The Huxley Lecture: 'Are humans automata?'

Lectures Talks and Workshops, Life and Environmental Sciences, Research
Wednesday 4th December 2013 (17:00-18:00)

Laura McKinlay (

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Presented by Professor Chris Frith
Professor Emeritus at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, Visiting Professor at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University and Quondam Fellow of All Souls College

Host: Professor Kim Shapiro

Huxley LectureIn 1874 T.H. Huxley published an essay, ‘On the Hypothesis that animals are automata’ in which he presented a most prescient account of the relationship between the brain and the mind. Anticipating many contemporary thinkers, Huxley proposed that consciousness, although real and created by the brain, was an epiphenomenon with no influence on behaviour. ‘Consciousness [ ] would appear to be related to the mechanism of the body simply as a collateral product of its working, and to be as completely without any power of modifying that working as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery.’ Humans, he suggested, are ‘conscious automata’.

Professor Frith says: "In this talk I will update Huxley’s arguments with recent evidence on the nature of unconscious and conscious processes and their basis in the brain. I will also explain why I believe Huxley was wrong to claim that consciousness has no function. The steam whistle may have no effect on the locomotive that emits the sound, but it may well have an effect on other locomotives. Our awareness of the processes that underlie our behaviour is crude and prone to error, but, through this awareness, we are able to discuss our experiences with others. Such discussions can alter our behaviour and experience, can enhance the abilities of groups beyond those of individuals and enable the evolution of cumulative culture."