See Also: Book Notes, (me), Notes on Consciousness, Happiness Hypothesis, Consciousness and the Brain, Barrett:HEAM, 7.5 Brain Lessons, Allostasis, Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Thinking, Fast and Slow

image Being You COver

Being You

The New Science of Consciousness
Anil Seth

Faber Book Page 276 pages text, 36 pages of notes, 30 pages of references, 12 pages index. 23 Figures - 4 sections: Level, Contents, Self, and Other. The quotes are from the English version, since it came out several weeks before the American version. I hope you can tolerate behaviour and minimise. NOTE! this page represents things I want to refer to later and if NO WAY a summary.

p.220 - "The 'you' in question is the assemblage of self-related prior beliefs, values, goals, memories, and perceptual best guesses that collectively make up the experience of being you."

Anil Seth creates a coherent model of consciousness including mechanism, motivations and contents by articulating Predictive Processing using a constellation of Concepts and Objects and Models from The Beholder's Share thru Controlled Hallucinations to the Beast Machine. Wonderful language. It threads a line using the appropriate technical terms with enough context while not getting stuck in the weeds. It is very engaging with anecdotes and personal bits that are used of further the story of the science. It has a great explanation of Bayesian Inference featuring shifting Gaussian distributions. - See Figure 9. Plus insights into Free Will.

New Big Idea #1 - Self Perception

Self is just like any other perception. It's based on the best guesses of predictive coding network between the Model and the Sensations.

New Big Idea #2 - Beast Machine

We can only understand human consciousness in the context of our nature as living creatures since the purpose of our brains and contents is to keep all of our bodily functions running for us to thrive. Allostasis constrains the parameters of consciousness. Builds on Barrett's half lesson - your brain is not for thinking.

Every book on consciousness needs to define the term*; Seth uses a fuzzy definition and says why:

p.14 - "The definition of consciousness as 'any kind of subjective experience whatsoever' is admittedly simple and may even sound trivial, but this is a good thing. When a complex phenomenon is incompletely understood, prematurely precise definitions can be constraining and even misleading."


Our consciousness is all about being ourself. And that is just another perception. Seth articulates 5 elements of the self:
  1) Embodied Selfhood - physical, emotional, feeling alive. What Haidt calls The Elephant of the
The Elephant and The Rider Metaphor
  2) Perspectival Self is the first person feeling of looking out from behind our eyes.
  3) Volitional Self is our sense of agency.
  4) Narrative Self is the story we tell ourselves. This gives us our personal identity.
  5) Social Self is ourselves in the eyes of others, or, how we think we are perceived.
This is not doing Seth justice. Read the book.

p.154 - "The self is not an immutable entity that lurks behind the windows of the eyes, looking out into the world and controlling the body as a pilot controls a plane. The experience of being me, or of being you, is a perception itself or better, a collection of perceptions — a tightly woven bundle of neurally encoded predictions geared towards keeping your body alive. And this, I believe, is all we need to be, to be who we are."

p.147 - "It may seem as though the self — your self — is the 'thing' that does the perceiving. But this is not how things are. The self is another perception, another controlled hallucination, though of a very special kind. From the sense of personal identity — like being a scientist, or a son — to experiences of having a body, and of simply 'being' a body, the many and varied elements of selfhood are Bayesian best guesses, designed by evolution to keep you alive."

p.167 - "These ideas about social perception can be linked to the social self in the following way. The ability to infer others' mental states requires .. a generative model .. to generate the sensory signals corresponding to a particular perceptual hypothesis. For social perception, this means a hypothesis about another's mental states. This implies a high degree of reciprocity. My best model of your mental states will include a model of how you model my mental states. .. It is in this way that we perceive ourselve through the minds of others. .. and these socially nested predictive perceptions are an important part of the overall experience of being a human self." [jch - Aka Theory of Mind. See Graziano: Social Brain for the Attention Schema Theory, first applied to others and then to ourselves]

p.168 - "If you exist in a world without any other minds — more specifically, without any other relevant minds — there would be no need for your brain to predict the mental states of others, and therefore no need for it to infer that its own experiences and actions belong to any self at all. John Donne's seventeenth-century meditation that 'no man is an island' could be literally true."     [jch - no need for language or a narrative self, except to work with others]

p.169 - "This subjective blindness to the changing self has consequences. For one thing, it fosters the false intuition that the self is an immutable entity, rather than a bundle of perceptions. But this is not the reason that evolution designed our experiences of selfhood this way. I believe that the subjective stability of the self goes beyond even the change blindness warranted by our slowly changing bodies and brains. We live with an exaggerated, extreme form of self-change-blindness, and to understand why, we need to understand the reason we perceive ourselves in the first place."

"We do not perceive ourselves in order to know ourselves, we perceive ourselves in order to control ourselves."

Predictive Processing

Seth gives a great overview. I have been totally convinced since 2016 when I read Surfing Uncertaintity, I continue to wrestle with Predictive Coding. Related concepts are Bayesian Brain, Unconscious Inference, Active Inference and the Free Energy Principle (FEP below). FEP is Karl Friston's Free Energy Principle, which shows the efficiency of minimizing prediction errors.

p.200 - "This is where free energy finally enters the story. Don't worry about the name, which has its origins in nineteenth-century theories of thermodynamics. For our purposes, we can think of free energy as a quantity which approximates sensory entropy. Crucially, it is also a quantity that can be measured by an organism — and therefore it is something that the organism can minimise. Following the FEP, we can now say that organisms maintain themselves in the low-entropy states that ensure their continued existence by actively minimising this measurable quantity called free energy. But what is free energy from the perspective of the organism? It turns out, after some mathematical juggling, that free energy is basically the same thing as sensory prediction error. When an organism is minimising sensory prediction error, as in schemes like predictive processing and active inference, it is also minimising this theoretically more profound quantity of free energy."

  [jch - new term, conditional prediction][this is just a paging thing. How active are models?]

p.113 - "Like all aspects of predictive processing, active inference depends on generative modelling. More specifically, active inference relies on the ability of generative models to predict the sensory consequences of actions. These are predictions of the form 'if look over there, what sensory data am I likely to encounter?' Such predictions are called conditional predictions — predictions about what would happen were something to be the case. Without conditional predictions of this kind, there would be no way for the brain to know which action, among countless possible actions, would be most likely to reduce sensory prediction errors. The actions my brain predicted as being most likely to locate my missing car keys involved visually scanning my desk, not staring out of the window or waving my hands in the air."

p.138 - "Why do we experience our perceptual constructions as being objectively real? On the controlled hallucination view, the purpose of perception is to guide action and behaviour — to promote the organism's prospects of survival. We perceive the world not as it is, but as it is useful for us. It therefore makes sense that phenomenological properties — like redness, chairness, Cilia Black-ness, and causality-ness — seem to be objective, veridical, properties of an external existing environment. We can respond more quickly and more effectively to something happening in the world if we perceive that thing as really existing. The out-there-ness inherent in our perceptual experience of the world is, I believe, a necessary feature of a generative model that is able to anticipate its incoming sensory flow, in order to successfully guide behaviour."

p.111 - "Action is inseparable from perception. Perception and action are so tightly coupled that they determine and define each other. Every action alters perception by changing the incoming sensory data, and every perception is the way it is in order to help guide action. There is simply no point to perception in the absence of action. We perceive the world around us in order to act effectively within it, to achieve our goals and — in the long run — to promote our prospects of survival. We don't perceive the world as it is, we perceive it as it is useful for us to do so."

  [jch - are there both top down precision signals and bottom up?]

p.109 - "the role of precision weighting in perception. Increasing the estimated precision of sensory signals is nothing other than `paying attention'. When you pay attention to something — for example, really trying to see whether a gorilla is out there in the distance — your brain is increasing the precision weighting on the corresponding sensory signals, which is equivalent to increasing their estimated reliability, or turning up their 'gain'. Thinking about attention this way can explain why sometimes we don't see things, even if they are in plain view, and even if we are looking right at them. If you are paying attention to some sensory data — increasing their estimated precision — then other sensory data will have less influence on updating perceptual best guesses."

Controlled Hallucinations

Seth introduces the topic in a great Ted Talk.

p.93 - "The controlled hallucination of our perceptual world has been designed by evolution to enhance our survival prospects, not to be a transparent window onto an external reality, a window that anyway makes no conceptual sense. In the following chapters we will delve more deeply into these ideas"

p.106 - "The controlled hallucination view shares many features with other 'predictive' theories of perception and brain function, most prominently predictive processing. There is, however, an important difference of emphasis. Predictive processing is a theory about the mechanisms by which brains accomplish perception (and cognition, and action). The controlled hallucination view, by contrast, is about how brain mechanisms explain phenomenological properties of conscious perception. In other words, predictive processing is a theory about how brains work, whereas the controlled hallucination view takes this theory and develops it to account for the nature of conscious experiences. Importantly, both rest on the bedrock process of prediction error minimisation."

p.87 - "You could even say that we're all hallucinating all the time. It's just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that's what we call reality."

Beast Machine

We can only understand human consciousness in the context of our nature as living creatures since the purpose of our brains and contents is to keep all of our bodily functions running for us to thrive.

p.170 - "This brings us to the heart of my 'beast machine' theory of consciousness and self. Our conscious experiences of the world around us, and of ourselves within it, happen with, through, and because of our living bodies. Our animal constitution is not merely compatible with our conscious perceptions of self and world. My proposal is that we cannot understand the nature and origin of these conscious experiences, except in light of our nature as living creatures."

p.177 - "The researchers wondered whether the men on the rickety bridge would misinterpret the physiological arousal caused by their precarious condition as sexual attraction, rather than as fear or anxiety. They reasoned that if this were so, these men would be more likely to call the interviewer after the event — maybe even ask her for a date. This is exactly what happened. The female interviewer received more calls from men who had been crossing the rickety bridge than"

p.178 - " . . . fear happens . . . `due to the presence of an approaching bear'. . . I'd been learning a lot about interoception from my colleague Hugo Critchley — one of the world's experts on the topic — and it occurred to me that a way to overcome the limitations of appraisal theories was to apply the principles of predictive perception, and to treat emotions and moods — and affective experiences in general — as distinctive kinds of controlled hallucination. I called the idea interoceptive inference. Just as the brain has no direct access to the causes of exteroceptive sensory signals like vision, which are out there in the world, it also lacks direct access to the causes of interoceptive sensory signals, which lie inside the body. All causes of sensory signals, wherever they are, are forever and always hidden behind a sensory veil. Interoception is therefore also best understood as a process of Bayesian best guessing, just like exteroceptive perception. In the same way that 'redness' is the subjective aspect of brain-based predictions about how some surfaces reflect light, emotions and moods are the subjective aspects of predictions about the causes of interoceptive signals. They are internally driven forms of controlled hallucination."

p.184 - "Putting these pieces together, emotions and moods can now be understood as control-oriented perceptions which regulate the body's essential variables. This is what they are for. The experience of fear I feel as a bear approaches is a control-oriented perception of my body — more specifically 'my body in the presence of an approaching bear' that sets in train the actions that are best predicted to keep my essential variables where they need to be."


The body anticipates events and prepares. Salivating is a perfect example. From Allo = other, stasis = stable, the term was coined by Peter Sterling (book). I first read about it in Barrett's How Emotions Are Made.

p.189 - "There is a useful term in physiology to describe this process: allostasis. Allostasis means the process of achieving stability through change, as compared to the more familiar term homeostasis, which simply means a tendency towards a state of equilibrium. We can think of interoceptive inference as being about the allostatic regulation of the physiological condition of the body."

p.188 - "All living organisms strive to maintain their physiological integrity in the face of danger and opportunity. This is why brains exist. Evolution's reason for providing organisms with brains is not so they can write poetry, do crossword puzzles, or pursue neuroscience. Evolutionarily speaking, brains are not for rational thinking, linguistic communication, or even for perceiving the world. The most fundamental reason any organism has a brain — or any kind of nervous system — is to help it stay alive, through making sure that its physiological essential variables remain within the tight ranges compatible with its continued survival."

Free Will

Free will is just another perception. I believe Seth when he says that, but I still believe in "spooky free will", that somehow when we deliberate, we can steer our thoughts with our mind. And whether I believe it happens scientifically or not, I make better decisions if I think I can make better decisions.

Free Will has 3 defining features:
  1) I am doing what I want to do
  2) I could have done otherwise
  3) Voluntary actions seem to come from within

p.211 - "Once spooky free will is out of the picture, it is easy to see that the debate over determinism doesn't matter at all. There's no longer any need to allow any non-deterministic elbow room for it to intervene. From the perspective of free will as a perceptual experience, there is simply no need for any disruption to the causal flow of physical events. A deterministic universe can chug along just fine. And if determinism is false, it doesn't make any difference because exercising free will does not mean behaving randomly. Voluntary actions neither, feel random, nor are random."

p.218 - "Voluntary behaviour depends on the competence to control all these degrees of freedom, in ways that are aligned with our beliefs, values, and goals, and that are adaptively detached from the immediate exigencies of the environment and body. This competence to control is implemented by the brain not by any single region where 'volition resides, but by a network of processes distributed over many regions in the brain. Execution of even the simplest voluntary action — flicking a switch to turn the kettle on — is underpinned by such a network. Following the neuroscientist Patrick Haggard, we can think of this network as implementing three processes: an early 'what' process specifying which action to make, a subsequent 'when' process determining the timing of the action, and a late-breaking 'whether' process, which allows for its last-minute cancellation or inhibition."

p.222 - "From another perspective, free will is not illusory at all. So long as we have relatively undamaged brains and relatively normal upbringings, each of us has a very real capacity to execute and to inhibit voluntary action, thanks to our brain's ability to control our many degrees of freedom. This kind of freedom is both a freedom from and a freedom to. It is a freedom from immediate causes in the world or in the body, and from coercion by authorities, hypnotists and mesmerists, or social-media pushers. It is not, however, freedom from the laws of nature or from the causal fabric of the universe. It is a freedom to act according to our beliefs, values, and goals, to do as we wish to do, and to make choices according to who we are."


Part 4 of the book deals with animals and machines. It's a great read, especially about his experiences with octopi! He is agnostic about machine consciousness at this point.

p.229 - "The first thing to say is that we cannot judge whether an animal is conscious by its ability — or inability — to tell us that it is conscious. Absence of language is not evidence for absence of consciousness. Neither is absence of so-called 'high-level' cognitive abilities like metacognition — which is the ability, broadly speaking, to reflect on one's thoughts and perceptions."

p.31 - "There are as many different ways of being conscious As there are different conscious organisms."

The Beholder's Share

Paper Abstract - "Science and art have long recognized that perceptual experience depends on the involvement of the experiencer. In art history, this idea is captured by Ernst Gombrich’s ‘beholder’s share’. In neuroscience, it traces to Helmholtz’s concept of ‘perception as inference’, which is enjoying renewed prominence in the guise of ‘prediction error minimization’ (PEM) or the ‘Bayesian brain’." From: Beholder's Share Paper. I love Pissaro & Musee d'Orsay, too.

p.118 - "For me, the beholder's share is particularly evident when in the company of artists like Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, and Camille Pissarro. Standing in front of one of their Impressionist masterpieces — such as Pissarro's Hoarfrost at Ennery, painted in 1873 and now hanging in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris — I am drawn into a different world. One of the reasons paintings like this gain their power is because of the space they leave for the observer's visual system to perform its interpretative work. In Pissarro's painting, `palette-scrapings . . . on a dirty canvas' — as the critic Louis Leroy put it — powerfully evoke the perceptual impression of a sharply frosted field."


The Real Problem

Seth focusses on chipping away at the current issues in consciousness, rather than taking on The Hard Problem of consciousness with a grand theory. And perhaps as the current issues resolve, the hard problem dissolves. As an article: The Real Problem.

p.22 - "According to the real problem, the primary goals of consciousness science are to explain, predict, and control the phenomenological properties of conscious experience. This means explaining why a particular conscious experience is the way it is — why it has the phenomenological properties that it has — in terms of physical mechanisms and processes in the brain and body."

p.47 - [is consciousness all graded?] "Although the question is alluring, I think it is misguided. The distinction between 'all or none' and graded' consciousness doesn't have to be either-or. Whether in evolution, in development, in daily life, or in the neurology ward, I prefer to think in terms of sharpish transitions from the total absence of consciousness to the presence of at least some conscious experience, with conscious experience then manifesting in different degrees, perhaps along different dimensions, once the inner lights are at least glimmering."

p.58 - "Yet a fundamental question still remains. Is consciousness more like temperature --reducible to and identifiable with a basic property of the physical (or informational) universe? Or is it more like life, a constellation of many different properties, each with its own explanation in terms of underlying mechanisms? The approaches to measuring consciousness we've met up to now take their cue from the temperature story, but my intuition is that in the end they may fit better with the analogy from life. For me, 'integration' and 'information' are general properties of most — perhaps all — conscious experiences. But this doesn't mean that consciousness is integrated information, in the same way that temperature is mean molecular kinetic energy."

  - *goodness* Each page in the Notes section has the page range of the text to which the notes apply. but... hard to predict what will have a note.
  *Christof Koch claimed it was too early to define consciusness in his 2004 2021-09-19 jch