breath for:

  • The Prolongation of Life;
  • The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth;
  • The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there;
  • The Cure of Wounds at a Distance;
  • The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation;
  • The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions;
  • The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only;
  • The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed;
  • Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.