Anil Seth is a world-renowned neuroscientist who has been studying the biological basis of conscious experience for more than 20 years. As PPI members are tasked with delivering capital projects to address major challenges facing the global community, why do we continue to build and pursue the world’s greatest projects using archaic methods and planning?
In this conversation with PPI Executive Director Gary Fischer, Dr. Seth helps us get inside the human brain to explore why change is so hard, why we continue to maintain the status quo, and more importantly, how to break that cycle to achieve what is needed for global development. Understanding the basis of the human conscious experience is a promising focus of scientific research today.
So why do we continue to build and pursue the world’s greatest projects using archaic methods and planning? Why do we make the choices we make?
Listen to this fascinating conversation to learn more.
[00:00:00] Kristin Buettner Khuri: Welcome to PPI conversations, an opportunity to connect with leading-edge thinkers and leaders, and discuss today's pressing topics in the engineering and construction industry. With your host PPI, executive director Gary Fisher. We at PPI address the root cause of major capital project cost and schedule overruns through the research and dissemination of project production management and its foundation of operations science. Enjoy the conversation.
[00:00:36] Gary Fischer, PE: Hello everyone and welcome to another interesting PPI conversation. One recent study revealed that between now and 2060, the world's population will double. And just the amount of building floor space required to meet that demand will be equivalent to building the entire city of New York every month for the next 40 years.
[00:00:59] Gary Fischer, PE: Just stop and think about that for a minute. You know, layer on top of that, the global concern with climate change has catalyzed many countries to send ambitious carbon emission reduction goals. And it's interesting to note that embodied carbon and all that infrastructure will be responsible for almost half.
[00:01:17] Gary Fischer, PE: The total new construction emissions between now and 2050. So there's man, there's gonna be great pressure to manage embedded carbon emissions in all that infrastructure. Now, layer on top of that, all the move towards electrification is the primary energy source, displacing hybrid carbons and meeting the infrastructure demands of the digital economy together.
[00:01:38] Gary Fischer, PE: This is creating enormous challenges and strains on the construction industry and all the industries and suppliers of equipment and materials that support it. And it's clear to us here at the Indu industry production institute that to have any chance of meeting these challenges, real changes required, improve productivity in the construction industry is not.
[00:02:02] Gary Fischer, PE: And one of the most significant barriers to that change is galvanizing people to embrace and adopt new ways of thinking and doing work. Now, why is that so difficult for humans to do with that question in mind? We're privileged to get some time with Anil Seth, who's one of the top neuroscientists in the world.
[00:02:20] Gary Fischer, PE: He's gonna help us get inside the mind and why we as humans do what we do and what we can do to influence change. So Aneel, let's get. Thank you so much for devoting some of your time with us today. First off, let's start by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what you do.
[00:02:39] Anil Seth: Oh, thanks Gary.
[00:02:40] Anil Seth: It's a pleasure to be here. It's always a pleasure to talk to you folk at the institute as well. So my, I, well, as you said very kindly, I'm a neuroscientist, so I'm fundamentally interested in the brain, how the brain works. I've, I'm a university professor, I've, I've trot the academic path through my career, and I started out as a kid interested in one question, which was.
[00:03:05] Anil Seth: Consciousness. You know, we have this, we have this complicated machine inside our skulls. Mm-hmm and it, it does stuff, you know, it moves our body around it. It helps us survive. But there's something wonderful that it does too, which is accompanying all this waring and neural circuitry. We have experiences, you know, we open our eyes and it feels like something to see the world.
[00:03:25] Anil Seth: And it feels like something to be a person in the world when we make decisions. It feels like something to, to choose to do one thing rather than another thing. People often call this the free will. We feel like we've got free will over our actions. Mm-hmm, how does this happen? How does this massive wet wear inside our skull generate conscious experiences?
[00:03:47] Anil Seth: So this, I mean, this is not a new question. Of course. This has fascinated and frustrated philosophers and scientists for ever, and people from religious backgrounds as well. But it's fascinated people for thousands of years. So I don't think we're gonna solve it now. But neuroscience has made a lot of progress.
[00:04:05] Anil Seth: This is a very exciting time to be in neuroscience addressing questions like this that are no longer solely the realm of philosophy and religion. That also questions that science. Whether it's psychology, neuroscience, physics, computer science has something to say about. So my trajectory has been, I started off doing physics and computer science for a PhD in artificial intelligence and then moved into neuroscience, and for the last 15, nearly 20 years now, I've been running a lab at Sussex University on the south coast of England, bringing together lots of different disciplines to try and shed light on these fundamental questions of consciousness and also try to explore the implications of the progress we are making for different parts of society, for medicine, for technology and perhaps also in this context.
[00:05:00] Gary Fischer, PE: Interesting. So you, you said you got interested in this as a youngster.
[00:05:04] Anil Seth: Well, yeah. I mean, I, so I think, and I'm gonna ask you this next question then, because I have a suspicion that pretty much all of us, at some point in our lives, we all, we all have this realization about like, hold on a minute, you know, why am I, me and not someone else? What's gonna happen when I die? Whereas, where was I before I was born? And you know, usually we have these questions and our parents tell us to, to shut up and eat our dinner. And the education system certainly doesn't encourage questions like this. It tends to educate us, acts of these kinds of, this kind of curiosity, but, I think, you know, I, I speak to a lot of kids as well at schools and, and, you know, the level of interest in these, these basic questions Yeah.
[00:05:46] Anil Seth: Is, is huge. You know, and a concern for some of the things you mentioned in your introduction, of course, like, you know, the, the impact of climate change, the, you know, the, the, the rapid acceleration of technological change. You know, this is something that, that the next generation is gonna have to deal with.
[00:06:03] Gary Fischer, PE: That's, Well, that's very interesting. So let's, let's kind of jump right into the topic. And maybe this is not a good question, but let's start with it and you could, you could redirect me if it's not a good question. Why do we make the choices we make?
[00:06:17] Anil Seth: Well, so really you should have got a therapist on rather than a neuroscientist to answer a question like that.
[00:06:24] Anil Seth: It's very personal, right? I, I, I struggle as, as much as anyone. I struggle with the decisions that I'm faced with in, in both in my personal life and. In professional life. I mean, decisions are hard, but I think it is interesting. There is a very interesting neuroscience perspective on how we make decisions in general that can frame whatever context we are facing when we've gotta do something specific and this context is a challenge to an idea that many of us have inherited through the, through, primarily through the Western culture we we're in, which is that we have these rational souls, if you like, that are, that are perched inside our skull, and we take in information from the world. We read out the world through our senses.
[00:07:10] Anil Seth: We think about it, you know, there's, there's a little computer inside our, our skull that figures out, okay, here's the world. What's the best thing to do? And we rationally come to a conclusion. And then, and then we do it in, in the old style of ai, we sense, we think, and we act. Mm-hmm. . Now this is kind of wrong in almost every.
[00:07:34] Anil Seth: And I think we, but by continuing to think of decision making in this sort of linear sequence of sense, think x I think we mislead ourselves about how we make decisions, the factors that affect our decision making, and to be honest, how much control we have over this in the first place. Mm-hmm.
[00:07:56] Gary Fischer, PE: Wow. Why keep going? You're
[00:07:58] Anil Seth: on a great tree. We can, we can ask why is this picture wrong? Well, the first way it's wrong is that, When we perceive the world, when we sense the world, we're not just reading out what's there as if the, the senses are transparent windows onto this objective reality. Yeah, it seems like that, you know, when I open my eyes in the morning, it seems as though I'm seeing the world as it really is.
[00:08:23] Anil Seth: And unless I'm not wearing my glasses or, or something like that. But if I'm seeing, forgot my glasses or contacts in it, it seems as though the world is just as it. And I perceive it. Now, this is not what's happening. The world exists, of course, it's out there, but the way we experience it is always a construction of the brain.
[00:08:44] Anil Seth: The brain is making sense of this ambiguous and noisy information that's coming in through the eyes and the ears. Now, there's no such thing as color out there in the world. Our brain makes up color from colorless wavelengths of light. Mm. And so this illusion that we see things as they really are is, is just very misleading.
[00:09:03] Anil Seth: The novelist and Nice n said it very well, we, we don't see things as they are. We see them as we are. And that's, I think, goes very deep. It's color, but it's, it's basically everything. And this means that different people will experience the world in, in different ways. And maybe we'll talk about over the project.
[00:09:20] Anil Seth: I'm trying to measure this called the perception census, which I'd love people to take part in, but cause we, we don't know very much about it, but it's certainly true that we do all experience the world differently. So if we perceive the world in a way that's very dependent on, on us, then the first thing is we are not perceiving it objectively in a way that might, we might think we are in order to make the best decisions, you know, the decisions we're gonna make already biased.
[00:09:49] Anil Seth: How we perceive the current situation. And that can be as simple as a, you know, looking at a shadow on a surface, or it could be much more abstract. Like, what is going well, what is working in this situation, what is not working? Mm-hmm. . And if you're, you know, you're thinking about a situation in a, in an industry or in a society, Just understanding that different people can literally see the same thing differently is, I think a useful recognition when you're trying to manage a change.
[00:10:21] Anil Seth: So that's the number, that's the first thing that is, that's wrong. The second thing that's that's wrong about this sense think act is that action is part of sensation, right? We, we. We perceive the world partly through behaving within it, our eyes are moving thousands of times a day, probably tens of thousands.
[00:10:41] Anil Seth: We barely notice that. Right? And the everything that we do is tightly coupled to, to action. It's this continuous loop. We don't just pause and then make a decision. And, yeah, I think this is, this is important as well because it, it just, it just means, We don't ever really inhabit this, this middle ground where we can sort of figure out, okay, that's the way the world is.
[00:11:07] Anil Seth: What's the decision to do it? You know, there's this continuous feedback. And the third way it's wrong is this. Think bit in the middle. We are not rational cognitive computers that figure out the optimal thing to do. You know, our decisions are driven by emotional bias. This has been long known. The philosopher Dekar is most responsible for thinking that we are these like rational souls.
[00:11:33] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm, but most of the history of psychology has shown us that without emotions we, we, it's not only that we make bad decisions, it's we're barely able to make decisions at all.
[00:11:46] Gary Fischer, PE: Can you give me an example of what that would look?
[00:11:50] Anil Seth: Well, there's, there's, there are people who have a lot of the evidence comes from brain damage where, where the situation is more extreme.
[00:11:58] Anil Seth: Hmm. But in people with certain forms of brain damage, who, who have a, an emotional flattening, you know, they, they start making very poor life decisions generally. Hmm. And it's as if the, the emotional element provides a kind of common currency. To, to figure out how to do things. If you think about the problem we face in daily life, it's impossibly complex.
[00:12:26] Anil Seth: Computers be very bad at it. Should I talk to you or go and make dinner or write a, write a paper or call my mother or something, you know, these, these, how do you weigh up these different, these different. Or look at my attention, you know, there's so many important things that, that unfold over different timescales that involve totally different contexts.
[00:12:48] Anil Seth: That it's very, it's, it's a wonder we do anything at all. And emotion is the, is the thing that kind of structures Yeah. Our mental lives. So that we, we act, you know, it's an impetus to act, but it's not a rash. It's not by definition, it's usually not a very rational thing. You know, it, it's biasing one way or the other way.
[00:13:08] Anil Seth: But it's important. And I think we need to, we need to just recognize the influence that emotion has on decision making rather than try and get rid of it. Mm-hmm. . And then the last thing I'm gonna say is just so. We are not even aware of the choices that we do make.
[00:13:29] Gary Fischer, PE: Really tell me more about that
[00:13:32] Anil Seth: So there's this fascinating phenomenon called Choice Blindness in psychology. And again, it's an, it's an experiment, so it's pushed it to the extreme. Yeah. The interest for me is like, how much of this is going on all the time? So in choice blindness. The, it's a, it was a Swedish researcher called Petta Johansen.
[00:13:52] Anil Seth: This is from quite a while ago. And what he did was he, he had this study where he gave people a repeated choice. And this choice was. Quite simple. It was a bit ethically dubious because these are the psycho, anyway, he gave, he gave male students repeated choices between two photos of females and he would ask them, which they found most attractive.
[00:14:14] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. . And so they would pick a face and then they would get another choice and, and so on and so on and so on. And occasionally what he would, but he would also ask them, he'd also ask them, After each one. Why did you make that choice? You know, did, do you, do you prefer blonde people or was it the smile or what was it that, so just something, right?
[00:14:34] Anil Seth: So you do this again and again, and then occasionally what he would do is he would swap the cards. So he is a bit of a, he did this with real cards and so it's a little bit of up magic. He would give the person the card. They did not. Yeah, he would ask them, he would show them, he's not hiding it. He would show them the card that they did not choose a second or two before and say, so why did you prefer this?
[00:14:58] Anil Seth: This person? And most of the time, they A, would not notice that they were being presented with the face. They didn't choose interesting, and B, they would still come up with a reason why they chose the option that they, in fact, did not. Wow. I find this is quite, quite remarkable. And, and I think it gets to the, I, it, it's, again, it just deconstructs this idea that, that we are these little computers in the brain.
[00:15:24] Anil Seth: The brain is always just like it's playing catch up. It sometimes confabulate it, it, it just tries to make sense of what's going on. And if it sees the face, like, oh, it's coming up with a story that, yeah, that's the reason I chose that face. Maybe somewhere there's a recognition that, that it did that. I didn't do that, but I think it just, That any choice we make is incredibly complicated.
[00:15:47] Anil Seth: It is extended over time. It may look different after the event than, than before the event.
[00:15:54] Gary Fischer, PE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I'm, I don't wanna get up on the rabbit trail, but you, when you said there was No, I'm still back on. You said there was no color and it is just our perception of it. How in the world do we ever agree that green is green or that orange is orange?
[00:16:08] Gary Fischer, PE: If we're all perceiving. You know, from our own, you know, brains.
[00:16:13] Anil Seth: Well, I'm glad you come back to this actually. I mean, this is a very old philosophical thought experiment. It's called this, it's called the inverted spectrum. And it's exactly this idea. If the, if the green that I see when I see like a freshly mo lawn, it, if.
[00:16:33] Anil Seth: It could be the same inner experience that you have when you look at a blue sky, but you just say green Now, how would we ever know? Yeah. How would we ever know? You could have a very different experience, but we use the same language and it occurs in the same situation. It could be very different. I actually think this is probably not the case because if you take that experi, that thought experiment further, and you say something like, could you be experiencing pain?
[00:17:03] Anil Seth: When I experience pleasure, but we call it dif, you know, we'd use the same words. Yeah, I don't think you would swap those because it would affect us very differently. So I don't think it's actually true. But what is true is that we may well see slightly different shit. We may well have different experiences.
[00:17:21] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. and, and here's the thing, if the differences are not very big, we will never know. They don't surface into different words, into different behaviors. When they. Big enough, we do notice and then we sort of attach labels and say, oh, this person has a D H D, or This person has color blindness, or this person, you know, has something else.
[00:17:43] Anil Seth: But my suspicion is in the, in the kind of normal range where we all think we see the world as it is. I think there's a lot of difference that we are more different on the inside than we think we are. Yeah, because we can see external, I mean, we're getting used to the importance. Externally visible diversity.
[00:18:03] Anil Seth: I mean, you and I are different skin colors. We have different accents. We're probably different heights. It's hard to tell on Zoom. Doesn't really, you know, they're, they're easy, they're easy to see and we can make of them what we will, but differences on the inside, we just can't see. So I'm, I actually have this, this project with colleagues in, in Glasgow called the Perception Census, where we are trying to measure this for the first time.
[00:18:26] Anil Seth: We're trying to actually map out this hidden. Perceptual inner diversity. Understanding just the landscape of, of how different we are on the inside. Cuz very little is known about it. I'm, I'm just pretty sure it exists. But we're, we're for the first time trying to figure it out. So it'd be amazing to get people to, to take part.
[00:18:43] Anil Seth: It's very easy. It's just online, set of little illusions and experiments. All you need is your own computer and you can help the research. But taking part I think also helps you, will help people learn about their own particular way of perceiving the world and be, and then begin to understand that the.
[00:19:02] Anil Seth: Any particular person experiences, the world is their own way, and it's not necessarily the same as somebody else's. And I think that recognition can be really quite powerful.
[00:19:13] Gary Fischer, PE: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I got partway through that survey.
[00:19:15] Anil Seth: Oh, great.
[00:19:20] Gary Fischer, PE: And I was, I, I kept wondering, well, what are you trying to accomplish with this now?
[00:19:23] Gary Fischer, PE: Now we understand. That's really interesting and I look forward to hearing the results of that. How, how long is that survey gonna run?
[00:19:31] Anil Seth: So thank you. We're, we're collecting data until the end of the calendar year, and then it's gonna take us, we'll probably try and release some headline results very quickly, but it's gonna take us a long time to dig into it and figure out what, you know, what riches are really buried there.
[00:19:47] Anil Seth: But yeah, thank you for taking part. And yeah, anybody else who, who wants to, I mean, it would be really appreciated.
[00:19:53] Gary Fischer, PE: And we'll put up right at the end of this conversation, the web address. So when people, I, I would recommend everybody take it, it's just, just taking it as, as fascinating. Yeah. Very well done.
[00:20:03] Gary Fischer, PE: It's gonna be very interesting. So let's let's cycle back and, and talk about why change is so difficult for humans.
[00:20:16] Anil Seth: Yeah. I mean this is, this is tough and there's no magic solution to this from, from neuroscience. I think there's just different perspectives on it. Change. Change is tough. So here's one reason why change is tough.
[00:20:31] Anil Seth: It's a bit related to that choice blindness that we were talking about. Mm-hmm. , it's sometimes we, we don't even see change when it's. So this is another quirk of, of how we perceive things. Again, it's sort of undermines the notion that we see things as they are. Yeah. Embedded in that assumption is, is that, well, you know, if things change, then our perception will also change.
[00:20:57] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. , but it's been very convincingly demonstrated that, that this isn't true. That if things, for instance, change very slowly. Our perception of the thing will change. So let's, in, I'll give you an example to ground it. So we'll color again. Let's say our Zoom backgrounds was slowly changing color. Then, then maybe we can fix this in post-production.
[00:21:23] Anil Seth: Edit . Oh, they'd be cool. . Although we'd have to have done it before because now I'm describing it. Now they're already gonna know.
[00:21:30] Gary Fischer, PE: Okay.
[00:21:31] Anil Seth: So if you're gonna fix it, fix it earlier. So the, the background slowly change color and. We are not paying attention to the backgrounds and, and probably it's a smaller part of the screen than it is.
[00:21:44] Anil Seth: Yeah. We will, we may not perceive the change at all, so our perception will change. We'll start off by looking at white and we'll end up looking at whatever color it is and we'll perceive the color that's there, but our perception of change, we'll be, be absent. This is called change blindness, and it, it underlines that change of perception.
[00:22:07] Anil Seth: Is not the same thing as perception of change. Mm. We don't always see things when they change. And of course that will also differ between people, or that's at least my hypothesis. Mm-hmm. . So if we're trying to address change, manage change, create change, recognize change, we're already up against the fact that our perception of what change is going on.
[00:22:33] Anil Seth: Full of holes. And you know, we sit, for instance, in climate change, this is a big deal. Things change slowly. So we don't perceive the change. We only sort of perceive it in terms of like, oh, more big storms now. So that's a sign cuz we, we can perceive kind of frequency of big storms, but baseline changes in climate are too slow, slow for us to perceive anything is actually changing.
[00:22:57] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. . And there may be many, many other contexts where that's, that's the. . So that's one thing, like why I think change is, is psychologically challenging. Just noticing it. Recognizing it. And the other thing is I think we, we underestimate the importance of habit. You know, we're really creatures of habit and.
[00:23:24] Anil Seth: The world is very complex to behave in the world. We always, we rely on routines, whether they're behavioral routines, getting up in the morning going, what you do in the bathroom, and you make d to, to the largest structures of life. I mean, we, we rely on routine, I think, much more than we realize that we do.
[00:23:45] Anil Seth: And these routines are also, you know, perception is a bit of a habit as well. We get used to perceiving the world in a particular way. Mm-hmm. . So the question is how do we, how do we revise these habits? How do we change them? Change them, yeah. And no magic potion here either. But simply recognizing their existence, I think is a powerful first step.
[00:24:11] Gary Fischer, PE: It is. Seems like that. Tell me if I'm wrong, as I may be, that you've first gotta perceive the need to change before any change in those habits can occur.
[00:24:26] Anil Seth: Yeah. I think you might be right about that for sort of motivating actual behavioral change. Yes. You, you need to, you need to frame it in a way, . The need is is very clear, and I think this is, this has been a massive challenge in many areas of society.
[00:24:41] Anil Seth: Right. Just, just, yeah. Making the need salient enough, not punting it down to some un unknown future. It's far too easy to push these things off because into the future, because people forget the future's actually not that far away. I mean, there was, there was a thing I, I remember hearing of course, In much of the world and certainly in the uk there's an energy supply crisis at the moment.
[00:25:05] Anil Seth: Yeah, right. And this quote had gone around from, I believe it was Nick Clegg or David Cameron. There was a, the government, the UK government about 10 years ago. We're discussing whether to invest in new nuclear power stations. Mm-hmm. , and the quote was from 2011, that, oh, there's no no point doing that because it's gonna take 10 years before we get any benefit from it.
[00:25:32] Anil Seth: And it's like 10 years that went right quite quickly. Great. Wouldn't it be nice to have. A few more.
[00:25:39] Gary Fischer, PE:Yeah. Ample electricity at this point in time. Yeah, exactly.
[00:25:43] Anil Seth: That just, just very explicit discounting of the future. You know, this is, this is, again, this is a common psychological handicap I think a lot of human beings have.
[00:25:54] Anil Seth: You know, our time scales psychologically, I'm not shorter than we rationally know. 10 years.
[00:26:00] Gary Fischer, PE: Yes. Kinda kinda like, are we talking weeks, months, years, or what? What's that cycle?
[00:26:03] Anil Seth: Well, I dunno, I think it, I think it depends on, on on the context, but there's all sorts of studies in, in things like behavioral economics when you can, you know, you can show that, that how much, basically, how much more money would people need at a point in the future.
[00:26:21] Anil Seth: So, so defer having a certain amount of money now all the other way round, you know, how much would you lose, et cetera. And, and you can measure the amount you might di you discount that time and it, it's, it's pretty scary the extent to which we, we do it even when we know the future is coming and even can let me know we'll still be here or our children will be, will be here.
[00:26:46] Anil Seth: We can't help it. And I think this is one of those ideas that has many levels and it's a, I always like to bring it back to color and we discuss color as well. Yeah. Like the fact that, the fact that we, we now know both of us, we've already discussed that colors don't actually exist out there in the world.
[00:27:01] Anil Seth: You know, they're, they're a collaboration between the brain and the world. Right. The artist, Suzanne said it best, he said, color is where the brain and the universe meet. Which, which I love. Right. Interesting. . But of course knowing that doesn't prevent me from seeing color, now I open my eyes and I still see Sure.
[00:27:18] Anil Seth: The same colors that I always saw. So in the same way, it's, it's, it's kind of not enough to, to just to know that these things are going on because they won't, that itself won't change the experience. Knowing change, blindness happens, doesn't sort of immunize me against. That psychological issue, knowing that future discounting is a thing.
[00:27:45] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. doesn't change my experience of, it will still feel like the 10 years in the future doesn't have the significance that it should. So this is, this is the really tricky thing to solve. How do we translate knowledge of these things into something that actually makes us make decisions, bearing these things in mind.
[00:28:07] Gary Fischer, PE: I heard you say once. It's not, I believe it when I see it, but instead it's, I'll believe it. I'll see it when I believe it. That I guess you're getting at that the habit or the, you know, what we hold is already true in our mind somehow. Sorry, go, go ahead. Explain that a little bit more. I thought that was really fascinating.
[00:28:30] Anil Seth: Yeah. That, that's kind of a nice way to summarize this, this core idea that, We, we stay, i'll, I'll believe it when I steer it as this sort of crystallization of the common sense. Naive. Naive. It's just common sense way of, of how the, the brain works. Like I see something, therefore it is, therefore I will now believe that thing to be true.
[00:28:54] Anil Seth: And if I see the ball cross the line, I believe the goal has been scored. Yeah. To put it the other way around and to say, I'll see it when I believe it is actually, I think more true to what's going on in the brain. And it emphasizes that what we experience, even though it seems to be a direct readout of the world, is coming from the inside out, from the top down. What we experience is what the brain believes to be going on.
[00:29:26] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. Now, this doesn't mean that I, as a person, Like Ian will sort of have to explicitly think, oh yeah, I believe the sky is blue, and then I'll see a blue sky. Yeah. In that case, it's my visual cortex is basically believing that the sky is blue and so I will then see a blue sky. So these are, these beliefs are what we might call that, that they can be unconscious.
[00:29:48] Anil Seth: They don't have to be these things we explicitly think, right? But they're nonetheless coming from the, from the top down and the inside, the inside out. And so that's, I think there's, there's some truth to this. Of course. It's not, it's not arbitrary. It's not that we just, whatever we experience is completely made up by the brain and nothing to do with the world.
[00:30:07] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. , it's, it's that the brain's beliefs are always being calibrated by the sensory signals. So the sensory information that comes into the brain isn't just read out and transformed into the world. It's there to keep the brain's beliefs or predictions geared to the. But in, and here's the key, not in ways that are constrained by accuracy.
[00:30:32] Anil Seth: Accuracy is not the goal of the brain. The goal of the brain is not to see the world most accurately. It's to see it as is useful for us as these living organisms with, with bodies and lifespans of a few decades and whatever. Evolution has tuned our brains to see things as it's useful, not. To some extent coincide with accuracy.
[00:30:56] Anil Seth: Like if a big rock is hurt hurtling towards me. Yeah. You know, I need to this, you want accuracy, , you want accuracy, but there are many ways in which it can depart from accuracy. So all these examples of things like future discounting, change, blindness, even color itself. Yeah, color isn't, I mean, it can't be accurate because it doesn't actually exist objectively out there anyway.
[00:31:19] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. , but it's very, very useful. For, for us to experience things in color.
[00:31:26] Gary Fischer, PE: So this presents a real challenge or conundrum and how to change somebody's belief about something so they'll see it differently. You got any advice for us on how to do that to those of us who are trying to promote change, fundamental change in our industry?
[00:31:45] Anil Seth: Well, I think, yeah, I mean, it's. Firstly, I do think it's probably impossible to actually change very much what people see. You know, let's to, to be more literal. Again, it's back to this idea that even if I know that colors don't exist in the world, I will still see them. Yeah. So all I can do, the, the best I can do is change my relationship to the experiences that I have and basically have another level.
[00:32:14] Anil Seth: And I do this in my everyday life. I walk around thinking about what I'm experiencing, continuing to experience it, but also thinking about the way in which it's, it's built the way in which it might be accurate or inaccurate. Yeah. And this just adds another level. And I think building in that other level of, of reflection on just questioning, like what, what is it about the situation?
[00:32:41] Anil Seth: That is really going on. And what about the situation is me bringing my own brain beliefs, predictions, desires to the situation won't change what you experience, but it can change how you react and respond to that experience. So I think that's, that's one take home for me. It's almost like a sort of spectral meditation.
[00:33:03] Anil Seth: You're just always trying to automate this practice of reflecting on like what. What am I experiencing? And I should not take it for granted that what I'm experiencing is the way it is. Mm-hmm. , and whether it's the color of the grass or the situation of building a new, you know, pipeline or factory or something.
[00:33:27] Gary Fischer, PE: Also, when, say I've had the, I've had this conversation multiple times with various project leaders and it's, it plays out one of two ways that I, we talk about what they're, the approach that they're taking based on traditional methods, and we have an honest conversation about it. And, and it goes something like, well, you know, that, you know, that's probably not gonna turn out any different than the past a hundred projects before you.
[00:33:55] Gary Fischer, PE: Yeah. But I'm gonna try really hard to make it different, different this time. And I said, But you know, it probably is not gonna turn out any different than all the a hundred projects before you mm-hmm. . Yeah, I know, but I just I'm just gonna do my best. Well, why wouldn't you be willing to try this different approach?
[00:34:14] Gary Fischer, PE: Mm-hmm, it couldn't be any worse than what you're probably going to experience, but, and then I get one or two responsible. That's a good point. I, I never thought about it that way, or No, I just, that's too risky. So I, I. Help if you could peel that back for me somehow. And what do I, what do I do about that situation?
[00:34:33] Gary Fischer, PE: Somebody doesn't wanna take the risk to try something different with the, with the opportunity to, to be better versus staying something that they're tried and true, but they know really won't work.
[00:34:44] Anil Seth: Hmm. and is it really risky? I mean, I guess that's the thing. If, if there is, you know, a big risk there, then that might be reasonable to, to not try something new.
[00:34:54] Gary Fischer, PE: Well, perceived. It's a perceived risk for me. It's not a perceived risk at all. Cause hey, it can't be any worse than what they're already doing. I view the, you know, my personal view is that current method is far more risky, right? Because it almost has a certain poor outcome. So why not? Let's, like one guy I talked to, he said, yeah, it can't possibly be any worse than what we're already doing.
[00:35:14] Gary Fischer, PE: And I. But that's rare. That's probably one in 50. Okay. Have that, have that response.
[00:35:21] Anil Seth: Interesting. So I think, I think this, it might be use, so from, just from the perspective, what we've been talking about here. Okay. One fact, one key thing does seem to be risk. And you know, again, you could be facing the same situation, like you continue to do a, or you switch to your new.
[00:35:44] Anil Seth: Yeah. And you, you've got a particular perspective on the risks involved, which strongly favor switching. Yeah. And you can see the risk and maybe there's evidence that, that supports your evaluation of that risk. Mm-hmm. or what you're facing is somebody else looking at perhaps the same evidence who has a very, comes to a very different conclusion about risk.
[00:36:03] Anil Seth: I mean, they, they perceive risk in a very different way. Mm-hmm. . So it's a bit like, you know, again, you're looking at two, two people looking. Are they seeing the same color? It's easy to assume that you're looking at the same thing, so therefore the person is seeing the same thing. Yeah, but they may not be, they may be looking at the same data, the same thing, but actually having a very, very different perception of the risk because they, why?
[00:36:29] Anil Seth: Well, because they may be bringing different prior beliefs, prior expectations to it. I think the question then becomes, how do you align? Like it seems if you both experience the risk in, in the same way, then it would be a much easier decision to make.
[00:36:46] Gary Fischer, PE: Leave, yeah.
[00:36:48] Anil Seth: Right.
[00:36:50] Gary Fischer, PE: That's very good point.
[00:36:52] Anil Seth: How do you then align so that, so that I think you, you then wanna understand and I, I'm honestly, I'm making this up off the top of my head now.
[00:36:57] Anil Seth: You wanna understand. What is it that's shaping this person's perception of risk that makes it different from yours?
[00:37:04] Gary Fischer, PE: So drill into the risk perception deeper before trying to jump to the alternative.
[00:37:12] Anil Seth: Well, I think so, I'm sure you've done a great job of laying out the evidence, right? Yeah. And the question is that doesn't seem to be working.
[00:37:21] Anil Seth: Like what? So why isn't it so They're obviously interpreting the evidence in a different, And it's trying to understand why and how that is the case. And you know, one lens to look at that through is the lens of risk, because I think that seems to be key to the, to this particular situation.
[00:37:38] Gary Fischer, PE: Is there any particular thing that opens the brain up to acceptance of new ideas or different ways of looking at it?
[00:37:46] Gary Fischer, PE: Are there events, are the things that, that do that to us.
[00:37:51] Anil Seth: Well, yeah, not many legal things. .
[00:37:54] Gary Fischer, PE: Oh, no. Legal things.
[00:37:57] Anil Seth: There, there are plenty of things you can do. Well, I, you know,
[00:38:00] Gary Fischer, PE: I've, you know, personally experienced having cancer and that opened up my mind too, you know, the importance of a lot of other things that I'd kind of, you know, taken for granted, family and my health and, and things like that.
[00:38:12] Gary Fischer, PE: It was kind of a shock to my brain. It just helped me see things in a different way. Is that a common phenomenon? Is that
[00:38:20] Anil Seth: I think, yeah, I mean, I think it is and, and I'm sorry to hear you went, went through that. But you know, I think that's not uncommon to respond to to these sort, I mean, lots of people in the pandemic have had similar re of what's important in their life and like, like, how am I gonna go back to that job that involved commuting two hours a day and yeah.
[00:38:39] Anil Seth: There's, there's so much change in people. Perspectives that have, that have opened them up it. And again, I think it's because it was very disruptive, right? There was a, there was a disruption to routine coupled with quite an ex exist existential challenge to many people. You know, at the beginning of the pandemic, people were really scared and you know, this is not a recommendation to make people really scared and disrupt their routines Totally.
[00:39:06] Anil Seth: But certainly when that happened, this is one of the things we see and this is why we see this in cases of very severe illness as well. Mm-hmm. and are there, are there other ways? Well, it gets really, it gets really tricky cuz obviously you don't want to give people a crisis to, to then open them to new ways.
[00:39:25] Anil Seth: It has to be continuous. Mm-hmm. with. Existence as as it is. Sure. And that, that, that's tough cuz then you're, you are always fighting against the status quo. And I do think it comes down to this people are, can be very responsive to reasons, but you've gotta provide the right context for that. And, and it's, it's getting under. Trying to get under their habits and reveal them for what they are, that we don't always see the world the same way that we might perceive more abstract things like risk and future discounting in different ways.
[00:40:05] Anil Seth: These are, again, not magic bullets as, but they, they may have. Beyond that, I, I don't know. I don't know how you, you change people's minds in a, in a reliable way. And of course there are going to be individual differences here as well, just as there are differences in how we see the world. And we all notice from my personal lives, right?
[00:40:24] Anil Seth: Some people are by that deeply ingrained in their personality, very resistant to change, which is fine in some situations and let's fine in others and vice versa.
[00:40:36] Gary Fischer, PE: Yeah, yeah. Boy, that's, that's a lot of good food for thought there. I like getting down into the habits, the right context, thinking more deeply about the.
[00:40:49] Gary Fischer, PE: We probably shortcut the conversations in that space. As I'm just reflecting here on my conversations with folks we may need to spend, I might try spending more time in that space realizing that we don't all see green as green and or we're guessing what green is. We're guessing what risk is.
[00:41:10] Anil Seth: Yeah. Yeah. It may seem like a frivolous thing to do, but, but you know, I found it c can work. You know, you give people these simple demonstrations of simple exercises, you know, in, in perception, and then you just, you know, that, that reveals a point. You can then generalize. You can then use that as a spur to, to go and think, well, you know, if you can be wrong about that, or, you know, if you can be taken about that, then.
[00:41:33] Anil Seth: What else? Grant, maybe
[00:41:35] Gary Fischer, PE: There's some other ways you, you're, you could be wrong in your perceptions. I, I like that. I have not thought about using one of those perception exercises. Is the course of that conversation to kind of open the brain to, well, maybe there is a other possibility. Yeah. Yeah. That's a cool idea.
[00:41:52] Gary Fischer, PE: So you wrote a book titled Being You.
[00:42:00] Anil Seth: I did. Yeah.
[00:42:02] Gary Fischer, PE: Part me through that book too. So what, why, what was your motivation in writing that book and what were you trying to
[00:42:07] Anil Seth: It was, you know, I kind, I mean I've been working in this area for of consciousness for 20 plus years now. And, and yeah, it was just time.
[00:42:16] Anil Seth: It felt like time. I, I've, I talk about it, these ideas a lot in, in public and I've given Ted Talks, all these sorts of things. But. . It just came to the point a few years ago when I thought, right, you know, I need to, I need to get it all down in, in one place and, and write it in a way that, that hopefully everybody, or at least most people can understand, not just neuroscientists, but, but the general interested public.
[00:42:42] Anil Seth: And I partly was doing it for myself just to be, to figure out how it all fits together for me. Yeah. And how the, the different parts all added up. Cuz you know, In my job as a, as a lab head, you know, we do one experiment, we do another experiment, and you write that up and you write that up and you write a bit of theory and they're all these little bits and they all seem to hang together, but it's not quite clear how, so I wanted to write this book to, to bring everything together.
[00:43:11] Anil Seth: And because I thought there was something new to say, I mean, people are. Interested in these issues. Sure. Everyone's interested in themselves, right? Right. What are people, they're interested in themselves. So if you can, if you can, you know, tell 'em something about themselves that they didn't previously know, I think you are gonna do some useful work.
[00:43:32] Anil Seth: And that's what the book tries to do. It takes this whole science of consciousness and tries to, to bring it together in a way that's relevant personally. To each of us. So I talk about, you know, my own, some of my own personal experiences as well. I mean, that's the great thing about study of consciousness.
[00:43:51] Anil Seth: It's a big scientific mystery, but it's also a deeply personal adventure for each of us. So trying to look at consciousness through the lens of, of what it might mean in each of our lives with this understanding of, of the brain. Of the mind and, and the body and it, I came to some sort of interesting places that I hadn't expected to come to.
[00:44:16] Anil Seth: So one place I come to in the book is, is this recognition that our experiences, our conscious experiences of the world and of being a self are really very, very closely tied to living. We tend to look at our bodies as these kind of meat robots. Yeah. That deteriorate over time and mainly take us from meeting to meeting.
[00:44:42] Anil Seth: But we forget that, that the reason we have brains in the first place is to keep our bodies alive. Right. And it's not to solve complex problems or even do crosswords or even speak it, it's to, it's to regulate and keep the heart beating, keep the. Oxygenated. That's why any animal has a brain. Right? And that kind of changes the perspective on, on everything.
[00:45:03] Anil Seth: And, and we, we start to understand that there's a fundamental bias in all our perception back to perceiving the world again, which is that we perceive the world in the way that evolution has decided is most likely to keep the body going. Keep your body alive and that that's true of emotion. That's true of mood, but that's also true of how we experience free will, how we experience being a self in the world and how we experience the other people too.
[00:45:37] Anil Seth: And, and this makes it very challenging to imagine things like, there's a lot of hype in artificial intelligence at the moment that computers are about to become aware and conscious, and this is just for me, this is, this is nonsense. Yeah. We are living machines and, and our, our nature as conscious beings, as deeply tied to our flesh and blood heritage.
[00:46:01] Anil Seth: And this for me is a very reassuring picture cuz a lot of, a lot of science. in trying to, fundamentally, we're trying to understand our place in, in nature, our place in the universe. Mm-hmm. and the history of science has always shown us to be rather less special and exceptional than we previously thought.
[00:46:22] Anil Seth: We're not at the center of the universe. Mm-hmm. , we're in some distant part of it. But is this, is this disappointing? Of course not. It's, the universe is so much bigger and grander. People imagined before NICUs, right? It's awesome. Literally awesome. And then Darwin comes along and says, you know, we are not special.
[00:46:44] Anil Seth: You know, we are. We are related to all other animals, all other living creatures. We have common ancestors. You know, is this disappointing? Of course not. It shows the tree of life to be much deeper and richer than we imagine. From sort of pre evolutionary texts. And now we come to consciousness and we, we still have this, this idea from Decart that we have this rational soul that might survive the body and, and move on.
[00:47:09] Anil Seth: And it somehow, that's what now sets us apart from the rest of the natural world. And I think, and I try and I train to sort of lay this out in the book, this is also not true. And our conscious minds, our conscious lives. Are as much part of nature as anything else, and this is how it should be. You know, we should see all aspects of our lives in just continuous with the rest of nature and not set apart from it.
[00:47:39] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. And for me, this is a very kind of reassuring, heartening, grounding message that that comes out just from asking these basic questions. How do brains do what they do and why do they generate the experience of being a person?
[00:47:55] Gary Fischer, PE: So that you're saying that AI could never replace the human brain?
[00:48:00] Anil Seth: Well, it depends what you mean by replace a, there's, there's, it's moving fast.
[00:48:04] Anil Seth: My PhD was in AI 20 odd years ago, and being how it's developed is fascinating and scary. Right. You know, so if we think about decision making, there's a big challenge. Ai. Now AI systems are increasingly making decisions, whether it's in medical diagnosis or in driving a car. Various situations, people are devolving decision making to algorithms.
[00:48:32] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. The issue is we don't, that they're often not very transparent and we don't know why they make the decisions they make. And they may demonstrate, perform better, but then perhaps when the context changes, they may do a lot worse and, . If we don't know why they make the decisions they make, that's gonna be very difficult for us to deal with.
[00:48:54] Anil Seth: We also dunno the biases we're building in to our systems. So there's, there's a lot, there's a lot going on there. So I, I, I, you know, I think that technologies like ai, we've inherited this, this trope from science fiction that we often think about it as replacing. That that's what true AI will be. It will be a humanoid Gary or a humanoid Ann that will basically do what we do, but you'll just plug it in in the evening and, and you won't have to sleep or eat.
[00:49:23] Anil Seth: Mm-hmm. . But science and technology don't usually work that way. And what, where it works best is when we stop with this hubristic notion of, of. Just generating artificial versions of ourselves with us as Gods mm-hmm. and say, well, what's the most useful tool? How do we compliment the human mind? And we do this with computers, with calculators, with cars.
[00:49:46] Anil Seth: I mean, we already have plenty of machines that, that are not in competition with us. They compliment us. And I think ai, the best perspective on AI is, will be the same that we build. Complimentary tools, not mimics of ourselves.
[00:50:02] Gary Fischer, PE: Interesting. That's a, that's a really good way to look at it. I, that resonates really well with me.
[00:50:06] Gary Fischer, PE: That makes a lot of sense. So, I respectfully of your time here, can you kind of, rather than me summing it up, can you sum up, you know, in just a, a few, a short package here. What we've talked about in terms of advice to those of us who are trying to elicit change in other human beings.
[00:50:30] Anil Seth: All right, well, that's a, that's a tough one.
[00:50:31] Anil Seth: Thank you for landing me with that right at the end. I, so I think the key, the key message that we've been talking about from a humble perspective of neuroscientists is that how things seem, as rarely, how they are in the way we experience the world and in the choices we make. Even though it seems different, right?
[00:50:57] Anil Seth: It seems as though we see the world as it is, it seems as though we take in the information, we make the decision, we chun it through, there's rational processes in our mind, and we, we struggle and then eventually we, we decide what's going on under the hood is probably not like that at all. What we see is a construction that comes from the inside out just as much as from the outside in.
[00:51:19] Anil Seth: Mm. What we do is intimately tied up with what we perceive often without any intermediate stage of decision making. Mm-hmm. . And when we do make decisions, we may not be aware of the influences that that in that affect our decisions. And we may not even remember the decisions that we did. Make good choice thing shows.
[00:51:42] Anil Seth: So what do we do? Well, I think we just try and foster in ourselves a bit of modesty and humility. All of these things. What we, how we perceive things, what we do. Recognize that other people may experience the same situation very differently. Try to understand what the relevant dimensions are, whether it's color or whether it's risk, or whether it's future.
[00:52:07] Anil Seth: Yeah. And and not assume that they see things the same way, because that's how you see things. Yeah. I think that all of these things together, they don't provide a magic recipe. But they can help expose the issues, help expose the problem, help expose the way in which we, we deal with the problem. And then I think it's, it's up to, to everybody involved to, you know, bring their own autonomy and ideas to the table and what, what you do with that recognition.
[00:52:37] Anil Seth: Of course, that's a different question and that's where it's back over.
[00:52:40] Gary Fischer, PE: Yeah, okay. Well man, that was, that was a great wrap up. I really appreciate that. I think we'll have, we're gonna have to write that one down and, and get it put in a prominent place on our website. That was really good advice. So thank you so much for your time, given us freely of your, all your years of study and wisdom and thought, careful thought a lot to think about in here.
[00:53:01] Gary Fischer, PE: So thank you again for taking the time with us and we really appreciate it.