Alva Noë

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

Noë received his PhD from Harvard in 1995 and is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the Center for New Media. He previously was a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has been philosopher-in-residence with The Forsythe Company and has recently begun a performative-lecture collaboration with Deborah Hay. Noë is a 2012 recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship.

He is the author of Action in Perception (MIT Press, 2004); Out of Our Heads (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2009); and most recently, Varieties of Presence (Harvard University Press, 2012). He is now at work on a book about art and human nature.

Art and science can seem so different. Scientists work in teams, in the laboratory; their progress is piecemeal and, by-and-large, they know how to measure its occurrence. Art, so often at least, in contrast, is personal; it's about the signature achievement of the individual artist. And as for progress, well, that question doesn't really come up.

Philosophy isn't natural science, that much is certain. But its relation to the sciences has been fraught — at least since science broke off from philosophy and became its own family of disciplines back in the 17th century.

A few years ago, my son, who was 11, showed me a little captioned photo that he had found online; he referred to it as a meme.

The standard definition of drug or alcohol addiction is that it's a chronic, incurable disease of the brain.

In a comprehensive report on the topic, published last month, the surgeon general gives this familiar definition a more positive spin. He eschews the "cure" word and focuses instead on the fact that, as with other chronic diseases such as diabetes, there are effective treatments. There are methods for managing and reducing symptoms.

Are we conscious during dreamless sleep?

According to an opinion piece in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences published last month, scientists interested in the topic have tended to assume that the answer is no. We lose consciousness when we fall asleep, at least until we start to dream.

The Oxford Dictionary announced a couple weeks ago that "post-truth" is its 2016 word of the year.

According to the dictionary's website, the word is "an adjective defined as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.' "

Nearly 20 million Americans, more women than men, have or have had a specific phobia.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), "a specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger."

The American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines last week on kids' media use. According to headlines across the country, the new guidelines downward revise the medical group's previous call that parents prohibit their kids from using screens until they are at least two years of age.

When I was young, there were basically two little-boy schools of thought about girls.

According to one saying, girls were made of greasy grimy gophers' guts, little birdies' dirty feet, all wrapped up in poison ivy leaves.

The other, associated with Mother Goose, offered a different picture. Girls, so it was recited, were made of sugar and spice and everything nice.

I was with Mother Goose.

I thought of these pre-pubescent gender skirmishes the other day when I noticed how the tables have turned — at least as far as our views of sugar are concerned.

Last week, in this space, we looked at fascinating evidence of deep and far-reaching sameness when it comes to humans and our great ape cousins. They, like us, are attuned not only to what those around them are doing but to why they are doing it.

Suppose I take the candy from the cabinet where you left it and put it someplace else. Where will you look for it when you get home?

Have you ever noticed that time seems to speed up as you get older?

An afternoon could stretch on without end, in childhood, and a summer could be almost a lifetime. In childhood, so it seemed, and so it seems now, time was a slow, steady, tick tock.

But not so in adult time. We are racing forward into the future so fast that it sometimes seems as if our days are over before they have really begun.

A couple years ago, I was at a party with developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. We got to talking about being parents.

Why do parents sweat the small stuff, we wondered?

When I was a boy, I had a book about a father who sends his child to bed without dinner because he won't remove his tall hat at the table.

The boy goes to sleep hungry and dreams that he is in a forest where the trees are threatened by an evil lumberjack. One of the endangered trees turns out to be the boy's father. In the illustrations, you can see the father's tears in the gnarly bark of the tree.

I can't remember the title and I haven't been able to track this book down. I've asked book sellers and I've searched online. (If any of you know, please drop me a line!)

Can We See Taste?

Sep 20, 2016

Eaters and cooks know that flavor, in the jargon of neuroscientists, is multi-modal.

Taste is all important, to be sure. But so is the look of food and its feel in the mouth — not to mention its odor and the noisy crunch, or juicy squelch, that it may or may not make as we bite into it. The perception of flavor demands that we exercise a suite of not only gustatory, but also visual, olfactory, tactile and auditory sensitivities.

Neuroscientists are now beginning to grasp some of the ways the brain enables our impressive perceptual power when it comes to food.

There is a church in Florence where women and girls are asked to put on a blue robe if their dress is considered too revealing.

It is no doubt an accident that the blue of the gown perfectly matches the blue of the painted night sky of the small cupola in the old chapel and also the blue field of color in a Ghirlandaio painting that hangs near by. Far from concealing these church visitors, the effect, rather, is to draw the eye and throw them into architectural relief.

If you know Theo Jansen's strandbeests, then you surely have in mind images of mammoth, artificial creatures — made of PVC, plastic ties and bottles — roaming the northern beaches of the Netherlands on the watch for rising seas.

Attitudes toward animals are a delicate and complicated matter.

We can group animals into vertebrates and invertebrates, into the wild and the domestic — or into those we keep as pets, those we eat and those we regard with disgust as vermin.

It's OK to love them — but only so much.

It is a remarkable fact that we treat men and women, boys and girls, differently.

I'm not talking about wage disparities and implicit bias. No, I mean that we openly and freely treat males and females as if they were simply different kinds of people.

A few examples of what I have in mind:

  • Boys and girls, men and women, are typically separated for sporting activities regardless of size, strength or ability
  • Commonly, it is expected that men and women go to the toilet in different rooms

According to Oscar Wilde, life imitates art. In his The Decay of Lying — An Observation (1891), he wrote:

"Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge?"

In a post a few weeks back, Tania Lombrozo drew attention to research showing that students using laptops and other digital devices in the college classroom are less likely to perform as well as students not using them.

There sure has been a lot of sports in the news these days. NBA Finals, UEFA Cup, Wimbledon, the ongoing endurance test which is Major League Baseball. Sports is a lens on what we can and cannot do.

It's a celebration of ability and disability.

Today, I'm going to introduce you to a sport I just learned about: beep baseball.

In the last 400 years or so, since the time of the scientific revolution, we have come to find it natural to suppose that the world is comprehensible.

Nature and its laws, operating in things most small as well as in the cosmos as a whole, are understandable.

It's a common thought that you need to see a person's face to tell whether he or she is telling the truth or not.

This is why courts in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada prohibit witnesses from wearing the niqab, a traditional Muslim headdress that covers up the whole head and face except for the eyes. How can a jury evaluate the words and state of mind of a person hidden behind a veil?

It used to be that if you were a pitcher and you blew out your ulnar collateral ligament — the ligament that holds your elbow together — you were done.

Goodbye, playing days.

Sometimes the mind wanders. Thoughts pop into consciousness. Ideas or images are present when just a moment before they were not. Scientists recently have been turning their attention to making sense of this.

According to a new hypothesis put forward by an international team of geneticists and archeologists, dogs may have been domesticated in two different places from genetically distinct wolf populations in Europe and in East Asia.

There are millions of botulinum toxin (botox) treatments performed, mostly on women, around the world every year. And this sort of cosmetic intervention may have side effects — ones that go beyond the merely cosmetic.

Consider the logical beauty of the blood test.

Its underlying theory is simple: The cocktail of molecules that is your blood is actually the mirror of active processes throughout the body in which chemicals — fats, proteins, sugars, enzymes, hormones, etc. — push and pull against each other.

Disease is what happens when, perhaps as a result of the admission of a germ from the outside or as a result of some unfortunate growth process, the amount of one molecule or another or the ratio of different substances to each other gets out of whack.

Aristotle wrote that imitation is natural to human beings from childhood, and he observed that this is one of our advantages over the so-called lower animals.

A human being is "the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation," he said.

In the last two millennia, we have learned very little that would contradict Aristotle's believe that imitation — the ability to see others and do what they do — is critical for human learning and development. But is it true that we learn "at first" by imitation?

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