Monthly Archives: January 2012

Who Am I and What Are We? The Latest Lessons of Neuroscience

Like many people, for most of my life I’ve equated who I am with what goes on between my ears. Then I began reading the work of Eckhart Tolle and others and became aware that much of what passes for thought is counterproductive and automatic, and frequently negative.

As I’ve tried to “make sense” of my experience I’ve come to realize more and more that “who” I have assumed was “me” was really the result of a jumble of thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences that are always changing—so who am I?

In fact, Eckhart Tolle suggests using this phrase as a mantra during meditation to attempt to locate the one indivisible “I” inside oneself that one believes that one is—to discover literally that there is no one or nothing there. It can be a hard notion to get one’s head around—because one’s head doesn’t want to believe it.

Again, many people identify themselves with their minds or the activity of their brain, so I’ve become very interested in the science behind what we often call consciousness.

With my own background in philosophy, and specifically phenomenology, I received a first jolt in college from a different perspective—that being is prior to identity—the converse of Descartes “I think therefore I am”—which Eckhart Tolle also disputes as putting the cart before the horse.

Not surprisingly the very branch of philosophy that fascinated me runs counter to conventional science, and my teacher was denied tenure for running afoul the norm in academia – logical positivism. This philosophy only discusses what it can know for certain – I said, “good luck with that.”

So it was with great interest that I recently watched another video on YouTube by a noted philosopher:  Julian Baggin – Is there a Real You?

In this piece he makes many of the points Tolle makes in his books; namely that it is our mind that imposes its structure on a world that has no such definitions. Interestingly he uses PowerPoint slides to evoke a sense that the concepts we impose on the world through language is not part of the natural world at all, but exist only between our ears.

His example is a schematic of a simple water molecule with two circles to represent H (hydrogen) and one for O (oxygen) and the word “Water” superimposed on their connected state.

Removing the word “water” still leaves the molecule and its reality unchanged, and obviously our description of water is not a part of its true nature at all—it exists only within us.

Eckhart Tolle makes the same point with respect to “clock time”—which is useful for making appointments but does not exist in the world. He says that for a bird, for example, the time is always “Now.”

Similarly there are no borders within any continental land mass—humans have superimposed their grid on nature to carve up property that, for example, a Martian may not respect (nor a Native American, for that matter).

Baggin goes on to state that the notion of one’s identity – the “I” that one is – is similarly imposed on a collection of organs and cells that innately are not truly a “person” or even a “human being”—both human definitions. He traces this notion to ancient belief systems like Buddhism and Hinduism, and perhaps even earlier.

Then in neuroscience, it turns out that this apparent function of sense making, which results in one’s seeing oneself as a “Self”, is the result of a critical mass of complexity in neural network creation that results from an incredible confluence of electrical signals that work in harmony.

In his book Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Damasio states that this miraculous harmonious functioning which results in a sense of self emerges for evolutionary reasons—for the same reason that a microbe will gravitate toward nourishment and away from toxins—for “homeostasis” or basically to maintain its being—it is programmed to survive.

On the human level, with the development of advanced brains, this is merely far more complex, but Damasio asserts that the concept of a Self is merely the result of when this newly evolved brain bonded with the organic systems from the previous eons, forming one new complete extremely complex system = the Mind/Body or what we call “human.”

He adds that out of this emerged the “Autobiographical Self” as conductor of a symphony who does not exist until the orchestra begins to play [harmoniously]. And this is the result of the underlying nature of life itself – he says, “Managing and safekeeping life is the fundamental premise of biological value.” (page 25)

“Consciousness came into being because of biological value, as contributor to more effective value management. [natural selection] But consciousness did not invent biological value or the process of valuation. Eventually, in human minds, consciousness revealed biological value and allowed the development of new ways and means of managing it.” (page 28)

In other words, what we deem intelligence and more significantly who we are is the result of a far higher intelligence that preceded the development of our own brains to notice our “selves” and begin to comprehend nature itself, all for our continued survival.

So who are “we” individually? Basically we’re a collection of stories that come together out of experiences formed electrically through the firing of neural networks and stored in the soft tissue of the brain’s “hard drives” or what we call memory.

According to neuroscientists like Damasio, the Self “emerges” from a level of cognitive complexity that yields consciousness – similar to the critical mass attained in a computer network – such as the Internet.

Having now experienced the reality of how inanimate systems (like the Internet) can mimic our own inner mental functioning and even defeat us at Jeopardy, can we now open up to the possibility that our own fascination with our own “uniqueness” as sentient beings is a fantasy?

Just as our egocentric cosmology of the earth being the center of the universe has now given way to the reality that we exist on the periphery of an average galaxy literally in the middle of nowhere, so too maybe we need to come to terms with the fact that what we deem to be us, and what we think is “conscious”, is a mere tip of an enormous iceberg of sensory capacity of which we are just barely aware.

Bear in mind that “primitive” cultures have known this for years. Our science scoffs at their sense of the sacred and worship of the sun, moon, stars, seasons, rain, and other natural forces as intelligences beyond their control and complete comprehension.

And where has our narrow focus led us with our non-sacred science? To the edge of an abyss of extinction –first for the other naturally created creatures we exterminate daily and ultimately for our “selves” – those same magical beings that apparently exist only in our own minds.

As George Carlin once said when commenting on the notion of “Saving the Planet “– “don’t worry, the planet will do just fine. It will be here long after we’re gone.”

Can we say the same for “human kind” – or the selves we think we are—an intelligent creature at the apex of evolution and in control of our destiny and environment.

It may be high time we woke up to the reality of our own delusion.

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Computer Death: A Lesson in Life and Impermanence

In my previous post I had a photo of my cat perched atop my PC; I wish I had saved that photo to use for this entry because the computer in question passed away last week.

Coincidentally it happened a week after an evening I attended hosted by Michael Jeffreys for a discussion on “Death – What Does it Mean to You?” The evening focused on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying but turned into a personal examination of the reality of our impermanence of everything around us—including of course our physical bodies.

I remember bringing this up with another friend a while back and I just said matter of factly, “You know, you’re going to die,” and he got really upset like bringing it up might make it happen sooner.

Our culture’s main response to the question of death is denial while in other places and times the notion of death was considered an essential part of the cycle of life and not to be feared or shunted aside.

During our evening the question became “what are we really?” – and several people, including me, described experiences with loved ones who passed away as though “something ephemeral left the body” and suddenly where there was energy and life there was just an inert mass of flesh.

The reality is that we need to accept the fact that “our life” as we know it will end. Of course the question becomes, does anything live on and does anyone know?

So last Wednesday I routinely pushed the “On” button on my desktop PC and nothing happened. A few jiggles with the power cables and a look inside the case revealed nothing different – it just would not power up—energy was no longer coursing through its electrical arteries and veins and its brain (CPU) was inert.

I’ve dealt effectively with software problems, when Windows would not load or it wouldn’t boot, but hardware isn’t my thing so a took it to a techie who is highly reviewed on Yelp (Kingly Computers on La Cienega) and two hours later, on the operating table, my PC was pronounced DOA – he told me the motherboard was fried, along with the power supply and replacing it was not cost effective—I would need a new PC.

I was strangely unaffected by the news; the “official pronouncement” still had me try to revive the unit one last time and then I had no choice other than complete acceptance of the reality.

Fortunately, however, my important data “lived on” with my laptop, where I assiduously mirror my work and back my files up on various secondary disks.

But many of my living entities – my software programs – were on two hard drives on the PC that could never be revived because they would need to be “reinstalled” on another computer and operating system. These were the active entities – the mental energy that cooperates with whoever I am and performs the tasks of word processing, web surfing, and so on.

Their instruction code – or DNA – was physically existent – and some of it could even be transferred to another “living” PC through various means, but I would have to reconstruct the actual “life” of my computer if I bought another one by first installing the operating system, and then loading a series of program into memory and invoking certain customized settings to get everything to work as I wanted it—the new computer would be born and then would have to “mature” under my care.

These new programs and settings, along with files I might transfer from my laptop, would be a new set of “experiences” for the PC—most of which were directly conditioned by “subroutines” (Software code) that was loaded into its memory consciously by me.

I looked on Craig’s List for a living entity (computer that worked electrically and had my same operating system (Vista, God help me) loaded) which I could “re-condition” with my own programs and settings.

Truth be told some of this would entail opening the case and “transplanting” several system boards (organs?) that would enable me to continue using various scanners and graphics cards.

This potential task of cloning my old PC into a new one proved too time consuming when I had a laptop already working, so I just backed up all my data and figured out ways to connect my laptop to some of my devices, and accepted the fact that my laser printer and an old scanner would also live no more, at least with me.

If I go overboard with the analogies to living beings it’s to make one significant point – they aren’t analogies and the computer will never be alive.

But the reality is that our own being is instructed by DNA, or code, that runs exactly the way the software in my computer works. The tree in the picture above continues to grow according to the same genetic instructions—it just doesn’t have a brain to drive it crazy.

Therefore, whatever the energy, or combination of energies, that powers up you and me (and the tree) — namely Life — and allows us to “function” until our power switch is shut off — is of a completely different order of magnitude than what we’ve put into computers, “in our image”, as I like to say.

But as Eckhart Tolle writes so well, the power within us is far more intelligent—neuroscientists tell us that our brains have more neurons than there are stars in the galaxy, and an intelligence courses through us that when it’s working, coordinates “peripherals” like digestion, circulation, respiration, and more, all without our conscious attention to these incredible functions.

So just as we name our computers to locate them on our networks, we can begin to ask, what part of our own living system is truly our “I”?

Is it the physical component that we know will wear out and pass away, completely impermanent?

Is it some kind of energetic power that “animates” us while we’re living, or perhaps a soul?

But really, when we think about our “selves”, don’t we generally refer to that portion of us which I wanted so badly to replant into a new PC which were my “settings” – my memory – or my various stories which comprise my “identity.”

But when I look back at my PC, those aspects of its existence, the data, the programs, the memory and peripherals, everything except the energy that animated it is impermanent and now gone.

A bit of it lives on in its “cousin”, my laptop.

Ironically I also tried to “revive” an old Vaio laptop to take the place of the desktop. Here too the hardware had passed on – the hard drive was defective and would need replacement.

Losing both the desktop and old laptop was frustrating and at one time would have set me back—as it is when I look at the empty space on my desk I feel a bit of a void, mainly in terms of inconvenience—certainly not the grief I would feel for a loss of life.

But the sense of what has occurred has led me to understand that the nonphysical aspects of both the computer and ourselves are real—the mental and spiritual (if you will) aspects that exist ephemerally as the software that instructs the machine, and the DNA and perhaps even a soul that animates our selves do exist in reality—and where and for how long?

The “ideas” in the hard drive might be revived in another body (desktop machine).

But there is a realization that what truly continues and has just barely begun to understand the vastness of the entire process, just dimly, is another entity that witnessed the entire drama, and experienced both the loss and the rebirth of the energetic aspects– as I continue my work this morning—and that would of course be me.

So the ultimate question becomes, what is “my identity”? Is it my set of conditioned programs that I take myself to be, many of which react almost mechanically to life’s many circumstances, or is there perhaps some other faculty—an intelligent energy or software (consciousness, if I dare call it that) that isn’t me (because I will die), but expresses through my DNA and data as long as my power switch works?

Neuroscience has discovered that who “we” are is complex set of electrical signals that are influenced by our DNA, the environment and even our experiences and thoughts.

My sense now is that just as my own intelligence has enabled me to manage my computer, that there is a higher level of intelligence “aware” within me of how I can best operate—and it’s not my conditioned mind, which nearly freaked out when the power didn’t come on, but a new faculty that recognizes that the “I” I thought I was is just not that significant…

And in its stead, a more quiet, contemplative witness to all that has occurred continues. Like the screen on which I am writing this text—it is not my story, but the space in which it appears.