Let me start with an admission: I talk to myself. Out loud.
I’ve done it to goad myself, motivate myself and too often to criticize myself, and if I’m not careful, people can catch me doing it out in public.
I’ve lived alone for most of my life and I’m an only child, but the question has come up, who is speaking to whom?
In Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman uses this very example to raise a common question: who or what exactly is the “self” that one is always referring to? When I talk to my “self”, which self is speaking and which is listening?
In one of his videos Eckhart Tolle suggests that during meditation one follow any train of thought down the path of “Who Am I?” as a mantra, going deeper and deeper to try to locate who the “I” may be when we refer to the self during speech or thought.
Similarly the leader of my Eckhart Tolle group, Michael Jeffreys, has suggested that we literally scan our bodies to try to identify a specific location where this “I” resides.
When first confronted with this issue I suggested it may be in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which indeed neuroscientists consider the “Executive” area which seems to have some control over which of the many “selves” are active at any one time.
But Eagleman, a neuroscientist of some renown who recently appeared on Jon Stewart, doesn’t locate a single physical area of the brain that is “in charge.” On the contrary, most of his book compares the various areas of the brain and their “subroutines” (patterns of conditioned behavior) to political parties that ultimately lead to behavior based on conflict and compromise.
And the prefrontal cortex, which can give attention to a habit (overeating for example) and ultimately put a gap between a thought and an execution by observing thoughts effectively enough to intercept them (mindfulness), but Eagleman writes:
“But we do not find parts of the brain that is not itself driven by other parts of the network. Instead every part of the brain is densely connected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore ‘free.'” (Page 166)
The title—Incognito—literally means “with identity concealed.” He quotes from the lyrics by Pink Floyd to underscore the unknown identity of who or what we are: “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.”
Eagleman uses examples of people with impaired or injured brains and also celebrities like Mel Gibson, who was “not himself” when drunk, and turned into a raging anti-Semite, and was conciliatory when sober.
The one area where this has far reaching ramifications is the law, and Eagleman suggests a legal system based not on blame, which he considers an outmoded concept, but rather on the prospects for modifiability—if we know a criminal will not repeat (act of passion) or can be rehabilitated (behavior modified) then one course of action can be taken, otherwise he suggests that the person obviously must be separated from society.
Eagleman compares the achievements in neuroscience to those in astronomy which challenged conventional beliefs about the earth at the center of the universe—in the case of the brain the notion of the single responsible and cohesive Self is exposed as a vast oversimplification of something much greater.
Again he writes, “in the same way that the cosmos is much larger than we ever imagined, we ourselves are something greater than we had intuited by introspection. We’re now getting the first glimpse of the vastness of inner space. .. What a perplexing masterpiece the brain is, and how lucky we are to be in a generation that has the technology and the will to turn our attention to it. It is the most wondrous thing in the universe, and it is us.”
I find this language both inspiring and a bit daunting—it is always humbling to confront the reality of the vastness of what we don’t know (yet) – and in fact may never know.
But I think that even as lay people we have a hint.
In a telling way Eagleman uses computer terminology throughout Incognito. I noted the use of the term “subroutine”, which is the same term programmers use for chunks of programming that perform a specific (habitual or repetitive) task, often triggered by a stimulus (mouse click).
And of course the entire brain itself is referred to as a vast network of interconnected cells that can even develop and grow (neuroplasticity).
What I’m suggesting here again is that our experience with our own technology, primitive as it may be in comparison to what Life itself has revealed to us as our own hardware and software — we do understand that the mental component and its level of intelligence can be programmed to exist and manifest its conceptual will within a human-created inanimate system (computer)—but only as a result of a large and powerful network of minds (programming team) creating the machine (“In Our Image” –I could not resist…)
In just this way our response to our findings both in what Eagleman calls the “vastness of inner space” as well as our discoveries of the macro universe (outer space) can appropriately first be awe and reverence—and then the inevitable expansion of our current religion (Science) to drop our prejudice against immaterial reality and intelligence (sometimes called Spirit) and being an earnest inquiry into reality that embraces both empiricism (science and experimentation) and awareness (sensory information that goes against “common sense”).
Perhaps the reverence for the immensity of what exists as opposed to what we currently think we are can be inspired by the following statistic in the opening pages of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, where Eagleman writes, “There are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”
When you combine the implications of the “vastness of inner space” suggested in this comparison with the suppositions of quantum physics—that suggest that everything unfolds out of a potentiality that is not realized until an Observer/Mind/Consciousness perceives it.
So that just as it took a mind (programming team) to conceive of our primitive simulation of what nature has created in our own craniums, we can only imagine the level of Mind that must ultimately exist within us, and without us.