Jad Abumrad: The Unquantified Self

Thinking about his upcoming appearance at IdeaFestival Bluegrass, I remembered this older IdeaFestival blog post about a talk given by Jad Abumrad. As a fan of his and of David Chalmers' formulation of the 'hard problem' of consciousness, I thought I'd re-post it today. I hope you enjoy it.


Would a perfectly faithful replica of you, a clone, really be you? It's an age old question that is answered in a rather unexpected way here. In this amazing video, journalist, sound enthusiast and host of Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, suggests that it's the noise, failure and broken bits that extend to us individuality as well as infinite possibility.

Beginning with a couple audio examples of machines failing, Abumrad points out that data visualization and sonfication has emerged as a scienfitic tool. I immediately thought of my favorite example of this, the Allosphere, which makes astro- and quantum-sized data available in a human readable format - that is, visually and sonically - in a four story dome like structure on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Sonfication" has become a fertile area of collaboration between artists and scientists, used for example by researchers to listen to the sun.

Turned inwardly, one can also use the techniques to hear neurons firing in the head of a monkey making a choice during a simple game, as Abumrad demonstrates. Incredibly, out of the stochastic chaos one actually hears a decision pop out of the static. Similarly, he demonstrates that at the bottom of the protein producing machine that is you there are, biologically speaking, errors and broken, redundant and incomplete genetic material (defective mechanisms like the ability manufacture vitamin C, that, I might add, we know work perfectly well in other mammals). Abumrad plays sounds of our bodies at work. Where one might expect a rhythmic, factory-like order to the stuff of life, syncopation prevails.

But rather than focus on the signal, it's the indecipherability of the noise that so interests Abumrad.

Listening to these noises creates a sensation of the vastness of things, like listening, one might imagine, to messages received by the SETI project. What interests me is that this thinking also fits nicely with what some philosophers of mind argue is the case when it comes to the first-person experience. Our conscious, reflective interior worlds are unique to each of us, and even a molecule-by-molecule reconstruction of a brain, a perfectly faithful replica, would not reproduce the same inward experience in any two people. Listening to molecules at work, it's hard to argue with the suggestion.

Abumrad says, concluding:

You will find scientists who will tell you, and they deeply believe it, that we are quantifiable. We are knowable. They will say 'If I could take a high enough resolution picture of you I could tell you everything about who you are and everything you will be..... What this tells me is no! No. All the way down at the bottom of our thoughts there's just more mystery, there's just more randomness, just more fluctuation. Just like white noise is a smattering of all different frequencies.... perhaps this noise right here represents on some level infinite possibility that can never be known.

Isn't that wonderful?

Abumrad will be appearing at EKU for IdeaFestival Bluegrass, talking about the creative process and "gut churn." You can find out more about this April 21 event and his talk here.

Stay curious™