How could conscious experience affect brains?
Max Velmans (Goldsmiths, University of London)

February 19, 2015, 12:00pm - 1:30pm
University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich, University of Zürich

Z1 03
Lenggstrasse 31
Zurich 8008
Switzerland

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Abstract. In everyday life we take it for granted that we have conscious control of some of our actions and that the part of us that exercises control is the conscious mind.  Psychosomatic medicine also assumes that the conscious mind can affect body states, and this is supported by evidence that the use of imagery, hypnosis, biofeedback and other ‘mental interventions’ can be therapeutic in a variety of medical conditions.  However, there is no accepted theory of mind/body interaction and this has had a detrimental effect on the acceptance of mental causation in science, philosophy and in many areas of clinical practice. Biomedical accounts typically translate the effects of mind into the effects of brain functioning, for example, explaining mind/body interactions in terms of the interconnections and reciprocal control of cortical, neuroendocrine, autonomic and immune systems.  While such accounts are instructive, they are implicitly reductionist, and beg the question of how conscious experiences could have bodily effects.  On the other hand, non-reductionist accounts have to cope with three problems:

1) The physical world appears causally closed, which would seem to leave no room for conscious intervention.

2) One is not conscious of one’s own brain/body processing, so how could there be conscious control of such processing?

3) Conscious experiences appear to come too late to causally affect the processes to which they most obviously relate.

This talk suggests a way of understanding mental causation that resolves these problems. It also suggests that “conscious mental control” needs to be partly understood in terms of the operations of the preconscious mind, which, in turn, alters one’s sense of who or what is in control.

Bio. Max Velmans is currently an Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, and has been involved in consciousness studies for around 40 years. His main research focus is on integrating work on the philosophy, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology of consciousness. He has around 100 publications and has given over 150 national and international invited lectures on this topic. His book Understanding Consciousness (2000), was short-listed for the British Psychological Society book of the year award in 2001 and 2002, and is now in its second (2009) edition. Other publications include The Science of Consciousness: Psychological, Neuropsychological and Clinical Reviews (1996), Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness: New Methodologies and Maps (2000), How Could Conscious Experiences Affect Brains? (2003) and The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness (2007). He was a co-founder and, from 2004-2006, Chair of the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society and was an Indian Council of Philosophical Research National Visiting Professor for 2010-2011.

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