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).

We are a social animal. Indeed, it is our sociality, and everything that it demands of us — such as the ability to make sense of each other, to communicate, to work cooperatively and, finally, to create culture — that marks us off from other animal species.

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.

Commercial brain training programs are taking another hit.

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.

The Civic Museum of Natural History in Milan, which I visited last month, contains a magnificent collection of dioramas.

The museum was badly damaged during WWII, so the oldest of them dates back no earlier than the 1950s. But the diorama form is very much alive and well in this museum as, indeed, it is in some other natural history museums around the world. There are more than 100 dioramas in the Milan collection — and three new ones are coming soon.

The Future Of Prostheses

Jun 4, 2017

Ask yourself: Where's your left hand?

I bet you don't need to look around to answer this. Or try this: Shut your eyes and reach down and touch your right heel. Not that hard for most of us.

Proprioception is the name of this ability we have that lets us keep track of, locate and make use of our own bodies. Proprioception works thanks to sensors in our muscles (muscle spindles), but it also depends on our sensitivity to stretching and pressure on the skin.

What happens if you lose proprioception?

The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly said: "Football is not a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that."

Philosopher David Papineau quotes these words admiringly in his intelligent and very personal new book on sport titled Knowing the Score: What Sports Can Teach Us About Philosophy (And What Philosophy Can Teach Us About Sports).

The brain has evolved over evolutionary time scales of millions of years. So, what is the likelihood that the relatively recent advent of reading and writing, or motorized transport, or the Internet, could have changed our brains?

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