The Neuroscience of Perception & Self-Awareness

BL00 - Session Highlight From Mindful Leader Summit (1)

Session Summary

Dr. Anil Seth's session at the 2019 Mindful Leader Summit provides a thought-provoking exploration of how we perceive the world and ourselves. By presenting perception and the self as constructed experiences, he offers a new lens through which to understand our emotions and mental health. This session highlights the importance of recognizing the brain's role in shaping our reality and underscores the need for further research into the predictive mechanisms underlying perception and emotional experiences.

Key Highlights  

  • Perception as a Controlled Hallucination: Dr. Anil Seth explains that perception is not a direct reflection of reality but a controlled hallucination created by the brain's predictive processes.
  • The Self as a Perceptual Construct: The self is described as a perception generated by the brain, influenced by the need to regulate and control the body's internal states.
  • Interoception and Emotion Perception: Emotions are framed as perceptions of internal bodily states, highlighting the brain's role in interpreting physiological changes to generate emotional experiences.

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Perception as a Constructed Experience

Dr. Seth explains that our perception of the world is a controlled hallucination created by the brain's continuous effort to predict sensory inputs. This process involves interpreting signals from both the external environment and the internal state of the body. The brain makes best guesses to generate a coherent experience of reality. This idea challenges the notion that our senses provide a direct window to the external world, emphasizing instead that perception is a result of predictive coding and inferential processes.

The Self as a Perception

The traditional view of the self as an independent entity that perceives the world is questioned. Dr. Seth suggests that the self itself is a perception generated by the brain. This perception is influenced by the brain's need to control and regulate the body's internal states. The experience of being a self is, therefore, closely tied to the physical body and the brain's predictions about its internal conditions. This concept aligns with the idea that our sense of self is another constructed experience, much like our perception of the external world.

Implications for Understanding Emotions and Mental Health

Emotions are described as perceptions of changes within the body. Following the theories of William James and Carl Lange, Dr. Seth proposes that emotions result from the brain's interpretation of physiological changes. For example, the feeling of fear is not just a reaction to seeing a bear but is the brain's perception of bodily changes triggered by that sight. Understanding emotions as perceptions of bodily states can provide new insights into mental health conditions. Misperceptions or mispredictions of these states may underlie various psychiatric and neurological disorders. This perspective emphasizes the importance of understanding the brain's predictive mechanisms to improve the treatment of these conditions.

Final Thoughts

The session focused on the intricate relationship between perception, the self, and emotions. It discussed how our experiences are not direct reflections of reality but are instead constructed by the brain. Key principles highlighted include the nature of perception, the conceptualization of the self, and the implications for mental health.

Anil Seth is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex and Founding Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. His research group investigates the biological basis of consciousness by bringing together research across neuroscience, mathematics, artificial intelligence, computer science, psychology, philosophy and psychiatry.


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