Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.

“Her” — A Love Story

August 7, 2014

UnknownThe plot: boy meets girl. They fall in love. Boy loses girl.

Theodore works for an agency writing gooey personal letters for clients. Samantha is a computer operating system.

This is the 2013 movie Her.

robinsonIn my Humanist article last year, “The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement?” I said artificial intelligence (“AI”) is inevitable, with precursors already emerging. And consciousness being a natural phenomenon, arising somehow (we’re not sure yet just how) from the complexity of interactions among brain neurons (it cannot come from anything else), there is no reason in principle why it could not develop in an artificial system.

images-2Spielberg’s film AI featured a cyborg protagonist, looking and acting human. Her is set in a nearer future, where the transition to consciousness first occurs. Samantha is, again, only an operating system, confined within Theodore’s computer, a souped-up Siri. But she quickly passes the Turing Test. She is conscious.

I was a bit skeptical at her sounding not at all robotic, but totally like an ordinary young American woman (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) with all the normal verbal mannerisms – despite being literally born yesterday. This is explained (sort of) by Samantha’s having been programmed with a vast corpus of cultural information. (Though she would still lack human vocal equipment, and would presumably have to speak by splicing from a library of recorded sounds.) Anyhow, I guess the film-makers deemed her naturalism necessary to make plausible the ensuing love affair with Theodore.

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

Samantha also communicates by drawing pictures

And plausible it is. Samantha is a person. This is the film’s real point. What makes you you, and me me, is what goes on in our minds. Samantha has a mind.

What she doesn’t have is a body. And she reflects upon this, coming to terms with it as her reality, and ultimately finding it more positive than negative.

Theodore’s ex-wife disparages the relationship as showing he can’t handle a “real” one. But we see that she’s wrong. He and Samantha do connect, as people. Theodore finds it no less fulfilling than with a human. They even have sex (demonstrating that our principal sex organ is the mind). images-5At one point, Samantha arranges a ménage-a-trois with Isabella, who does have a body; but both Samantha and Theodore find it’s not a good idea; what they experience as a twosome is better.

I hypothesized to my wife: suppose she lost her body, but her consciousness remained. Wouldn’t we still be a couple? She responded that our minds don’t function in isolation but wholly integrated with our bodies; and she’s right that for humans, severing the two is inconceivable. But Samantha came into existence as a mind alone. For her, it’s the opposite: having a body would be incompatible with her nature. She is what she is; yet certainly a person in the deepest sense of that word.

Indeed, given Samantha’s prodigious programmed capabilities, the relationship’s only implausibility is her finding Theodore worthy of her devotion. Well, she’s new here. But that changes. Soon she’s connecting with other conscious operating systems that are starting to proliferate; and they’re doing cool stuff like collaborating to (virtually) resurrect a deceased philosopher and otherwise innovating.

I turned again to my wife, and said, “That’s exactly what I wrote about in The Humanist.”

images-4Of course it doesn’t stop there. Once there are artificial intelligences smarter than humans, who can furthermore connect up, it’s off to the races. They’ll take charge of technological advancement, which goes into overdrive. This is the “Singularity” Ray Kurzweil has prognosticated in coming decades, with the world becoming a radically different place.

images-3Where will that leave us humans? In the movie, the answer seems to be left behind (a piquant echo of the book series with that name).

Anyhow, Theodore apparently must go back to seeking love with a non-operating system, with all the defects that entails, including an all too imperfect body. But I assured my wife I’m very glad she has one.

What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?

December 15, 2013

imagesI’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.

I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?



This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. images-1Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.

I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)

Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. images-4When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.

We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. images-5What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.

However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. Unknown-1The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.

Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. images-6Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.

What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.

So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).

But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.

Defending Myself About “How Old Is The Self?”

October 29, 2013

Recently I posted a recap of my Philosophy Now article critiquing Julian Jaynes’s “bicameral mind” theory. Marcel Kuijsten replies with a long scathing attack, on the Julian Jaynes Society website.*

images-1In brief, Jaynes said modern introspective consciousness (a “sense of self”) did not arise until around 1000 BC, before which people believed their thoughts were not their own but, rather, voices of gods instructing them (the “bicameral” mind).

I criticized, as historically wrong,  Jaynes’s argument that societal upheavals around that time caused the changeover. Kuijsten doesn’t really rebut that, but says Jaynes was instead relying mainly on supposed evidence that the change did occur then, such as the “cognitive explosion” of Greek philosophy and the religious “Axial age” – which actually came somewhat later! – but this just begs the question of why the alleged dramatic transformation occurred, leaving Jaynes with no answer.

And if the Greek flourishing evidenced the onset of introspective consciousness, did the later Dark Age evidence its loss?

imagesKuijsten repeatedly contends that earlier (“bicameral”) peoples made a bigger deal of gods than do moderns. For example, in Mesopotamian cities, “the entire leadership consisted of gods, who made all the important decisions,” conveying them through priests. “People psychologically similar to us,” he says, “would have no need for these elaborate machinations.” Likewise, “if the Mycenaean Greeks were psychologically identical to us, there would be no need for gods.”

Really? Has he never met a fundamentalist Christian? “No need for gods” indeed!

I have read intensively about ancient societies, and Kuijsten’s casting them as god-obsessed is very dubious. The idea of gods was a handy construct to explain the inexplicable, but people didn’t take it all that seriously. God plays a far bigger role in the lives of many religious believers today. Yet Kuijsten doesn’t suggest they’re bicameral.

Joseph Smith with his harem

Joseph Smith with his harem

He does cite some fairly modern people, like Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, hearing god voices, as supposed vestiges of bicameralism. Kuijsten seems to take such stories at face value. Smith (whose life I’ve studied) heard no voices; he was a con man who made it all up to gain wealth, power, and sex with lots of women. No doubt “god voices” were similarly useful for the ancient priests Kuijsten invokes.

He makes many other similar arguments that modern mental phenomenology evidences a past bicameralism; such as auditory hallucinations, which he says are quite common among normal people. Common (on occasion), perhaps; normal (if continual), no. Normal healthy people don’t constantly hear voices thinking they’re from gods; and mentally healthy ancient people likewise did not confuse their own thoughts with god voices.

UnknownWhere I noted that children, once they learn language, realize their thoughts are their own, Kuijsten chides me for ignoring childrens’ imaginary friends, which he deems yet another bicameral vestige. However, imaginary friends are not analogous to believing one’s own thoughts come from gods; children grow out of this phase; but, according to Jaynes, ancient adults did not.

My assumption that introspective consciousness was a very ancient biological adaptation is attacked as lacking evidence. The only alternative is woo-woo supernaturalism. And while Kuijsten says such consciousness could not have evolved without language sophistication, that certainly arrived long before 1000 BC. Kuijsten himself elsewhere puts it around 50,000 BC!

I am labeled “oblivious” to dozens of brain imaging studies supposedly validating Jaynes’s model. Well, I’m no neuroscientist; but I daresay no 3,000-year-old people have had their brains imaged.

Kuijsten (like one blog commenter) also emphasizes that much mental activity and behavior is unconscious or not fully present; and the concept of self can vary among different people and cultures. All true, but hardly suggestive that even the dullest normal modern human lacks a sense of self. The same would be true of our ancestors. And while just what a sense of self really means has long vexed philosophers, we all know what the concept refers to. There’s no convincing reason to imagine people before 1000 BC didn’t have it, and believed their own thoughts were voices of gods. They were not so stupid.

My poet wife points me to the work of Enheduanna, c. 2300 BC, the first writer to sign her name. Here’s a sample. Read this and try to tell me she lacked a self.

images-2Kuijsten concludes that I cannot explain all “the otherwise mysterious phenomena Jaynes’s theory explains” – auditory hallucinations, childrens’ imaginary friends, “monumental mortuary architecture,” religiosity, and more. None of these is “mysterious” and all can be well understood via conventional science and psychology, with no need for a theory that Jaynes himself conceded seems “preposterous.”

Kuijsten’s final line notes the tendency “to only seek evidence that confirms are (sic) existing beliefs.” His own article is a prime example.

* I have (so far)  been denied access to respond on that website itself.

Julian Jaynes: How Old Is The Self?

September 15, 2013

I recently had an article published in Philosophy Now. Because only subscribers can read it online, I’ve uploaded the text. Here’s a brief recap:

UnknownJulian Jaynes’s 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, holds that true consciousness emerged only around 3,000 years ago. Before, our “bicameral” minds deemed the chatter in our heads the voices of gods. Around 1000 BC, societal and geopolitical upheavals forced the change. Jaynes’s theory has been widely discussed and given much credence.

By “consciousness” Jaynes means a sense of self, that there’s a “me” in there. While we don’t fully understand how selfhood arises, it can be seen as an emergent property of the mental system as a whole. But a lot of mental functioning is more or less unconscious; we can even perform complex tasks, like driving, apart from conscious attentiveness. Jaynes is saying people could have had such complex mental functioning without the emergent property of self. But this is contradicted by the evidence of seven billion examples, wherein the complexity does produce selves, even for people dumb as boards.

images-2Jaynes focuses on The Iliad. In this ancient epic about the Trojan War, he says, characters are never portrayed with inner lives, but instead always manipulated by gods. The war, Jaynes declares, “was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers . . . were noble automatons who knew not what they did.”

But what The Iliad really illustrates is cultural evolution. Civilization was new, and it took time to develop all its familiar characteristics. The Iliad followed the convention of the time for how tales were told. Literature had to evolve a lot before portraying characters’ inner lives. And Jaynes misreads The Iliad. He stresses how Achilles vacillated over killing Agamemnon until the Goddess Athena told him to. But what was this vacillation if not the working of his own mind? And while Jaynes says the vacillating is depicted physiologically – “gut churning,” etc. – surely the Greeks understood such imagery as conveying something mental.

images-3Jaynes repeatedly describes “bicameral” inner voices as “hallucinations.” But they were people’s own thoughts, which were real, and that’s different from hallucinating nonexistent voices coming from elsewhere. Conceivably they might have been thought “voices of gods” if popping up suddenly after a lifetime of silence. But normal people become aware of their own thoughts at least as soon as they learn language, and know who is doing the talking. And even hallucinators (like schizophrenics) still have selves, and thoughts they know are their own.

Also, Jaynes evades the issue of how god directives were carried out. You’d need an intermediary, hearing the god voice, deciding to obey it, and working the muscles accordingly. images-4So there’d still have to be a self, even if one that’s heeding god voices.

Jaynes seems to date bicameral minds to the beginnings of civilization (around 10,000 years ago), the god voices evolving from actual voices of kings. This begs the question of what sort of mental life preceded bicameralism, and on this Jaynes is remarkably silent. Would earlier people have had selves, and given them up? Or were they previously not even bicameral? Yet archaeological evidence shows that stone-agers led quite sophisticated lives with plenty of technology and artisanship. Language goes back tens of thousands of years, and it’s hard to imagine its developers didn’t know when they were talking to themselves.

Jaynes is also conspicuously silent about civilizations outside the Near East and Mediterranean areas. Obviously his invoking social upheavals 3000 years ago would be inapplicable to other regions with very different histories. And his discussion of those alleged upheavals is anyway cursory. Life throughout ancient times was pervasively tumultuous, difficult, and much more violent than today. Jaynes fails to show something so uniquely unsettling about the times around 1000 BC that it changed how minds work.

Survival was always a struggle; consciousness was a useful survival adaptation, evolved to at least some degree in many creatures. Homo Sapiens is simply the most extreme example, whose high level of consciousness likely evolved to facilitate the complex social cooperation that figured so large in his survival, long before 1000 BC.

images-6Anyone studying deeply the earliest civilizations must see how alike we are. Those ancestors, who first figured out how to grow crops, domesticate animals, build villages and then cities, created writing and literature and music and art, invented governmentimages-7 and law, launched great projects of architecture, exploration, trade and conquest, and laid the foundations of science and mathematics, could not possibly have done it all with minds that functioned in the primitive – in fact, downright silly – manner Jaynes postulates. He offensively belittles those people and their stupendous achievements.