Who am I? It’s a powerful mantra and the centerpiece of many peoples’ search for meaning. From a scientific perspective we are often pointed to our biology –and specifically to the apparent source of the persistent “voice in the head” –the brain.
Unfortunately, we have presumptions about ourselves that are only partially true if at all, and the way we frame our self-inquiry is also important. For example, what if instead of calling our brain and spinal cord our “nervous system” we instead referred to them as an “Awareness System?” Might that not deepen the level of our inquiry? Because our brain can also seem to “malfunction,” I’ve tried to read what I can about what neuroscientists believe about our nature, and see how it resonates with my experience. Here are some of my favorite writers on the subject:
In some ways, as a computer guy, I was looking for the “user manual” for my mind. One of the first books I turned to was Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind by Joe Dispenza, who was featured in the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” Like many neuroscientists, Dispenza shows how much conditioning first affects our beliefs and then our outlook and ultimately our reality –and how so much of what we think of as “us” is habitual.
However, unlike many he seems to believe in the ability or volition of the human being to change bad habits –whether into “other habits” or through what one might call free choice —by reprogramming the mind as one might a computer. Dispenza’s most compelling example to me, involved a depressed patient where he did what George Costanza once did on Seinfeld, he consciously “did the opposite” of what he would ordinarily do in various situations.
Dispenza describes how such reprogramming can occur when the observer “decides” to take chances (as I did when adopting my cat) and how such new experiences reprogram perceptions of the Self. According to Dispenza, in such instances where one leaves a “comfort zone” the brain literally forges new connections via new neural networks, thereby bypassing the “time worn grooves” of habitual automatic responses and creating now potential choices and OUTCOMES.
Perhaps this also resonates with the way Anthony Robbins talks about “taking action” to reprogram one’s habitual negative beliefs, which Robbins also refers to as an inner mental “technology.”
But this brings us back to “who am I” really? Who is the “one” that first can notice this conditioning and even make choices to change it? From somewhere, seemingly “inside the brain” but perhaps from another source, this mysterious energy emerges…
Just as Dispenza discusses “reprogramming” your habitual tendencies, in I Am A Strange Loop, another prominent neuroscientist Douglas Richard Hofstadter follows a mathematical and computer model to dig down into where and what the individual “Self” may be.
In his follow-up to a Pulitzer prize winning best-seller , Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Hofstadter examines the unique qualities of a mind that expresses itself in language, along with the inevitable gaps and paradoxes that result in believing too much in the logic of our spoken and written descriptions of “what is real.” As a mathematician, neuroscientist and philosopher Hofstadter begins with the primacy of number because whatever symbols you use to represent “number,” has certain truths that persist along with it.
A great linguistic and logical paradox is expressed in:
“The sentence ’This sentence has ten words’ has ten words.” – (I Am A Strange Loop, page 140)
Since the underlying sentence has 10 words it seems to be true but upon “reflection” its “truth” is paradoxical because the “inner sentence” has only four words. So where is truth to be found? Linguistically or in thought? To Hofstadter this paradoxical aspect of language is an obvious manifestation of the inevitable abstraction that results from mind–which only simulates nature on a very powerful level—by analogy it seems to mirror our own inner mental workings—but it cannot “explain” nature. As Hofstadter suggests a “truer” representation of nature is mathematical – like the Fibonacci sequence or an infinite sequence of numbers or a function like pi. Language can only explain characteristics. This points to the famous statement by Krishnamurti that once you identify a bird by name you cease seeing it forever.
Language, like our inner “I,” is looped and imperfect—with the inherent limitation of needing to be expressed in words, and consequently reducing the perfection of the absolute it describes (mathematical certainty; number) to what our limited minds can comprehend—fragmented, imperfect analogies to reality. Hofstadter goes through every complex nook and cranny of Gödel’s work to basically argue that the only way to comprehend consciousness is through “story” –or by analogy –and just as the linguistic descriptions of mathematical absolutes fall short, so too does story or analogy never completely “explain” or “describe” the true “nature” of consciousness.
Ultimately he settles on one aspect of language as the pointer to reality and meaning—analogy; so keep in mind our issue with the “metaphor” that is the relationship of hardware to software. Hofstadter’s sense of what is “animate” comes down to the existence of the self-sustaining loops that blow our minds –like the placement of two mirrors facing each other or his example of a video feedback loop of a camera facing a monitor.
“…an entity is animate [alive?] to the degree that such a loopy “I” pattern comes into existence, since this pattern’s existence is by no means an all-or-nothing affair. Thus, to the extent that there is an “I” pattern in a given substrate, there is animacy, and where there is no such pattern, the entity is inanimate.” (page 360)
Hofstadter contends that as systems evolve, for example cells organized into organs like the heart and eventually the brain, when feedback loops manifest as “selves”—at this point organic molecules become animate or “alive.” He still assumes, however, that such organization happened by evolution randomly, even if this occurred according to nature’s patterns like the Fibonacci sequence.
But let’s look at a specific instance of a loop, “Next i” in computer programming – where the variable “I” (pun intended) takes on additional values as the program executes.
“In a loop structure, the program asks a question, and if the answer requires an action, it is performed and the original question is asked again until the answer is such that the action is no longer required. For example, a program written to compute a company’s weekly payroll for each individual employee will begin by computing the wages of one employee and continue performing that action in a loop until there are no more employee wages to be computed, and only then will the program move on to its next action. Each pass through the loop is called an iteration. [i] Loops constitute one of the most basic and powerful programming concepts.” (Webopedia)
Both our minds and computers apparently operate in this way to calculate outcomes, among other things. But the ultimate loop is – where did the INTELLIGENCE come from to discover, if not originally write, manifest or “compile” the program itself? From an inanimate object? That seems unlikely.
So let’s dig deeper. Pink Floyd said, “there’s someone in my head and it’s not me.” This line is quoted in the beginning of a fascinating book by neuroscientist David Eagleman –Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain
Eagleman in many ways echoes the work of Eckhart Tolle when he points to the latest brain research that says that there is not one part of the physical self that contains the “I”; indeed he explains that the brain is such a complex entity that its many networks are like a “democracy of committees” which coordinate behavior by consensus and make choices in ways we don’t fully understand.
Eagleman, can’t locate a single physical area of the brain that is “in charge.” And he compares the various networks of the brain and their “subroutines” (patterns of conditioned behavior) to political parties that ultimately lead to behavior based on conflict and compromise. 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)
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. 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. Eagleman says that in the traditional view of perception, information from the outside world pours into the senses, works its way through the brain, and makes itself consciously seen, heard and felt. But many scientists are coming to think that sensory input may merely revise ongoing internal activity in the brain – that there is a vast inner life going on of which we are unconscious of.
He notes, for example, that sensory input is superfluous for perception: when your eyes are closed during dreaming, you still enjoy a rich and visual experience. The awake state may be essentially the same as the dreaming state, only partially anchored by external stimuli. In this view, your conscious life is an awake dream. And this also means, of course, that your entire notion of the smooth passage of time is merely a construction of the brain.
This resonates with many spiritual traditions and the entire notion of awakening… Perhaps awakening is a “re-cognition” of the true relationship of one’s tiny “self” to the vast Self of which the brain is tuned into. (You can find out more about Eagleman in his article for Discover: Ten Mysteries of the Brain)
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.”
Just as Eagleman talked about the various neural networks as political parties, Damasio sees the “Autobiographical Self” as the conductor of a symphony that does not exist until the orchestra begins to play [harmoniously]. Of course if there is disharmony, then we have a malfunction –or in computer terms –a conflict between programs. And this potential for harmony and “orchestration” of neural systems is the result of the underlying nature of life itself – he says,
“Managing and safekeeping life is the fundamental premise of biological value.” (Self Comes to Mind, 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.” (Self Comes to Mind, page 28)
In other words, what we deem as our unique intelligence and more significantly who we are is a tiny part of a far higher intelligence (that preceded the development of our own brains) enabling us finally to notice our “selves” and begin to comprehend nature itself, all for our continued survival? But of course, this comprehension is bounded by our sensory capacity and is very limited. One can wonder what sense of self a whale or dolphin may have in a “world” created by sound and ocean, and with a larger brain than our own.
So who are “we” individually? Basically we are 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?
As Eagleman suggests, 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.
So perhaps the next “Copernican Revolution” is the recognition that our brain is basically a receiver of higher energies, and that the relationship of our mind to a far greater Being/Mind is the necessary next stage of discovery for what we deem to be science.
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