July 29, 2008
by: jovial_cynic

image: dice another day (cc) topher76

"I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that." ~ Emo Phillips

About a year ago, I stumbled upon the debate on the human consciousness (the ego), which raised the question of whether or not our consciousness even exists, and if so, how the consciousness relates to who or what we are.

The idea is like this: Your brain is doing things with or without you thinking about it. When you pick up a glass of water due to thirst, your brain has already determined to perform that task long before your consciousness has manifested the thought.

Fishing in the stream of consciousness, researchers now can detect our intentions and predict our choices before we are aware of them ourselves. The brain, they have found, appears to make up its mind 10 seconds before we become conscious of a decision -- an eternity at the speed of thought.

Your thoughts on the matter are, in actuality, an afterthought, as your brain makes decisions before you are aware of them. Your awareness is commonly understood as who you are. But what does that make your brain, which makes those decisions for you, without "your" active participation? It seems that our consciousness is not a creature of autonomous will, but rather a passive observer which merely repeats what the active brain has determined to do via some internal cost/benefit analysis.

It's a perplexing notion, because it challenges our core identity. The idea of "me" is who I am... and yet as more evidence comes forth that this notion of "me" is artificial, the uniqueness of a personal identity becomes itiose. Meaningless. Vanity of vanities. And it also gives some plausible explanations for things like Amputee Identity Disorder, where the signal from the brain to the limb and back again may encounter an impediment, causing the brain to incorrectly identify the limb as a foreign object. The consciousness arrives at a feeling that the limb doesn't belong to them, and aren't satisfied until it is removed. We tend to call these people crazy, but in fact, it may be that their conscious minds are reacting quite appropriately to the signal from the brain. The brain says the limb doesn't belong. What's an ego to do?

Add to that the idea that our perception of everything can be altered by chemicals, and the idea of the validity of our consciousness begins to break apart even more.

This video sheds some light on the idea of chemically altering whatever pathways are used for the brain to perceive time. It's fascinating:

It might all be in our head. Chemicals can slow or speed up our sense of time. Can this be taken to extremes? Can we figure out which part of the brain is specifically responsible for our perception of time, and alter it enough to remove that sense entirely? The idea is fascinating, really. But the implications are profound. The brain controls our consciousness, and chemicals in the environment can alter how the brain processes information, which changes our consciousness... it changes who we are.

So where, in the midst of all this processing and changing of processing, do "we" exist? Which part of what is going on makes us who we are? And if our brain is merely processing stimuli and drawing unconscious conclusions, it seems that our entire identity is simply a product of our environment and our particular wiring, negating the idea of free-will entirely. We are, in the end, merely a rattle of the dice.

It's perplexing.


Ken said:
We've talked about this before. Drug or otherwise induced "ego death," and the realization that no matter how much we think that "I" really am "me," we aren't.

Guy Ritchie made a somewhat interesting, (if otherwise boring and stupid) movie with Jason Statham a couple years back called "Revolver." It deals with this very issue.

In "Cogiti ergo sum" the part of the mind saying "I AM" thinks it really is. Not as in existence, but maybe "I AM" in a biblical sense. (that might be a bit of a stretch) The part of the mind saying that, the part of me that is writing this, really isn't the whole me. It just likes to think it is. ?

As for it all being in our heads? I believe so.
Zen riddle:
Q - Who is the Master who makes the grass green?
A - Me

Our brains structure every element of our perceived, and therefore created reality.

From Bill Hicks - A fallen hero -
"Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves... here's Tom with the weather."

July 29, 2008

jovial_cynic said:
Ken - yeah, it is very interesting. Difficult to wrap the brain around, account of it being the brain we're discussing.

I recently read Second Person, Presence Tense, by Daryl Gregory... amazing read. In the story, there's a drug that increases the amount of time that passes between the brain's decision and the conscious perception of that decision; it allows people to disconnect themselves (their consciousness, anyway) from their brain and body's activity for long periods of time; to overdose on the drug is the complete destruction of the ego. The brain, to compensate, creates a new ego on the fly, and so the person wakes up with a completely different sense of self. It's a really interesting read.

July 30, 2008

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