Category Archives: self

Meaning of Consciousness - part 4

For each science there seems to be a naïve folk version. There was a folk physics that allows people to predict that movement of physical objects, and so on with other sciences. This is still seen in expressions like ‘sun rise’ and the spontaneous beliefs on young children. Nothing is as it appears and we get used to the new knowledge. The sky is not as we thought – the stars and sun and moon are not as we thought. The earth is round. Gravity, light, heat are all different then we assumed. Solid material is mostly empty space. The earth is old and constantly changing. Life uses ordinary chemicals and there is no special essence of life. Life evolves. Our naïve folk versions of the world and our bodies have slowly been replaced by better explanations. But we still use a folk version of how the brain works. The unconscious processes were only recognized in the last hundred years. The nature of the brain is still more unknown than known. We guess this by the rate of surprising revelations that appear in the science journals, even the anatomy is not fixed. We are in for a revolution in how we understand our brains and like the Copernican Revolution, Darwinian Revolution and many smaller revelations, it will turn ideas upside down. This is hard – some people got physically dizzy when they learned that the earth rotates – back in the day.

How does the subjective nature of consciousness arise in a physical system? Is it impossible, or ‘an emergent property’, or a normal everyday process? I will pass over the impossible, magical answer. There is a definition of emergent property that has to do with hierarchical levels of scientific theories which I think misunderstands the nature of scientific reduction. What it really seems to mean in practice is that the speaker believes in a material world (or wants to hedge on it) but cannot find a path from a material brain to a subjective experience. So the subjective experience sort of ’emerges’ like a virgin birth from the material world by some new process or whatever that we have yet to find. But that process of emergence is not an ordinary one. Because I am a materialist (no hedging) I am not interest in the weird unknown emergent property. I am looking for a normal everyday process to explain subjective experience.

There really is a gulf here. In 2014 a Russian called Volkov invited 30 people – 9 important western thinkers (including Dennett and Chalmers) and teachers and students from the Moscow State University on a tall ship cruise along southern Greenland. They explored together on land in the mornings and had seminars in the afternoon. The idea was to come to some consensus. They had a great friendly time and in the end not one of them had changed their mind. Not much has changed since then.

To me, once we accept that what we have in consciousness is a model of the world and ourselves in it, that none of it is direct knowledge of the world or of ourselves but a model, then we seem home-free. That is what we have - only a model of the world and a model of ourselves in that world. Who then is the subject that is experiencing these models? If we do not watch out we will have a person inside a person inside a person to infinity. We cannot have a little person watching the screen because they would need perception, memory etc. and would in their turn produce a brain with a screen, to be watched by…. Who is the subject that has the subjective experience? It seem obvious that it must be the model of ourselves that is experiencing the model of the world and ourselves in it. And what we remember is ourselves experiencing the world; we remember a ‘subjective’ experience. It seems so simple. I find this notion very comfortable and satisfying, but then I really do find mysteries unsatisfying.

I have found someone who puts forward this notion or one very similar and more complete and backed up with evidence, Thomas Metzinger. He has written a book called The Ego Tunnel, and in it he lays out a lot of evidence for the idea. He is a philosopher but works with neuroscientists.

But we still have a semantic maze. From our folk psychology, Freudian ideas, and philosophy through the ages, we have accumulated a map of our mental life. Belief, pain, and will are examples of mental vocabulary. There is a rule of thumb in science, ‘cut nature at the joints’. Don’t name entities that are not natural entities. Many of the mental words can slip over to be useful scientific descriptors, but perhaps not all of them. And they may change somewhat in meaning. Take freewill for instance: cutting at the joints, scientist find a progression that goes - goal, plans, intention, execution but there isn’t really a place for freewill except as a marked in consciousness for the whole completed chain that indicates ‘I own responsibility for this action’. To science freewill no longer means freedom to act without the physical restraints of a material world but only decision we are responsible for because they were not forced.

But here is some stubbornness like the people who insist that pain is only what we feel in consciousness, nothing in the brain can be labeled pain only the ‘subjective’ experience. I just hate semantic arguments, and they will go on and on as knowledge progresses and words move from be mental descriptions to being physical descriptions.

Then there is the question of qualia or the colours, sounds, smells of our consciousness. Many cannot accept the idea that the brain could produce qualia. We know that perception gives us the wherewithal to assign shapes and many sorts of characteristics (like colour, movement, texture etc.) to objects. So all that is needed is how the world is assembled out of the results of perception in the global work space (which is not actually a physical space but a process). Through evolution of hundreds of millions of years, this process has been tuned to help us notice what needs to be noticed, recognize what needs to be recognized, understand what needs to be understood. If someone has a better way of doing this than colour, pitch and the other bound characteristics, I would really like to hear it. That is the way our brains model the world and it is an excellent way – built for survival.

There are more unknowns than knowns in how ours brains work. There are lots of surprises to come. But I am happy with the framework I have to fit to ideas into. A non-mysterious, physical, material, and beautiful framework.

Meaning of consciousness - part 3

What is the function of consciousness? Is the function thinking? There is type 1 thinking, unconscious thinking, and type 2 thinking, which we are conscious of. But it appears that what we are really conscious of is working memory, and not conscious of how an item is created and put in working memory. Type 2 thought is just unconscious processes using working memory as a tool for certain sorts of processing (some language, step-wise logic chains or calculations for example) and the contents of working memory are rendered into consciousness. If type 2 thinking is a function of consciousness then it implies that working memory is somehow dependent of consciousness.

We tend to associate moral responsibility with decisions made consciously, but for thirty of so years there has been growing evidence that we make decisions and execute actions unconsciously before registering them consciously. Libet’s experiment and its descendants just will not go away in spite of decades of trying. The notion that free will and ‘free won’t’ are functions of consciousness just will not work. What seems to be in consciousness is a metaphorical note saying, “I intended this action, I did it, and I morally own it.” There is a phrase, ‘fringe qualia’, which seem to be metaphorical notes about non-sensory information: states of mood and emotion, recognitions, ownership of actions and thoughts, important so take note, and so on. None of these arise within consciousness; they are add from and by unconscious processes. Consciousness can register responsibility for an action but not actually cause the action. There is a theory that consciousness is required to insure that there are not overlaps and gaps in motor plans. The idea is that the motor system needs a working model of the body and environment to proof its plans. This is probably true but not necessarily.

Is the function to give us a sense of self? The impression we have is that we are seeing the world through a hole in our heads around the bridge of the nose from about an inch and a half or so into the brain. But the ‘self’ is a complex mixture of what we control with our muscles, the sensory feelings from inside our bodies, sensory signals from the skin, our memories making a personal narrative, and very especially our consciousness. We naturally seem to identify with some sort of conscious ‘me/I’. Consciousness, as an awareness of ‘ourselves in the world’, has to create the watcher, listener, actor, that is in the world. Self seems essential to consciousness but not perhaps the central function.

Can memory be a function of consciousness? If we think about it, consciousness and memory do seem to go together, at least episodic memory. We remember things that we are conscious of and not things that we are unconscious of. We are aware we have been unconscious when there is a discontinuity in our memory train. It does not seem to require some sort of translation to bring a memory into consciousness – it appears to happen easily. It seems that imaginings are constructed of bits and pieces of memories and they also seem to fit into consciousness without effort. In order to remember experiences, we have to have experiences, and what is it that we experience – it is consciousness. the action. Consciousness can be experimentally tricked into being wrong, taking responsibility for actions the individual did not cause. But we are usually right. Knowing which actions we intentionally cause must be important to judging outcomes and learning from experience. Consciousness seems connected to various short-term memory systems: working memory, sensory memory, verbal memory. Episodic memory also is held together by a continuous self, all events and episodes happen to the same self. Consciousness may be what is prepared for episodic memory, the ‘leading edge’ of episodic memory, so to speak. Or it may be a monitor or newly formed memories, like the monitor head on a tape recorder. The creation of episodic memory would certainly be a function worth the biological cost of consciousness. Being part of the episodic memory system would fit with being an important anchor of the ‘self’. Even the metaphorical notes of the fringe qualia would fit it this episodic memory.

The question is – what exactly is the dependency of memory on consciousness. Episodic memory, imagination and consciousness seem to have the same basic nature or structure or coding. And this structure must be the vehicle of the subjective experience. I have looked for a clear statement of this idea in the literature and the closest seems to be the global workspace of Bernard Baars. He proposed a architecture that would give momentary active subjective experience of events in working memory, consciousness, recalled memory, inner speech and visual imagery.

Do other animals have consciousness? It certainly seems reasonable to assume that most vertebrates do. The source of the awake state comes from deep in the brain stem. Activity from there activates higher regions, the thalamus in particular. Awake, in animals, may not necessarily mean aware, but it would be wiser to assume awareness until proven otherwise, than to do as we have been doing, assume no awareness until proven otherwise. The cerebral cortex does not itself mount consciousness, it is done in partnership with the thalamus, probably be driven by the thalamus. It would seem that a rudimentary consciousness would be possible without a cerebral cortex. It has been found recently that split-brain subjects have one consciousness and not two. This implies that the source of consciousness is is not in the cerebral hemispheres, but must be in some lower region. But the vivid detail of the content must be from the cortex.

Still we do not have a explanation of the subjective nature of consciousness yet but that is for part 4.


New look at self-control

Much of the time, our model of reality is viewed from the perspective of ourselves, right now. The notion of Theory of Mind (ToM) is that to a certain extent we can instead take the perspective of another person. We can metaphorically walk in their shoes. This ability seems to reside in the posterior temporo-parietal junction (pTPJ). This is also the location involved in prosocial behaviour. A recent paper (Soutschek, Ruff, Strombach, Kalenscher, Tobler; Boutrain stimulation reveals crucial role of overcoming self-centeredness in self-control; Science Advances, Oct 2016, Vol. 2, no. 10) finds this area is also involved in controlling impulses to take immediate rewards, rather than wait for greater rewards in future.

The researchers used disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to shut down the junction and then tested for prosocial vs selfish behavior in a sharing money game, the ability to recognize what another person could see (extent of ToM), and the ability to show self-control to achieve a larger reward. These measures appeared to move together, implying that they might share the same mechanism, most likely that mechanism is a switch between the perspective of the current self and the perspective of another, either another person or the self at another time. This fits with previous findings by others that selfishness and impulsiveness appear to go together in many people.

The paper notes that the frontal lobe is also involved in self-control and discusses how the two areas might cooperate in controlling impulsiveness.

Here is their abstract:

Neurobiological models of self-control predominantly focus on the role of prefrontal brain mechanisms involved in emotion regulation and impulse control. We provide evidence for an entirely different neural mechanism that promotes self-control by overcoming bias for the present self, a mechanism previously thought to be mainly important for interpersonal decision-making. In two separate studies, we show that disruptive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of the temporo-parietal junction—a brain region involved in overcoming one’s self-centered perspective—increases the discounting of delayed and prosocial rewards. This effect of TMS on temporal and social discounting is accompanied by deficits in perspective-taking and does not reflect altered spatial reorienting and number recognition. Our findings substantiate a fundamental commonality between the domains of self-control and social decision-making and highlight a novel aspect of the neurocognitive processes involved in self-control.

So when the marshmallow test is quoted as showing that children with greater self-control end up being more successful adults, it could be down to more than self-control. They probably also are more prosocial, understand others better and are less selfish.

A weird model

A while ago Tiny Buddha site had an article by Lisa Esile. I often like Tiny Buddha articles but not those of this sort: “7 Secrets Your Mind Doesn’t Want You to Know”. My reaction is to wonder what is the ‘you’ that does not include ‘your mind’. There is the type of dualism that we have been encountering for many years, since Descartes’ time, and then there is this other new kind of dualism. A ‘you’ have can know things but is not ‘your mind’ seems a crazy idea. What exactly is this ‘you’ thinking with?

The article starts with, “Our mind is inherently scared. That’s its job, to be cautious; to keep us alive, to have us cross roads safely, and not get eaten by a lion. But left unchecked, it can become paralyzed with fear and meaner than a cornered crocodile.” Who says that we are likely to be paralysed with fear or mean? What sort of mind is being envisaged here? So we are careful and do not endanger our lives but that does not make us paralysed or mean. The idea is that a power struggle between ourselves and our minds is going on, with ourselves having the better judgement. Apparently judgement is some magical gift that does not require a mind to produce it. “We feel anxious, fearful, sad, or resentful when we give our mind too much power, when we follow all of its dopey ideas against our better judgment.”

There is a hint to what she means by mind. “Your mind is smart. Not wise smart, but computer smart.

Your mind isn’t into all that woolly intuition jazz. It wants facts. It likes making calculations. Running the odds.” Perhaps she is calling ‘mind’ the conscious mind and ‘you’ the unconscious mind, although this is not a very accurate description of type 2 thought. I have a big problem with her idea in that I do not see two minds any more than I see a separate mind and you. I see one mind and it is aware of only part of its functioning through consciousness. And … it is that consciousness that gives us the concept of ‘self’.

Esile goes on to describe the various fights between two sets of ideas, one ascribed to ‘mind’ and the other to ‘self’. It is almost impossible to imagine having the disagreements described. They may be descriptions that ring true to others. But I cannot shake the idea that divided our sense of self into different compartments is not helpful; having those compartments oppose one another is positively unhealthy. We have a brain and it functions as a whole not as separate parts - one of its functions is ‘mind’ or thought/memory/action/awareness/volition/emotion – ‘mind’ includes the creation of a world and ourselves in that world and a partial awareness of this creation that we experience as consciousness – so we are self-aware of a model of the world and a model of ourselves. There is absolutely no reason or advantage in modelling ourselves as two entities, ‘mind’ and ‘self’, that carry on a power struggle. Rather than struggle and fight, we can learn to think and act in ways that satisfy us and add to our confidence and happiness. We don’t do this be giving ourselves orders but by asking ourselves ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘which way’ questions.

A video on self

Thomas Metzinger is a favorite philosopher of mine. Deric Bownds has a post that includes a video of Metzinger talking about the self (here). Have a look. He deals with consciousness, the self model, transparency, identification and some experimental illusions. It’s great.

Fluid, flow, zone and zen

So we have conscious and unconscious, type 1 and type 2 cognitive processes, default and task related modes, fluid intelligence, being in the flow, being in the zone and the Zen mind. I am wondering which are really the same but just expressed in different semantic frameworks. What might actually be the same physical thing from a different view point. I suspect that these are all ways of expressing various aspects of how we use or fail to use unconscious cognition.

Here was an interesting Scientific American blog (here) by SB Kaufman last January, looking at the relationship between fluid reasoning and working memory. Fluid reasoning works across all domains of intelligence and uses very little prior knowledge, expertise or practice to build relationships, patterns and inferences. How much it depends on working memory is controlled by speed. If the fluid reasoning is done quickly, it requires good working memory; but it can be done slowly with less need for working memory. Is this the difference between quick and deep thinkers, both described as intelligent?

Fluid reasoning does not fit nicely with the two types of cognitive processes: type 1—intuitive, fast, automatic, unconscious, effortless, contextualized, error-prone, and type 2—reflective, slow, deliberate, cogitative, effortful, decontextualized, normatively correct. As type 2 is typified as using working memory and type 1 as not using it, there is an implication that when speed is required for fluid reasoning, more working memory is required and therefore the thinking is leaning towards type 2 processing which is the slower of the two. It is a bit of a paradox. Perhaps what sets apart fluid reasoning is the type of problem rather than the type of process. Maybe the two types of process are ends of a spectrum rather than some sort of opposites. Let’s imagine the reasoning as being little spurts of type 1 process feeding a type 2 use of working memory. This could be a spectrum: at one end continuous type 1 thinking with working memory and consciousness only being involved in the beginning and the end. The other end would be a continuous back and forth as working memory steps through a solution. Let’s imagine that there is little control of efficiency in the type 1 working. The unconscious does not necessarily stick to a plan, while the use of working memory almost dictates a step-wise method. Fluid problems which occur in areas with little expertise, knowledge and practice may tax the type 1 reasoning unless it is closely monitored and controlled with working memory. A ‘step-wise plan’ may restrict and slow down progress on a well-practiced task; not having such a plan, may overwhelm the process with irrelevant detail and slow down an unfamilar task. There may (for any situation) be an optimal amount of type 2 control of type 1 free-wheeling speed.

People talking about ‘flow’ and ‘zone’ tend to acknowledge the similarity in the two concepts. But flow seems less concentrated and describes a way of living and especially working. While zone seems to describe short periods of more intense activity, as in a sport. This is almost the opposite of fluid reasoning in that neither flow nor zone can be achieved without first acquiring skill (expertise, knowledge and practice are basic). This seems to be type 1 processing at its best. In fact, one way to lose the zone is to try and think about or consciously control what you are doing. That is how to choke.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has documented flow for most of his career. His theory of Flow has three conditions for achieving the flow state: be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress (direction and structure); have clear and immediate feedback to allow change and adjustment; have balance between the perceived challenges and perceived skills (confidence in one’s ability for the task). The person in flow is experiencing the present moment, a sense of control, a loss of sense of time and of self-consciousness, with a feeling of great reward and enjoyment. There is an automatic connection of action and perception and an effortless relaxation, but still a feeling of control.

Young and Pain have studied being ‘in the zone’. It is described as “a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability. It is a magical and…special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well. Competition is fun and exciting.” Athletes reporting on ‘in the zone’ moments report: “clear inner process”, “felt all together”, “awareness of power”, “clear focus”, “strong sense of self”, “free from outer restrictions”, “need to complete”, “absorption”, “intention”, “process ‘clicked’”, “personal understanding & expression”, “actions & thoughts spontaneous”, “event was practiced”, “performance”, “fulfillment”, “intrinsic reward”, “loss of self”, “spiritual”, “loss of time and space”, “unity of self and environment”, “enjoyed others”, “prior related involvement”, “fun”, “action or behavior”, “goals and structure”. Zone seems more intense and more identified with a very particular event than flow.

The hallmark of both flow and zone is that it appears to be the unconscious, fully equiped and practiced, in charge and doing the task well and effortlessly. The other thing to note is that the task mode is being used and not the default mode. Introspection, memory and imagination are taking second place.

The flow/zone way of acting is even more extreme in some Eastern religious exercises and also a few Western ones. The pinnacle of this is perhaps Zen states of mind. One in particular is like zone. “Mushin means “Without Mind” and it is very similar in practice to the Chinese Taoist principle of wei wuwei . Of all of the states of mind, I think not only is working toward mastery of mushin most important, it’s also the one most people have felt at some point in time. In sports circles, mushin is often referred to as “being in the zone”. Mushin is characterized by a mind that is completely empty of all thoughts and is existing purely in the current moment. A mind in mushin is free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It does not plan, it merely acts. If you’ve ever been playing a sport and you got so into it you stopped thinking about what you were doing and just played, you’ve experienced mushin.” I find the use of mind with this meaning misleading, but it is clear in the context that they are referring to just the conscious part of the mind when they use the word ‘mind’. It could be replaced with the word consciousness without changing the meaning.

In summary, unconscious control of tasks have been extremely well learned (the learning likely requires conscious thought) leads to states of mind that are valued, very skilled, without effort and agreeable. The default mode is suppressed and the self recedes in importance as do past and future because introspection, recall of past events and dreaming of future ones require the default mode. It is not an all or nothing thing but one of degree.

The ghost is us

In schizophrenia, some other conditions and extreme physical situations, people can feel an unseen presence accompanying them, a ghost. But this ghost has been shown to probably be ourselves. NeuroScienceNews (here) has a review of a new paper, including a video linked below.

The self that we experience is constructed from a number of sources: individual senses, internal body senses, motor prediction. This usually works seamlessly and we feel that we inhabit this self/body. The construct relies on three areas of the brain cooperating. If one of these areas is damaged or the ability to work together is faulty, part of the self may be detached from the rest and then be experienced as a ‘presence’, near but displaced from the rest of the self. “Our brain possesses several representations of our body in space,” added Giulio Rognini. “Under normal conditions, it is able to assemble a unified self-perception of the self from these representations. But when the system malfunctions because of disease – or, in this case, a robot – this can sometimes create a second representation of one’s own body, which is no longer perceived as ‘me’ but as someone else, a ‘presence’.”

The researchers duplicated the effect in the lab with a robotic device which is clearly shown in a video (here).

I have found ghosts interesting since a conversation with my mother many years ago. She did not believe in ghosts or anything like that, but she found that after my father died, she could talk to him. She knew that it was herself talking in his voice in her head. She said that she knew him well enough to know what he would say and how. If fact she encouraged the voice – it was comforting. When she had a problem and want to know what he would advise, if he were alive, she would ask him. It worked best just as she was going to sleep. After a time the effect weakened and then was no longer available. Her grief and her immediate change in responsibility would have affected her, and given her problems that she had not faced before. In trying to figure out what he would have done she made those thoughts into a separate verbal presence. At first, she also thought she could see him out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned there was no one there. She put that down to missing him and changing any little movement, half seen, into him.

I figure there were a number of tiny areas of her brain that were dedicated to monitoring my dad. When he died they were not called on to do any work and eventually started creating sightings of him, like our brains react to sensory deprivation with hallucinations. I have been told that such things are quite common, but people do not mention them for fear of being ridiculed. Also, it is reported that many people hear voices from time to time, but do not report it for fear of being thought mad.

Here is the abstract of the paper (“Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition”; O. Blanke, P. Pozeg, M. Hara, L. Heydrich, A. Serino, A. Yamamoto, T. Higuchi, R. Salomon, M. Seeck, T. Landis, S. Arzy, B. Herbelin, H. Bleuler, and G. Rognini; Current Biology 2014):

Tales of ghosts, wraiths, and other apparitions have been reported in virtually all cultures. The strange sensation that somebody is nearby when no one is actually present and cannot be seen (feeling of a presence, FoP) is a fascinating feat of the human mind, and this apparition is often covered in the literature of divinity, occultism, and fiction. Although it is described by neurological and psychiatric patients and healthy individuals in different situations, it is not yet understood how the phenomenon is triggered by the brain. Here, we performed lesion analysis in neurological FoP patients, supported by an analysis of associated neurological deficits. Our data show that the FoP is an illusory own-body perception with well-defined characteristics that is associated with sensorimotor loss and caused by lesions in three distinct brain regions: temporoparietal, insular, and especially frontoparietal cortex. Based on these data and recent experimental advances of multisensory own-body illusions, we designed a master-slave robotic system that generated specific sensorimotor conflicts and enabled us to induce the FoP and related illusory own-body perceptions experimentally in normal participants. These data show that the illusion of feeling another person nearby is caused by misperceiving the source and identity of sensorimotor (tactile, proprioceptive, and motor) signals of one’s own body. Our findings reveal the neural mechanisms of the FoP, highlight the subtle balance of brain mechanisms that generate the experience of “self” and “other,” and advance the understanding of the brain mechanisms responsible for hallucinations in schizophrenia.



A recent article in The Psychologist by Carhart, Kaelen and Nutt (here) reviews what is known about the action of chemicals that cause hallucinations: LSD from ergot fungi, dimethyltryptamine from ayahuasca and psilocybin from magic mushrooms.

The molecular action of the hallucinogens is to excite particular pyramidal neurons by mimicking the action of the transmitter serotonin. These layer 5 pyramidal neurons are important for projecting to lower centers outside the cortex and within it. They mostly project to neurons that are inhibitory. The net effect is that the exciting of the pyramid cells creates an inhibitory signal from other neurons. It tends to generally shut things down. The oscillations in the cortex, so important to the workings of the brain, are decreased in strength and also desynchronized. The disruption of brain waves seems to stem from the interference with the pyramidal cells - inhibitory cell chains.

This decrease in activity is especially evident in some very important hubs in the brain: the thalamus, posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, all integrating and executive control hubs. This may be the source of the lack of integration and constraint seen in hallucinations. There is a lack of distinctness in the network structure of the brain and networks seem to melt into one another. One of the effects of this is increased cognitive flexibility and ability to learn. This may be very useful to therapists in controlled doses. The inhibition of some centers allows areas they control to escape that control. When the cat is away, the mice with play.

It is interesting that the hallucinogens “profoundly alter the quality of consciousness whilst leaving arousal or wakefulness intact.” How does the hallucinogen create the complex vivid visual hallucinations or the loss of ego? During periods of hallucination there are ‘phasic discharges’ from the hippocampus, amygdala and septal nuclei (medial temporal lobe sites) in contrast to the general disorder of brain waves. This resembles the activity of the medial temporal lobe in REM sleep and dreaming. Stimulation of the MTL experimentally can produce hallucinations and distortions of vision.

One of the most common yet abstract experiences described in relation to the hallucinogenic drug state is a disintegration or dissolution of the self or ego. Such an experience is difficult to fathom from the vantage of normal waking consciousness, where an integrated sense of self is felt as pervasive and permanent. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the experience of ego-disintegration is described as profoundly disconcerting and unusual …Classic accounts of so-called ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ experiences have placed emphasis on the necessity for self or ego disintegration for their occurrence. Thus, in order to investigate the neurobiological basis of ego-disintegration and mystical-type experiences, it is useful to first examine the neural correlates of self-awareness.” The strength of alpha waves in the posterior cingulate cortex, a major hub in the default mode network is correlated with the strength of the self. In hallucinogen sessions, the activity of the PCC decreases in correlation with ego-disintegration. The self is also weak during dreaming.

Get over the dualism

I keep running across advice on how to be happy, less afraid, more effective and similar personal improvements. Most of them are OK and I can see how they would be useful. But some are not and they are finally getting under my skin. These are the ones that propose a state of war between “you” and “your brain”. Surprising in this day and age, there are people who are not trying to help people over their dualism but actually encouraging it.



I have taken an example: “Why you should treat your brain like an unruly child” by A P Jacobs almost at random. There are many more. The first thing these articles try and instill in the reader is a separation between the self and the brain/mind and a lack of any responsibility of the “I” for what is thought and done. “I don’t trust my brain. It’s got some good qualities, sure, but it needs constant supervision. It’s like an unruly Boston terrier – left to its own devices, it will scamper off and rummage through the garbage can, spreading rotten guacamole all over the house. In my brain’s case, this means the hours spent wallowing in unrealistic worries, time-wasting regret and elaborate revenge fantasies.” This author seems to imply that he is not worrying, regretting and fantasying – it is just his brain that is doing that. It seems that he believes that it is not necessary to find out why he is doing these things and how to avoid ‘wallowing’; it is only necessary to make it stop with some sort of super determination.



I have to monitor my thoughts myself. I have appointed myself my brain’s babysitter. Which is why I spend a lot of time thinking about the contents of my thoughts. Dozens of times a day, I like to ask myself: “Hey, what are you thinking about? Is that a good use of your brain?”” So what is happening here? It is not - hey, what am I thinking about? Why am I thinking about that?



Unless I’m paying attention to it, here are some of the unpleasant areas my brain likes to wander into…Worries about absurdly unlikely scenarios… Jealousy of people about whom I know practically nothing…Indulging in absurd regrets …Stewing about perceived slights from years ago….Stewing about perceived slights that never actually happened…I have to tell my brain: Stay out of those areas.” So he tells his brain. This is probably not something that works – there is no separate brain willing to listening to some officious disembodied self. Different parts of the brain can communicate through language but not this way.



I force my cerebral cortex to get control of my limbic system. To use behavioral economics lingo, I have to make sure my System 2 is in charge of System 1.” So that is what it is? This is crazy. ‘Limbic system’ is an outdated concept that includes the parts of the cortex that are not neo-cortex, the thalamus, and the basal ganglia. Without these there is no consciousness, no memory, no decisions. They work with the neo-cortex and not in opposition. There is no way the cortex can ‘get control’ of the limbic system. They work together or not at all. The writer may be trying to say that he wants to control his emotions – the limbic system was once thought to be about emotion as opposed to rational thought. Or he may be trying to say consciousness as opposed to unconsciousness. System 1 and 2 are more reasonable ways to think of what used to be called conscious and unconscious thought. System 1 is the process that most of the brain uses most of the time. It does not use working memory (and therefore is not restricted to the amount of information being processed at a time and the lack of speed of working memory); it is fast and efficient but it is not brought to consciousness or episodic memory. System 2 uses working memory, is brought to consciousness and is stored in the episodic memory, but it is slow and can only handle a few things at a time. It is, I think, obvious that system 2 cannot control system 1. If he is not talking about avoiding emotion or steering unconscious thought, what else could he be on about. It appears from his examples that he is not a fan of his default mode network and its time-wasting on memory, imagination, day-dreaming and the like. But this impression appears not to be his intent. “Now I’m not saying you should never let your mind wander. In fact, there’s some evidence of the positive effects of daydreaming.” So, positive thoughts from the default network are welcome but not negative ones, he thinks. I have to say that negative thoughts are very often good to have. People who don’t feel pain are always hurting themselves; people who never worry make bad decisions, people who feel no regret do not learn from mistakes.



What is missing is an appreciation that the brain has evolved to keep us as safe and successful as it can. It is not bad at it either. It is also your brain, part of your body. If you are talking to your brain, it is actually your brain talking to your brain. There is no other you talking. Talking to yourself can work or not work depending on how it is done. Being macho, domineering and Pollyanna-ish is unlikely to be the best way to talk to yourself.



I explored internal speech in a previous post a way to talk to yourself a way to talk to yourself .



Brain, Ubuntu and Hegel

There is a recent paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: Marchetti and Koster, Brain and intersubjectivity: a Hegelian hypothesis on the self-other neurodynamics. (citation below)


The authors attempt to show that self-consciousness can be understood in the context of Hegel’s ideas of intersubjectivity. The parts of Hegel that they pick to illustrate the nature of ‘self’ and ‘other’ reminded me of the Bantu idea of ‘ubuntu’. That made me more interested because, to be honest, I have, in the past, ignored Hegel because of my discomfort with some of his spin-offs: Nietzsche, existentialism, psychoanalysis. But I am intrigued by an overlap of neuroscience, Hegel and ubuntu.



First the neuroscience as the paper puts it forward: what are the steps from simple perception and thinking (consciousness) leading to the more complicated self-consciousness. The authors look at two aspects of the brain, mirror cells and the default mode network. Mirror cells are active for a particular action whether I do the action or experience someone else doing the same action. I do not confuse myself with someone else but I recognize a particular action (an action concept) as the same action just with a different actor. The default mode network seems to do the same thing for mental actions/states (goals, intentions, view-points, beliefs, emotions, values and so on). It is the same idea: the thoughts are the same but associated with different minds. In other words the same neural systems are used to create our ‘self’ and to create someone else. Using the mechanisms we have to understand others, we can understand ourselves, and of course, vice verse.



Hegel’s answer is, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged .” Self and other can exist when they have mutual recognition, recognition of separate identity of the other, and recognition of the self by the other. If there is no recogniton by another then I can be conscious of the world but I cannot be conscious of myself as a self-conscious agent.



I have thought that there was no equivalent in western philosophy for the concept of Ubuntu but Hegel’s statement seems to be one. Ubuntu is the shining ‘halo’ of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu with their big hearts and unerring moral compasses. Wikipedia has a definition by Michael Onyebuchi Eze of the core of ubuntu. “A person is a person through other people strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. This the basic premise that results in a particular type of community, of social interaction, of economy, of justice and it fact all aspects of Bantu life (ideally, that is).

Marchetti, I., & Koster, E. (2014). Brain and intersubjectivity: a Hegelian hypothesis on the self-other neurodynamics Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00011