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Lex Fridman (00:01):
The following is a conversation with Annika Harris, author of Conscious, a brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind, and is someone who writes and thinks a lot about the nature of consciousness and of reality, especially from the perspectives of physics and neuroscience.
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And I wonder if you hear it at all, and I wonder if it’s even real. I just wanted to acknowledge the obvious in case you do hear it, and also acknowledge the obvious psychological complexity of talking into a microphone while you’re sitting alone with all the world boiling up all around you in this beautiful, chaotic turmoil that defines our reality. Given that turmoil, you may want to invest in your future.
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You should explore them with a licensed professional at BetterHelp, betterhelp.com slash legs. And if you go there to that specific website slash legs, you will save on your first month. This show is also brought to you by Blinkist, my favorite app for learning new things. Blinkist takes key ideas from thousands of nonfiction books and condenses them down into 15 minutes that you can read or listen to. I am going on a run now because I’m doing a long 12 plus hour run. On that run, I will be listening to a nonfiction book. In fact, the book I will be listening to was picked by me by first checking out the summary of that book on Blinkist. And again, it’s not just a summary, like a cliff note summary.
It’s a condensation of the key ideas, which is fundamentally different to me than a shallow summary. It somehow feels deep, even though it takes a very short amount of time to consume it. Like I said, 15 minutes. It’s an excellent way to choose a book that you want to read in full. First, get the key insights, read in full, and again, return to the insights time and time again to remind yourself to refresh the lessons that you learned from the book when you first read it. You can claim a special offer for savings by going to Blinkist.com slash Lex.
This episode is also brought to you by Onnit, which is a nutrition supplement and fitness company. They make Alpha Brain, a nootropic that helps support memory, mental speed, and focus. Obviously, all of those things are things I care about as I’m going through a difficult deep work session. Deep work is something that one of the people I really admire, a friend, Cal Newport, talks a lot about, and these are sessions when you’re really putting your mind to the test in terms of the focus, in terms of the depth of the chain of thoughts unbroken that you take yourself on.
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This show is also brought to you by Indeed, a hiring website. I’ve used them for many hiring efforts I’ve done for the many teams I’ve led in the past, and I’m using them now as I’m hiring a few folks to help with podcasts and video-related activities, from programming and robotics to video editor to, what else, assistant and camera and translators and dubbers and all that kind of beautiful stuff. I mean, forget the specific tasks involved. I’m a really huge believer of being surrounded by people that strive for excellence, work their butt off, but also have a kind of camaraderie on the team where everybody makes each other better, challenges each other to become better and challenges each other to reveal moments of brilliance within themselves. Hiring a team that’s excellent is really important. You should use the best tools for the job. Indeed is one such tool I highly recommend. They have a special offer only available for a limited time. You can check it out at Indeed.com slash Lex. This is the Lex Friedman Podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s Annika Harris.
In your book, Conscious, you described evidence that free will is an illusion and that consciousness is used to construct this illusion and convince ourselves that we are, in fact, deciding our actions. Can you explain this? I think this is chapter three.
Annaka Harris (07:34):
First of all, I really think it’s important to make a distinction between free will and conscious will, and we’ll get into that in a moment. So free will, in terms of our brain as a system in nature, making complex decisions and doing all of the complex processing it does, there is a decision-making process in nature that our brains undergo that we can call free will. That’s fine to use that shorthand for that, although once we get into the details, I might convince you that it’s not so free, but the decision-making process is a process in nature. The feeling, our conscious experience of feeling like consciousness is the thing that is driving the behavior, that is, I would say in most cases, an illusion. And usually when we talk about free will, that’s the thing we’re talking about. I mean, sometimes it’s in conjunction with the decision-making process, but for the most part, when we use the term free will, we’re talking about this feeling that consciousness, that we have a self, that there’s this concrete thing that’s separate from brain processing that somehow swoops in and is the cause of our decision or the cause of our next action. And that is in large part, if not in its entirety, an illusion.
Lex Fridman (08:56):
So conscious will is an illusion, and then we can try to figure out.
Annaka Harris (08:60):
Free will, I would say, is a good shorthand for a process in nature, which is a decision-making process of the brain.
Lex Fridman (09:07):
But decisions are still being made. So there’s, if you ran the universe over again, is there, would it turn out the same way? I mean, maybe I’m trying to sneak up to like, what does it mean to make a decision in a way that’s almost, that means something?
Annaka Harris (09:28):
So right, so this is where our intuitions get challenged. I’ve been thinking about some new examples for this just because I talk about it a lot. And the truth is, most of the things I write about and talk about and think about are so counterintuitive. I mean, that’s really what my game is, is breaking intuitions, shaking up intuitions in order to get a deeper understanding of reality. I’m often, even though I’ve thought about this for 20 years and think about it all the time, it’s an obsession of mine, really, I have to get back into that mind frame to be able to think clearly about it, because it is so counterintuitive.
Depends on if there are kids around or if I’m alone or if I’ve been meditating, but what I was going to say, actually, I felt like we need to just take one step back and talk a little bit, just because I think the importance of shaking up intuitions for scientific advancement is such an important piece of the scientific process. And I think we’ve reached a point in consciousness studies where it’s very difficult to move forward. And usually that’s a sign that we need to start shaking up our intuitions. So, throughout history, the huge breakthroughs, the things that have really shifted our view of the universe and our place in the universe and all of that, those almost always, if not always require that we, at the very least, shift our intuitions, update our intuitions, but many of them, we just have to let go of intuitions that are feeding us false information about the way the world works.
Lex Fridman (11:07):
Well, the weirdest thing here is that here we’re looking at our own mind. You have to let go of your intuitions about your own intuitions.
Annaka Harris (11:19):
Yeah, right, exactly. It’s very meta and makes it hard. And it’s part of the reason why doing interviews for me feels so difficult, aside from the fact that I just have social anxiety in general.
Lex Fridman (11:31):
Well, it’s good, because I took mushrooms just before we started, so we’re in this journey together. Let’s go. So, where did we take a step back?
Annaka Harris (11:41):
Well, I was going to say, I mean, this leads into the point I was going to make, but what I was going to say is, I mean, also, just for me, I feel like I’m not as good at speaking as I am at writing, that I’m clear in my writing, and because these topics are so difficult to get our minds around, it’s hard to kind of get to any real conclusion in real time. It’s actually how I started writing my book, was just writing for myself. I decided that I needed to spend some time writing down all of my thoughts in order to get clear about how I think about them.
Lex Fridman (12:18):
So you write down a sentence and you think, in the silence, quiet. Paragraphs, and you just…
Annaka Harris (12:25):
And then I see if that makes sense, and then I check it with my intuitions, which is really the scientific process, and I really, in many ways, I feel like I’m a physicist at heart. All of my inquiry, all of my career, everything I’m interested in, actually going back to being a child, is just deep curiosity about how the world works, what this place is, what it’s made of, how we got here, just being amazed at the fact that I’m having an experience over here and you’re having one over there and we’re in this moment of time, and what does that all mean? My interest in consciousness really came out of, originally, an interest in physics. And I guess that the two were always side by side and I didn’t really connect them until I was older, but I’ve always been really interested in just understanding the nature of reality, before I even had the language to just describe it.
Lex Fridman (13:21):
You talked about laying down and looking up at the stars and trying to let go of the intuition that there’s a ground below us, which is a really interesting exercise, and there’s many exercises of this sort you can do, but that’s a really good one.
Annaka Harris (13:37):
Well, and I think scientists and children who will become scientists, who are just scientists at heart, really enjoy that feeling of breaking through their intuitions. And I remember the first time it happened, actually, I was playing with marbles. And marbles have all these different shapes, each one is unique, and it looks like there’s liquid inside them.
And I remember asking my father how they got the liquid inside the glass ball. And he said, actually, it’s solid all the way through, it’s all glass. And I had such a hard time imagining, it just didn’t seem right to me. I was very young when I, but he’s a complicated person, but he was wonderful in this way in that he would kind of entertain my curiosity. And so he said, let’s open them up. And he got a towel and we put the marbles on the towel and got a hammer and he smashed them all, and lo and behold, it was all glass.
And I remember, it’s like the first time I had that feeling of realizing, wow, the truth was so different from what I expected. And I like that feeling. And of course, we need to be able to do that to understand that the earth is flat, to understand the germ theory of disease, to understand long processes in nature, like evolution. I mean, we just can never really intuit that we share genes with ants.
Lex Fridman (15:01):
Did you just say the earth is flat? You mean the earth is not flat?
Annaka Harris (15:02):
Did I say that? Yeah.
Lex Fridman (15:05):
This is great. But I actually like to think about-
Annaka Harris (15:07):
Exactly, see, this is why I need to write and not speak.
Lex Fridman (15:10):
Well, I actually really like conspiracy theories and so on. I really like flat earth, people that believe the earth is flat, or not believe, but argue for the earth is flat.
Annaka Harris (15:20):
Well, it’s interesting because you can see, I mean, the intuition is so strong. I just said it.
Lex Fridman (15:23):
The thing I love about folks who argue for flat earth is they are thinking deeply, they’re questioning actually what has not become intuition. It’s become the mainstream narrative that the earth is round, where people actually don’t, yeah, don’t think actually how crazy it is that the earth is round. We’re in a ball. And that’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re looking out into space.
It’s really humbling. Because I think the basic intuition when you’re walking on the ground, there’s a underlying belief that earth is the center of the universe. There’s a kind of feeling like this is the only world that exists. And you kind of know that there’s a huge universe out there, but you don’t really load that information in. And I think flat earthers are really contending with those big ideas.
Annaka Harris (16:20):
Yeah, no, and I think, I mean, the truth is that when those observations were first made, when the celestial observations were made, that revealed this fact to us, I can’t remember how long it took, but I think it was close to 100 years before it was actually accepted as common knowledge that we’re no longer the center of the universe, or of course we never were. And that’s true almost every time we have a breakthrough like that that challenges our intuitions. There’s usually a period of time where we have to, and this is an important part of the process because often our intuitions give us good information. And so when the science goes against, when our scientific observations go against our intuitions, it’s important for us to let that in and to see which side is gonna win. And once it’s clear that the evidence is winning, then there’s this period of time where we have to grapple with our intuitions and shift the way we frame our worldview and go through that process.
Lex Fridman (17:26):
But free will.
Annaka Harris (17:27):
Free will is a hard one.
Lex Fridman (17:28):
It’s a hard one.
Annaka Harris (17:30):
So here we are still in consciousness studies, pretty stuck, at least in terms of the neuroscience. And so that’s why I started thinking more deeply about that. That’s why a lot of scientists right now are actually interested in studying consciousness where it was very taboo before. And so we’re at this really interesting turning point and it’s wonderful, but it will require that we shake up our intuitions a bit and reframe some things and look at what the neuroscience is telling us. And there are a lot of questions. We have more questions than answers, but I think it’s time. I think if we’re going to make progress in consciousness studies, we need to start really looking at the illusions and false intuitions that are getting in our way.
Lex Fridman (18:19):
Do you think studying the brain can give us clues about free will, like some of these?
Annaka Harris (18:23):
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it already has. And I think many facts that have come out of neuroscience are still barely seeping into the culture. I mean, I think this is going to be a long process. So part of my work is really just looking at areas where we already know some of our intuitions are wrong and starting to accept them and starting to let them in and starting to ask questions about, well, what does this mean then about the nature of consciousness?
Lex Fridman (18:52):
Let’s try to actually get into this question of free will and conscious will. I have, my intuitions here are, I mean, I’m a human being. It’s really, I mean, I approach it from two aspects. One is a human being and two from a robotics perspective. And I wonder how big the gap between the two is. And that’s a useful, from an engineering perspective, there’s another perspective that’s useful and helpful to take on this. It’s like, are we really so different, you and I, the robot and the human? You’d like to believe so, but you don’t exactly see where the difference is.
Annaka Harris (19:32):
Research into AI and just the fact that it’s entered our consciousness at the level of stories and film and all of these questions that it’s raising is facing us with that. It’s almost like the zombie experiment is coming to life for us. We’re more and more looking at human-like systems and wondering, is there an experience in there and how can we figure that out? When you were talking about your experience of looking at robots, it reminds me of how I, for many years, have been looking at plants because the plant behavior, and actually this is the example, maybe we’ll just try it out. It may not work. This is an example I was thinking of recently because I was reading back on the work of Mark Jaffe who did this research with pea tendrils.
I’m sure he did many other plant studies, but this is the one I was reading about. And I’m hoping this analogy, I’ll just set it up. I’m hoping that this analogy will be something that we can keep coming back to as we move forward because as we shake up our intuitions and get confused and then we come back to our intuitions and say, no, that just can’t be. I think this analogy might be helpful, but.
Lex Fridman (20:44):
What kind of plant was he working on?
Annaka Harris (20:46):
A pea tendrils. So a pea plant has these tendrils. You can picture them. They coil. So I don’t know what year this research was done. I’m guessing in the 80s, but some.
Lex Fridman (21:01):
But pea tendrils have been around long before that.
Annaka Harris (21:04):
Yes, of course. And the research may have happened long.
Lex Fridman (21:08):
In fact, they might be doing the research on the humans, but that’s another story.
Annaka Harris (21:11):
All right. Pea tendrils as a system, generally, there are a few more things they can do, but generally they can behave in two ways. They can grow in a straight line slowly, or they can grow in this coil form more quickly.
And what happens is when they are growing in a straight manner and they encounter a branch or a pole or something else that it can wrap itself around to gain more stability, when it senses a branch there, that gives it the cue to start growing at a more rapid pace and to start coiling instead of growing straight. So it has these two behaviors. As a system, it’s capable of growing straight and it’s capable of coiling. One interesting thing, actually, I’ll just add this. It’s not totally relevant, but one interesting thing is Mark Jaffe’s work. So he cut a pea tendril. He was curious to see if it could do this on its own separate from the rest of the plant.
So he cut a pea tendril off the plant. If you keep it in a moist, warm environment, it will continue to behave in these ways. So it will continue to coil. He noticed that if he touched one end of it, if he rubbed one side of it, that gave it enough of a cue that it would start to coil. And then he noticed that it needed light to perform this action. So in the dark, when he rubbed the edge of the tendril, it did not coil. In the light, it would. And then he recognized this further fact, which was that the pea tendril that he rubbed in the dark, that was still straight, if he brought it out into the light, and this could be hours later, it would start to coil. It has a primitive form of memory where it has the sensation and then it holds onto that information. And as soon as there’s light, it acts on the light.
Lex Fridman (23:03):
But also on the kind of distributed intelligence, because you can separate it from the main part. Like if you chop off a human arm, it’s not gonna keep growing.
Annaka Harris (23:15):
Even if you keep it in a moist, warm environment, it’s not gonna reach out for the cup of coffee when you come in with star.
Lex Fridman (23:21):
Maybe in the correct environment. Maybe we just haven’t found the environment. But anyway, that’s pretty amazing.
Annaka Harris (23:27):
So that’s a separate fact. But anyway, so if you just use the analogy of a pea tendril, and if you imagine, which is something I like to do a lot, if you imagine this plant has some kind of conscious experience, of course it doesn’t have complex thought, it doesn’t have anything like a human experience, but if it were possible for a plant to have some felt experience, you can imagine that when it comes into contact with a branch and starts to coil, that that feeling could be one of deciding to do that, or that it feels good to do that, or kind of wanting. I mean, that’s too complex, that’s anthropomorphizing, but there’s a way in which you could imagine this pea tendril under those circumstances suddenly wants to start coiling.
Lex Fridman (24:13):
So you’re saying you try to meditate at what it’s like to be a pea tendril, a plant. Like that’s what’s required here. So you have to empathize with a plant, or with another organism that’s not human.
Annaka Harris (24:25):
Yeah, and you don’t actually need that for this analogy, the larger analogy that I’m getting at, but I think that’s an interesting piece to keep in mind, that you could imagine that in nature, if there’s a conscious experience associated with a pea tendril, that at that moment, what that feels like is a want to start moving in a different way.
Lex Fridman (24:44):
So you want to imagine that without anthropomorphizing, so without projecting the human experience, but rather sort of humbling yourself that we’re just another plant with more complexity.
Annaka Harris (24:56):
Yes, in a way. Exactly, so yeah, that’s where I’m going with this. So, and when you start making that connection, you can see where there are a few points at which there’s room for an illusion to come in, for our own feelings of will. So when we move from a pea tendril to human decision-making, obviously, human decision-making, human brains are many, many, many times more complex than whatever’s going on in a pea tendril. I mean, the brain is actually the most complex thing we know of in the universe thus far.
So there is the genes that help develop the brain into any particular brain into what it is, there are all the inputs, there are countless factors that we could never, I mean, it may as well be an infinite number of factors. And then in that particular moment, whatever the inputs are to a brain, the brain is capable of almost an infinite number of outputs, right? So if I walked in here this morning and you said, would you like water or tea? And that’s simple decision for me to make.
Lex Fridman (26:02):
That’s a passive aggressive way of telling me I should have offered you some tea, but yes, go on.
Annaka Harris (26:08):
No, I wanted water. I actually asked for water. And you didn’t have any free will anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I don’t hold your response for any of it.
Lex Fridman (26:17):
Exactly, I was just running an algorithm.
Annaka Harris (26:21):
So you give me this decision, right, to make water or tea. We’ll go back to the p-tendral for a second. A p-tendral is capable of growing in a straight line slowly or in a coil quickly. My brain is capable of all kinds of responses to that question, even though you’ve given me two options, you could offer me water or tea and I could just run out of the room screaming if I wanted to.
Lex Fridman (26:46):
Right. Happens to me all the time.
Annaka Harris (26:47):
Nevermind, I don’t wanna do this. But the fact that the brain is capable, that there’s so many inputs and then the brain is capable of so many outputs as a system, what it’s hard for us to get our minds around is that it may not be capable of any behavior in every moment in time. So as a system, it’s capable of doing all kinds of things. And the point I’m making is that if we could see all of the factors leaning up to the moment where I chose water or where I ran screaming from the room, we could in fact see that there was no other behavior I was going to or could have exhibited in that moment in the same way that when the p-tendral hits the branch, it starts coiling.
Lex Fridman (27:41):
So there’s a parallel, which is very interesting in robotics with fish and water. So you could see they’ve experienced with like dead fish and they keep swimming. So the fish is capable of all kinds of complicated movements as a system. But in any one moment, the river, the full complexity of the river defines the actual movement of the fish, efficient.
Annaka Harris (28:07):
Well, and I should also, I mean, this brings up another point, which is that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary behavior. So of course we have reflexes and it is a different, there’s different brain processing in action when I make a decision about water or tea, then there is, if my behavior is forced from the outside, or if I have a brain tumor that’s causing me to make certain decisions or feel certain feelings. And so the point is at bottom, it’s all brain processing and behavior.
The reason why certain actions feel willed, there’s a good reason why it feels that way. And it’s to distinguish our own self-generated behavior based on thinking and possibly weighing the different results of different things. I already had caffeine today, I don’t want more. There are all these processes, things that we can point to and things that we can’t, things I’m affected by at a subconscious level.
And that is very different from an unwilled action or a reflex or something like that. And so some people, I can imagine, I haven’t used the p-tendral example, but I can imagine they wouldn’t like that because the p-tendral sounds more to them like a reflex and that doesn’t address the question of a much more complex decision-making process. But I think at bottom, that is what it is. And that’s really where the illusion of free will and the illusion of self, which I think is, they’re kind of two sides of the same coin, come from, so even when we intellectually understand that everything we’re feeling, everything we’re doing is based on our brain processing and brain behavior, if you’re a physicalist, you’ve bought into that, even when you intellectually understand that, we, and I include myself in this, we still have this feeling that there’s something that stands outside of the brain processing that can intervene, and that’s the illusion.
I was tweeting with someone recently, which I almost never do, but we’re working, in the TED documentary that I’m making right now, we’re working on the episode on free will. So I was allowing myself to go back and forth in a way that I don’t usually on Twitter. Like arguing? About free will. It was a friendly debate. Gonna go into the reasons why I’m not crazy about Twitter, but let’s leave that for another time. I mean, talk about how hard it is to have this conversation when we have as many hours as we like, trying to do it in soundbites over Twitters.
Lex Fridman (30:47):
See, I like how you made the decision now not to talk about Twitter.
Annaka Harris (30:52):
Well, my brain, that was one of the things I said to this person was, because someone chimed in and said, you said I, what do you mean by I? And so actually that’s another point I could make, which is, first, my response to that was, well, people tend to get creeped out when I say the system that is my brain and body that we call Annaka recommends.
Lex Fridman (31:17):
Why do they get freaked out? Oh, you mean like in your personal life?
Annaka Harris (31:21):
Oh, it’s like never saying I, yeah.
Lex Fridman (31:23):
But I always refer to you as the brain and body we call Lex. Yes, well, I don’t know, that’s kind of charming in a way.
Annaka Harris (31:34):
Alleged brain. So I and you are very useful shorthand, even though at some level they’re illusions, they’re very useful shorthand for the system of my brain, really, and my body, the whole system, that I is useful for that. But the illusion is when we feel like there’s something outside of that system that can intervene, that is free, that’s somehow free from the physical world. I can have the thought, yeah, I’m really not crazy about having intellectual back and forth on Twitter, and then feel like I decide to not follow that thought. And the feeling, that’s the feeling where the illusion comes in, because it really feels as if, sure, my brain had that original thought, and then I came in and made a different decision. But of course, the truth is, it was just further brain processing that got me to decide not to go down that path.
Lex Fridman (32:32):
How much is that feeling of conscious will is culturally constructed shorthand? So like I and you is a, you could say, a culturally constructed shorthand. How much of that affects how we think? So our parents say I and you, I and you, and then we start to believe in I and you, and is that fundamental to the human brain machine that we?
Annaka Harris (33:03):
I think it goes very deep. I think it’s fundamental, and I think it probably, some form of feeling like a self goes as deep as cats and dogs, and it’s possible, I mean, if consciousness does go down to the level of cells, or however far down you wanna take it, worms, or I think any system that’s navigating itself that kind of has boundaries and is navigating itself in the world, my guess is that it’s an intrinsic part of, that’s why I imagined that the pea tendril would have this feeling.
And so we use the word I. I think you’re right, first of all, that the way we talk about things affects our intuitions about them and how we feel about them. And so there are other cultures who are more open to breaking through these illusions than others, for sure, just because of their belief sets, the way they talk. I mean, I’m not a linguist, and I don’t even speak a second language, so I can’t speak to it, but if there were a language that framed who we are differently in everyday language, I mean, in our everyday communication, I would think that would have an effect.
Lex Fridman (34:24):
Yeah, language does affect things. I mean, just knowing Russian and the history of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, obviously it lived under communism for a long time, so your conception of individualism is different, and that reflects itself in the language. You could probably have a similar kind of thing within the language in terms of how we talk about I and we and so on. And I’m sure there’s certain countries or maybe even villages with certain dialects that let go of the individualism that’s inherent.
Annaka Harris (35:01):
Yeah, I mean, there must be a range, but I do think that it’s pretty deep, and I think there’s also a difference between the autobiographical me and then this more fundamental me that we’re talking about or that I’m pointing to as the illusion. So in my book, I talk about if someone wakes up with amnesia, if they have a brain injury and suddenly have amnesia and can’t remember anything about their lives, can’t remember their name, don’t recognize people they’re related to, they would have lost their autobiographical self, but they would still feel like an I. They would still have that basic sense of I’m a person. I mean, they’d be speaking that way. I don’t remember my name. I don’t know where I live.
It goes very deep, this feeling that I am a single entity that is somehow not completely reliant upon the cause and effect of the physical world.
Lex Fridman (36:08):
Can I ask you a pothead question? Yeah. Would you rather lose all your memories or not be able to make new ones? Now I’m asking you as a human in terms of happiness and preference.
Annaka Harris (36:32):
I can’t answer that.
Lex Fridman (36:33):
You like both. You like both features of the organism that you embody?
Annaka Harris (36:38):
Well, one is intellectual and one is psychological really. I mean, I would have to choose the memories only because, I mean, memories of the past, only because I have children and a family and it wouldn’t just be affecting me, it would be affecting them. It would just be too horrible.
Lex Fridman (36:55):
No, but you would make new ones, right?
Annaka Harris (36:58):
If I lost my memory of the 13 past 10 years of my career.
Lex Fridman (37:01):
You think you would lose? This is a dark question.
Annaka Harris (37:06):
Oh, wait, wasn’t that the question? Maybe I missed.
Lex Fridman (37:08):
No, no, no, no, you understood it perfectly, but you don’t, sorry for the dark question, but the people you love in your life, if you lost all your memory of everything, do you think you would still love them? Like you show up, you don’t know.
Annaka Harris (37:23):
I don’t know. It’s the role of the dead. I mean, not in the way that I do.
Lex Fridman (37:27):
Right, just some deep aspect of love is the history you have together.
Annaka Harris (37:31):
Oh, absolutely. Well, and this gets to an interesting point actually, which I think a lot about, which is memory. And we won’t go into this yet, but I’ll just plant a flag here that memory is, yeah. Memory is obviously related to time and time is something that I’m fascinated with. And for this project I’m working on now, I’ve mostly been speaking to physicists who are interested in consciousness. And it’s partly because of this link between memory and time, and all of these new fascinating theories and thoughts around the different interpretations of quantum mechanics and looking at the thing that I’ve always been looking for is really the fundamental nature of reality and why my questions about consciousness lead me to wonder if consciousness is a more fundamental aspect of the universe than we previously thought and certainly I previously thought.
And so memory, but memory is tied to so many things. I mean, even basic functions in nature. Actually, so the petendral, as I mentioned, memory comes into play there and that’s so fascinating. And there is no sense of self without memory. Even if you’re starting from scratch, as you said, with amnesia, if you truly couldn’t lay down any new memories, I think you would, then that sense of self would begin to disintegrate because the sense of self is one of a concrete entity through time.
And if each moment, if you really were stuck in the present moment eternally, you’d basically be meditating. And in meditation, this is a very common experience is losing that sense of self, that sense of free will, that those illusions more easily drop away in meditation. And I would say for most people who meditate long enough, they do drop away. And there’s actually an explanation at the level of the brain as well. The default mode network is circuitry in the brain that neuroscientists don’t completely understand, but know is largely responsible for this feeling of being a self.
And when that circuit gets quieted down, which it does in meditation and also does with the use of psychedelic drugs, and there are other ways to quiet down the default mode network, people have this experience of losing this illusion of being a self. They no longer feel that they’re a self in the way that they usually do.
Lex Fridman (40:15):
So there’s the autobiographical self is connected to the sense of self through the memory. And then you’re thinking that the solution to that lies in physics, not just neuroscience, like ultimately consciousness and the experience, the conscious will is a question of physics.
Annaka Harris (40:40):
I may have said something misleading because I was connecting too many dots.
Lex Fridman (40:47):
Things I say are misleading. Let us mislead each other.
Annaka Harris (40:51):
I just got, I got excited when memory came up because I love talking about time.
Lex Fridman (40:56):
So you mentioned a project that you’re working on a couple of times. What’s that about? I think you said Ted is involved. You’re interviewing a bunch of people. What’s going on? What’s the topic?
Annaka Harris (41:05):
So I’m working on an audio documentary about consciousness and it picks up where my book left off. So all of the questions that were still lingering for me and research that I still wanted to do, I just started conducting. So I’ve done about 30 interviews so far and it’s not totally clear what the end result will be. I’m currently collaborating with Ted and I’m having a lot of fun creating a pilot with them. And so we’ll see where it goes but the idea is that it’s a narrated documentary.
Lex Fridman (41:38):
It’s like a series. A series, it’ll be a 10-part series. And I’m clear, oh, you already know the number of parts.
Annaka Harris (41:44):
Sorry, in my mind, it’s a 10-part series. It may end up being eight or 11 or 12. I don’t know why.
Lex Fridman (41:47):
Listen, I am very comfortable by the numbers zero and one as well. About 10. I like the confidence of 10. So, and you’re not sure what the title, not the title but the topic, will there be consciousness or something bigger or something small?
Annaka Harris (42:04):
Yeah, I mean, so at the end of my book, I kind of get to the place where I’ve convinced myself at least that this question about whether consciousness is fundamental is a legitimate one and then I just start spending a lot of time thinking about what that would mean, if it’s even possible to study scientifically. So I mostly talk to physicists, actually, because I really think ultimately this is a question for physics, if consciousness is fundamental. I think it needs to be strongly informed by neuroscience, but it’s, yeah, if it’s part of the fabric of reality, it is a question for a physicist. So I speak to different physicists about different interpretations of quantum mechanics, so getting at the fundamentals. So string theory and many worlds. I spoke to Sean Carroll, had a great conversation with Sean Carroll. He’s so generous because he clearly doesn’t agree with me about many things, but he has a curious mind and he’s willing to have these conversations. And I was really interested in understanding many worlds better and if consciousness is fundamental, what the implications are.
So that was where I started, actually, was with many worlds. And then we had conversations about string theory and the holographic principle. I spoke to Lee Smolin and Brian Greene and Jana Levin and Carlo Rovelli, actually. Have you had Carlo on? No, no. Okay, he’s great also and fun to talk to because he’s just endlessly curious, yeah.
Lex Fridman (43:34):
And you’re doing audio?
Annaka Harris (43:36):
It’s all audio, yeah, but it’s in the format of a documentary. So I’m narrating it and kind of telling the story of what questions came up for me, what I was interested in exploring, and then why I talked to each person I talked to.
Lex Fridman (43:48):
By the way, I highly recommend Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast, I think it’s called. Yeah. It’s amazing. One of my favorite things, when he interviews physicists, it’s great, but any topic, his aim is, but one of my favorite things is how frustrated he gets with panpsychism. But he’s still like, it’s like a fly towards the light. For some reason, he can’t make sense of it, but he still struggles with it. And I think that’s the sign of a good scientist who’s struggling with these ideas.
Annaka Harris (44:20):
Totally agree. And yes, that’s what I appreciate in him and many scientists like that.
Lex Fridman (44:26):
Who has the craziest, most radical ideas that you talk with currently? So you can go either direction. You can go like panpsychism, consciousness permeates everything. I don’t know how far you can go down that direction. Or you could say that, what would be the other direction? That there’s…
Annaka Harris (44:47):
There isn’t real, the problem is they’re all crazy.
Lex Fridman (44:49):
They’re all crazy.
Annaka Harris (44:50):
Each one is crazier than the next. And my own, I mean, my own thoughts. Now I have to be very careful about the words I choose because I mean, it’s just like talking about the different interpretations of quantum mechanics. It’s once you get deep enough, it’s so counterintuitive and it’s so beyond anything we understand that they all sound crazy. Many worlds sounds crazy. String theory, I mean, these are things we just cannot get our minds around really.
And so that’s kind of, that’s the realm I love to live in and love to explore in. And the realm that to my surprise, my interest in consciousness has taken me back to.
Lex Fridman (45:35):
Can I ask you a question on that? Yeah. Just a side tangent. How do you prevent when you’re imagining yourself to be a pea tendril? How do you prevent from going crazy? I mean, this is kind of the Nietzsche question of like you have to be very careful thinking outside the norms of society because you might fall off. You’re so connected as a human to the collective intelligence that in order to question intuitions, you have to step outside of it for a brief moment. How do you prevent yourself from going crazy?
Annaka Harris (46:09):
I think I used to think that was a concern.
Lex Fridman (46:15):
And then you became crazy. I’ve learned so much about the brain.
Annaka Harris (46:18):
No, and I’ve had experiences of deep depression and I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. I think in order to be a good scientist and in order to be a truthfully, let’s say to allow yourself to be curious and honest in your curiosity, I think it’s inevitable that lots of ideas and theories and hypotheses will just sound crazy. And that is always how we’ve advanced science. And maybe nine out of 10 ideas are crazy and crazy meaning they’re actually not correct. But all of, I mean, as I said, all of the big scientific breakthroughs, all of the truths we’ve uncovered that are the earth-shattering truths that we uncover, they really do sound crazy at first. So I don’t think one necessarily leads to a type of mental illness. I see mental illness in a very different category. And I think some people are more susceptible to being destabilized by this type of thinking. And that might be a legitimate concern for some people that kind of being grounded in everyday life is important.
For my psychological health, the more time I spend thinking about the bigger picture and outside of everyday life, the more happy I am, the more expansive I feel. I mean, it feels nourishing to me. It feels like it makes me more sane, not less.
Lex Fridman (48:01):
Well, that’s a happiness, but in terms of your ability to see the truth, that you can be happy and completely be.
Annaka Harris (48:09):
I guess I don’t see mental illness necessarily being linked to truth or not truth.
Lex Fridman (48:14):
So we were talking about minimizing mental illness, but also truth is a different dimension. So you can go crazy in both directions. You could be extremely happy, and they are. Flat earthers, you can believe the earth is flat. Because actually, I mean, I’m sure there’s good books on this but it’s somehow really comforting. It’s fun and comforting to believe you figured out the thing that everybody else hasn’t figured out.
Annaka Harris (48:46):
I think that’s what conspiracy theories always provide people.
Lex Fridman (48:50):
Why is it so fun? It’s so fun, except one is dangerous. But even then it’s probably fun, but then you shouldn’t do it because it’s unethical. Anyways.
Annaka Harris (49:02):
Not true, I’m not a fan of following.
Lex Fridman (49:05):
Well, that makes one of us. I don’t know, there is probably a fascinating story to why conspiracy theories are so compelling to us human beings as deeper than just fun internet stuff.
Annaka Harris (49:20):
Yeah, I’m very interested in why they’re so compelling to some people and not others. I feel like there must be some difference that at some point we’ll be able to discover. Yeah, yeah. Because some people are just not susceptible to them, and some people are really drawn to them.
Lex Fridman (49:38):
Because I feel like the kind of thinking that allows for you to be open to conspiracy theories is also the kind of thinking that leads to brilliant breakthroughs in science. Sort of willingness to go to crazy land.
Annaka Harris (49:54):
Something that seems like crazy land. That’s interesting, I see it the opposite way. Really? Yeah.
Lex Fridman (50:01):
See, you don’t see the connection between thinking the Earth is flat and coming up with special relativity.
Annaka Harris (50:07):
Thinking the Earth is flat is following your intuitions and not being open to counterintuitive ideas. It’s a very closed way of viewing things. Saying it’s actually, it’s not the way you feel. There’s information that tells us that there’s something else going on. And that type of person will say, no, it’s the way it feels to me.
Lex Fridman (50:31):
No, no, no, but wait a minute. There’s a mainstream narrative of science that says the Earth is round. Right. And I think a flat-earther and the, see, I admire the very first step of a flat-earther. I don’t admire the full journey. But the first step is…
Annaka Harris (50:50):
Think if you’re open to evidence, then the evidence clearly takes you in one direction.
Lex Fridman (50:55):
Right, but you have to ask the question. You have to ask, to me, this is like first principles thinking. The Earth looks flat, so I’m gonna look around here. And how crazy is it that the Earth is round and there’s a thing called gravity that operates between objects that’s related to the mass of the object? That’s crazy.
Annaka Harris (51:22):
Yes, the truth is often crazier than what the situation feels to be.
Lex Fridman (51:26):
A good step is to question what everyone is saying and…
Annaka Harris (51:30):
Then you learn a little bit. I know what you mean, to be skeptical about, it’s the authority factor.
Lex Fridman (51:34):
Yeah, but I think that, and the authority in some kind of weird current where everyone questions institutions, but more like the authority of the senior scientists, the junior scientists coming up, wait a minute, why have we been doing things this way? And that first step, I feel like that rebelliousness or that open-mindedness, or maybe like resistance to, or maybe curiosity that is not affected by whatever the mainstream science says of today.
Annaka Harris (52:08):
Cass, I feel like mainstream science has never been mainstream, and it’s always a struggle for science to become mainstream. It’s part of the reason why I started doing the work I did, actually, helping scientists make their work more accessible, is that it’s usually not. Yeah.
Lex Fridman (52:25):
Here’s advice for scientists, be more interesting, and much more important, be less arrogant. So arrogance, there’s very little money in science, and so everyone is fighting for that money, and they become more and more arrogant and siloed. I don’t know why.
Annaka Harris (52:41):
I will say that the scientists I know, and some of them are very well-known, very famous scientists, are the least arrogant people I’ve ever met. That scientists, in general, their personalities are more open, more humble, more likely to say they just don’t know, because I’ve been involved a lot in the science writing and how the media portrays. So one of scientists, the scientific community’s greatest frustration is how their work gets presented in the media.
And a lot of the time, I would say that’s the main frustration, is there’s some new breakthrough, there’s something, and the scientists will be saying, we’re not sure, it’s gonna take five years, and no one likes to write a story about something that may or may not be true, they think it’s true, they’re gonna take five years testing it, and so the headline will be, neuroscientists discovered they want the sensational.
And so I think the public often gets the false impression that the scientists are arrogant, and I really don’t find that to be the case. And I’ve worked with all kinds of people, artists, and my life path has taken a, it’s strange.
Lex Fridman (54:03):
You’ve met some incredible people, you work with some incredible people. So let’s, the crazy topic of free will, I mean, I just, we have to link on this, because I can’t. So the plant, all right, can you try to steel man the case, that there’s something really special about humans? That there is a fundamental difference between us and the petandral?
You know, humans are clearly very special in the evolution of organisms on Earth. Could that have been the magic leap? Could consciousness been like the invention of the eukaryotic cell or something like?
Annaka Harris (54:46):
Well then, I mean, so I have to get clear on what you’re asking. So are you coming from a place of wondering if we are the only conscious mammals? Yes. Do you really think that’s a question?
Lex Fridman (55:00):
Can you make a case for it?
Annaka Harris (55:03):
That’s a question. Take one step back. We look out at the universe. At this point in our scientific understanding, we know that essentially we’re all made of the same ingredients, right? They’re atoms in the universe doing their thing. They find themselves in different configurations based on the laws of physics. And then the question is, if we look out at all of the configurations of atoms in the universe and ask, which of these entail conscious experiences? Which of these have a felt experience of being the matter they are?
And they’re really only two, broadly speaking, they’re really only two assumptions to make here. And the first one is the one that science has taken and that I have for most of my career as well, and that in many ways makes the most sense, which is electrons aren’t conscious, tables aren’t, there’s no felt experience there, but at a certain point in complex processing, that processing entails an experience of being that processing. That’s just a fascinating fact all on its own, and I love to spend some time thinking about that. So the question is, does consciousness arise at some point? Are some of these collections of atoms conscious? Or are all of them? Because we know the answer isn’t none. I know that I’m at least having a conscious experience. I know that conscious experiences exist in the universe.
And so the answer isn’t none. So the answer has to be all or some. And this is a starting assumption that you’re really kind of forced to make, and that it’s all or some.
Lex Fridman (56:50):
All or some?
Annaka Harris (56:51):
I would say one is some also. We either need an explanation for why there’s non-conscious matter in the universe, and then something happens for consciousness to come into being, or it’s part of the fundamental nature of reality.
Lex Fridman (57:04):
It’s also, if consciousness is a fundamental property of reality, it could also choose to not reveal itself until a certain complexity of organism.
Annaka Harris (57:16):
I’m not sure what that means.
Lex Fridman (57:19):
I’m not sure what that means either. Like the flame of consciousness does not start burning until a certain complexity of organisms able to reveal it.
Annaka Harris (57:29):
So I don’t think we can look at consciousness that way. I don’t think, I mean, many people like to try to make that argument that it’s a spectrum. Why do we have to say all or nothing, maybe? And I agree that I actually think it is a spectrum. But it’s a spectrum of content, not of consciousness itself. So if a worm has some level of conscious experience, it is extremely minimal, something we could never imagine having the complex experience you and I have. Maybe some felt sensation of pressure or heat or something super basic, right? So there’s this range. Or even if you just think of an infant, like the moment an infant becomes conscious, there’s a very, very minimal experience of inputs of sound and light and whatever it is.
And so there’s a spectrum of content. There’s a spectrum of how much a system is consciously experiencing, but there’s a moment at which you get on the spectrum. And I truly believe that that piece of it is binary. So if there’s no conscious experience, there is no consciousness. You can’t say consciousness is there, it just hasn’t lit its flame yet. If consciousness is there, there’s an experience there, by definition. It has to arise at some point, or it has to always be there.
Lex Fridman (58:46):
Is it possible to make the case that it arising happens first, for the first time ever, with homo sapiens?
Annaka Harris (58:57):
I think that is extremely unlikely. What I think is more possible based on what we understand about the brain is that it arises in brains or nervous systems. And so then we’re talking about flies and bees and all kinds of things that kind of fall out of our intuitions for whether they could be conscious or not.
But I think, especially once you talk about more complex brains with many, many more neurons, when you’re talking about cats and dogs and dolphins, it’s very hard to see how there would be a difference between humans and other mammals, in terms of consciousness.
Lex Fridman (59:48):
Well, is there a difference in terms of intelligence between humans and other mammals? Sure. Not like a fundamental leap in intelligence?
Annaka Harris (59:56):
It’s hard to say definitively. I mean, it depends on how you define intelligence and all kinds of things. But obviously, humans are unique and capable of all kinds of things that no other mammals are capable of. And there are important differences, and I don’t think you need any magical intervention of something outside of the physical world to explain it. And the way I think about consciousness, I actually think it’s part of the reason we’re mistaken about consciousness, is because we are special in the ways that we’re special. And because we’re complex creatures, we have these complex brains. So I think we should probably get into some of the details of why I think we’re confused about what consciousness is. But just to finish this point, I think that we don’t actually have any evidence that consciousness is complex, that it comes out of complex processing, that it’s required for complex processing. And I think we’ve made this anthropomorphic mistake because we are conscious, and it’s very hard to get evidence.
It’s one of the things that makes consciousness unique and mysterious, and why I’m fascinated with it, is it’s the one thing in nature that we can’t get conclusive evidence of from the outside. We can buy analogy. You’re behaving basically the same way I behave, more or less. You talk about your conscious experiences, and therefore I just extrapolate from that, that you’re having a felt experience in the way I am, and we can do that throughout nature.
Well, there’s no physical evidence. There’s nothing we can observe from the outside that will give us conclusive proof that consciousness is there. And so I think we’ve made this leap to, because we’re conscious, and because we’re unique and special and complex and intelligent in the way that we are, and because we don’t have an intuition that anything else is conscious, or we have no feedback about it, we’ve made this assumption that consciousness, that those things aren’t conscious, and felt experience does not exist out there in other atoms and forms of life even, but especially not inanimate objects. And therefore, consciousness is somehow tied to these other things that make us unique, that consciousness arises when there is this complex processing. When there is, and there’s, we can talk about the evolution argument too, which I think is super interesting to get into, and I’m hoping to talk to Richard Dawkins about this for my series. What’s he think about consciousness? He’s not interested.
He’s not interested, and actually the conversation I would have with him would be very brief, because he’s just not that interested in this topic. But let’s go back to the Richard Dawkins piece, because I feel like there’s a lot to talk about here in terms of our intuitions about consciousness, what it’s doing, why in my book, and everywhere I talk about consciousness, I bring it back to these two questions that I think are at the heart of our intuitions about consciousness, and so your questions about whether human beings are unique and special and all of that, I think are interesting questions and something we could talk about. I see them as separate questions from the consciousness question.
Lex Fridman (01:03:22):
So you see consciousness as giving a felt experience to our uniqueness, as opposed to the uniqueness giving birth to consciousness.
Annaka Harris (01:03:30):
Yes, and that potentially there is felt experience, even though it sounds crazy even to me, that there is felt experience in all matter. And at this point in my thinking, and after a few conversations with some physicists, I think if consciousness is fundamental, the only thing that actually makes sense is that it is part of the most fundamental, that space-time and everything else emerges out of. Out of consciousness. That felt experience is just part of the fabric of reality.
Lex Fridman (01:04:02):
So is it possible to intuit this? Can we start by thinking about dogs and cats, go to the plants, and then going all the way to matter, or is this going to be like modern physics, where it’s just going to be impossible to even, through our reason alone, we’re going to have to have tools of some kind?
Annaka Harris (01:04:19):
I think it’ll be a little bit of both. I mean, I think the science has a very long way to go, and the truth is I don’t even think we can get to the science yet, because we have to do this work, and this is why I’m so passionate about this work. And it’s really taking hold. I mean, there are scientists, neuroscientists and physicists interested in consciousness, and kind of having gotten over the initial obstacle of wrestling with these intuitions, so that it’s now being talked about in a serious way, which was the first huge hurdle.
But I think a lot more of that has to happen, a lot more of the intuition breaking from the science we already have. I mean, I think we almost need to catch our intuitions up to what we already know, and then continue to break through these intuitions systematically so that we can really think more clearly about consciousness. There are a couple of scientists now working on theories of consciousness, which do go, they don’t quite go to the fundamental level, but they go extremely deep, so that something like an electron might be conscious under their theory.
This is Integrated Information Theory, IIT, with Christophe Koch and Giulio Tononi. I’ve spoken to both of them. I spoke to Christophe Koch once or twice for this project I’m working on now. What they’re working on is incredibly interesting to me, and I think very important work. However, I think they are also really led by some false intuitions about self and free will, and I think that will be a limit to their work, so we can get into that, but. We will, we will.
Lex Fridman (01:06:11):
Christophe Koch is awesome.
Annaka Harris (01:06:16):
Which is that what they’re working on, what they’re working on, I think, is the most important next step forward, which is just even being open to the fact that consciousness goes as deep as particles. And being rigorous with it. But even their theory isn’t going as deep as I think we need to go, and it’s hard to say how we could actually study this scientifically, but that’s part of the reason why I’m such a supporter of IIT and why I’m so interested in what they’re doing, even though I think they’re wrong, is because they’re opening this path there, and I think they’re getting more people interested, and I think, yeah, it’ll be, it’s hard for me to imagine what the science will actually look like, but.
Lex Fridman (01:06:57):
Okay, so your intuition, or at least the direction which you’re pushing, is that consciousness is the only fundamental thing in the universe that everything else, time, all those kinds of things emerge from that?
Annaka Harris (01:07:13):
I will say that what I believe at this point, I’ve been saying 50-50 for a long time, I’d say now it’s like 51-49 in terms of consciousness being emergent versus fundamental, so I am not convinced of this at all, I’m not convinced that consciousness is fundamental. What I think is there are very good reasons to think it could be, and essentially all of science up to this point has been led by the other assumption, by the first assumption that consciousness arises at some point, namely in brains, and that’s where all the science has gone, and I think that’s wonderful, and I think it should keep on going, and I actually think that was a more important place to start, but I think there’s a possibility that the correct assumption is that it’s fundamental, and so that’s the science I support, that’s the thing I spend a lot of my time thinking about and talking to scientists and philosophers about, and so I shouldn’t give the idea that I actually have crossed over into believing this is the case, but it’s the assumption I follow in my work at this point.
Lex Fridman (01:08:23):
It’s a possibility, an understudied possibility, so it deserves serious, rigorous attention.
Annaka Harris (01:08:29):
And there are good reasons to start with that assumption versus the other that I think we’re just now starting to realize.
Lex Fridman (01:08:37):
So just to clarify, when we’re talking about consciousness, we’re talking about the hard problem of consciousness, that it feels like something to, you know, there’s a subjective experience. Do we, you know, if consciousness permeates all matter, it’s fundamental, is that going to be somehow, is our current intuition about consciousness, like the very tiny subset of what consciousness actually is? So we have our intuitions about personal experiences, like what it feels like, what it tastes to eat a cookie or something like that. But that seems like a very specific implementation of consciousness in an organism, so how can we even reason about something that’s, if consciousness is fundamental, how can we reason about that?
Annaka Harris (01:09:32):
I’m not sure I’m understanding the connection between those two things, but.
Lex Fridman (01:09:36):
When you think about what it’s like to be a plant to experience a thing, okay, we can kind of get that. We can kind of understand that.
Annaka Harris (01:09:42):
There are a lot of places we could go with this. One is, there’s actually work being done by people like David Eagleman. He’s a neuroscientist, I don’t know if you know him. You should talk to him for your podcast if you haven’t. He’s wonderful, great science communicator. He’s someone I interviewed for my current project too. So he’s done, this actually, okay, there are many places we can go. One is, he does work with sensory addition, sensory substitution, and this is going in some very interesting directions and maybe partly answers your question, which is giving humans qualia, sensory experiences that we’re not wired for, that human beings have never had before. You let me know what you’re most interested in hearing about. We could talk about things like the brain port. There was actually a study done, I just talked to one of the participants in the study, where they were seeing if they could give human beings an experience of magnetic north. So other animals have this sense that we don’t have, where they can feel intuitively the way that our eyes work to give us an intuitive sense of our environment.
We don’t have to translate the information coming in through our eyes. We just have a map of the external world and we can navigate it. So many animals use a sense of magnetic north to get around and it’s an intuitive sense. So I spoke to someone who was in this part of this experiment and it was fascinating to hear him acquire a sense, not only that he had never had, but that no human being had ever had. So when I asked him to describe the experience, it was challenging for him and understandably so, because it would be like you describing sight to someone who’s never seen. But this is clearly possible and scientists like David Eagleman and others are working on these. And so I do think it’s possible that this line, that these scientific advancements may actually start to dovetail with the consciousness research in terms of being able to experience things we’ve never experienced before. But I do think that at some level, yes, we’re limited as human beings. We may be able to find some proof or enough proof to at least assume that consciousness is fundamental or who knows, one day actually believe that that’s the correct scientific view of things. And not really be able to get our minds around that or to understand what it means and certainly not to know what it feels like. I mean, we don’t even know what it feels like to be other creatures. I don’t know what it’s like to be you. Yeah, I mean, I guess that’s what empathy is about.
Lex Fridman (01:12:33):
That’s what I tried to exercise is try to imagine what it’s like to be other people. And then you’re doing that even farther with potentials. But perhaps we can do that thing more rigorously by connecting different sensory mechanisms to the brain to do that for all kinds of organisms on Earth. But they’re similar to Austin scale and the time at which they function, the time scale and the spatial scale. Perhaps it’s much more difficult to do for electrons and so on.
Annaka Harris (01:13:09):
So some of the intuitions I talked about, I mean, I just kind of, I’m taking them for granted that you and everyone knows what I’m talking about. But in terms of the science, in terms of the studies, understanding things like binding processes, understanding just a little bit about how the brain works and as far as we understand, and there’s just a ton of evidence now to support that our conscious experience is at the tail end of a lot of brain processing.
And so, yeah, so just a little bit, I mean, I give in the example in my book, I talk about tennis and the binding of the sights and sounds and felt experience of hitting a tennis ball, which in the world are happening at different times, the rates it takes, the sound waves and the light waves and the felt sensation to travel to my brain are different, that there are these binding processes that happen prior to the conscious experience that were essentially delivered to us by the brain. And so we can get back into this. I can answer your bigger question first, but I feel like for a lot of people to understand some of the science that already is shattering some of our intuitions about the role consciousness plays, I think is helpful in terms of being able to be open to thinking about these other ideas.
Lex Fridman (01:14:41):
Let’s go there. Where the heck does consciousness happen in what we understand about the brain timing-wise? I mean, this connects to conscious will too, our experience of free will.
Annaka Harris (01:14:52):
Yeah, there is this period of time and it’s depending on the situation and the behavior, it can be anywhere from, it’s essentially half a second. There’s 200 milliseconds. I actually don’t know, I was gonna compare it to the timing of thinking film and sound. I don’t know if you know this.
Lex Fridman (01:15:11):
Yeah, unfortunately I know this very well. You do? The film and sound?
Annaka Harris (01:15:15):
Yeah, like how the timing has to work so that our experiences of it happening at the same time.
Lex Fridman (01:15:23):
Let me just sit in the silence of it. There’s been so much pain on this one point. Sorry, I had no idea I was. So, I mean, yeah, I did a lot of algorithms on automatic synchronization of audio and video and all these kinds of things. No, I know this well. There’s a lot of science and there’s a lot of differences, but it’s about, and people claim it’s about 100 milliseconds and you can’t tell the difference, but it’s much more like 30 to 50 milliseconds. And you can go nuts trying to see if something is in sync or not. Is it in sync or not?
Annaka Harris (01:16:01):
Well, also, your brain is constantly making adjustments and so it can shift for you while you’re doing that, which is probably part of the thing that’s driving you crazy. Okay, so I’ll start with binding processes and then I’ll just give a couple of examples. So yes, there’s this window where your brain is essentially putting all the information together to deliver you a present moment experience that is most useful for you to navigate the world.
So as I said, and I use this example of tennis in my book, so the sights and sounds are coming at us at different rates. It takes longer for a sensation in my hand when I hit the ball with the racket to travel to my brain than it does for the light waves to hit my retina and get processed by the brain. So all these signals are coming in at different times.
Our brains go through this process of binding to basically weave it all together so that our conscious experience of that is of seeing, hearing, and feeling the ball hit the racket all at the same time. That’s obviously most useful to us. Binding is mostly about timing. It can be about other things, but I was just talking to David Eagleman who was talking about a very simple experiment, actually, and this kind of shows how your brain is basically always interacting with the outside world and always making adjustments to make its best guess about the most useful present moment experience to deliver. So this is a very simple experiment. This is from many, many years ago. And David Eagleman was involved in this research where they had participants hit a button and that button caused a flash of light.
And so our brains, through binding, the brain, it notices, is able to kind of calibrate the experience you have because the brain is aware that it is its own hand that is causing the light to flash, that there’s this cause and effect going on. And so you have this experience of pushing the button that causes the flash of light, which is true, and the light flashes. You can start to introduce longer pauses, starting with 20 milliseconds, 30 milliseconds, going up to, I think, 100, maybe even 200 milliseconds, where if you do it gradually, since your brain is making the adjustment, you can introduce a delay. I think it’s up to 200 milliseconds. If you do it gradually, you will still have the experience, even though there’s now a delay between when you hit the button and the light flashes, you will still have the exact same experience you had initially, which is that the light flashes right when you push the button. In your experience, nothing is changing.
But then, so they gradually give a delay. You’ve acclimated to that because it was done gradually. If they then go back to the original instantaneous flash, your brain doesn’t have time to make the adjustment, and you have the experience that the light flashed before you hit the button. And that is your true experience. It’s not like you’re confused, but that is your brain didn’t have time to make that adjustment. You think you’re in the same environment. You’re pushing the button and makes the light flash.
It’s kind of calibrating all the time. But then the participants are suddenly saying, oh, wait, that was so weird, the light flashed before I hit the button. And so these types of, they built a Rochambeau rock, paper, scissors computer game that was unbeatable based on this glitch that you can present in binding by training someone. If you introduce a delay slowly enough, then the computer can get the information before it responds, but you still have the experience that you’re both throwing out your rock or paper scissors at the same time, but in actuality, the computer saw your choice before it makes its choice. And it’s in this window of milliseconds where you don’t notice it.
Lex Fridman (01:20:24):
So that starts to help you build up an intuition that this conscious experience is an illusion constructed by the brain after- Conscious will. Conscious will.
Annaka Harris (01:20:35):
Yeah, and just in general that consciousness is not the thing that we feel it is, which is driving the behavior that is actually at the tail end of it. And so a lot of decision-making processes, and there are studies that are more controversial, and I don’t usually like to cite them, although if you want to talk about them, we can. They’re super interesting and intuition-shattering, but there are now studies specifically about free will to see if there are markers at the level of the brain that can see what decision you’re going to make and when you make that decision. And I think the neuroscience inevitably is just going to get better.
And so part of the reason I’m so passionate about this, I mean, there’s the science and there’s just the curiosity that drives me of wanting to understand how the universe works, but I actually see a lot of the neuroscience presenting us with truths that are going to be difficult for us to accept. And I actually think there are really positive ways to view these truths that we’re uncovering. And even though they can be initially kind of jarring and even destabilizing and creepy, I think ultimately there’s actually a lot, it can have a positive effect on human psychology and a whole range of things that I and others have experienced and that I think it’s important for us to talk about because you can’t hide from the truth, especially in science, right? Like it just, it will reveal itself. And if this is true, I think not only for better understanding the universe and nature, which is kind of my primary passion, it’s important for us to absorb these facts and realize that they don’t, it doesn’t necessarily take away the things from us that we fear. I’ve heard people say, as I talked about, it’s a common point to make or question to ask a scientist, can you still enjoy chocolate if you’re a molecular biologist and is there a molecular biologist that would be the one who would understand how we experience chocolate? I have the wrong slide. But anyway, if you’re focused on the details of the underlying nature of reality, does that take the joy and the pleasure and, for lack of a better word, spirituality out of our experience as human beings? And I actually think for these illusions like free will and self, the reverse is true. I actually think they can give us, they are reasons and bases for feeling more connected to each other and to the universe, for spiritual experiences, for even just on a more basic level, for increasing our wellbeing, just in terms of our psychology of lowering rates of depression and anxiety. And I actually think these realizations can be extremely helpful to people.
Lex Fridman (01:23:52):
Well, it’s like realizing that the universe doesn’t rotate around Earth, that the Earth is not the center of the universe, is a really challenging thought.
Annaka Harris (01:24:02):
Well, and people were worried about how that would affect society.
Lex Fridman (01:24:05):
Well, yes, that’s like long-term, but short-term, I bet you the number of people who had an existential crisis as it got integrated into society, that thought is huge. It’s like, it’s a hard one. And you’re saying…
Annaka Harris (01:24:20):
But it can’t, but it’s also a source of awe. And I mean, so many people now use that fact to inspire a positive response, to inspire creativity and curiosity and awe and all of these things that are so useful for human wellbeing.
Lex Fridman (01:24:46):
Where’s the source of meaning when you’re not the center of the universe, when the you doesn’t even exist? That even you, the sense of self and the sense of decision-making is an illusion.
Annaka Harris (01:25:02):
The truth is that for the most part, the sense of self is kind of at the core of human suffering because it feels as if we are separate from the rest of nature. We’re separate from each other. We’re separate from the illusion that I referenced of feeling like we have these thoughts that are brain-based thoughts, but then the eye swoops in to make a decision. In some sense, it goes so deep that it’s as if the eye is separate from the physical world.
And that separation plays a part in depression, plays a part in anxiety, even plays a part in addiction. So at the level of the brain, I think stop me if I’m repeating myself, but we started talking about the default mode network. And so we actually know that when the default mode network is quieted down, when people lose a sense of self in meditation and on psychedelic drugs in therapy, there is a feeling that people describe of an extremely positive feeling of being connected to the rest of nature. And so that’s a piece of it that I think if you haven’t had the experience, you wouldn’t necessarily know that would be a part of it. But truly having that insight that you’re not the self you feel you are, immediately your experiences are embedded in the universe and you are a piece of everything and you see that everything is interconnected. And so rather than feeling like a lonely eye in this bigger universe, there’s a sense of being a part of something larger than yourself. And this is intrinsically positive for human beings. And even just in our everyday lives, in choices and what we do for work, feeling part of something larger than yourself is the way people describe spiritual experiences and the way many positive psychological states are framed. And so there’s that piece of it.
Lex Fridman (01:27:17):
There is something, so there’s one giant hug with the universe, everything in it. But there is some sense in which we attach the search for meaning with the eye, with the ego. And it could almost seem like life is meaningless. Our existence, our I, my existence is meaningless.
Annaka Harris (01:27:45):
I think you can kind of go there under any worldview, really. Right, right. And the truth is we want to find a truth out of that downward spiral and not a story that we have to tell ourselves that isn’t true. And the fact is we have these facts available to us that with the right framing and the right context, looking at the truth actually provides us with that psychological feeling we’re searching for. And I think that’s important to point out.
Lex Fridman (01:28:26):
I think humans are fascinatingly good at finding beauty in truth, no matter how painful the truth is.
Annaka Harris (01:28:34):
So yes. Yes, I totally agree, yes. But in this case, I think there are… The concerns are legitimate concerns and I have them myself for how people respond. I’ve actually had people tell me they had to stop reading my book halfway through because the parts on free will were so upsetting to them. And this is something I think about a lot because that kind of breaks my heart. Because I see this potential for these realizations bringing levels of wellbeing that many people don’t have access to, I think it’s important to talk about them in ways that override what can be an initial fear or kind of spooky quality that can come out of these realizations.
Lex Fridman (01:29:40):
So at the end of that journey, there’s a clarity and an appreciation of beauty that if you just write it out. By the way, if you want to read upsetting, I just gotten through the boy, the four books, if you want to read upsetting. So my audible is hilarious.
So there’s conscious in it and then, so your book. And then it has the rise and fall of the Third Reich, Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, probably the most upsetting book I’ve ever read. If you want to, because it’s not just Stalin or Hitler, it’s Stalin and Hitler, it’s the worst hits, the opposite of the best hits. It’s really, really, really well written, really difficult. I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and what else, Red Famine, which is Anne Applebaum, does that hurt? Yeah, anyway, so those are truly upsetting and those are a lot of times the results of hiding the truth versus pursuing the truth. So truth in the short term might hurt, but it did ultimately set this free.
Annaka Harris (01:30:56):
I believe that. And I also think whatever the truth is, we have to find a way to maintain civil society and love and all the things that are important to us.
Lex Fridman (01:31:09):
If we can jump around a little bit, can I just ask on a personal note, because you said you’ve suffered from depression and there’s a lot of people that see guidance on this topic because it’s such a difficult one. How were you able to, when it has struck you, how were you able to overcome it?
Annaka Harris (01:31:26):
Yeah, I mean, this is maybe too long an answer. So I’ve experienced it in different forms. So it was my, I would say my depression has almost always mostly taken the form of anxiety. I didn’t realize how anxious I was. I think until I was an adult. So I was always very functional. I think all the positive sides of suffering in that way. I think I’m a little OCD as soon as I get to that point.
Lex Fridman (01:31:59):
And this whole conversation is hilarious because we’re both suffer to some level of anxiety.
Annaka Harris (01:32:04):
Your psychology is just laid out in front of us here.
Lex Fridman (01:32:06):
It’s a giant mess. We’re the same kind of human.
Annaka Harris (01:32:10):
We’re just trying to organize.
Lex Fridman (01:32:13):
Hold on like the Tom Waits song.
Annaka Harris (01:32:16):
But then I suffered from postpartum depression after both of my daughters, after both pregnancies. That was a very different experience from anything I’ve ever experienced, but clearly I had a predisposition towards suffering from something like that. Anyway, it really wasn’t until I fully recovered from the second experience of postpartum depression that I realized that I had been suffering on some level my whole life. And I think I always knew, I thought of myself as a very sensitive person, an empathic person. I mean, I’ve been in therapy for 10 years. I knew I had a lot of anxiety.
I would never have denied that I had a lot of anxiety. I just didn’t realize it crossed over into a disorder really until I was an adult and ended up taking Prozac. I took an SSRI for postpartum and it was fascinating to me. I ended up interviewing my psychiatrist because I was so fascinated in the whole thing once I was on the other side of it, just what I had been through, how different I felt during that period of time, and then how quickly the medication made me feel like myself again.
I had come out the other side of the experience of postpartum and was going to start tapering off the medication. And in this window where I no longer had postpartum depression, and hadn’t yet gone off the SSRI, I realized that life was not only a lot easier than when I had postpartum, but it was easier than it had ever been. And it took taking all of that anxiety away to recognize how much I had been grappling with it my entire life. And it first started coming in the form of realizations like, oh, is this how other people, is this how other people feel, is this how that, the things that I just always thought of myself, I’m really sensitive, I’m an introvert, I need a lot of time to myself, and all of these things that I felt like, I mean, it’s always very high functioning. And in some ways, I was a professional dancer and I think that was the type of therapy for me. There was the obsessing over the training and dancing nine hours a day, and all of that, I now look back on and see how much that was therapeutic for me, and that I was kind of treating something. But yeah, so it was just this experience of treating an anxiety disorder that caused me to realize that I had one. I didn’t know I could feel the way I felt after taking Protech. And I became very interested in, I mean, I was already working with neuroscientists, I was already interested in consciousness and the brain, and it just, this kind of rattled other intuitions for me in terms of how our childhoods shape who we become.
Because I had been convinced, my father was,
Lex Fridman (01:35:48):
was a complicated person.
Annaka Harris (01:35:50):
That’s what I was just gonna say again. But I think, I mean, so he was not diagnosed. I think he had borderline personality disorder and was emotionally abusive. And I thought that all of the ways I experienced the world and all of my anxiety and my sensitivities, I thought, almost all of that, if not all of that, was because of these experiences I had growing up and trauma that I experienced as a child. And obviously those things play a part, but what I realized after going through postpartum, and then the thing that was extremely informative to me was having my own children. Because they were basically living my dream childhood.
They had, none of the things that I thought were the cause of the psychological suffering that I experienced, there was none of that. And they have a lot of the same, they struggle with a lot of the same anxiety and panic attacks. And what I realized was how much were kind of born into the world with these things that we struggle with and with our strengths and with all of that. And of course, then if you have an abusive childhood, if you’re someone who tends to be anxious and sensitive and empathic, and then you’re born into an abusive situation, that’s obvious, terrible combination. But I’d never acknowledged or realized how strong just the genetics and the wiring.
Lex Fridman (01:37:28):
Where’s the line between you kind of accepting the challenges you’re born with, and this is what life will be, versus then figuring out that life can be somehow different?
Annaka Harris (01:37:39):
I think they’re part of the same process. And I think it’s kind of necessary to accept what you’re experiencing and what the situation is and how you feel and the types of thoughts and patterns you tend toward in order to make whatever changes can be made. So I do think it’s kind of part of the same process.
Lex Fridman (01:38:08):
Could life have been any different? Do you regret certain aspects of the decisions made?
Annaka Harris (01:38:15):
I mean, it depends on what level we’re talking. I think at a fundamental level, I don’t believe anything could be different.
Lex Fridman (01:38:23):
Are you able to think at that level about your own life?
Annaka Harris (01:38:27):
Sure, and that’s actually, that’s part of what I was, when I wanted to kind of talk a little bit about the levels of usefulness of being aware of these different illusions, because I would say most of the time in our daily lives, the types of illusions that I’m interested in shaking up are not useful to remind ourselves of most of the time. I really think there are different levels of usefulness to thinking about and reminding ourselves of the places where we have false intuitions. And so I often use the analogy of living on a sphere.
So it still feels to most of us most of the time. I mean, our intuitive sense, we’re not thinking about whether the earth is flat or a sphere, but we behave as if it’s flat, and that makes the most sense. And it would be exhausting to keep reminding ourselves as we walk down the street, like it feels flat, but it’s not flat. It’s like, there’s just no reason to do it. It’s not useful in that moment. If you’re building a house, you can build it as if the world is flat.
But of course, so there are psychological reasons to bring it into view, and maybe even spiritual reasons to bring it into view. And then there’s just like usefulness. So if you’re building a rocket to the moon, you better understand the geometry of the earth. Even if you’re flying an airplane, if you’re an airplane pilot, you have to be aware of the truth of our situation. And then I think there are other places where it’s interesting to remind ourselves, it’s where I start out my book, just as a way to inspire awe and to get yourself out of your everyday life and see the big picture, which can be just a relief, but also helps you feel more connected to the universe and to something larger than ourselves. And so I see these intuitions reminding ourselves that these intuitions are illusions in the same way, that most of the time they’re not useful. They are useful if we want to think about a science of consciousness. They’re useful for a whole range of neuroscientific studies. And I think they can be incredibly useful in the same way that lying on the ground and feeling the gravity pushing you against a sphere and realizing you’re floating in the middle of outer space, it gives me the same feeling to realize.
And so I have, I mean, there’s so many levels to it, but if I’m thinking about difficult things that I’ve experienced, different traumas in my life, when I take a step back and kind of get this bird’s eye view of kind of the mystery of this unfolding of the universe and the fact that it happened the way it happened and whether it could have happened another way, there’s no going back, that’s the way it unfolded. And being able to surrender to that, I think, is very psychologically healthy and prevents us from, I mean, I think regret is one of the most toxic loops we can get into.
Lex Fridman (01:41:52):
So this is a path to acceptance.
Annaka Harris (01:41:55):
Oh, absolutely, yeah. Because free will, I mean, I think part of what, the function of the experience of it is learning. I mean, I think we can still learn without being under the illusion that we have free will.
Lex Fridman (01:42:09):
So for some people, depression can destroy them. So how can you think about avoiding that?
Annaka Harris (01:42:19):
Yeah, so I didn’t totally answer your question. First is therapy, ways that I have worked through anxiety and depression.
Lex Fridman (01:42:33):
So you’re an introvert and a deeply intellectual person, therapy works for you?
Annaka Harris (01:42:41):
To a point. It was very helpful. I mean, I think talk therapy is one tool and can be helpful for, I mean, it depends on the therapist, depends on the type of therapy, but I found it to be one piece, and probably not the biggest piece, actually. But I think, I wish I had discovered medication sooner. That would have made a big difference in my life.
Lex Fridman (01:43:10):
Even just intellectually to realize that, oh, like I’m not.
Annaka Harris (01:43:15):
Life was a lot harder than it needed to be. And it wasn’t about keeping everything just so. There’s another state my brain can be in where I don’t have to work so hard to be okay. Meditation was probably the most, meditation and psychedelic experiences were probably the most transformative.
But a lot of these things, I’m lucky that I didn’t, my anxiety and depression never really got in the way of my living my life, of enjoying my life. I mean, there were struggles that made life harder for me. But something like treatment-resistant depression or severe PTSD, these are things that, at this point in time, based on my understanding, I think once you’ve tried, and the truth is that meditation is often not helpful for those things. It can actually exacerbate them. And the most promising thing that I have seen is this research into therapy-assisted psychedelic.
Lex Fridman (01:44:33):
Does that make sense to you that psychedelics work so well for such difficult cases? What is it about psychedelics?
Annaka Harris (01:44:37):
And I’ve been following this research from the beginning when they were doing end-of-life, yeah, they started with end-of-life patients, I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago. I met, at a TED conference, I met one of the doctors who was doing this research.
It was the first time I became aware that the research was happening, and I’d already had my own experiences before that. And so it made perfect sense to me that this would work. It was still astonishing to see the results, to see how successful the work is so much of the time. But it doesn’t surprise me, it makes sense. And it’s actually in line with all of these other things. So quieting down the default mode network. One of the things that’s so transformative about taking something like psilocybin, and everyone’s experience is different, and it can vary each time you take it, even in a single person.
But the experience I had and the experience that many people have that is so transformative is this feeling that’s very hard to describe, but it’s a feeling of being one with the universe. And that comes with, it’s kind of all one feeling that is, again, hard to put into words, but there’s this feeling that everything is okay. And I’d never had that feeling before in my life. And when I took psychedelics, that feeling would stay with me for months. And I never understood why, and it was always fascinating to me, but it was as if I was glimpsing a deeper truth of the world that it’s all one thing, we’re all connected. There’s no sense that there could even be a feeling of loneliness. It was just this visceral sense of being one with everything, and that everything was okay, that all the things I was afraid of, even death, that the universe, in a sense, is an endless recycling. And I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. But we also know on the other side that depression and anxiety, when people are experiencing those things, the default mode network is more active. And so it’s this cycling and this kind of obsessive cycles of thinking about one’s self that is a huge part of the suffering in the first place.
And so the one thing that’s surprising to me about the research is that, I may be fudging the data, but it’s something like 80% of people who are treated for PTSD after one, only one session are cured of their PTSD.
Lex Fridman (01:47:23):
Yeah, the effect stays for prolonged periods of time. That’s really interesting.
Annaka Harris (01:47:28):
And addiction as well, which is interesting. That’s not something I’m personally familiar with, so that was a surprise to me. But yeah, I mean, it’s just wonderful that we…
Lex Fridman (01:47:39):
Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, of course, it’s also incredible for people who don’t suffer to see what psychedelics can do with the mind, which is that kind of appreciation.
Annaka Harris (01:47:48):
Well, and I think it’s actually important for this work. It’s one of the questions I ask everyone. I talk to for this series, many of them, I won’t be able to use that audio.
Lex Fridman (01:48:01):
For a lot of them.
Annaka Harris (01:48:03):
Yes, and what their experience was, and if that’s informed, actually, initially in the 50s, I want to do more research on this and look into it, but in the 50s, there were some studies that were being done with scientists who, there were hundreds of scientists they put into the study where they were on the brink of some kind of discovery, where they were stuck. So they had been doing research and they were stuck and they used psychedelics to come up with an answer to find a path forward. And it was extremely useful for that.
Lex Fridman (01:48:34):
Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating. And the nice thing about psychedelics from my perception is that they don’t currently suffer from the taboo that weed does. For some, I don’t think. So like, for example, there’s some kind of a cultural construct about a pod head that makes it so that, like Elon got in trouble for smoking weed.
Annaka Harris (01:48:59):
Right, he would have gotten in trouble for taking mushrooms too.
Lex Fridman (01:49:02):
I don’t know. Really? I don’t think so.
Annaka Harris (01:49:04):
Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t think so. That’s a surprise to me. That’s great.
Lex Fridman (01:49:07):
Mushrooms to me seem like a journey. Like there’s a perception that you don’t take mushrooms all the time. It’s not an addictive substance. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s like going to Burning Man. It’s like a experience that stays with you for a long time.
Annaka Harris (01:49:21):
I didn’t realize that understanding had permeated into the culture.
Lex Fridman (01:49:24):
Yeah, that’s a good question if it has or not because maybe I have a very narrow perspective of these kinds of things, but I think what has permeated is through Hollywood ideas of what it means to be a person who smokes weed a lot. And that has like, has had its effect, which is hilarious given the effects of weed versus alcohol, but that’s a whole nother story.
Annaka Harris (01:49:51):
Have you taken psychedelics? Yes. Tell me about it on your podcast.
Lex Fridman (01:49:54):
Yeah, yeah. So, not a lot. I really want to do a lot more. I’ve taken mushrooms.
Annaka Harris (01:50:00):
Lex Fridman (01:50:02):
Yeah, I mean, because it was such a, and I didn’t have, I have a very addictive personality, so I’m very nervous about substances, but I didn’t have any addictive relationship with that.
Annaka Harris (01:50:13):
Yeah. I think every time I- It is a treatment for addiction, so.
Lex Fridman (01:50:17):
Interesting. But I’m almost nervous because every time I’ve taken mushrooms, I’ve had a really pleasant experience. I mean, it was, it’s already the thing I feel anyway, but I feel it more intensely. The thing I feel anyway is like appreciation of the moment, how beautiful life is. The weird thing that I feel, not throughout the day, but certain moments of the day, especially early on, that’s like, life is intensely beautiful.
Like, that’s usually when I’ll tweet. Yeah. It’s like, everything is awesome. And I remember those feelings, because sometimes when I feel really down and all those kinds of things, you remember that it’s a rollercoaster and you just, and then you find the good feelings and it’s cool. And it does make me a little bit sad that they kind of fade, but then as they get older, you get to use those moments. You realize that you use them well, you know? When you feel great, when you’re focused, all that kind of stuff, use them well, because the mind is a rollercoaster.
Annaka Harris (01:51:22):
Yes, it’s true. That’s partly why I do this work. I feel like my work is therapy. I don’t know if you feel that way.
Lex Fridman (01:51:29):
Work is therapy.
Annaka Harris (01:51:30):
But this work, not work in general. Thinking about the deep questions, thinking about the nature of the universe, thinking about consciousness, even meditation. I mean, I got into meditation. To me, it’s interesting. To me, I think a lot of meditators feel this way about it, but I think just, I’m thinking about it from the perspective of someone who hasn’t meditated before, but it feels like a scientific experiment. It feels like it’s the same physicist in me who was drawn to meditation because the experience is one of getting closer to your experience and asking similarly deep questions, like what is time? What does that even mean? What do I mean by time? What does it feel like? What is a thought is one of the most interesting questions to me.
Lex Fridman (01:52:26):
How do you meditate? Let’s talk about this. So what, you let go of time.
Annaka Harris (01:52:31):
Well, I’m not really doing anything. I mean, the exercise is really so simple. It’s just paying attention to your present moment experience. And it’s an extremely challenging thing to do. It’s not the natural state of the brain. It’s an exercise in concentration, which is why athletes and other people who spend a lot of time needing to focus intensely find it so useful. I mean, it’s really a focus, a concentration practice, but all it is really, I mean, there are different ways, there are different methods, but it really is quite simple at its core, which is just paying close attention to your present moment experience. And so in Vipassana, which is what I’ve mostly been trained in, you’re usually paying attention to the breath, but there’s always some focus of concentration. And the focus can even be just an open awareness, just watching your mind go, just what comes into your experience. And part of that is the mind, part of it is the external world. So you hear a sound, you think a thought, you feel a feeling, your cheek is itching.
Am I gonna scratch it? Am I not gonna scratch it? Just like, sounds like the most boring thing in the world. And what’s interesting is paying close attention to the most boring thing in the world is incredibly fascinating. Noticing that each breath, no two breaths are the same, that time keeps moving, that your thoughts keep appearing. It’s there, yeah. I mean, it’s a spiritual practice for a reason.
Lex Fridman (01:54:18):
I’ve noticed more and more beautiful things about the simpler, simpler things. Yeah, it’s great. I like to do that. I don’t meditate. I’ve tried a few times and I will, but I meditate. I do meditate, but not, I meditate by thinking about a thing.
And like holding onto that thing. And just like, that’s not really, I guess, technically meditation, but it’s keeping a focus on an idea. And then you walk with it and you solve the little puzzle of it, especially any kind of programming or math stuff. You’re holding stuff in your head and you, but don’t look stuff up, don’t take notes. You’re only allowed to have your mind.
Annaka Harris (01:55:06):
You would really enjoy a meditation retreat. I mean, you would also not enjoy it. It would be hard because it’s all, you wouldn’t go nuts. It would be hard, but you would get it.
Lex Fridman (01:55:17):
What’s a meditation retreat? Is it usually silent or?
Annaka Harris (01:55:19):
It is always silent, or actually at least the one I would recommend you do is a silent meditation retreat.
Lex Fridman (01:55:26):
Five days. Five days. Okay.
Annaka Harris (01:55:29):
We’ll talk later, but you might be my next victim. I have, I have.
Lex Fridman (01:55:33):
Five days is a long time.
Annaka Harris (01:55:36):
It’s a long time. Dude, you just sit. It changes your brain. It’s the type of experience that will change your brain permanently.
Lex Fridman (01:55:44):
There’s been like two, three, four hour session.
Annaka Harris (01:55:46):
And you don’t have children. You should do it. I don’t have children.
Lex Fridman (01:55:49):
How does the, oh, the children.
Annaka Harris (01:55:52):
Leaving them for five days and not speaking and impossible. I’ve only done one retreat since I had kids. I’m doing another one soon, but only two nights.
Lex Fridman (01:56:01):
Maybe that’s what the thoughts will be coming in my head. You should be, she’d be getting mad.
Annaka Harris (01:56:06):
That’s okay. Whatever, let the thoughts be. I think kids always. You’ll get really good at letting things just be and focusing on the present moment. And you might come out with some epiphany about what you should do next.
Lex Fridman (01:56:18):
Yeah. No, I love that idea, obviously. I love that idea. I fast for three days. I want to fast for longer. That’s also in a different way, perhaps, but it brings you, makes you more sensitive to the world around you somehow. I’m not exactly sure what the chemistry of that is, but obviously you’re, actually it’s not obvious because you’re not always that hungry.
But you’re more, time slows down and you feel things. You feel a breeze, all this kind of stuff. It’s very interesting. I think it tweeted something about ideas coming out from, sometimes feeling about coming from outside of you sometimes. So you mentioned as you meditate, you notice these ideas come in. So thoughts, ideas, how did that connect consciousness?
Annaka Harris (01:57:12):
So the thing I was responding to that you wrote, I think I was partly picking up on the part of you that would really get a lot out of a meditation retreat. That was my way of beginning that conversation. That experience you had of a thought coming from somewhere else, when you spend an extended period of time paying close attention to your moment to moment experience, that’s how all of your thoughts appear to you.
And it’s really beautiful because you’re letting go just through the practice of meditation, you’re quieting down your default mode network. And without necessarily intellectually thinking yourself out of free will, it naturally kind of drops away. And so when you’re under the spell of this illusion that you are the author of your thoughts and your conscious experience is driving all of your behavior, and there’s this eye that stands somewhere near your brain, but is not your brain that stands free of the physical world is the thing generating the thoughts.
When you’re meditating, that quiets down and can kind of quiet down completely so that your experience is just of the next thing arising in your conscious awareness.
Lex Fridman (01:58:52):
But the source of that is still this brain.
Annaka Harris (01:58:56):
What you realize is the source of it is not your conscious experience. And that’s the important insight. And that’s the insight. And so there are many insights you can have in meditation that align with the science, which is what’s really fascinating because it doesn’t have to be that way. Like I can imagine finding meditation to be extremely useful and helping me with anxiety and all the rest and having all kinds of insights that turn out to not be true. But the interesting thing is that these insights actually turn out to be true. And so that is one of them is the, when you’re just watching what your conscious experience actually is, you realize that it’s not doing all of the things you usually feel like it’s doing. And so the thoughts really just arise in much the same way that a sound or a sight or a feeling, maybe your leg starts to hurt. When you’re just watching moment by moment by moment, pain arises, a bird chirping arises, a thought arises, a feeling arises. You’re just kind of watching it all unfold. And there’s something really beautiful about that.
Lex Fridman (02:00:11):
Yeah, it’s the perspective you could take on is there’s a connectedness to the entirety of the universe, like to nature in general.
Annaka Harris (02:00:20):
And that there’s something so beautiful about consciousness, about the fact that it’s not just a dead universe with atoms doing their thing, that at least in this one instance, there is a felt experience of the universe.
Lex Fridman (02:00:39):
Of the universe, it’s not even.
Annaka Harris (02:00:41):
I’m part of the universe, yeah. There’s a, right here in this little point in space and time there is an experience of the universe.
Lex Fridman (02:00:48):
But it’s still interesting to think about where those ideas, if those ideas are solely a construction of the brain, or is there some kind of mechanism of joined collective intelligence of humans as social organisms? How much of it is me training my neural network and the ideas of tens of thousands of other people?
Annaka Harris (02:01:13):
And how much is it myself? You’re talking in terms of psychic phenomena or you’re talking in terms of just absorbing the information of the past and education?
Lex Fridman (02:01:23):
And just kind of the collective human project
Annaka Harris (02:01:26):
that gets in throughout our lives.
Lex Fridman (02:01:28):
I don’t know much about psychic phenomena but I also want to be open-minded in the way we speak about collective intelligence because it’s very easy to simplify it to, as a neural network trained on knowledge developed over generations and so on, it does feel like intelligence is stored in some kind of distributed fashion across humans. Like if you take one out, I think that intelligence quickly goes down.
Annaka Harris (02:01:57):
I don’t know how quickly it goes down if you just take one out, it depends on which one. I think I half agree and half disagree with what you’re saying. But yeah, I mean the other thing you notice when you spend a lot of time in meditation and when you spend a lot of time kind of shaking up these intuitions that I think get in the way of clearly thinking about what consciousness is, is that we are these systems in nature that are not at all isolated. And there are the obvious ways, like if I just stop drinking water, that’s gonna change the system very drastically, right? So there’s just the energy consumption, but the fact that we exchange ideas is, part of who I am is everyone I’ve interacted with. And of course, the people I interact more with have sculpted me more, but our brains are sculpted through our interactions with each other as well.
Lex Fridman (02:02:59):
Yes, but I wonder if it’s a more correct and useful perspective to take that those interactions are the organisms. You’re saying you’re still making the brain the primary. There could be like that the brain is what it is because of the social interactions, and the social interactions are the living organism. That’s a weird perspective, because it’s so much more-
Annaka Harris (02:03:32):
I don’t actually think it’s one or the other.
Lex Fridman (02:03:36):
They’re both living, like cats and dogs.
Annaka Harris (02:03:41):
Yeah, I mean, it’s a little bit like, I have two children and a lot of people with two children will say, when you’re preparing to have the second one and soon after you’ve had the second one, that having two is kind of like having three, because you are nourishing and protecting and overseeing each individual life, but then there’s the sibling relationship, which is almost another thing.
Lex Fridman (02:04:10):
Yeah, it’s weird. So you’ve spoken with Don Hoffman a few times.
Annaka Harris (02:04:15):
Yes. In his book, Case Against Reality. Many more than a few, yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:04:18):
Many more than a few. There’s a lot of fun ones. Was there one where Sam was involved?
Annaka Harris (02:04:23):
Well, Sam and I interviewed him. Yeah, sorry. Most of the conversations I’ve had with him are private. They’re not public, but we used to meet, before the pandemic, we were meeting about monthly to discuss ideas.
Lex Fridman (02:04:33):
I would love to be a fly on the wall of those discussions, but he wrote a book, Case Against Reality, makes the case that our perception is completely detached from objective reality. Can you explain his perspective and let us know? Well, no, no, maybe not fully, but to which degree you agree and don’t. So this is much more focused. I guess you guys have an agreement that consciousness is somehow fundamental.
Annaka Harris (02:05:03):
Yeah, I mean, I think we both think we might be wrong.
Lex Fridman (02:05:07):
About the consciousness or about reality?
Annaka Harris (02:05:09):
About it being fundamental. I think we’re both just, we both agree that this is a legitimate question to ask at this point in science, is consciousness fundamental? And I really see it as a question and I think he does too.
Lex Fridman (02:05:24):
But he goes hard on reality.
Annaka Harris (02:05:26):
Yes, and it’s interesting because I, you know, especially, so I actually now have recorded three conversations with him for this project I’m working on, yeah. And in every conversation we have, we seem to land on the same place, but this last conversation we had, it seemed to be even more clear that the semantics will really get in the way. When you get into the weeds in these conversations, we, it’s almost like we need some new terminology because it’s hard to know sometimes whether we’re talking about the same thing. I have issues with his terminology that when we talk about what his terminology represents, it seems like we completely agree.
Lex Fridman (02:06:14):
But the conclusions you don’t?
Annaka Harris (02:06:16):
It’s possible we have a very similar view of the universe if consciousness is fundamental. It may be an identical view. It’s hard for me to know because I disagree with a lot of his terminology.
Lex Fridman (02:06:29):
Okay, but our aforementioned reality, he says that’s like a complete space-time, it’s a complete weird construction that.
Annaka Harris (02:06:39):
Yeah, well, I mean, the truth is that, I mean, if you talk to a neuroscientist like Anil Seth, and I would say most neuroscientists, but he’s really good on this subject, and his expertise and his area of focus is in perception. So he talks a lot about how our perceptions give us an experience of the world, and he calls it a controlled hallucination. I’m sorry, he probably got, I think he says that he got that term from someone else, but that’s the term he.
Lex Fridman (02:07:08):
We got every term from somewhere else. That’s true. Everything, there’s no new ideas.
Annaka Harris (02:07:14):
There’s a sense in which what Hoffman is saying is already, we already know to be the case. So our brains are creating this conscious experience based on these interactions with the outside world. It is, in some sense, all a controlled hallucination. And someone like Anil Seth, so from the neuroscientific point of view, I actually have a quote here somewhere if you have any interest in hearing the quote, but he’s essentially saying, everything we experience is a perception, including our experience of time and space. So we still don’t really know what our experience of space represents out there in the world.
And then, of course, when you talk to physicists about the different interpretations of quantum mechanics, I mean, where physics seems to be headed across the board at this point is that space and time are emergent, that they’re not part of the fundamental fabric of reality. And so there’s some ways in which Don is saying things that-
Lex Fridman (02:08:23):
Is he being too poetic about it? Is that the right way to phrase it? Because like- No, go ahead. He says like, it’s not that our perception is just a controlled hallucination. Well-
Annaka Harris (02:08:36):
No, it’s not. He’s saying something more than that. More than that. That’s true, yes. But my point is that a lot of what he’s already saying, on some level, science is already there and could agree with.
Lex Fridman (02:08:47):
Yeah, but not all the way. Yeah. Because he’s saying that we don’t even, we’ve, like, the evolutionary process has constructed our brain mechanisms in such a way that we’re really far from having access to objective reality.
Annaka Harris (02:09:07):
Yes, although I think we already know that as well. I mean, if any version of string theory is correct, and of course, we don’t know yet, it’s all up for grabs, but the truth is each theory is weirder than the last. If there are 15 dimensions of space, we are just not wired to be able to understand the fundamental reality.
Lex Fridman (02:09:33):
But I think we have a consistent abstraction that seems to be reliable, like a blockchain.
Annaka Harris (02:09:42):
Yes, and he’s not just saying that we really only have this tiny window onto reality. He’s saying that that window onto reality is giving us a lot of false information.
Lex Fridman (02:09:51):
Yeah, it’s false. It’s not just an abstraction, it’s false. Because he’s saying there’s no reason it needs to be true. It’s not required to be true, and in fact, through natural selection, it’s very possible to imagine, or it’s likely to imagine that organisms will evolve in such a way that you’re going to just be lying to yourself completely.
But the question there is, if that’s the case, it’s a really interesting thing to think about. I think the rigor with which he approaches it is really admirable, and I do think it’s scientific. But the question for me is, why is it so consistent across all of these organisms? We all seem to see the table, and feel, and run into the table.
Annaka Harris (02:10:44):
So what he will agree, so what I would say to that, and when I’ve posed this to him, I really don’t wanna speak for him, but I’ll answer it myself and say that I believe he agrees with what I’m about to say, which is that the things we perceive are connected to the structure of reality. It’s just that the structure of reality is made of something completely different than the thing we’re experiencing. So imagine, if you just go with the holographic principle, loosely, and actually, the holographic principle applies to black holes only. So there’s AdS-CFT duality, anti-de Sitter space, and conformal field theory. Am I getting all these terms right?
Lex Fridman (02:11:31):
The terms are right, but I can’t believe we’re going there.
Annaka Harris (02:11:34):
Well, I mean, this is where I’ve gone in all of my conversations with physicists, because the idea is, so if we just have the basic principle that reality and all of the information can be contained, or is, is actually in a two-dimensional space that gets projected, this is something that you don’t buy based on the look on your face.
Lex Fridman (02:11:55):
No, no, no, I’m actually freaking out, because yes, any theory of modern physics gives inkling that reality is very weird. Right.
Annaka Harris (02:12:04):
And completely different from how we experience it. That’s one example. So this is an intuition that, for whatever reason, has always felt true to me. This is the way I thought about things as a child. I’ve met other people that felt this way when I’ve had experiences in psychedelics, and this is where I start to sound crazy, too, but. Nope.
Lex Fridman (02:12:24):
Everybody else is crazy, except us.
Annaka Harris (02:12:27):
But that has always seemed right to me, and that’s always the thing that I feel like I’m looking for, that it’s funny, recently I was thinking that it’s as if I feel like I’m, and this is more how I was thinking of how I felt as a child, but I feel this way a lot as an adult, too, that the image is one of a snow globe, that I’m confined to this snow globe based on my human perceptions, and the truth of reality is out there, and it’s actually why I’m so drawn to shaking intuitions. I feel like every time we shake up an intuition, it’s like an opportunity to leave the snow globe for a moment, you know, it’s like smashing the marbles and seeing, oh, it’s not liquid in there like I thought. It’s getting this glimpse of something truer than what we typically experience.
Lex Fridman (02:13:17):
I feel like it’s, for a long time, gonna be snow globes inside snow globes.
Annaka Harris (02:13:21):
Yeah. Inside snow globes. But the larger point is that, yes, whatever is true about the fundamental nature of reality is not something we’re experiencing. However, it is linked and gives us clues to it. So one image I came up with recently, I actually wrote about this. I have an article in Nautilus about time because as I spend time thinking about what it would mean for consciousness to be fundamental, and at the same time, I’m talking to physicists about different interpretations of quantum mechanics and the fact that the ones I’m talking to believe that space and time are emergent and are not part of the fundamental story, I was thinking about what is it, what could time be if it’s not the way we experience it? What could it be pointing to? And I’m not the first person to think like this. Many people have developed different thought experiments around this, but, and this is, I’m not saying this is the way things are, but this is just one solution is that time and causality appear to us the way they do because for whatever reason, we’re only perceiving one moment at a time.
And these connections between events that we perceive as time are actually just part of the fabric of reality. There’s some structure to reality at a deeper level where it’s like shining a flashlight on the structure of reality where for us, for whatever reason, everything else disappears and the only thing that exists is that single pin, pinprick of light that we happen to be inhabiting or that we can perceive, but the rest of it is there. And so that even though time would be an illusion and the causality in the way we experience it is an illusion or it doesn’t mean what we think it means, it’s still pointing to a deeper structure. There’s something that it corresponds to in the fundamental nature of reality. And I’ve had enough conversations with Don, I think, to know that he would agree with that, that our perceptions map onto something.
It’s just not the experience of it that we’re having. So to go back to the idea that all of reality could be contained in two dimensions and there’s something about the interaction between different points that cause this holograph, so that it seems like there’s a three-dimensional world when in fact it’s a projection of this two-dimensional surface, what we experience as space still references something at the fundamental level. It’s just that it’s not space. And that is something that makes a lot of sense to me. I also, I posted an excerpt. George Musser wrote a great book, a book about spooky action at a distance, spooky action at a distance. And he talks about, he’s a great science writer, and he talks about ways to kind of absorb what this would mean, this AdS-CFT duality. And he talks about, he gives an example of music as an analogy, that two different notes can exist in three dimensions as if the other doesn’t exist because of the frequency of the sound waves. And that in another way, you can think of the sound waves existing in different dimensions.
I don’t know if that’s…
Lex Fridman (02:17:21):
Yeah, that’s really interesting.
Annaka Harris (02:17:23):
I don’t speak as well as I write. So I’ve written about this in a way that I think is easier to absorb than the way I just described it.
Lex Fridman (02:17:26):
But I’ve written about this in a way that I think is easier to absorb than the way I just described it. But I think causality is a trickier, trickiest one,
Annaka Harris (02:17:35):
trickier one. Time is a tricky one to like.
Lex Fridman (02:17:38):
Annaka Harris (02:17:40):
And there are physicists who think that space is emergent, but time is still fundamental. And Lee Smolin is one of those scientists. It’s really interesting to talk to him about this, but…
Lex Fridman (02:17:49):
Yeah, so. But time being emergent is a really tricky one to think about. Also, I wonder if it’s possible at which point does the experience of time start becoming a part of the conscious experience of living organisms? So is it something that evolved on Earth?
Annaka Harris (02:18:12):
Yeah. Only? Or is it? It’s also very hard to think about consciousness without time. And that’s something that’s really interesting for me to think about too. Although, not that this is scientific evidence of anything, but I and many others have had the experience, a timeless, spaceless experience in certain states of meditation and under the…
Lex Fridman (02:18:35):
And that’s still a conscious experience, would you say?
Annaka Harris (02:18:38):
Lex Fridman (02:18:39):
But didn’t you say that some aspect of conscious experience is memory?
Annaka Harris (02:18:44):
It seems like that too. No, no, so I said an experience of being a self is due to memory. It seems that consciousness and time are inextricably linked, but I think that may be an illusion also. And when I think about consciousness being fundamental, and someone like Max Tegmark, I don’t know if there are other mathematicians, I’m sure there are, he’s the only one I know of who will talk about mathematical forms and shapes as not just being… He talks about them as being actual objects in nature that exist, that are not just mathematical structures that we can think about, but any mathematical structure that comes out of the math actually exists in reality. And so when I think about consciousness being fundamental, I think about physics and mathematics being a description of the structure of it. And that when mathematicians say things like that, or physicists say things like that, it makes sense if we’re talking about a conscious experience of some sort.
Lex Fridman (02:20:07):
Yeah, that’s really interesting. Oh, first of all, Max is great. Man, this is really interesting to think about how, what is fundamental. Yeah. It’s a good exercise to do in general. Yeah, yeah. To truly think through it. I mean, ultimately it’s a very humbling process because we’re probably in the very early days of, well, we can’t know currently, right?
Annaka Harris (02:20:28):
Right, currently, I mean, maybe permanently, but I remain optimistic.
Lex Fridman (02:20:35):
Right, well, to jump around a little bit, the Google AI engineer, I’m using the terms from the press, that’s kind of hilarious. But like- Am I just a friend of yours? No, it’s not, no, no. But just, the term AI is really not used amongst machine learning people. Oh, I see, okay. So like I’m using kind of Google AI engineer and just like sentience and chatbot and like none of those words are really used in or by the people that actually build them. You’re much more likely to use language model versus chatbot or like natural language dialogue versus chatbot or whatever, and certainly not sentience. But that’s the point, I mean, sometimes the difference between the public discourse and the engineering is actually really important because engineering tends to want to ignore the magic.
They don’t notice the magic. Anyway, the Google AI engineer believes that the Lambda-1 natural language system achieved sentience. I don’t know if you paid attention to that. I didn’t. You didn’t. No. But the general question is, do you think a chatbot, do you think a robot could be conscious?
Annaka Harris (02:21:58):
So, I mean, this answer is slightly different or very different depending on whether I kind of follow the assumption that consciousness emerges at some point in physical processing or whether it’s fundamental. Since I’ve just chosen to stay on the fundamental channel, I mean, then it’s kind of a silly answer because if consciousness is fundamental in the way I currently think about it, the only way I imagine it working, every physical thing we perceive is a representation of a conscious experience. So, I mean, yes, it’s true of everything in the world. However, I would say if that’s the case, even though there’s a way in which it’s behaving in similar ways to a human being, the way it’s constructed, what it is actually made of and the physics of it is so different that I would expect it to have an entirely, completely non-human conscious experience. And whether it even feels like a self, I think would be a big question mark.
Lex Fridman (02:23:15):
Well, there’s questions of ethics and… Yeah. Is it capable of suffering? Is suffering connected to… Consciousness. Consciousness.
Annaka Harris (02:23:24):
Or… I mean, obviously it is. It’s the only way you can suffer is… It can…
Lex Fridman (02:23:29):
Or maybe it’s not, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s more connected to self than consciousness.
Annaka Harris (02:23:34):
I would say, I mean, just on my own use of these words, suffering is only something that can happen in a conscious experience.
Lex Fridman (02:23:44):
Right, so can robots suffer?
Annaka Harris (02:23:46):
If they have a… Anything that has a conscious experience can experience suffering.
Lex Fridman (02:23:52):
Yes. But do plants suffer in the same… So is there some level where, when we construct our morals and ethics, that is there a class of conscious experiences or organisms that are capable of conscious experience that we can anthropomorphize sufficiently such that we give them rights?
Annaka Harris (02:24:18):
Yeah, I mean, this is not an area… That I have spent, for me, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about this. Most people expect that I have. It’s interesting. These types of questions are much less interesting to me than the other questions. And I think it’s because I’m interested in the physics of things. I’m somewhat interested… I’m definitely interested in ethical questions for human beings.
But I have spent very little time thinking about the implications for other types of intelligence. I will say that I think the capacity for suffering of… The capacity for suffering of a conscious system goes up with memory and with a sense of self.
So if you take… If anesthesia only erased your memory and it didn’t actually make you unconscious, you actually experienced, horrifically experienced some surgical procedure, but we could completely wipe out your memory of it. As nightmarish as that scenario is, and I’m not suggesting we should ever do this, I would say if our only option were to erase your memory of it, that would be the more ethical thing to do than to have you maintain that memory because the suffering is then carried across a longer distance through time.
Lex Fridman (02:25:55):
That’s presuming that suffering is unethical.
Annaka Harris (02:25:58):
Well, isn’t that what ethics is all about? It’s about suffering. I mean, I think to me, ethics is all about suffering and wellbeing, and I don’t know what ethics is without that.
Lex Fridman (02:26:08):
There’s different measures of suffering. So having one traumatic event may… If you erase that one traumatic event, that potentially might have negative unmet consequences
Annaka Harris (02:26:21):
for the growth of a human. Yeah, so then it’s a different question, but I would say that memory increases suffering globally so that if any moment of suffering only existed for itself in the present moment, that is a lesser kind of suffering than a suffering that is drawn out over time through memory.
Lex Fridman (02:26:51):
It’s so hard to think about.
Annaka Harris (02:26:52):
And so, yeah, I mean, in terms of AI, if they’re conscious and there’s a sense of self and memory, which I actually think you need memory to have a sense of self. Actually, sorry, I take that back. I actually think you can have a really primitive sense of self without memory. But an AI that is conscious, that has memory and a sense of self, yeah, that’s capable of suffering, absolutely.
Lex Fridman (02:27:21):
Well, one of the things, because you said you haven’t really looked into this area, because there’s so many interesting things to look into and you’re really focused on the physics side. To me, the neuroscience experiments that you mentioned where there’s a difference between the timing of things that kind of reveal there’s something here, to me, working with robots, I have robots that are moving around my home in Austin, and it’s a very good embodied thought experiment. Here’s the thing that looks like it has a free will.
It looks like it has conscious experiences. And then I know how it’s programmed. And so, I have to go back and forth. And this is what I do. You lay on the ground looking up at the stars, thinking about plants, and I look at it like a robot.
Annaka Harris (02:28:21):
Well, you can do this with plants too. I mean, there’s some complex enough behavior that looks like free will from a certain angle. And it makes you wonder two things. One, is there consciousness associated with that processing? And two, if there isn’t, what does that say about our experience?
Lex Fridman (02:28:47):
And our circumstance in nature, what does that say?
Annaka Harris (02:28:48):
Yeah, but yeah, I do that with plants all the time. I go back and forth. But the zombie thought experiment now, at least for me, is often presented as AI, because now that’s easier, as a robot, because that’s easier. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s in pop culture now in the form of films and television shows, but it’s easier to get to that point of contemplation, I think, by imagining a robot.
Lex Fridman (02:29:25):
I don’t know why exactly I’m bothered by philosophers talking about zombies, because it feels like they’re missing. It’s like talking about, it’s reducing a joyful experience. So that’s like talking about, listen, when you fall in love with somebody, the other person is a zombie. You don’t know if they’re conscious or not. You’re just making presumptions and so on. It’s like, philosophers will do this kind of thing. They might as well be a zombie. Or there’s no such thing as love. It’s just a mutual, like economists will reduce love to some kind of mutual calculation that minimizes risk and stability over time. It’s like, all right, what I want to do with each of those people is I want to find every one of those philosophers that talk about zombies and eventually give them one of those robots and watch them fall in love and see how their understanding of how humble they are by how little we understand.
Annaka Harris (02:30:29):
That’s the point of the zombie experiment. I mean, the zombie thought experiment. I mean, I can’t speak for any of them.
Lex Fridman (02:30:34):
Empathy for zombies? Is that the thought?
Annaka Harris (02:30:37):
Is that the point? No, so for me, I mean, I don’t like spending much time on it. I think it has limited use for sure. And I understand your annoyance with it. But for me, what’s so useful about it is it gets you to ask the same questions you’re asking when you’re looking at robots. If you just run the experiment and you say, okay, I’m sitting here with Lex, what if I try to trick myself? What’s different about the world if someone tells me actually he’s a robot? Is essentially what the zombie experiment is. He’s over there. He has no conscious experience. He’s acting all the way serious, but there’s no experience there.
So it gets you to ask some interesting questions. One is, okay, when it seems impossible, I just think, no, that makes no sense. I can’t even imagine that. Okay, what do I think consciousness is responsible for? What is consciousness doing in that human over there that is Lex that I can’t fathom all of your behavior and everything that you’re doing and about without consciousness? So it gets you to ask this question. These are the questions I begin my book with. What is consciousness doing? It gets you to ask that question in a deeper way. And then I kind of found this alternate, I don’t know if other people have done this, but I found this alternate use for it, which is even more useful to me, which is I’m able to do it sometimes. I’m able to just sit with someone and get my imagination going and imagine there really is no conscious experience there in that person.
And what happened for me the first few times I was able to do this is it reminded me exactly of how I feel when I look at complex plant behavior and other behaviors in nature where I assume there’s no conscious experience. And to me, it just flips everything on its head. It just gets you to be able, it gets you to be open to possibilities that you were close to before. And I think that’s useful.
Lex Fridman (02:32:43):
Does it enhance or dissipate your capacity for love of other human beings? What role does love play in the human condition?
Annaka Harris (02:32:55):
I mean, in so many ways, it’s the most important role. I don’t think any of these realizations, I mean, if anything, I think it enhances it. But I don’t think they, I mean, it kind of goes back to the levels of usefulness.
Lex Fridman (02:33:17):
Sometimes you wanna picture your friends as a plant. It’s helpful to appreciate the beauty that they are as an organism.
Annaka Harris (02:33:26):
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. For me, the more time I spend practicing meditation, seeing through these illusions, the more poignant my conscious experience becomes and love is obviously one of the most powerful and one of the most positive experiences we have. And I don’t know, there’s just, whatever its cause is, there’s just something miraculous about it in and of itself and for itself.
Lex Fridman (02:34:01):
I think love, romantic love is a beautiful thing. Connection, friendship is a beautiful thing. And it’s so interesting how people can grow together, how interact together, disagree together and make each other better. Like scientific collaborations are like this too. Daniel Kahneman, Tversky, I mean, there’s, and most people are not able to do that in the scientific realm. They create, the more successful you become,
Annaka Harris (02:34:27):
the more solid. No, it’s rare and you recognize it when you have it, when you have a great collaboration, I mean, in science, but also in other areas. In this TED production I’m working on, I just happened to be working with this producer where we had this instant connection and the chemistry is great. And I have so much fun recording with her. It’s so great to have, I usually work alone and it’s been wonderful to have a partner.
Lex Fridman (02:34:50):
So it’s like a chat, it’s like a conversation type of thing?
Annaka Harris (02:34:53):
Yes, she’s taking my conversation. We’re playing around with it. We’re just working on the pilot.
Lex Fridman (02:34:57):
I love how you have no idea how it’s gonna turn out. This is great. Yeah.
Annaka Harris (02:35:02):
Well, I just started working without a clear image of the end results. Although it started with an idea for a film. I don’t know. I guess I have a feeling, I was just wondering if I’d talked about this with you before anywhere, but probably not. Yeah, cause you and I have never spoken.
Lex Fridman (02:35:22):
No, we just met. We just know.
Annaka Harris (02:35:24):
Do you mean you didn’t see me when I was listening to that podcast of yours and had that thought, you didn’t hear that thought?
Lex Fridman (02:35:30):
I mean, we were mentioning this offline as a small tangent. There’s a cool dynamic and how we get to become really close friends without never having met, never having talked one way, but it could be one way friendships that form. It’s a beautiful thing, I think. I don’t know, that makes me feel like we’re all connected. And you’re almost like plugging into some kind of weird
Annaka Harris (02:35:52):
thing in the space of ideas. So many things I want to say now, but here’s one thing is the way I think about consciousness, if it’s fundamental, is analogous to a pot of boiling water where the water is the consciousness and the bubbles are the conscious experiences. And so it is all one thing. And then there are these shapes that take form. And there’s a felt experience, right? It’s all felt experience.
And so when we’re able to let go of this sense of self or this illusion of self, the idea that experiences are happening to something or to someone drops out. And what you get is just experiences arising. So there’s the fundamental nature of the universe, which obviously has a structure and obeys laws, but what you get out of that are appearances of different conscious experiences.
They’re just coming into being, right? And so there is under that view, I mean, there are different ways to look at the fundamental nature of reality without consciousness and kind of come up with a similar view. But in that view, it is just kind of one, it’s one thing with different experiences.
Lex Fridman (02:37:10):
And in that boiling pot is a lobster, which represents the human condition.
Annaka Harris (02:37:16):
Lex Fridman (02:37:16):
Because it’s because life is suffering. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Pastor Wallace consider the lobster. I mean, it’s the stuff that we do to lobsters is fascinatingly horrible, but-
Annaka Harris (02:37:27):
Oh yeah, no, I mean, that was my first rejection of many worlds, just my psychological rejection of it was just imagining the multiplication of all the suffering. I just, I mean, I spend a lot of time thinking about consumed by and trying not to be overwhelmed by the depth of human suffering. To imagine many worlds with is just-
Lex Fridman (02:37:55):
Infinite suffering? God, yeah. What is it about humans? I think you spent too much time on Twitter. It’s focused on the suffering. I mean, there’s also the awesomeness. And I think the awesomeness outpowers the suffering over time.
Annaka Harris (02:38:07):
That’s so nice. I wish I believed that.
Lex Fridman (02:38:10):
With memory, as you said, the suffering is multiplied. It’s an interesting thought, but with memory, beauty is multiplied as well. So it’s like-
Annaka Harris (02:38:25):
Yes, where I stand with it and I’m, for some reason, still optimistic that we can get ourselves to a different place, but the way things currently are or the way things have always been for animals and humans and I think any conscious life form is, to me, the suffering seems so much more impactful and powerful than any happy, for lack of a better word, experience that no happy experience is worth its equivalent experience of suffering.
Lex Fridman (02:39:11):
That’s certainly how I feel as well, but I’ve learned not to trust my feelings. So the folks who are religious will ask the question, which I think applies whether you’re religious or not, why is there suffering in the world? Why does a just God allow suffering, or those kinds of questions. I think it does seem that suffering is a deep part of human history, and you have to really think about that.
Annaka Harris (02:39:49):
Part of nature, I mean- It’s a part of nature. If feeling good is surviving and thriving, nothing survives and thrives forever, so you just encounter suffering, it’s just built in.
Lex Fridman (02:40:02):
Yeah, death meets us all in the end, and only, it’s kind of hilarious to then think about most of nation, the cruelty and the poverty of nature, like how horrible the conditions are for animals.
Annaka Harris (02:40:15):
And plants. And plants. It’s just war, it’s just all over the place.
Lex Fridman (02:40:20):
It’s war, but it’s mostly, yeah, it’s war, but it’s also just, it’s like poverty. It’s extreme poverty. When people criticize farms and so on, you also have to consider the suffering that animals. We try to imagine that animals in the woods are all this happy time notes. Like, you have to really consider, if you really asked an animal, would they like to sit in a boring zoo and be fed away from the wild and nature and the freedom and so on? I don’t know how many of them would choose the zoo versus like nature. Anyway, what’s the meaning of life, Anika? Let me ask the question.
Annaka Harris (02:40:57):
Lex Fridman (02:40:60):
There’s no you. It’s the question for whatever you’re plugged into.
Annaka Harris (02:41:04):
Is that a question for the body and mind system we call Anika?
Lex Fridman (02:41:08):
Call Anika and let’s see what that.
Annaka Harris (02:41:10):
The meaning of life?
Lex Fridman (02:41:12):
Yeah, the why, the why, why? Is there a why?
Annaka Harris (02:41:15):
It’s interesting. I’ve never been drawn to the why questions. I’m interested in the what and the how. What is life? What is this place? What are we doing? How are we here? How is this taking place? But I mean, if I had to answer, I guess I don’t think there is a why really. It’s funny, the quote, the thought that comes to mind is really like a kind of a cheesy quote that I’m sure is printed on a bunch of mugs and t-shirts, but it’s Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m gonna get it wrong, but it’s something like we’re here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.
And I don’t really see that as an answer to the why question, although that’s how it’s framed in his quote. We are here for that purpose. I think if there is a purpose worth being here for, that’s kind of the ultimate, I think.
Lex Fridman (02:42:24):
Let me ask you for advice. You had a complex and a beautiful journey through life. You’re exceptionally successful. What advice would you give to young folks in high school or in college about how to live a life like yours or how to live a life they can be proud of or have a career they can be proud of, you know, how to pave a path and journey they can be happy with and be proud of?
Annaka Harris (02:42:55):
I haven’t really had this conversation with my kids. I mean, we have lots of deep conversations and they’re all kind of pertaining to each moment or whatever they’re facing. I think career is difficult because in so many ways, I just feel like I’m lucky that I ended up being able to do for a living the thing I love to do, but the truth is- There’s no such thing as luck. Yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:43:23):
What about the free will? Luck is an illusion.
Annaka Harris (02:43:26):
There’s no such thing as luck when you believe in free will, right? Right, that’s true. They’re all illusions. I really, in retrospect, started working on my book 30 years ago and had no idea that I was working on a book. And this kind of ties into my advice, which is I think it’s really important to follow your passion and to find things that you love and that you find inspiring and motivating and exciting, whether they relate to your career or not.
And I think many times, if you persist just for the pure passion of the thing itself, it finds a way into your everyday life.
Lex Fridman (02:44:25):
The career manifests itself.
Annaka Harris (02:44:26):
I mean, that’s what happened to me and I’ve had such an unconventional path, it’s very hard for me to give advice based on that path. But I do believe that it’s extraordinarily important to keep your passions alive, to keep your curiosity alive, to keep your wonder at life alive, however you do that. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in your career.
And I think for a lot of people, their career enables them the time and the space to experience other things that maybe wouldn’t be as enjoyable if they were in their career.
Lex Fridman (02:45:09):
Yeah, I mean, in general, a dogged pursuit of the stuff you love will create something beautiful. And if it’s an unconventional path, those are the best kind. Those are the most beautiful kind. And it created, in this case, I think you’re a beautiful person, Annaka, a beautiful mind. Thank you so much for doing everything you do and for sharing it with the world. And thank you so much for talking with me today. That was awesome.
Annaka Harris (02:45:35):
Good to finally meet you. Great to finally meet you.
Lex Fridman (02:45:38):
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Annaka Harris. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now let me leave you with some words from Mahatma Gandhi. I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.
Annaka Harris is the author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind. Please support this podcast by checking out our sponsors:
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Here’s the timestamps for the episode. On some podcast players you should be able to click the timestamp to jump to that time.
(00:00) – Introduction
(07:20) – Free will
(1:00:37) – Consciousness
(1:31:09) – Depression
(1:44:26) – Psychedelics
(1:52:25) – Meditation
(1:56:49) – Ideas
(2:20:35) – AI sentience
(2:37:56) – Suffering
(2:40:53) – Meaning of life