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University events and lectures preview/review

A preview and review of U events and lectures, April 21-May 7

Compiled by Adam Overland

Out of our heads cover 165
(partial book cover)

April 20, 2010

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are not Your Brain - A talk by Alva Noë

More than meets the eye
Imagine that you are having a conversation with a woman on the street, and a blue car parked right next to you changes to red, except that you don't notice, which is to say that the change in color does not register with your consciousness. And yet, in your brain, the light sensitive rods and cones of the eye deliver the message neuronally—the physical and chemical changes occur.

In a passionate, animated, and often funny lecture at Nolte Hall on April 6, Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, said "the reason why we haven't been able to explain consciousness in terms of something going on inside the brain, is because consciousness is not happening inside the brain."

Noë showed the audience a video of exactly the aforementioned phenomenon. The image appeared to be a photograph, with one variable, the color of the car, changing very slowly. Indeed, no one in the audience seemed to notice the change, even though, he says, if we had been wearing eye-tracking devices, they would have shown our eyes to be all over that car.

Mind on the money
Alva Noë compares searching for consciousness within the brain to looking for the value of money using a microscope. "No matter how expensive an electron microscope you use, you're not going to discover the money's value in the money. The money's value doesn't reside in the money. Consciousness doesn't reside inside us either," he says.

Invited by the Institute for Advance Study's "Thinking Body, Moving Mind collaborative," Noë delivered a very open and accessible lecture on a complex topic that likely will be researched and debated ad infinitum. His recent book, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are not Your Brain, is an attempt to move the debate forward neither by discounting the science of the debate (he is emphatically "not anti-science"), nor by discrediting the value of the philosophical components as keys that can move science in the right direction. For now, he says, "I think the science in question is bad science, I think a lot of the money spent on it is wasted money, I think it's a lot of hype, and I'm trying to call them out, but on their own terms."

In fact, his book's title is almost a direct calling-out of Francis Crick's book (of Watson and Crick DNA fame) The Astonishing Hypothesis, which posited that you are indeed your brain; your thoughts, your feelings, your likes, and your dislikes are nothing but the action of brain cells and their associated molecules. Noë's thoughts on that? "The thing I find astonishing about that is how astonishing it is not."

Noë says the fundamental problem is that we've been asking the wrong question. "Consciousness isn't something that happens inside us or around us—it is something we do. It is something we achieve. Like everything else we achieve, it depends upon a context. A setting. We've been looking in the wrong place," he says. It is like visiting an art gallery with work by an artist that is unfamiliar. A knowledgeable friend guides you through the artwork, and in the process, sometimes you go through a transformation, he says.

"Whereas the work was flat and uninteresting before, all of a sudden, each picture has depth…seems to have meaning where before it was meaningless—a transformation has occurred. On the one hand, it's subjective, but I submit the change is not merely in you. In the optimal case, you are now able to see what you were not able to see before. You bring what was there all along into focus. You need understanding to bring the world into focus--to make contact with the world."

The answer to the question of consciousness is fundamental to a number of real-world issues, ranging from a family's decision on whether to keep a loved one on life support to the development of artificial intelligence.

Though the lecture that took place at Nolte is not yet available, a very similar lecture is online at Authors@Google: Alva Noe.

--Review by Adam Overland


CBS Annual Plant Sale: Conducted by the CBS Greenhouses and CBS Phytograduate students. April 21-22, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., St. Paul Student Center. The plants always seem to go pretty fast at the annual CBS plant sale, so if you're planning on planting, get there early. The plant sale, which will take place in the Minnesota Commons of the St. Paul Student Center, will include a large selection of blooming annuals, tropical plants, herbs, carnivorous plants, succulents, and orchids. An orchid and succulent expert will be present to answer questions about the care and culture of these remarkable plants during the sale. The staff from the CBS greenhouses will also be on hand to answer any questions about the entire plant selections. For more information, call 612-625-4788.

Why Scientists Must Dance: A presentation by John Bohannon, The Gonzo Scientist, April 22, 4-5:30 p.m., 125 Nolte. John Bohannon, a correspondent for the journal <em>Science</em> and a visiting scholar at Harvard University, will make the case that scientists, now more than ever, must dance. As evidence, he will show the results of last year's "Dance Your Ph.D." contest (see next event!), a viral YouTube phenomenon in which scientists around the world interpret their Ph.D. theses in dance form. 

In his monthly online series "The Gonzo Scientist," John Bohannon takes a look at the intersections between science, culture, and art--and, in true gonzo style, doesn't shrink from making himself a part of the story. The stories include original art and accompanying multimedia features. To learn more about the projects and events related to these stories, visit the Gonzo Labs. This event is organized by the Choreography of the Moving Cell: Self-Organization and Catastrophe collaborative. Free and open to the public.

"Dance Your Ph.D." Contest, April 23, 4-6 p.m., 2-101 Hasselmo Hall. The journal Science is about to launch the 2010 "Dance Your Ph.D." contest, and scientists at U. Minnesota will get the first crack at it. How fortuitous then, that the man behind the contest, Science correspondent John Bohannon, will be here at the U of M to capture the dance that is science in all its glory?

In a nutshell: You have to turn your Ph.D. thesis into a short dance. An international panel of judges will score the dance on both its scientific and artistic merits. Besides the glory of appearing in Science, there are thousands of dollars in cash prizes. Plus, your dance will be screened at the award ceremony (like the Oscars, but with more science) October 2010 at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City.


  1. You have to either already have a Ph.D. in a scientific field (loosely defined), or be working on one as a Ph.D. student.
  2. You have to be part of the dance. It can be a solo or a team effort.
  3. You have to have fun.

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats: An Evening With Authors Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, April 24, 7 p.m. Bell Museum. The Preview/review column usually features only free events, but this one is just too good to pass by. You can join best-selling photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D'Aluisio, authors of the best-selling Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, for a dazzling tour of the world's dinner plates. Menzel and D'Aluisio, will discuss what inspires their travels and why food is an important part of their work. They will preview their new book, What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, the much anticipated follow-up to Hungry Planet. This new book looks at the daily food habits and caloric intakes of 80 individuals, including a Tibetan yak herder, a Bangladeshi sweatshop seamstress, a NASA astronaut, a professional model, and a homeless New Yorker. The authors will be introduced by Lee Svitak Dean, editor of the Star Tribune's Taste section and author of Come One, Come All: Easy Entertaining with Seasonal Menus.

Engineers Without Borders Film Premiere: Water for Mulobere, April 27, 7-9 p.m., Coffman Union Theater. In summer 2009, Beth Anderson, the video producer for the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (IonE), traveled to Uganda with the Engineers Without Borders student group. With funding from the IonE and its signature program, Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE), the student-led organization implemented a solar-powered water supply system for Hope Integrated Academy, a vocational college, high-school, and community resource center in rural Mulobere. The system now provides the entire school and more than 500 villagers with clean drinking water. The project also incorporates a sanitation building design and health education focused on malaria prevention. Anderson roughed it alongside the volunteers and captured footage for this short documentary. The evening will open with a performance by the Hayor Bibimma African Dance Company.  After the film there will be a question-and-answer session with students and the filmmaker. Doors open at 6:30p.m. Watch the Water for Mulobere trailer online.

Kermit Olson Lecture 2010: The Un-Still Life of Plants, April 28, 4 p.m., 110 Green Hall (St. Paul). Plants are among the slowest forms of life, and—as a consequence of the ever-quickening pace of the human world—their importance is receding in our collective consciousness. In this presentation, Roger Hangarter will demonstrate using time-lapse technology the remarkable dynamics of plant life. We will see how keenly aware plants are of their environment as they navigate the space around them and respond to the various stimuli they encounter.

Raptor logo 165Raptor Center Spring Raptor Release, May 1, 11-2 p.m. (release at 1 p.m.), Hyland Lake Park Reserve Visitor Center. It happens this time every year, and the raptors couldn't be happier. Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine will release rehabilitated raptors back to the wild, to the delight of children, parents, and about everyone awed by these talonted (sic) birds of prey. During this annual celebration, participants can watch raptors return to the wild and photograph eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls. There will be children’s activities, a climbing wall, and educational displays throughout the day.

The public is also invited to bring their used printer ink cartridges for the Recycling for Raptors program, which helps support The Raptor Center. Co-sponsored by The Raptor Center and Three Rivers Park District, the event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the Raptor Center at 612-624-4745.

U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders: "Revolutionizing Our Sexually Dysfunctional Society: Are Americans Ready to Talk, Listen, and Learn?" May 7, 4:30 p.m., Mayo Memorial Auditorium. Presented by U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, M.D., this lecture will cover the public health issue of sexual health and the fundamental changes required to move our society forward.

Find more Twin Cities events using the U's events calendar.

University events and lectures preview/review is a periodic column (about every two weeks) highlighting events and lectures recently past and soon-to-come on the UMTC campus. Faculty and staff are invited to contribute. Preview submissions should be no more than 450 words, reviews 150 or fewer. Both are subject to review by the Brief editor.