Participating artists in TSC exhibition

Towards a Science of Consciousness conferenceTSC 2006

Center for Consciousness Studies
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

ART EXHIBITION of works related to the nature of
conscious experience

TSC 2006 - Towards A Science of Consciousness
TSC 2006 - Towards A Science of Consciousness

April 4-8, 2006



Don Bodin

Moran Cerf

Sila Cevikce

Brian Felsen

Andrea Hersh

Jon Jost

Hyunsuk Kim

Adrienne Klein

Steven Lehar

Minda Novek

Michael Roth

Elif Savas

Michael Schippling

Janet A. Van Horne

curated by Brian Felsen




stereography (including antique View Master and Holmes Stereo reels)

short films




sculpture and a few surprises



Reporting the so-called “stream of consciousness” is famously difficult.  A first-person report is necessarily intrusive, unreliable, and unverifiable. Words alone are linear and slow.  The terms and metaphors of folk psychology often are coarse and misleading.  This exhibit features artists developing a new artistic language to notate and express the subjective experience of consciousness.

Our project is to work with a new system of tropes to model the contents and “feel” of conscious experience. Our art illustrates the multi-layered complexity of the brain’s processing systems and recursive structures. Throughout our work, we show how the experience of consciousness emerges from the clamor of competing voices within the parliamentary chamber of the mind – in the same way it does between the “voices” of two people in a relationship or artistic collaboration.



The opera singer Elif Savas will sing two new works. Refreshments will be served.

The Court Gossip: Five Songs About Multiple Personality Disorder

The Court Gossip is a song cycle scored for two pop singers, string quartet, trombone, trumpet, flute, and piano.  Selections from the work were first presented at the ArtSci festival in NYC in 2001.

The fascinating history of the work:

In composing my “rock opera for orchestra” View From the Strangers’ Gallery, I collaborated with some of my favorite writers and philosophers, becoming close with two of them, Nicholas Humphrey and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett and Humphrey had worked together on a wonderful paper, “Speaking For Our Selves,” in 1989. This paper inspired many ideas important to cognitive science, including Dennett’s “Multiple Drafts Model” of consciousness; it explains how different parts of the brain assert more or less control at different times to work together on larger projects.  Although our impulses, routines, and personality traits combine to give the appearance that we have a coherent self, what we call our “self” is more of a “center of narrative gravity” than an actual physical part of the brain to which we make representations.

I found this paper to be the perfect springboard to compare collaboration among parts of ourselves with collaboration between friends and co-writers. Despite their differing ideas and writing styles, Dennett and Humphrey had written a delightful paper together. And – just like our own desires and neural functions usually help but occasionally subvert other related processes – as friends, the three of us were all talking about each other in generally very helpful and warm, but occasionally gossipy, ways.

I thought: Wouldn’t it be just smashing to write a piece of music comparing how these writers collaborate and gossip with their own paper about how our own brains do the same thing internally? And wouldn’t it be brilliant to add another dimension to the conversation by imposing myself in this manner, even perhaps including an idea of the philosopher David Chalmers (whose ideas are quite opposed to theirs) about the problem of giving a “first-person perspective” report on mental states? It seemed the perfect hall of mirrors.

So I went to Turkey once again to write a piece of music about the inner workings of the mind. This time, unlike with View From The Strangers’ Gallery, I scaled back my production requirements so it would be easier to perform. In this piece, I applied the musical language of popular song to fugal composition, which would make it more accessible than my Finnegan’s Wake-ish debut. I was extremely pleased with the results, and I was excited to fly back to America to triumphantly present Dennett and Humphrey with the piece.

There was just one problem.

Their paper had used the idea of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD; now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) to buttress their argument.  And while the pieces’ composition was well under way, I discovered that MPD/DID largely had been discredited in the years since.  Some of the most celebrated case studies of MPD later had been proven to be “iatrogenic” – “illnesses” caused or invented by the doctor or treatment itself.  And the last thing Dennett and Humphrey wanted to do was to promote a musical work celebrating a paper which had referred in any way to MPD.

And so: I was left on my to promote it. It got accepted to the ArtSci festival in NYC, where we performed two of the work’s five sections, and it was warmly received. (One of my favorite writers, David Rosenthal, was there with his class and said to his students, “Now that, boys, is how it’s done!”) But that was it. And, after the conference, the work got filed with a K. Number and went on my shelf.

Musical techniques:

Like in my View From the Strangers’ Gallery, I used polyphony in new ways to illustrate the multi-layered complexity of the brain’s processing systems and recursive structures. The musical lines were shaped to illustrate Dennett’s “Cerebral Celebrity” amplification of his “Multiple Drafts Model” of consciousness, by altering which voices would “win out” in fugal competition to leave an effect on the musical development of the rest of the piece.

I also used some radical pointillistic orchestral techniques to convey the simultaneous and veiled competitions of parallel processing in conscious experience, and to make a brash analogy to the competitions of ideas, writing style, and fame which these two famous philosophers have with each other.

Photo Gallery: Towards a Science of Consicousness conference

TSC 2006 - Towards A Science of Consciousness
TSC 2006 - Towards A Science of Consciousness

Of all of the mysteries of the universe, none is crazier, nor more amazing to me, than the mystery of consciousness.  I’ve always been interested in how people think – not just in the psychology of others, but in how a lump of grey matter can process incredible amounts of information; how the brain serves our volitions and instinctual needs automatically; how it generates the sense of personal identity (a self) and the feeling that we have a “soul” – and, above all, why the heck it feel like something to be the subject of experience!

Ever since college, I’ve read the works of cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, starting with Douglas Hofstadter‘s Godel, Escher, Bach and moving on to the works of Dennett, Humphrey, Chalmers, Rosenthal, and too many others to mention.   Every other year, many of the greatest minds in the field gather in Tucson, Arizona for the Towards a Science of Consciousness conference (TSC).  Elif and I go whenever we can, and we’ve twice exhibited our art there with some of our favorite writers.

Here are some pictures from the 2006 TSC.



Jacques Derrida Lives Again!

“The effects or structure of a text are not reducible to its ‘truth’, to the intended meaning of its presumed author.” (Derrida, Otobiographies, quoted in Thiselton, New Horizons, p.111)

Jacques Derrida

J’adore Jacques Derrida.  Not only do I find him enormously entertaining, I even occasionally find him enlightening.  Elif had cooked Derrida dinner one night in 1992, and found him to be delightfully preening.  Admit it: of all of the Pieds-Noir philosphers, he’s just about your favorite, non?

Kirby Dick‘s wonderful documentary on Derrida offers an excellent opportunity to revel in the great man’s absolute engagement in his own role as celebrity subject. Derrida’s response to every interview question was exquisitely crafted for maximum comedic value. To formulate these responses, he took his sweet time – at one point, it seemed like he waited over 30 seconds to answer a question about his mother!

I’ve always found it amusing that many of the particulars our own internal lives often not – our microthoughts, our motivations, our desires – only are closed to others, but also to ourselves. So how could I find out what Derrida was thinking during these great gaps in the dialogue?

As Elif and I watched the film together, we came to the stunning realization that rather than spending an eternity thinking about his responses to Kirby’s questions, Derrida was in fact writing the sequel to his chef-d’œuvre Of Grammatology. To test our theory, we carefully extracted the video from the film, applied a traducer filter, applied deconstruction analysis and specific Derridean techniques to the soundtrack, and were able to clearly make out his signature brainwave sounds.  After transcoding the signals, and with full realization that the rhetoric was inevitably being subverted by the grammar, we meticulously transcribed his internal dialogue, which ended up being printed inorganically over the film in a crawl from one of his favorite works of pop art, Star Wars.

The result is ground-breaking, revolutionary, and even NSFW: now, years after his shedding his mortal coil, you can visualize and hear his genius the full flowering of his genius like never before – and be privy to participating in the gestation of a great new, still-lost masterwork, Of Grammatology 2: Revenge of the Post-Structuralists.

Without further ado, our brilliant art film from 2003: Derrida Thinks!



Book review: Nicholas Humphrey’s “Soul Dust”

In an earlier post, I wrote about how the dinner I had at Nicholas Humphrey‘s house while visiting the UK for the London Book Fair. I was so moved that I decided to post here a book review I wrote for his latest masterwork, Soul Dust. Enjoy!

Why do people have qualitative phenomenal experiences, and why is it “like something” to have sensations? And why do we feel special and spiritual, as if we existed in a “soul niche?” In his marvelous book Soul Dust, Nicholas Humphrey provides perhaps the most sensible solutions to these fundamental but seemingly-intractable questions, and he offers some credible possibilities how and why consciousness likely evolved with these features.

The first half of Soul Dust is a whirlwind tour through Humphrey’s thoughts on sensation and why first-person experience feels like it does. As the author favors brevity, this part of the book is dense and requires some mental lifting on the part of the reader. Humphrey explains how natural selection could “adjust the properties of existing sensory feedback loops so as to steer the activity toward a special class of attractor states… [which] would seem, from the subject’s point of view, to give sensations their phenomenal properties.” Then, he illustrates multiple lines of evidence on what consciousness is for – why it may not enable you to do something but still has the crucial function of encouraging you to do something – and that primary individualism, by helping us develop a theory of mind, is beneficial for the individual *and* for the social group. Finally, he surveys the important work of scientists and convincingly argues why philosophers are still necessary, arguing that “the probability is that brain scientists would not recognize the NCC [neural correlates of consciousness] for what it is even if it were right in front of them.”

With this foundation in place, it’s the second half of Soul Dust which truly astonishes, for here, Humphrey shows why life can be beautiful in the face of death. Drawing on multiple lines of evidence (from for types and degrees of consciousness and “presentism” in other animals; poetry; primitive art, psychological studies; and even the last meals of death row inmates), Humphrey describes how and why we take pleasure in existence in itself. If natural selection can arrange pleasure in the feeling of existing, existing can become a goal, and you can plan and go through pain or delayed gratifications to achieve or continue it. In a brilliant move, Humphrey shows how and why our experience and the structure of our minds guide the false intuitions that our “souls” could somehow live on after bodily death. This helps explain why reductionist theory is counterintuitive for so many people and how religion rides as a parasite on our natural predilection for spirituality (and not vice versa).

The beautiful final chapters provide strong evidence for how phenomenal consciousness is a “magic show” you stage in your head which lights up the world so you can feel special and transcendent, and why it’s adaptive for you to feel that way (as well as even to have death anxiety). In so doing, Humphrey gives voice to the notion that there is actually beauty in being a creature which knows it’s going to die.

For thousands of years, people have told crazy stories to explain and to comfort each other in the face of death, tales which include positing earth-centered creation, the permanence of souls, and even consciousness as a separate fundamental element of the universe. But, to quote the film True Grit, “I do not entertain such hypotheticals, for the world as it is is vexing enough.” It can seem like a dark joke to have a subjective experience of consciousness for such a brief period of individual existence. But this book finds meaning and beauty in our brief skein not as a fairy tale a “gallows-humor” consolation prize; it shows how this “magical mystery show” of consciousness and sensation over a limited timeframe is actually lovely, and in so doing, it gives the reader the feeling that everything is illuminated. “Sentio ergo sum” (“I feel, therefore I am”) indeed!

Soul Dust is worth every minute of attention it demands, and it’s a mind-expanding, life-affirming work.

– Brian Felsen, President, BookBaby
@bookbaby, @brianfelsen