The dance of consciousness

Edge has a fascinating video interview with philosopher Alva Noë who discusses his work on the philosophy of consciousness, arguing that we will be led astray if we think of consciousness solely as a brain process that happens within us without reference to how we act in the world.

Noë is primarily arguing for a form of embodied cognition which argues that the mind and brain can only be understood as situated in the world in which we interact. The function of the mind is inherently connected to the sorts of tasks we need to do to survive on a day-to-day basis.

This view has been bolstered by experimental work which has shown that we perceive the world differently depending on the task we are doing or how we intend to act.

For example, in one of my favourite studies, psychologist Dennis Proffitt and his colleagues found that we perceive distances as shorter when we have a tool in our hand, but only when we intend to use it.

Noë uses the fantastic analogy of dance to highlight how we can only understand this practice by considering the dancers, the world and the mind together. Dance does not exist solely between our ears.

Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.

And this idea that human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process, is the focus of my work.

Experience is something that is temporarily extended and active. Perceptual consciousness is a style of access to the world around us. I can touch something, and when I touch something I make use of an understanding of the way in which my own movements help me secure access to that which is before me. The point is not that merely that I learn about or achieve access to the world by touching. The point is that the thing shows up for me as something in a space of movement-oriented possibilities.

Noë goes on to talk about how perception represents meaning, how we can be led astray in neuroscience if we artificially separate action and perception, and how our definition of ‘life’ can help us understand consciousness.

Link to video interview and transcript of Alva Noë interview.
Link to previous Mind Hacks post on embodied cognition.

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