By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Max S. Gerber
1. EXPERIENCING THE ABSOLUTE
A hundred feet above me, Christof Koch is hanging by a thread. Three quarters of the way up a rock face, he has lost his grip and is now dangling at the end of a rope above cascading waves of flesh-colored granite in the spectacular “Real Hidden Valley” canyon of the Joshua Tree National Monument. As a professor of computation and neural systems at Caltech, Koch heads a team of researchers who are trying to discover the physiological basis of consciousness. At the moment, however, his own consciousness is sorely taxed. “What am I supposed to do?” he calls to his superbly skilled climbing partner, fellow Caltech scientist Kai Zinn, who is waiting at the top.
Under Zinn’s guidance, Koch regains his hold on the vertical face and clambers to the top, disappearing over the edge in a puff of climbing chalk and a flash of red booties. For a moment, there is nothing but rocks and sky and a single swallow flitting overhead. Then suddenly the air resounds with a whoop, echoes ricocheting off the canyon walls as if the very geology were rejoicing in his triumph.
Koch is a man infectiously in love with life: In addition to rock climbing, about which he insists he is a novice, his hobbies include swing dancing, at which he is something of an expert. As a university student in Germany, he belonged to a fraternity that practiced Mensur Fechten or ritual fencing, in which opponents stand a foot apart and slice at the air in front of one another’s faces with razor-sharp swords. In his 20s, Koch took up ballet — “I loved the women. I loved the music. And I loved the gracefulness of the movement.” Now, as he watches Zinn defy gravity on an overhanging face, he reflects that climbing is a lot like ballet, at its best an exquisitely choreographed, weightless dance. “Experiencing the absolute,” Koch calls it.
At first glance, rock climbing would seem to require maximal conscious awareness, but as Zinn rappels to the ground Koch tells me that the aim is to let go of your mind and let the body take over. Great climbers, like great dancers, must relinquish control to the unconscious mind. No one could have more respect for the powers of the unconscious than Koch. Most of what we do, he says, is not under our conscious control; we’re not even aware we’re doing it. Take walking: “When you walk, you don’t think lift leg, move leg forward, put leg down. You just walk!” The same is true for talking. When you speak, you don’t suddenly have to think about grammar and syntax and vocabulary, you just open your mouth and the words come out. “If you had to consciously think through that stuff,” says Koch, “you’d never get anywhere.”
So much of our human fluidity results from automatic processes buried deep in the mind far below perception, what Koch refers to in his forthcoming book, The Quest for Consciousness, as “an army of unconscious sensory-motor agents” or “zombie agents.” He insists that for much of our lives we are in effect zombies. “You drive to work on autopilot, move your eyes, brush your teeth, tie your shoelaces, talk, and all the other myriad chores that constitute daily life.” Indeed, he says, “Any sufficiently well-rehearsed activity is best performed without conscious, deliberate thought. Reflecting too much about any one action is likely to interfere with its seamless execution.”
Given the range and effectiveness of these zombie agents, Koch believes the great mystery is why we are not complete zombies. Or to put it another way: What purpose does consciousness serve? Why does it exist at all?
2. THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION
On the desk in Koch’s office in Caltech’s Beckman Building stands an object that serves as a reminder of the problems that bedevil brain science, and the follies to which its practitioners are prone — a small white phrenology bust, its skull divided by black lines into regions such as “Self-Esteem,” “Ideality” and “Sublimity.” Behind the desk, dressed in faded jeans and an electric-blue shirt, Koch is expounding on the current state of consciousness studies. He speaks at a machine-gun pace, as if there is barely enough time in life to get through all the ideas that are crowding through his head. It’s a habit that has infected his entire lab, the byproduct of an intellectual virus that instills in its host an urgent need to know, and know now, how the mind functions.
For the past 2,500 years, Koch notes, philosophers have been trying to figure out the relationship between mind and body. “We know that if your heart stops beating you will not be conscious, but what are the other physiological requirements for a state of conscious awareness?” Descartes famously believed the bridge between body and mind was in the pineal gland, but he had no idea how that connection might operate. And neither does anyone today, Koch says. Formulated on the foundation of Cartesian dualism, Western science seems on the subject of human subjectivity to run smack up against a wall of its own devising. In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Koch and his longtime collaborator Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA) stated bluntly, “The physical basis of consciousness appears to be the most singular challenge to scientific, reductionist worldview.”