Comment »Posted on Thursday 22 October 2009 at 6:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Just A Review, Psychology

Last week saw the start of a new series of Horizon, the BBC’s long-running science documentary programme. I wasn’t particularly impressed with last year’s offering, but I decided to give the show another chance this time around.

I managed to miss the first episode thanks to a confusing BBC press release, but caught this week’s which featured the media’s go-to mathematician and not-so-recently appointed Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. He submits himself to a variety of bizarre experiments in an attempt to answer a puzzling question: how do we know who we are?

Humans are one of just nine species that pass what is known as the mirror test for self-awareness. A dot is placed on the test subject’s face and they are placed in front of a mirror. If they notice the dot, by trying to look at or touch it, they’ve recognised the reflection as themselves. Otherwise, the subject views their reflection as an entirely separate individual.

Du Sautoy sees this test in action early on in the programme, and it’s quite striking. A young baby completely ignores the dot, while a slightly older child immediatly attempts to peel it off. Is this where conciousness begins? What does conciousness even mean?

The programme doesn’t have an answer – it’s still an open question in science, of course. It’s certainly interesting watching du Sautoy exploring the limits of his conciousness though. One experiment placed him under the effect of heavy anaesthetic while in an MRI scanner, his conciousness seeming to slowly slip away as he rambled in a drunken fashion. In another, du Sautoy wears a pair of video glasses that can appear to place his sense of self behind his body – or even inside another person.

I’ll admit I’m already fairly familiar with all of these experiments from my readings in the annals of popular science, but seeing them being performed really adds to the experience. A shame then that some of the programmes editing had quite the opposite effect.

Look. I understand that putting together a science programme is a difficult task – shot after shot of talking head doesn’t make for great TV. Did we really need to see du Sautoy walking around hooked up to a Steadicam as he ponders? It made him look like a cleaned up Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.

Camera gripes aside, this episode was certainly an improvement on the last time I sat down to watch Horizon. It’s worth a watch, and I’ll be making an effort to check out a bit more in the coming weeks.

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