Our thoughts on 'Being You'

21 July 2022

The second book of our TBA Global Book Review is Anil Seth's 'Being You', in which he explores the definitions and theories on consciousness.

Anil Seth is a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, UK. His research focuses on exploring what consciousness is, how it happens and applying this understanding to behavioural challenges in healthcare, technology and society.

Being You dives into the definition of consciousness and the theories that try to narrow it down. Seth believes, however, that consciousness mainly depends on how we perceive the world. By drawing on research, his own experiences and his background in neuroscience, he explores how our perceptions shape our decisions and behaviour.

Our readers Nicolette Pinto, Research Analyst in the US office, and Miguel Rodrigues, Senior Strategic Consultant in the UK team, share their views on the book below:

  • What did you perceive was the author’s main message in Being You?

This book reviews and evaluates some of the theories about consciousness to shed light on the current state of the field. The author is upfront in admitting that there is no agreed-upon explanation for consciousness and there likely isn’t one - the book is an exploration of different ideas & historical attempts to understand consciousness rather than deliver a singular main message.

  • What would you say are the main takeaways (in terms of insights, research or case studies) that are relevant to TBA’s work?

Understanding consciousness allows us to understand why cognitive biases exist in the first place. This helps us understand why behaviour may be hard to study and predict at times and why we need a multidisciplinary approach to understanding it.

It also raises an important point: we must remain critical of all knowledge, and make an effort to question our own assumptions of what we think is right. It seems we are much less in control of ourselves than we lead ourselves to believe. As we well know at TBA, we often forget how much behavioural biases steer our behaviour. The same parallel can be made with our overall “consciousness.” Most of what we describe as a sense of “being” is the byproduct of a multitude of electrochemical processes happening concomitantly and consequently in the brain. To put it simply, the perception of colour, smell, and sound are all fabrications that could take any form, but so is the sensation of being, things like “when” and “where” and “who” we are in our environment. Your brain “chooses” to show you a constructed reality that is coherent and consistent enough to make you function within its environment. But it being the most correct version of reality is a very debatable topic.

As with optical illusions, there are the parallels that we can draw between the brain and behaviour to understand our flaws and limitations is to understand ourselves better too. Who's to blame here? Your eyes, your brain? We agree with the author that there is no blame to be pinned on any side, you are working precisely how you were designed to, but that is not necessarily what will allow you to make the best choice.

  • For whom would you say is this book interesting or useful for?

It is easy to read and is for someone who is on their own journey of understanding what it means to ‘be’; it encourages the readers to look inwards and question their perceptions, realities, and intentions. However, the author’s autobiographical examples may alienate the reader from the actual concept he is trying to explain (e.g. it’s very first-world and focuses very much on his academic, day-to-day interactions).

  • After reading this book, is there anything you will apply to your own personal life?

Miguel: I’m an aficionado for this topic and shortly after reading this book, I found myself looking inward more often and searching for my own contextual behaviour paradigms. That is, trying to dissociate what was automatic or conscious in my day-to-day behaviour, how it was shaped by my mood and by my context. Sometimes, certain passages would come to mind and I would find it amusing that it was either inescapable or purposely avoided so I could feel “in control” of those functions. However, after a while, the novelty of it diminished. I believe that it is difficult to find a utility for it on your day-to-day. A lot of these processes happen naturally and within context. So, although it is a good philosophical exercise it didn’t impact my life tremendously.

Nicolette: I love this topic, but I personally did not connect with the book - I think it inspires some interesting questions, but I wish the author would talk more about how our own “controlled hallucinations” (a term used in the book to describe our perception of reality and “feeling conscious”) affect us as social creatures, which would have made the book a little more relevant to my interests!


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