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.

Philosophers have long worried whether it is ever really possible to know how things are, internally, with another.

After all, we are confined to the external — to mere behavior, or perhaps to behavior plus measurements of brain activity. But the thoughts, feelings, images, sensations of another person, these are always hidden from our direct inspection.

The situation of doctors facing unresponsive victims of brain injury is a terrifying real-world example of the fact that we our locked out of the minds of another.

In a remarkable study published last week, Suzy J. Styles of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Nora Turoman of the University of Lausanne document evidence of iconicity in human writing systems.

Drawing on databases of images collected from an online dating site, a new study conducted at Stanford University concludes that faces carry information about sexual orientation.

This information is not available to visual inspection by ordinary perceivers. But it can be extracted by powerful, pattern-recognizing machines ("deep neural networks" or DNNs).

An Aug. 14, 1932, headline in the The New York Times read: "Eclipse to be best until August 21, 2017."

Sometimes scientists get it so right.

But not always. Sometimes science goes wrong, and with terrible consequences.

This is the topic of Paul A. Offit's very important book Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, just published in April.

Consider this tale detailed in the book:

One of Tesla CEO Elon Musk's companies, the nonprofit start-up OpenAI, manufactures a device that last week was victorious in defeating some of the world's top gamers in an international video game (e-sport) tournament with a multi-million-dollar pot of prize money.

We're getting very good, it seems, at making machines that can outplay us at our favorite pastimes. Machines dominate Go, Jeopardy, Chess and — as of now — at least some video games.

New evidence is calling into question the reliability of temperament tests widely used to help assess whether it's safe to send a dog home with an adoptive family, according to a fascinating and important article published last week in The New York Times.

The decision of a company to offer its employs the option to hack their bodies to function better in the workplace has raised eyebrows and, no doubt, generated publicity.

But it also gives us a chance to turn a light on hidden attitudes about the nature of the self.

Imagine that you could pay for your morning coffee with the swipe of your hand, or that you didn't need to have a key on your person to start up your car. Pretty convenient, huh?

Since the Enlightenment, champions of progress have urged us to break free of the chains of tradition.

Just because "we've always done it this way," is no reason to keep doing it this way. It is irrational, it is dumb, indeed, it is frequently dishonest, to cling to traditions, they say. If we aim to understand the world and control it — the abiding ambition of all empirically minded thinkers — then surely we can dispense with the baggage of inherited convention.

Humans and other primates see color thanks to three different kinds of cells in the retina.

By responding differently to short-, medium- and long-wavelength light, these cells provide the information the brain needs to figure out color in the environment.

This is how we do it. It's also how the birds and the bees do it.

But it turns out that our eyes do this imperfectly.

There's a provocative interview with the philosopher Daniel Dennett in Living on Earth.

The topic is Dennett's latest book — From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds — and his idea that Charles Darwin and Alan Turing can be credited, in a way, with the same discovery: that you don't need comprehension to achieve competence.

A friend of mine, a professor at a university in Canada, confided to me a few days ago that she thinks she might be addicted to email.

She feels compelled to check her email all the time. And she feels bad about it. She experiences anxiety if she doesn't check, and anxiety if she does. Email gets in the way of her productivity at work and makes her feel distracted from family when she is at home.

Yup, sounds like addiction to me.

Blood is red to the naked eye. Under a microscope, it depends.

This isn't because it isn't really red, but rather because its redness is a macroscopic feature. Human blood is red because hemoglobin, which is carried in the blood and functions to transport oxygen, is iron-rich and red in color.

Octopuses and horseshoe crabs have blue blood. This is because the protein transporting oxygen in their blood, hemocyanin, is actually blue.

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.

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?

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.

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.