TED Conversations

Ron Burnett

President and Vice-Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design


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Can a map of the Brain really explain the complexities of consciousness?

We have been making extraordinary advances in mapping the brain and at the same time drawing conclusions about consciousness, the ways in which we think and consequently, the ways in which we act as humans.
I consider this approach to be simplistic and reductive. I am worried that we are building "behavioural maps" that cannot account for the complexity of human thought and action. Most of all, these maps cannot account for the unconscious, that part of our brains that cannot be explained by any reference to its parts.


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  • Nov 20 2011: Wonderful conversation. The human body is a whole made of its individual parts. It has reached its present state through the workings of evolution. Its fundamental purpose is to survive. It does this through sexual reproduction which ensures DNA with the blueprint for humans continues to exist. While the human organism would like to survive indefinitely, evolutionary effects have only insured the survival of the species.

    For me, the question that arises is how does consciousness fit into this scenario? What function does it serve, how did it arise, and is it continuing to evolve or is it a dead end?

    Consider the senses. Each developed for evolutionary reasons. Each enabled individual cells and, then, organisms to survive, if not permanently, at least in the short term. Consciousness in this context can be considered to be a sense. So--what is it sensing? What is it used for? One of the Ted talks tells us every brain function evolved to facilitate movement of the body. Is this true?

    There is no reason to believe that evolution of the human organism has ended. That leads to the question: What are the senses we still need to develop in order for our species to survive in a universe that we experience only through our currently evolved senses?

    Some believe consciousness to have three components: the id, the ego, and the superego, which could be viewed as cell consciousness, individual consciousness, and pan-species consciousness. As with our other senses, we use them without fully understanding where they came from, how they work, and what their limitations are. The brain, having reached a size within the human body that can no longer enlarge itself through evolution because it would kill any woman giving birth to it, has cast about and found other ways to increase its usefulness. Ted talks and the internet are quite likely one of those ways that individual's brains are linked to (perhaps) form a greater brain.
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      Nov 20 2011: Viola...thanks for your contribution...this has been a great conversation and at the same time, it has drifted around a bit as we have tried to grapple with the complex issues of mind and body. If you look at the entire conversation, you will notice that it mirrors post-enlightenment debates, moving between the spiritual, material and the mechanistic. You and others have captured an important point, however. That is, humans are still evolving and the models we are building today may be changing at a fast enough rate that will make them obsolete well before we can agree on their efficacy or truth. Dynamic systems are truly more complex than the models we are generating at the moment and certainly more complex than the maps of the brain that are providing us with some information about its functioning. However, evolution is also very slow and because of that we are likely to find out a great deal more about our brains than we have in the past. Thanks again for participating.

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