We are delighted to share with you this exclusive interview with Susan Blackmore, Emily Troscianko, authors of Consciousness: An Introduction, 3rd Edition.
Can you tell us a little bit about the history of this book and what inspired you to write it?
Sue: In 2000 I’d been teaching a consciousness course to final-year psychology students for over ten years and this topic, which had long been seen as far out on the fringes of psychology, was becoming ever more popular. But, with a university job and all its meetings and form-filling, I was desperate to find more time to explore the burgeoning literature. So I gave up my job, went back to being freelance, and wrote the first edition. I had expected that within two years I would be able to read everything I wanted. Ha ha! But I did learn a lot and the first edition was published in 2003. The third edition is the first that is co-authored with my daughter, Emily
Emily: I’d always thought this was an amazing book – just insanely ambitious and fascinating. I remember as a teenager watching Sue create the first edition, covering her huge study table (actually a snooker table) with papers and plans, but I was away at university while she was doing the second. Then from around 2013 or so Sue kept bringing up the fact that her editor had asked her to consider a third edition, and she couldn’t decide whether to do it or not; she didn’t feel she’d kept up with all the literature in the intervening years, and was trying to commit to fewer big projects. In the summer of 2014, somehow we both seemed to come to the same thought at the same time: maybe I could help?
How is the book different from the previous edition?
Sue: We have updated the book with some of the amazing new neuroscience that is changing our understanding of the brain and behaviour – and of consciousness. Emily also brings a different perspective to the book, incorporating more about mental illness and providing wonderful literary excerpts designed to help us think about the nature of consciousness in alternative ways. I think it has a far richer scope than previous editions, as well as more recent science and philosophy.There is also a companion website with a wide variety of resources to support the book.
Emily: When we agreed that I’d be co-author of the third edition, my first task was a rethink of the entire book structure: Sue had known that her second-edition revisions were already pushing the boundaries of the existing structure, so I started again and replaced the 27 chapters with 18 longer ones, some in a significantly different order. As Sue said, I was also keen to bring in a different side to the history of human thought about consciousness: the thought that’s been crystallised in wonderful literary texts from at least ancient Greece onwards. My interdisciplinary background probably also means I’m more sceptical about some of the neuroscientific work going on that isn’t grounded in coherent theory (though Sue has always had a lot of this kind of scepticism too), so we’ve tried to contextualise and criticise the neuroscience more fully, even (or especially) where it seems new and shiny and exciting.
The website was also a lot of fun to put together: it lets us go beyond text and images and beyond the confines of the book (there was always so much more we wanted to include!) to provide a series of our own videos, plus many links to other online videos and demos, as well as suggestions for all kinds of further reading and film/TV-viewing.
Consciousness is an interdisciplinary area of study that can often be contentious. How is the field evolving?
Sue: Slowly and with much confusion.
Emily: Yeah, I can’t really improve on that!
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Sue: Desperation, confusion, joy at learning about such a difficult subject, and, above all, perplexity. As we say at the start –
“If you think you have a solution to the problem of consciousness, you haven't understood the problem. That's not strictly true, of course. You may either be a genius and have found a real solution, or be sufficiently clear-sighted to understand why there was no problem in the first place. More likely, however, is that you are falling into a number of tempting traps that help you evade the real issues.”
This book explores all those traps and evasions along with as much of the relevant evidence as we could fit in. We give no final answers because, in 2018, they do not exist. But maybe this book will inspire the next generation of researchers to find them.
Emily: Yes, I hope readers will take from it real understanding of what the problem is, and why it’s such a problem: why your intuitions about all the apparently easy answers (this is conscious and that isn’t, we are conscious and machines aren’t, etc. etc.) just can’t be taken at face value. Also, real appreciation of the vastness of human effort that has gone into battling with the problem, or the apparent problem: all the grand creativity of thinking and arguing and experimenting and writing. It’s inspiring and infuriating in almost equal measure.
Can you sum up the book in one sentence?
Sue: A head-hurting, mind-stretching, infuriating exploration of what some have called the last great mystery for science – our own awareness.
Emily: An introduction to consciousness that doesn’t pretend to have the ultimate answers, but offers very many beginnings of answers – and just as many dead ends.
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