The Human Mind Conference

Location: The Møller Centre, Cambridge | 27 June, 2017 - 29 June, 2017

The Human Mind Conference was an international, interdisciplinary event bringing together a wide range of experts from across the humanities and the cognitive sciences to discuss key aspects of mental life and experience and providing a major statement of the current state of knowledge in the study of the mind. The conference featured four sessions, each on a live topic in the study of the human mind:

  1. Brain & World: Perception & Consciousness
  2. The Human Agent: Intention & Action
  3. Self & Other: Social Cognition & Communication
  4. The Subject’s Point of View: Intentionality & Emotion

The Human Mind Conference was a collaboration between New Directions in the Study of the Mind and The Human Mind Project, School of Advanced Study, University of London.


You can find abstracts, videos, and slides from the conference’s talks below. Simply click to reveal them.

Tim Crane & Colin Blakemore: Opening Remarks (Video & Slides)

Session 1. Brain & World: Perception & Consciousness
Anil Seth: Consciousness, perception, and prediction (Abstract) (Video) Consciousness is, for each of us, the presence of a world. Without consciousness there is no world, no self: there is nothing at all. I will examine how the framework of prediction error minimisation (PEM) can help bridge from mechanism to phenomenology in the science of consciousness. I will advance the view that PEM, precisely because it is not a theory of consciousness, is an excellent theoretical framework for consciousness science. Focusing on experiences of the world around us, I will give some examples showing how perceptual predictions affect conscious access, as well as ongoing studies linking counterfactual predictions to the phenomenology of ‘presence’. Finally, I will turn to conscious selfhood and argue that the experience of being an embodied self depends on control-oriented predictive (allostatic) regulation of physiological homeostasis. Speculatively, this provides a way to understand the deeply subjective nature of consciousness as emerging from systems that care intrinsically about their own existence. Contrary to the old doctrine of Descartes, we are conscious because we are beast machines.

Andy Clark: Prediction, Perception, and Imagination (Abstract) (Video & Slides) According to an emerging vision in computational and cognitive neuroscience, perception (rich, full-blooded, world- presenting perception of the kind we humans enjoy) depends heavily on prediction. To perceive, if this schema is correct, is to meet incoming sensory information with a set of matching ‘top-down’ predictions – the brain’s best probabilistic guesses about the shape of the present sensory signal. This story suggests, intriguingly, that perception, understanding and imagination - which we might intuitively consider to be three distinct chunks of our mental machinery - are inextricably tied together, emerging as simultaneous results of that single underlying strategy.

Bob Kentridge: Colour Constancy, Sensation and Perception (Abstract) (Video) The simplest distinction between ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’ is that perception involves becoming acquainted with the properties of things in the world whereas sensation involves having the experiences that those things elicit. The classical view of the relationship between sensation and perception, held by Aristotle and championed more recently by Herman von Helmholtz, is that we infer properties of things in the world from the sensations they elicit. In other words, perception is derived from sensation. I will describe an experiment in which we show that the visual system estimates a property of an external object even when that object is rendered invisible using a masking technique. This clearly violates the notion that percepts must be derived from sensations and suggests that unconscious perception can occur. I conclude with some discussion of whether more complex definitions of perception (e.g. the recent work of Tyler Burge) render the possibility of unconscious perception impossible by definition (and so are self-sealing) or whether further work is needed to truly test the existence of unconscious perception empirically.

Session2. The Human Agent: Intention & Action
Lucy O'Brien: Actions as basic (Abstract) (Video & Slides) I will suggest that we have good reason to take actions as psychologically basic: attempts to construe actions as composites of intentions, tryings and bodily movements face problems. Moreover there are positive arguments for thinking that actions play as basic role in our psychological explanations as the phenomena that have been offered in reductive explanations. I will also argue the task of understanding intentions is not prior to the task of understanding actions.

Patrick Haggard: New approaches to volition and agency (Abstract) (Video & Slides) All known societies have some concept of individual responsibility for action, and the capacity for voluntary action is considered a key feature of adult human mental life. Nevertheless, scientific studies of volition are controversial, and suffer from several methodological difficulties. I will attempt to define voluntary action from a neurocognitive perspective, and discuss what happens in the brain prior to voluntary actions. I will report recent EEG studies that identify a consistent process of neural noise reduction in frontal areas prior to reasons-responsive, endogenous, voluntary actions. In the second part of my talk I will turn to the sense of agency: volition is arguably important only to the extent that it gives humans the capacity to transform their environment through their own actions: to make things happen. This capacity has a subjective aspect, called “sense of agency”, which I define as the feeling that one controls one’s own actions, and, through them, events in the external world. One school of psychologicalthought viewssense of agency as the result of a predictive neural computation that compares predictions about the consequences of action with what actually happens. Another school views sense of agency as a narrative, or even an illusion, that the mind composes retrospectively to explain what we find we have done. I will describe how an “implicit” measure of agency, based on the perceived temporal association between an action and its outcome, reveals both predictive and retrospective agency processing in the human brain. Next I will show how sense of agency reflects our ability to learn by experience to achieve our desired goals.

Richard Holton & Anthony Dickinson: What's the Point of Pleasure? (Abstract) (Video & Handout - Holton) (Video & Slides - Dickinson) Philosophical accounts of desire tend to treat it functionally: anything is a desire that moves an agent to action. But the empirical findings suggest diversity under this blanket label. We distinguish two different kinds of desire or want: one which has its place in the stimulus-response system; and another which features in more cognitive goal-driven behaviour. These in turn we distinguish from pleasure (and from other motivationally relevant features, intentions and self-control). Given such diversity, the question arises as to the role of pleasure. We outline the Hedonic Interface Theory: pleasure provides the means by which the S-R wants can be brought into the goal-based system.

John-Dylan Haynes: Neuroscience and free will: Beyond choice prediction (Abstract) (Video) Often people believe to be “free” when deciding between different choice options. Ever since the pioneering work of Benjamin Libet, neuroimaging studies have repeatedly shown that it is possible to predict the outcome of subjectively free decisions from brain activity – even before people believe to be making up their mind. It has been debated whether this poses a challenge to the notion of free will. In this brief presentation I will discuss three points that have contaminated the debate on free will between neuroscientists and philosophers: (1) Do simple and seemingly random laboratory decisions really capture people’s intuitions about free choices? (2) What exactly does neuroimaging reveal about the link between prior brain activity and subsequent choices? Does it support a deterministic model of choice preparation? (3) Are there other neuroscientific challenges to free will, beyond the demonstration of choice-predictive brain signals?

Session 3. Self & Other: Social Cognition & Communication
Cecilia Heyes: Cognitive Gadgets (Abstract) (Audio & Slides) I will suggest that distinctively human cognitive mechanisms – including imitation, mindreading, and language – are cognitive gadgets. Like slingshots, hour glasses and spinning wheels, they are products of cultural evolution. This view from ‘cultural evolutionary psychology’ combines the computationalism of evolutionary psychology with a specific, selectional variety of cultural evolutionary theory. Supported by evidence from animals, children and adults, cultural evolutionary psychology distinguishes our genetic starter kit (consisting of temperamental and attentional biases, and souped-up, general-purpose mechanisms of learning and memory), from the impressive, special-purpose cognitive mechanisms found in mature adult humans. It implies that the mental processes that make human lives so different from those of other animals are both more agile and more fragile than is typically assumed.

Chris Frith: The Distinguished Self (Abstract) (Video & Slides) We are much more embedded in the social world than we realise and, like all animals, most of what we know about the world comes from observing others. But the behaviour of others can sometimes be misleading. If she avoids some berries, does this mean that they are poisonous or that she doesn’t like them? We need to learn about other peoples’ attitudes to the world, their preferences, intentions and beliefs, and distinguish them from our own. Learning about the inner states of the self and of others requires the representation of metacognitive variables, such as the degree of confidence in our perceptions. Many of these metacognitive representations occur at a sub-personal level, but there is an explicit form of metacognition, which is closely tied with language and may be unique to humans. We can reflect on our mental states, and we can also discuss them with others. Such discussions can improve decision-making, create consensus about of how the mind works, not necessarily accurate, and are fundamental to the development of social norms and cumulative culture.

Robyn Carston: Mind to Mind: Human Communication and the Roles of Language (Abstract) (Video & Slides) Humans have a powerful drive to communicate with each other, that is, to make public and so share their thoughts, feelings and experiences. They use every available means to do this: ostensive eye gaze, pointing, miming, demonstrating, manual and other bodily gestures, and, of course, language. For language to function in communication, it depends on an antecedent metarepresentational ability to infer and attribute thoughts and intentions to others (a ‘theory of mind’), which itself is, arguably, dependent on a core property of language (recursive syntax). The talk focuses on resolving this apparent paradox, which requires recognition of language as both a biological and cultural phenomenon and draws on the evidence provided by ‘languages’ that emerge from the communicative interactions of individuals who lack environmental linguistic input.

Dan Zahavi: I, you, and we (Abstract) (Video & Slides) Recently, a number of people have argued that a satisfactory account of social cognition has to pay heed to second-person engagement, and that agents that directly interact with one another, can achieve a form of interpersonal awareness, a ‘meeting’ of minds, that is qualitatively different and informationally richer than anything that can be achieved through recursive exercises of inferential mindreading. In my talk, I will pick up on this idea, and suggest that a focus on second-person engagement might also be of relevance for our understanding of collective intentionality.

Session 4. The Subject’s Point of View: Intentionality & Emotion
Huda Akil: Emotions, Temperament and Mood: A Neurobiologist’s Perspective (Abstract) (Audio) This talk will discuss affect from a neurobiological perspective, and define the role of emotions, mood and temperament—elements of affect that operate in different time scales from moment-to-moment modulation of behavior to lifelong patterns of emotional reactivity. It will touch on their adaptive value at the individual, social and population levels, but also the cost of their dysregulation. It will describe how individual differences in emotionality predict different types of adaptations and psychopathology. It will provide examples of biological mechanisms, including specific genes and neural circuits, that determine emotional responses. Finally, it will offer a perspective on the relative role of genetic and environmental factors in the fine tuning of affect, and the possible implications for the interplay between affective and cognitive functions.

Philip Gerrans: An integrative account of the emotions (Abstract) (Video & Slides) How do the psychological and neural mechanisms of emotions underlie the subject’s point of view on the world? I propose a short, descriptive answer: by exploiting the mechanisms the mind uses to represent its world (including the human body). Emotional processes use cognitive processes that represent the world, to tell us how states of the world matter to our goals (their subjective relevance in the jargon). Some goals are biologically basic (homeostatic maintenance) others are quite abstract and require conceptual personal level representation. They represent subjective relevance at different levels of cognition. The neural correlates consistently implicated in emotional processes, namely the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmpfc) and amygdala (am) are key hubs of an emotional processing hierarchy that exploits perceptual, inferential and other mechanisms at different levels of cognitive processing to detect subjective relevance and coordinate adaptive responses. Thinking of emotions this way provides a satisfying interpretation of the relationships between low (such as an immediate flush of anger) and high (such as simmering resentment) level emotions. It also explains the relationship between emotional, perceptual, inferential and other cognitive processes. I illustrate this idea using disorders of emotion and affect and use it to diagnose and reconcile disagreements among theorists of emotion. The answer to the question posed by the organisers of the conference is that emotions represent not just how the world is, but how the world matters to the to the subject. They don’t track truth but salience and value.

Frances Egan: Naturalizing Intentionality: Putting Ourselves in the Picture (Abstract) (Video & Slides) We expect the cognitive sciences – in particular, computational psychology and computational neuroscience – to eventually explain how thoughts and feelings represent the world. It is typically assumed that a successful account will incorporate a naturalistic explanation of representational content. I argue that proposals for naturalizing content currently on offer are likely to leave the subject’s perspective out of the picture. I suggest an alternative, motivated by computational practice itself, for accounting for our commonsense perspective on ourselves.

Mike Martin: All that Heaven Allows: Emotion Manifest (Abstract) (Video & Slides) Philosophical discussions of emotion are untrue to our experience: much of the analytic discussion is constrained within an arbitrary contrast between judgements and feelings; while recent attempts to assimilate emotion to value perception carry no greater conviction. Ask instead how emotion and experience fit together. Just as our actions can be expressive of our emotions to others, so too our experiences can be expressive of emotion to ourselves. A better picture of how experiential mental phenomena contrast with those which are not; and a better understanding of what we mean by feeling and what we mean by mental state helps us locate emotion properly within our lives.

Image: adapted from Blue and White, Reto Fetz.