The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the SelfThe Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life. [ … ] Our brains can generate only a limited amount of this precious resource every day.”

So I will be brief. As a relative newcomer to consciousness studies and neuroscience, this book was a little bit like taking the Red Pill in the Matrix. I would frequently find myself reading a passage, trying to digest it’s meaning and then looking up from the page with changed perception of the world around me. In this book there are convincing observations about how our brains work that are genuinely mind altering in a really fascinating way.

It won’t be for everyone. If you’ve got certain firmly held religious beliefs or if you just find the idea that there probably is no such thing as a “self” a bit scary, you might want to stick to the blue pill. But as science unravels more and more of the secrets of the brain, and offers humankind the possibility to develop ever more sophisticated ways to alter how we experience our existence, there’s a lot to be said for using some of our precious resources of attention trying to come to terms with what’s at stake. Thomas Metzinger’s book is a very good place to start.

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  1. Day 1 (08/03/2012): LHR > AUS

    Not often do you get a really interesting conversation for the first half of a long-haul flight, but meeting the fascinating Ray Mia @twtmia on the flight over was a real bonus. Ray is CEO at Streamworks International, previously of Sky and the UN, and we nattered on about video and journalism on the web until we were half way across the Atlantic.

  2. Day 2 (09/03/2012)
    : Overwhelmed by the scale of SXSW

    I’m not going to brag about my “panelist” status getting me straight to the front of the 2 hour queue to register. I needed the extra time just to begin to work out where things were and start to get my head around the scale of this event: Huge and overwhelming for the newbie.

    Still, I did rather well with the first talk I attended. This was excellent:

    David Eagleman: Secret Lives of the Brain

    “If the conscious mind–the part you consider you–is just the tip of the
    iceberg in the brain, what is all the rest doing? Neuroscientist David
    Eagleman, author of the New York Times bestseller Incognito: The Secret
    Lives of the Brain, shows that most of what you do, think and believe
    is generated by parts of your brain to which you have no access. Here’s
    the exposé about the non-conscious brain and all the machinery under
    the hood that keeps the show going.”

    This was a great talk. David Eagleman delivers insight into recent findings in the field of neuroscience with passion and humour. It’s the ideal combination of entertainment and education. Eagleman is a real scientist, so the, while we’re only given a plebs overview, the underlying research behind the presentation is valid. The presentation is really polished with great moments of audience interaction to illustrate his points and really great soundbites scattered throughout.

    Anyone with an imagination could start constructing all manner of sci-fi distopias out of this current area of research. No doubt they already have. It also opens up all sorts of potentially very controversial issues around how we construct our laws. Here are some tweets with links to a few of the things he mentioned

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    #sxbrainlives conscious mind is “broom closet of brain” – stowaway taking credit for the entire journey
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    #SXBrainLives #SXSWi “In each of us there is another whom we do not know” Carl Jung. “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me” P.Floyd
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    Panel elicits quote from Richard III: “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, & every tongue brings in a several tale” #sxbrainlives
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    Another of Eagleman’s fascinating projects.: Neulaw #sxbrainlives #sxsw
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    #sxbrainlives @davideagleman loved the talk. Didnt get to ask if we share any of our unconscious. Are we really “contained” in our brains?
  9. Here’s a link to the SXSW page, where there is an audio file of the talk:
  10. David Eagleman’s book, which I fully intend to read.
  11. Next talk i attended on the first day was a panel with the MIT Media Lab:

    MIT Media Lab Making Connections
    “Our kickoff panel is centered on what is fresh and exciting at the
    MediaLab and how the Lab and its projects connect to the world. We’ll
    tell you what cool stuff is happening under our new director Joi Ito”

    I really enjoyed some of this, particularly Joi Ito’s paean to the “anit-disciplinary” nature of how they work. It sounds like a kind of Anarchist utopia there, although, without wanting to sound too cynical, I do understand how this could have an element of marketing to it. That said, if it’s half as fun as @Joi made it sound, I bet it’s a great place for creative technologists. Really great.

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    #SXmedialab head of MIT – throw away your map – just tune your compass. If you can get away without a plan, do.
  14. Here’s the SXSW page with the audio:
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    #SXmedialab head of MIT – throw away your map – just tune your compass. If you can get away without a plan, do.
  16. Day 3 (10/03/2012)

  17. Slowly getting the hang of the event. Swinging in and out of some less interesting sessions. Made an effort to get to a session on “Storytelling” with a group called “And I Am Not Lying”:

    “Storytelling is both the second-oldest art form and a hot “new” form of
    entertainment — thanks to This American Life, The Moth’s podcast and
    live shows, and tons of shows cropping up around the country,
    storytelling’s making a big comeback.”

    This was a nice panel that kicked off with one of the members telling a story and then some general discussion about what storytelling might mean in the wider context of business and marketing.

    One of the things I think is very interesting is that the term “storytelling” has been diluted quite heavily by over-use. In our newsroom we will happily refer to “telling a story” when what we really mean is “recount events”. Some of the techniques of recounting do overlap with storytelling, but to blithely assume that we are doing “storytelling” because we engage people in finding out about events, is lazy. Hence my tweet and Thaler’s response.

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    Enjoyed this #notlyingSXSW session on “storytelling”. A mis/over-used term in the newsroom. Time to use it more selectively imo.
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    @Leimdorfer So glad you joined us @ I Am Not Lying, Andrew! Yup, something “about” a story ain’t a story.
  20. Another session I enjoyed was this one from Dave Olson one of the founders of Hootsuite on
    “Crowd Sourcing Community Projects Like Tom Sawyer”.

    He had a couple of great examples of crowsourcing projects he’d been involved in, not least the way in which Hootsuite itself has been translated by a team of volunteers.

  21. Spent the evening at a couple of parties. The Journalism do, which was
    greatly improved by spending a chunk of the evening with Chris Wu
    @macdiva who knows everyone and is great at making introductions. Got to
    know some really interesting folk. After that I wondered over to the
    Mozilla bash and finally the official launch do with a colleague from
    the BBC, click radio presenter Gareth Mitchell

    @GarethM. Free beer and Boxing Robots.
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  23. Day 4 (11/03/2012)

    This was the day of our panel and we spent an hour or so preparing in the morning after lunch. It actually turned out to be pretty enjoyable. Dan @sinker kept the whole thing moving and I don’t think I said anything terribly stupid. The feedback was really positive. Also great to see @mohamed from again and meet @emilybell. 

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    Unique story example from BBC via @leimdorfer – through this powerful app on world population. #sxswi #journopen
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    .@leimdorfer – on apps ‘How you tell a story not necessarily a linear narrative. Get people to ID in more personal way.’ #journopen
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    Are newsrooms reorganizing for the web? @leimdorfer says journalism & dev desks are still divided, but best ideas come out of collaboration.
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    @Leimdorfer @scottros You’ve been quoted in my @Storify story: “Open Web, Open News: Reporters & Developers Remix”
  28. Met up with Ramaa @ramaamultimedia, James @joffley and Miriam at Google village for a drink, followed by an abortive attempt to get into the Mashable party and some pool on 6th Street.
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  30. Day 5 (12/03/2012)

  31. Thanks to the very shoddy sxsw shuttle service I missed the start of the Maps of Time panel, which is a shame because what I saw was good stuff:

    The audio file is on the sxsw page:

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    @AlexGraul @DataminerUK @jennthom @BurtHerman @drewwww Nice panel guys.
  33. After that I headed over to catch The Editor of the New York Times @JillAbramson talking about the future of the organisation: Expansion internationally was mentioned a few times, which could be interesting.
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    Also India Ink new NYT blogging project RT “@ajbreuer: #sxswi #FutureNYT ‘ main focus on expanding globally, ESP india’”
  35. Create More Value Than You Capture.

    I stayed in the same theatre for Tim O’Reilly talking about values. This turned out to be one of the highlights. Lots of interestng food for thought and some very quotable remarks:

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    “When you go on a road trip, you don’t go non a tour of gas stations.” @timoreilly on funding-centric business. #sxvalues
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    Policy makers should focus on protecting the future from the past, not the past from the future -@timoreilly #sxvalues #sxswi
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    Investors have never created a single job. Customers create jobs. -@timoreilly #sxvalues #sxswi
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    .@amcafee @timoreilly at #sxvalues #sxsw generosity, opensource and how to measure value in economy. recommend book
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  41. Went to Al Gore’s talk in the afternoon with Juliane from nzzonline. We didn’t think he was saying much to be honest.
  42. Met up with a nice bunch of people including my old boss Ade @5forty and spent the evening at the British Music Embassy:
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    Enjoyed the @wondervillains at SXSW this evening. Entertaining pop band from Northern Ireland.
  45. Day 6 (13/03/2012)

  46. Despite being slightly worse for wear, due the the accumulative effects of SXSW nightlife, I really enjoyed the final morning’s talk with @benmcallister.

    It was a really great counter to the neuroscience that started the week. Not because Ben was saying that that there’s no place for science, rather that, in design, what he calls “scientism” is like “truthiness”: An attempt by non-scientists to add a veneer of certainty to what they do.

    This felt uncomfortably familiar, which is great, because we really need to make sure that whatever data we do use to back up our decisions isn’t just there as a prop to stop a creative dialogue.

    Like David Eagleman, Ben’s presentation was really polished and littered with great quotes and examples. Many of the best quotes were from Richard Feynman. I particularly liked that his definition of scientific integrity included “bending
    over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong”.

    The message was not, don’t research, but don’t take the research at face value and don’t let it undermine the decisions of experienced people who know their craft. The science of design is dangerous when we allow naive empiricism – a cheap imitation of science – to govern what we do.

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    If you have perfect information, there is no strategy: Strategy = Ambiguity Leadership. but no excuse for ignorance! @benmcallister #sxsw
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    Don’t use “I know it works, I’ve seen the research” as a way of ending conversation. naive empiricism @benmcallister
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    @benmcallister referred to Feynman’s ‘Cargo Cult Science’ Caltech commencement address… #SxSW #SXDangerous
  50. I decided a film would be a good way to spend the afternoon. I also wanted to to make at least one use of my sxsw film pass. Turned out to be a good choice too. This was a engrossing documentary:
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    TheImposter: Frenchman convinces grieving Texas family hes their 16yr-old son who went missing for 3yrs. extraordinary
  52. Last up…
    The Ultimate Bruce Sterling Talk

    The passionate closing remarks of this visionary thinker are a long-time
    tradition for SXSW Interactive attendees…. What Bruce Sterling
    likes (and doesn’t like) about the tech industry and the world at large
    in 2012.

    Bruce’s memorable prediction for the future… “Old people, living in dirty cities, afraid of the sky”.

  53. Followed by, believe it or not, another night on the town with @5forty. This band were excellent:
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  55. Day 7 (14/03/2012)
    : AUS > LHR

  56. This was a great event to attend. There’s far to much to do to even think about “getting the most out of it”. You just have to earmark the things you think you’re going to enjoy and not constantly fret over not being where you’re not. There are some really good sessions, but the informal meetings are just as interesting and the general atmosphere of dropping your reserve and striking up conversations really adds to the overall experience.

    The fact that what looks like half the online media world’s marketing budget is being burnt wining and dining attendees is, of course, not an unpleasant thing to be on the receiving end of, but after five days of free beer, meals, parties and mountains of branded plastic nic-nacs, I had another interesting conversation on the plane back to London. Sitting next to me was an epidermiologist on her way home from a conference at the disease control center in Atlanta. The people at that conference were discussing how we might survive (or not, as it turns out) the next large-scale epidemic. Freebies on offer at that event: Apparently they got an ice cream from Haagen Daz. Does kind of make you wonder if we’ve got our priorities right.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very remarkable book. It significantly altered my perception of the world around me and I would often put the book down with my head buzzing with the insight it offers.

McGilchrist is a former consultant psychiatrist, a researcher in neuroimaging, as well as lecturer in English at Oxford University! He took 20 years to write the book, which sets out to “attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.” (p.1)

It’s a lofty aim and he’s a credible writer who gets us well down the road to that understanding. My one criticism is the pitch and depth of the book seems caught between two stalls. On the one hand McGilchrist is a credible academic who appears to be aiming his writing, if not at his peers, then at least to his post-grad students. On the other hand there are universal messages here that could be communicated without the in depth analysis of nineteenth century poetry or the finer details of neurology. I’m not saying it should have been in the “For Dummies” format but there seemed occasionally to be two books here; one an academic treatise, the other something much more accessible.

I started out aiming to log my favourite quotes, which I began with the ones below. I regret not keeping that up because there are many wonderful little snippets. Of course the soundbites wouldn’t do the book justice, but they would have been a nice reminder of the pithier moments, of which there are many.

Some Quotes from the Intro

In refuting the popular version of beliefs about the hemispheres of the brain:

“[they] could be characterised as versions of the idea that the left hemisphere is gritty, rational, realistic but dull, and the right hemisphere is airy-fairy, impressionistic, but creative and exciting; a formulation reminiscent of Seller and Yeatman’s immortal distinction between the Roundheads – ‘right and repulsive’ – and the Cavaliers – ‘Wrong and Wromantic’.” (p.2)

In refuting the opposing beliefs that either “everything exists out there” – naive materialism or “everything is a subjective creation of our own minds” – naive idealism:

Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most important distinction between the hemispheres is the type of attention they give to the world. (p.4)

The conclusions about left hemisphere domination:

An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness ha come about reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemiphere.(p.6)

How our evolution is encoded into us:

When we look at our embodied selves, we are looking into the past. But that past is no more dead than we are. The past is somethin we perform every living day, here and now. (p.8)

How the brain is organised casts light on the structure and experience of our mental world:

The brain is – in fact it has to be – a metaphor for the world. (p.9)

Not a Cartesian dualist:

It has been said that the world is divided into two sets of people, those who divide the world into two sets of people and those who don’t. I am with the second group. (p.11)

Great metaphor for what might happen when there are structural abnormalities in the brain:

… does placing a maths professor in a circus troupe result in a flying mathematician, or a bunch of trapeze artists who can no longer perform until they’ve calculated the precise trajectory of their leap? (p.12)

It’s not just our brains that are asymmetrical, the universe is:

… asymmetry must have been a condition of the origin of the universe. It was a discrepency between the amounts of matter and antimatter that enabled the material universe to come into existance at all, for there to be something rather than nothing. (p.13)

… following the physiological principal of opponent processors, duality refines control.

Problem with explaining consciousness:

the fundamental problem with explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with.

Mind is more a process than a thing:

Every individual mind is a process of interaction with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves according to its own private history. (p.20)

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