Consciousness and the presence of mind

28 October 2020
One man’s journey through philosophy, consciousness and the brain

His book profiles 20 world-changing University of Sydney researchers. Yet, one of the most remarkable stories Maxwell Bennett AO tells in The Search for Knowledge and Understanding, is his own.

You can sense the fighter in Max Bennett AO (DSc '77) when he talks about his current commitment to defining the limits of the emerging field of neurolaw.

Coined in 1991, the term neurolaw describes a new way that the law might look at criminality. In effect, it asks, did the person throw the punch, or did their malfunctioning brain cause the punch to be thrown? Should they be punished, or understood?

Max Bennett

Photograph of Max Bennett by Tracey Schramm, supplied by University Archives (G77_4_0043).

Defence lawyers, particularly in the US, see this as an opportunity to reduce the culpability of their clients: people don’t punch people. Brains punch people. The character witness in these cases would be hugely advanced brain scanning technologies that can pinpoint brain activities and irregularities. But can the actions and indeed characteristics of a person be reduced to brain impulses?

Bennett is one of the most qualified people in the world to answer that question (or at least understand it and investigate its tremendous complexity), and his view is clear.  “We cannot attribute to a part of the brain that which we human beings do – the thinking, deciding, admiring, singing. We human beings do these things, not the brain.”

The conscious human

He laid out these ideas and many more, in a bold, erudite and landmark book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, written with British philosopher, Peter Hacker: though the book’s conclusions haven’t been universally embraced. 

At the heart of the disagreement is what’s called the mereological fallacy, first proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He rejected the idea that you could attribute to one part of an animal actions and outcomes that could only be attributed to the animal itself. For example, it’s you who walks, not your legs. Though, of course, without legs you can’t walk. Likewise, you are conscious, not your brain.

Dismantling this fallacy takes you to the very notion of what it means to be human and it’s a recurring theme in Bennett’s work, “But if you put these ideas to a neuroscientific audience,” he says. “Some of them think you’re crazy.”

Professor Ian Hickie

Professor Ian Hickie is the Co-Director for Health and Policy at the Brain and Mind Centre.

Not that Bennett is worried. Gently spoken and always carefully dressed, he is none-the-less a person of great determination, demonstrated by his creation, from a standing start, of the Brain and Mind Research Institute (now called the Brain and Mind Centre).

When he suggested in 2002, having a multidisciplinary organisation to investigate not just the brain, but the mind, the University gave Bennett a derelict factory building – “it was all old rocks and campaign pamphlets, nothing else” – and he did everything that had to be done; fundraising, organising the renovation, putting together the expansive research teams.

It was Bennett who brought in from Melbourne, the internationally renowned clinical psychology researcher, Professor Ian Hickie, to run the Centre, which is still one of the University’s most prominent and innovative units, working across child development, youth mental health and ageing.

A lifetime of curiosity

Going further back, Bennett’s first career success was also a challenge since it wasn’t exactly welcomed by his peers.

It was 1963, and Bennett was only 23 when he made a discovery that happened to question the work of two Nobel prize winners. “The pharmacological and physiological community in Great Britain were aghast,” Bennett says with a slight, amused smile.

At the time, Bennett was completing an electrical engineering degree but finding himself more and more drawn to biology (for all his achievements in biology, Bennett admits he hasn’t done a unit of formal study in that field). More or less for his own interest, he was investigating how the gastrointestinal tract transports food through the body; in essence, he was confirming what neurotransmitter the neurons use to communicate with each other during the process.

Instead of confirmation, he found that the scientifically accepted neurotransmitters were not the only neurotransmitters used by the gastrointestinal neurons, or even the most important ones.

This was a profound medical insight for reasons Bennett explains, “I was, in effect, working on how nerves control the internal organs – the heart, gastrointestinal tract, lungs, things like that. The medical establishment believed particular neurotransmitters were driving those functions. Identifying another principal transmitter was of real significance for treatment and further research.”

We cannot attribute to a part of the brain that which we human beings do – the thinking, deciding, admiring, singing. We human beings do these things, not the brain.
Max Bennett

Talking to Bennett, his conversation is dotted with references to philosophers like Wittgenstein, Kant and Socrates, as well as generous passing tributes to people he has worked with over the years and admired. He is certainly cerebral but not dry or impatient, with the energy of a person much younger than his now 81 years.

All this said, it might be surprising to hear that Bennett left school at 14. His father was a devout Jew born in Australia to Romanian Jewish parents who in the 1890s, fled the deadly anti-Jewish riots in Eastern Europe. With his parents struggling through the Depression, Bennett’s father had to put aside his own ambitions in science and engineering and get a paying job, also at the age of 14.

Believing strongly in the importance of secure employment, he insisted that in the aftermath of World War Two, his own son, Max, should also leave school to take a junior position in what was then the Post Master General’s Department.

“I just broke down crying,” Bennett says, “I knew all my colleagues in school were going on with their studies to find out things about the world that I never would. But I did what my father told me to do.”

Still, Bennett held on to his ambitions, going to night school, earning a scholarship, and finally finding himself at Melbourne University, where he soon had his degree in electrical engineering, while being drawn into biology and those early neurotransmitter experiments.

His move to the University of Sydney happened in 1968, when he was offered a lab to investigate his then-fascination, neuroplasticity and how the brain can repair and reshape itself. As it turned out, he never left. He has been fifty two years at the University, producing world-leading work in the mechanics of how the brain works and looking ever more deeply into philosophy.

He has been offered senior roles elsewhere, “But I’ve been scared that if I did something like direct an institute, all the administration would dilute my other efforts.”

What is consciousness?


Ever present for Bennett, have been his central quests: to use philosophy to understand what consciousness is, and to use neuroscience to understand what allows consciousness to happen.

Many mainstream neuroscientists feel they already have the answer: consciousness is a natural result of various parts of the brain firing simultaneously. This causes Bennett, and others, to ask: then which part of the brain supports the nuance and emotion of singing, for example? Or does the deciding? Or wonders what consciousness is?

For Bennett, a person cannot be explained as an amalgam of brain impulses. Though he is not making the case for a soul, on which he is non-committal. Certainly, the engineer in Bennett is sure there is a mechanism in the brain that supports consciousness.

As he continues to search for answers to that most elemental but immense question: what is a person, another reason for Bennett’s long and prolific stay at the University emerges.

“I’ve been the recipient of the greatest gift which a university could offer one of its scholars,” he says. “I’ve been left alone.”

Remembering inspirational colleagues

Here are three stories of world-changing researchers from the University of Sydney, as remembered by Max Bennett and profiled in his book The Search for Knowledge and Understanding.

Henry Oliver Lancaster (MB ’37 BA ’47 BS ’52 PhD ’54 MD ’66 DSc ’71): saved lives with mathematics

Oliver Lancaster

Oliver Lancaster, Reprinted from MJA, Copyright MJA.

I first met Oliver Lancaster when he burst into my laboratory in the Old Medical School (Anderson Stuart building), ignoring the  ‘Do Not Enter, Experiment in Progress’ notice on the door. He seemed gruff but his manner was merely his way of controlling a stutter. In reality he was a kind and gentle fellow.

Lancaster was a great mathematical statistician. Wait. Before you move on to find something less technical, you should pause because he almost certainly impacted directly on your health. As a master of sifting out correlations between apparently unconnected events, it was Lancaster who identified that the incidence of malignant melanoma correlated to exposure to sunlight: the states in Australia closest to the equator had the highest incidence; while less sunny England and Wales had only 40% of that in Australia. This discovery was a triumph and why we now take it for-granted that we must cover ourselves in sunscreen to avoid one of the most fatal of all cancers.

In another show of brilliance, Lancaster identified rubella, also called German measles, as the cause of waves of babies being born deaf, which was regular at the time. Passing the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children each morning on his way to University, it occurred to him that their records on admissions could show useful correlations with outbreaks of disease generally. Indeed, he found that epidemics of rubella were followed by the birth of deaf children. So protecting expectant mothers from rubella leading to the dramatic decrease in children born deaf, can be attributed to Oliver Lancaster.

Noel Hush (BSc ’46 MSc ’48 D.Sc(Honoris Causa) ’09): opened a road into atoms using chemistry

Noel Hush

Emeritus Professor Noel Hush.

Noel Hush invited me to supper one evening in 1969, to meet a visiting celebrity. But I was more interested in Noel’s many anecdotes, including how he once argued about differential equations at Manchester university with Alan Turing, the founder of computer science who cracked the enigma code in World War II. I soon realised Noel was at the same level as Turing.

Noel’s area was quantum mechanics which requires a special analytical imagination. For example, electrons and atoms can be in more than one place at the same time and molecules can simultaneously have different shapes. Noel mastered this weird world with a range of mathematical techniques, helping us understand chemical reactions involved in cell respiration, photosynthesis, batteries and chemical reactors.

This knowledge is now helping us mitigate the effects of the greenhouse phenomena and build new devices essential for advancing nanotechnology, which is happening at the University’s own Nano Science Hub. Noel’s singular insights saw him receive major recognition from the world’s premier scientific societies.

Noel died last year at 94, and was active to the end. His last work involved a duel with Stephen Hawking’s mentor, the great mathematician Roger Penrose. The question was whether reactions inside neurons were a key to understanding the origins of consciousness. Penrose said yes and Noel said no. In the ensuing correspondence, I think Noel prevailed.

Margaret Clunies Ross: the power of Thor explained through ancient poetry

Margaret Clunies Ross

Assocoate Professor Margaret Clunies Ross (1985). Photograph supplied by University Archives (G77_2_0284).

In many parts of Europe, the arrival of Christianity saw the ideas of the old religions being crushed and lost in the process. But in Iceland, the old religions, populated as they were with dwarves, giants and gods such as Odin, transitioned into mythological stories. The question is: how was that done? Much of the answer has come from the scholarship of Margaret Clunies Ross, and particularly her work on Snorri Sturluson.

An Icelandic 13th century poet and scholar, Sturluson is regarded as the Scandinavian Shakespeare. What Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid do for the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, Sturluson’s work does for ancient Germanic religions.

Whilst whole libraries are devoted to scholarship on Homer, Clunies Ross was one of relatively few to realise the importance of Sturluson’s insights into the pre-Christian Germanic people. Their religions have become of popular interest through the 19th century operas of Richard Wagner and the 20th century writings of Tolkien.

Clunies Ross found that Sturluson’s poetry reveals how Christianity replaced but didn’t erase the old religion following the conversion of Iceland about 1000 CE. The process was facilitated by the Icelandic chieftains, whose legitimacy was founded in the beliefs of the old religion. Not wanting to actually challenge Christianity, important members of Icelandic society instead commissioned sagas (tales) to project and sustain their power though myths, legitimising land holdings or buttressing claims relating to religious, legal, and medical powers.

The centrality of Clunies Ross in this scholarship led to the University of Sydney establishing the preeminent group in such medieval studies.

Written by George Dodd for Sydney Alumni Magazine.

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