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.

Here in California we worry a lot about the "Monkey Mind." You know, the noisy thoughts that jump and trip and interrupt your meditation.

But what's really going on inside the mind of a monkey?

A bunch of my Facebook friends — cognitive scientists, professors, students of the mind, one and all — were more excited than a barrel of monkeys this week over some videos of monkeys and apes confronted with stage magic that have been making the rounds.

Take exhibit one, for example, here.

NPR's Eyder Peralta covered a recent gathering of "transhumanists" and so-called body hackers last week.

He interviewed me for the story and we had a great chat. You can listen to (or read) the piece here. So, I thought I'd use my space this week to follow up with some further thoughts.

We haven't been too lucky with our new car. How else to characterize the experience of buying a spanking new Volkswagen diesel two weeks before word broke that VW had been cheating regulators. And then, Sunday morning, my partner, running late, backed up before I had a chance to shut the passenger door. I could hear the door squeal on its hinges as we reversed into the tree in front of our house.

I filed a claim — and it was with a heavy heart that I brought the car to the body shop to estimate the damages. What happened next impressed me greatly.

Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, originally published as a series of essays in an Italian newspaper, was just released in book form in the U.S. on March 1. I read the book by the noted physicist in a single sitting with pleasure and mounting excitement.

It is a very clear book and it is likely to provoke in readers, as it provoked in me, a desire to learn more about space, time, quantum reality, the nature of the gravity, our universe and, finally, about ourselves.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal wanted to be an artist. His dad wanted him to study medicine and encouraged him to draw cadavers at the graveyard.

The rest is history.

What is art? Why does it matter to us? What does it tell us about ourselves?

It's something of the rage these days to turn to neuroscience for answers.

The answer as to whether a DNA test can tell you your ethnic identity? Yes — and no.

It is one of the great ironies of biology that sometimes breakthroughs seem to come when it is supposed that its problems have less to do with the body, which is pulsing, hot, and wet, and more to do with information processing, which is dry and computational.

To give an example, vision is widely believed to be the process of extracting information about an environment from an image. There is nothing distinctively biological about this. A machine can do it, in principle at least.

Consider these facts, culled from writings here:

  • You share no DNA with the vast majority of your ancestors.
  • You have more ancestors — hundreds a few generations back, thousands in just a millennium — than you have sections of DNA.
  • You have 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents — but if you are a man, you share your Y-chromosome with only one of them.

For the holidays, I bought my science-loving 11-year-old tickets to "An evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson" at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. The big night was last Friday.

Some intellectuals bring out the immense complexity behind simple phenomena and others, like the estimable Dr. Tyson, excel at bringing complicated ideas down to earth. My son and I are both Cosmos fans but, still, we didn't really know what to expect.

We don't know why our ancestors made paintings deep inside caves in France and Spain as long ago as 30,000 years ago.

Was it to celebrate or tabulate or hallucinate or worship? We can only speculate. This much is pretty sure, though. The caves, inaccessible now, were — or so at least there is every reason to believe — pretty inaccessible then. You needed to climb and crawl and squeeze in. And once you were there, you were shrouded in darkness.

Lumosity, a "brain games" company, has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising suit.

According to Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, the brain-fitness company, "preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease."

The claims the company made, it seems, are entirely without basis. As she says: "Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

With Christmas time, as one writer said in The New York Times, comes "Nutcracker" time.

There are probably more than a dozen professional productions of The Nutcracker here in California alone. And who's to say how many local school and amateur productions there are, such as the truly delightful one I saw at the Berkeley Ballet Theater?

I love my battered old copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. I've rarely needed to look up a word that I can't find in there.

Take, for example, the word "word." Its primary definition, according to the Concise Oxford, is:

Do you remember being bored as a kid? I do.

I remember long stretches of unstructured time with nothing to do. Time reduced to a kind of metronome, second after second, or sensation after sensation. I remember being confronted by the irritating sense that I was trapped, caught, in unending time.

Boredom comes in different shapes and sizes. But I find that it is not very often that we encounter this distinct type of boredom in adulthood.

On PBS's Newshour last week, Jon Schull, a research scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, made some points about disability.

He said that in a world with lots of small print, the inability to see fine detail is a disability (though some might consider it minor in the range of "disability"). And, he said, this disability becomes a mere nuisance when you have affordable, easy to use reading glasses.

My plane touched down in Chicago some time after 5 p.m. local time last Friday. I had almost two hours to spare before making my connection. But the plane was late and others on board were anxious.

The couple behind me had less than an hour to catch a flight to Paris.

For some time now, I've been skeptical about the neuroscience of consciousness. Not so much because I doubt that consciousness is affected by neural states and processes, but because of the persistent tendency on the part of some neuroscientists to think of consciousness itself as a neural phenomenon.

The Struma was sunk by a Soviet torpedo in February 1942 as it sought to carry its cargo of Romanian Jews to safe harbor in what was then called Palestine by way of the Black Sea.

This terrible event isn't very well remembered today, but it marked the lives of my family. My father Hans Noë, who is now 86, shared this chapter of his story with me and my mother recently.

If you watch the World Series tonight, you'll notice that if Matt Harvey, the Mets pitcher, reaches a two strike count against one of the Royals batters, the whole stadium — as if with a single mind — will rise to its feet and roar with excitement and encouragement.

Their shared interest in the action, and their understanding of it, unites them and brings them into coordination. No doubt the impulse to jump up and scream is also caused, in part, by the fact that so many people around you are doing it, too.

I had a chance to see the Andy Warhol exhibition that just closed at New York's MOMA this past weekend. The high point of the show, indeed — one of art's high points — is Warhol's series of Campbell's soup cans. They were painted and first shown in Los Angeles in 1962, and all 32 of them are seldom on display altogether.

I've always been a little skeptical about the scientific method.

Science isn't one thing, after all. Just as sports isn't one thing. There isn't one way to win, or one way to get the gold. And, so, there isn't one way to conduct research in fields as different as chemistry, economics, climate science and ethology.

When baseball fans think back on memorable events from the season that just ended, there's no doubt that the Matt Harvey Affair is one of the things they'll remember.

Matt Harvey is a star pitcher for the New York Mets. He's in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. With a playoff spot in plain view, Harvey's agent, Scott Boras, went public a few weeks back with the claim that Harvey's doctors didn't want him pitching a full load this season.

Diesels are more expensive than gasoline powered cars. But they drive better; they've got better torque. And they're way more fuel efficient.

The downside is that they're dirty. They spew deadly particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that make it hard to breathe.

The demands of communication put constraints on how everyone talks, regardless of what language they are using.

These pragmatic linguistic universals are the subject of a new study published this week.

Imagine a race of beings who use language just like we do, but who never misunderstand each other; they never need to stop and ask for clarification, as language operates between them in a fluid way. Communication is like the flow of currents and they are all caught up in the flow.

Carl Safina, in his new book on animal minds — Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel makes a strong case for the claim that animals, such as wolves, elephants — and maybe also crayfish — have rich mental lives.

The science press was atwitter with excitement about the blind spot this week.

The words below were written in celebration of Oliver Sacks's 80th birthday in 2013. The renowned neurologist died Sunday.

A comment I heard more than once at a recent event in New York to celebrate the life of Oliver Sacks, who turns 80 this year, is that it isn't Sacks's patients who are particularly interesting; it is the interest that Sacks brings to them that makes them special. He has good eyes.

The headline of a Washington Post article from Aug. 11 reads: "It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner."

Woody Allen's lovely new movie, Irrational Man, tells the story of an alcoholic philosophy professor, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who arrives one summer to take up a teaching gig at an idyllic, elite liberal arts college.

I'm not sure what is more far-fetched, the proposition that the entire campus is aflutter with erotic anticipation at the "brilliant" man's arrival, or the idea that Joaquin Phoenix is supposed to be a brilliant philosophy professor.

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