Susan Blackmore

(Author of "Teaching Consciousness: An Introduction", and "Conversations on Consciousness")

Teaching Consciousness


Teaching courses can be fun. Even the (sometimes) difficult and abstract topic of consciousness can be taught by using interactive sessions, games, and demonstrations. During more than ten years of teaching third-year undergraduate courses I have developed many class activities to bring abstract arguments to life, and personal exercises for developing insight. In this workshop I shall enlist the participants as students (and critics) to discuss course structure, and to try out some of the activities, including the following.

Mary the colour scientist. Re-enacting “Mary amazed” and “Mary-know-it-all” emerging from their black and white room makes the thought experiment unforgettable.

The cutaneous rabbit is easy to demonstrate (with practice) and illuminates arguments about the timing of conscious experiences. This is useful before trying …

Libet’s experiment on voluntary action. With the teacher acting as the clock face, students act “spontaneously” and time their “will to move” – leading to all the classic criticisms of this famous experiment, and discussions of free will.

Split brain twins. Two people act as the right and left hemispheres respectively, with one hand restrained and a taped-over mouth.

The imitation game. Setting up a class Turing test is impossible, but Turing’s original game (guessing the sexes) works well. When the students have to decide which questions to ask they discover the big issues in machine consciousness.

Positioning the theories. Students fill in a blank version of Varela’s scheme and discuss their differences.

Personal exercises for students to practice at home, from “Am I conscious now?” to “Who made that decision?”.

These, and many other activities, are in Consciousness: An Introduction. Some lecturers may think that these “games” waste time and trivialise the subject. Trying them out will enable us to discuss this. Others may object to the intense personal exercises, or wish to discuss the ethical issues that arise when students’ deepest beliefs are challenged. I hope that the workshop will be fun, while helping us to learn from each other about the teaching of consciousness studies.