Tag Archives: mind

Limits of imagination

What’s it like being a bat?  ‘Seeing’ the world through your ears, or at least a sophisticated echo-location system. Or, what’s it like being an octopus?  With eight semi-autonomous arms that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Intelligent aliens?’ on January 16th, 2019]. For most of us, it’s unimaginable. Perhaps, because we are not bats or octopuses, but that seems to be dodging the issue.  Is it a consequence of our education and how we have been taught to think about science?  Most scientists have been taught to express their knowledge from a third person perspective that omits the personal point of view, i.e. our experience of science.  The philosopher, Julian Baggini has questioned the reason for this mode of expression: is it that we haven’t devised a framework for understanding the world scientifically that captures the first and third person points of view; is it that the mind will always elude scientific explanation; or is that the mind simply isn’t part of the physical world?

Our minds have as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy, i.e. about a hundred billion, which is sufficient to create complex processes within us that we are never likely to understand or predict.  In this context, Carlo Rovelli has suggested that the ideas and images that we have of ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us.  So, if we struggle to describe our own consciousness, then perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot express what it is like to be a bat or an octopus.  Instead we resort to third person descriptions and justify it as being in the interests of objectivity.  But, does your imagination stretch to how much greater our understanding would be if we did know what is like to be a bat or an octopus?  And, how that might change our attitude to the ecosystem?

BTW:  I would answer yes, yes and maybe to Baggini’s three questions, although I remain open-minded on all of them.


Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Image: https://www.nps.gov/chis/learn/nature/townsends-bats.htm

Intelligent aliens?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cuttlefish [see ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve‘ on January 16th, 2019]  based on a wonderful book, that I was given for Christmas, called ‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life‘ by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Cuttlefish and octopuses are cephalopods that Peter Godfrey-Smith describes as ‘an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’.  The most recent common ancestor of cephalopods and humans is so distant and was so simple that cephalopods represent an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour.  An octopus has about 500 million neurons, which is not as many as humans, we have about 100 billion; but still a large number and connectivity is probably more important than absolute size [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Whereas we have a central nervous system, an octopus has a distributed system with neurons located in its arms which appears to give each arm a high-level of autonomy.  In addition to tactile sensory information from its suckers, each arm receives visual information from its skin which is sensitive to light.  The extent to which information and control is shared between the neurons in the brain and the network of neurons in its body is unknown.  It is difficult for us to imagine our fingers as being able to respond independently to visual as well as tactile stimuli, even more so to think of them as independent problem-solvers.  Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests that cephalopods are the closest that we are likely to come to meeting intelligent aliens – their thought processes and capabilities appear so different to ours that our scientific studies and experiments are unlikely to fully reveal their intelligence or level of consciousness.  A first step would be to stop eating them!

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.

Wading in reflections

I have written before about Daniel Goleman’s analysis of leadership styles [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017]; to implement these styles, he identifies, four competencies you require: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.  Once again, I am involved in teaching helping people develop these competencies through our Science & Technology Leadership CPD programme for aspiring leaders in Research & Development [R&D].  As part of the module on Science Leadership and Ethics we have asked our delegates to write a short essay reflecting on the ethics of one or two real events and, either from experience or vicariously, on the leadership associated with them.  Our delegates find this challenging, especially the reflective aspect which is designed to induce them to think about their self, their feelings and their reactions to events.  They are technologists who are used to writing objectively in technical reports and the concept of writing about the inner workings of their mind is alien to them.

Apparently, the author Peter Carey compared writing to ‘wading in the flooded basement of my mind’ and, to stretch the analogy, I suspect that our delegates are worried about getting out of their depth or perhaps they haven’t found the stairs to the basement yet.  We try to help by providing a map in the form of the flowchart in the thumbnail together with the references below.  Nevertheless, this assignment remains an exercise that most undertake by standing at the top of the stairs with a weak flashlight and that few both get their feet wet and tell us what they find in the basement.


A short guide to reflective writing, University of Birmingham, Library Services Academic Skills Centre, https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/skills/asc/documents/public/Short-Guide-Reflective-Writing.pdf



Image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/589901251161855637/

Goleman D, Boyatzis R & McKee A, The new leaders: transforming the art of leadership into the science of results, London: Sphere, 2002.

Dickson A, Books do furnish a lie, FT Weekend, 18/19 August 2018.