“Your plastic self”

There’s a nice article by Mo Costandi on the plasticity of the sense we have of being embodied selves. The article covers some of the same research that I discuss in Living as a River:

Who – or what – do you think you are? You probably think that your memories and personality are an important part of what you call your “self,” and you’d be right. But the core of your sense of self is something that you probably take completely for granted – your body.

Philosophers have always known about awareness of the body of the body is critical to the sense of self. In his 1739 book, A Treatise on Human Nature, for example, David Hume wrote, “When I enter into myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, or heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

Hume clearly understood the importance of the body for the sense of self, as did various other philosophers who came later, and neuroscientists are now beginning to catch up with them. In the past 10 years, they have made big advances towards understanding the neurological basis of bodily awareness, revealing the mechanisms by which the brain makes – and can break – our sense of self-identity. Leaders in this area of research described their work today in a symposium held at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience…

Continue reading the original article…

Your mind is not your own

Smithsonian.com has an article called “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries,” the sixth of which is very pertinent to the exploration of consciousness that you’ll find in Living as a River.

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event. That’s true even for flashbulb memories, the ones that feel as though they’ve been burned into the brain:

Like millions of people, [neuroscientist Karim] Nader has vivid and emotional memories of the September 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath. But as an expert on memory, and, in particular, on the malleability of memory, he knows better than to fully trust his recollections… As clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate.

A Process-Oriented Externalist Solution to the Hard Problem

Riccardo Manzotti of the University of Milan has an interesting comic(!) purporting to explain the “hard problem” of philosophy, which is how experience can arise from matter.

It’s very much along the lines of Alva Noë’s excellent book, “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.”

The takehome message is “We and the world are really one process.” This is also what I understand the Buddha’s teaching to have been, as embodied in the 18 dhātus and in teachings such as the Kalaka Sutta:

“Thus, monks, the Tathagata, when seeing what is to be seen, doesn’t construe an [object as] seen. He doesn’t construe an unseen. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-seen. He doesn’t construe a seer.
“When hearing…
“When sensing…
“When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn’t construe an [object as] cognized. He doesn’t construe an uncognized. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-cognized. He doesn’t construe a cognizer.

The Buddha’s teaching, although this isn’t always immediately obvious, is one of non-duality. This is, of course, something I go into in Living as a River.

Who enjoys music?

One of the most interesting things that happens in my meditation practice is when I observe experiences arising and realize that I’m not making them happen. I come to the realization that I do not “own” these experiences. In fact, even the sense of ownership of my experiences that normally dominates my mind comes to be seen as another unowned experience. Normally the conscious mind assumes ownership of experiences, but in fact it’s a kind of plagiarist, claiming experiences when it has nothing to do with their creation.

Probably this is gobbledegook to most people — I’d recommend just watching your experience and recognizing that your experiences “just happen.” This is a practical way of coming to recognize the truth of the BUddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self.

An article I recently read gives evidence to back up this radical notion that all our experiences are unowned.

Francesco Riganello at the Santa Anna Institute in Crotone, Italy, and colleagues played four pieces of classical music to 16 healthy volunteers while measuring their heartbeats. The team then repeated the experiment with nine people who were in a vegetative state. In addition, they asked the healthy volunteers to describe the emotions they had felt while listening.

The pieces, each 3 minutes long and by different composers, were chosen because they have different tempos and rhythms – factors previously shown to elicit positive and negative emotions.

Riganello found that the music affected the heart rates of both groups in the same way. Pieces rated as “positive” by healthy volunteers, such as the minuet from Boccherini’s string quintet in E, slowed heart rate, while “negative” pieces like Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony increased heart rate.

Ordinarily we’d listen to music, and the conscious mind makes the assumption that it is listening to the music, and that it is enjoying the music. But in fact the listening is still taking place even if there is no possibility of conscious thought or attention, as in the case of people in a persistent vegetative state. The enjoying may be going on as well, to the extent that the body and parts of the brain are still engaged in the activity of producing physiological responses to the music.

That last statement I made in fact is rather challenging! Can we have enjoyment when there is no one there to do the enjoying. Well, why not? Normally we’d say there could not be the activity of “listening and responding to music” unless there was someone there. And yet clearly “listening and responding to music” does take place in the absence of consciousness.

This challenge should lead us to question our notion of a unitary self, and our notion that the conscious mind is central to the existence of our selves. The practice I suggested above — where we observe experiences arising and realize that we’re not making them happen — is a way to make this more experiential, and to help free us from delusions we have about the nature of the self.

Split brain with one half atheist and one half theist

Here’s a fascinating snippet from neurologist VS Ramachandran, talking about a split-brain patient. The patient’s right brain believed in God, but the more rational left brain was atheist.

Ramachandran points to the obvious theological problem of what, in the Christian view, happens to such a person after they die; does the right brain go to heaven and the left to hell?

But more interesting to me with split brain studies is how they reveal the fictional nature of the self. Split brain patients clearly cannot have one self, since the two parts of the brain function independently and cannot communicate directly with each other, and yet people with split brains have a sense of a unitary self. I

n my book, I show how the left brain of split-brain patients tries to explain away (and thus take the credit for) actions that the right brain has initiated. It seems to me that it’s this “plagiarism” that constitutes the sense of a unitary self. The left brain is, I believe, unaware that it’s a plagiarist — it’s simply deluded. In part, I suspect that stream-entry, which involves the loss of the belief in a unitary self, involves the left brain finally “getting” that it doesn’t run the whole show that we call “the self.” It comes to realize that it’s simply observing, labeling (and often taking the credit for) actions initiated outside of conscious awareness.

Our iPhones, Our Selves

There’s an interesting post in the NYT today, arguing that we could think of our electronic devices as extensions of our minds.

Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.

One way to see this is to ask yourself how you would categorize the same work were it found to occur “in the head” as part of the neural processing of, say, an alien species. If you’d then have no hesitation in counting the activity as genuine (though non-conscious) cognitive activity, then perhaps it is only some kind of bio-envelope prejudice that stops you counting the same work, when reliably performed outside the head, as a genuine element in your own mental processing?

The article uses very similar analytical strategies to those I employ in Living as a River: We start off with a casual and habitual assumption that electronic devices are outside the skull, and are therefore not part of the cognitive process. And we probe that assumption: so we imagine those devices implanted in the brain, functioning to augment our thinking processes, and see how that changes our perspectives.

I have a very free-flowing sense of how cognition takes place, so I have no problem with seeing my iPhone as part of my cognitive apparatus. What most interests me, however, is how our gadgets can become part of the self. This is a rather different concern from the argument above, because it’s not to do with how things work, but with what we identify with. And it seems to me that people nowadays (myself included) have a hard job separating their selves from their gadgets. To give an example, it used to be that when people went on a Buddhist retreat, they’d simply cut themselves off from the outside world for a weekend, or week, or whatever length of time they were away. They’d leave the retreat center office phone number as an emergency contact, but wouldn’t plan to make phone calls. Now an increasing number of people check email, text, and make phone calls on retreat. They can’t imagine not doing this.

The thought of being without a gadget can be like the thought of an amputation. Fear is involved. I’ve seen people almost in a state of panic at the thought of sending their iPhone away for a couple of days to have a cracked screen fixed. Our sense of a functioning self is now dependent upon the presence of an electronic device and, more importantly, the constant flow of information that comes through it. We need the reassurance of email, phone calls, text messages, Twitter and Facebook, that we still exist. We feel anxious: we check Facebook. It doesn’t really address the root cause of our anxiety, but it’ll do for noe.

None of this is new. We’ve been attached in the past to television, mail, and even telegrams, but none of those had the frequency of today’s media, or the same reach (even just a few years ago you could be on a mountain top and be sure of a lack of contact with the outside world. As the ability to stay in touch has expanded, so has our attachment to information, and so has our fear of being cut off.

So I argue that our sense of self includes our electronic devices. Whether or not we see them as part of our cognitive apparatus, we see them as part of our selves, or at least treat them as part of ourselves. That too, is not new (we’ve always defined ourselves and each other by means of possessions) but somehow the umbilical cord of neurotic emotion seems to have been getting shorter.

So we’re seeing our iPhones etc as parts of our selves, and that doesn’t seem to be a good thing. In fact, it seems to be adding to our suffering. One of the central teachings of Buddhism is, in fact, that we’re constantly trying to identify something as the self, and that this inevitably leads to suffering. The medium here is new, but the psychodynamic is now.

Iroquois wisdom

Talking to Jeff Ferrannini of Planetary Spirit radio yesterday, I was blown away by a passage he read out, which he said was a Hopi Prophecy.

There was one part to the quotation Jeff read out which does actually seem to be Hopi (I’ll post that elsewhere). But when I researched this teaching it turned out that what I’ve quoted above was (according to an article written in Yoga Journal in 1999 by Gary Gach — who I happen to know) from an elderly Iroquois man called “Uncle John,” and passed on by ChoQosh Auh-Ho-Oh, a Chumash teacher, at a Y2K conference in Oakland, California, in February 1998.

Here’s the part of the quote that astonished me, because it’s so close to the message of Living as a River.
On the web you’ll find this all together as one quotation, but it’s actually the words of several people, and I talked to ChuQosh Auh-Ho-Oh, the conduit for all of these words, to find out who said what. I must thank Matthew for helping to track down ChoQosh’s phone number.

[Uncle John] There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.

[The following is an addition by ChoQosh] And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

[Back to Uncle John] ChoQosh, be sure to tell your people: At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a screeching halt.

[This bit is Uncle John] The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!

[This is Philip Deer, a Muscogee Creek Elder] Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

[This is ChuQuosh quoting Marianne Williamson] We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Later: I heard the “Iroquois Uncle John” version of the story on a Prophecy Keepers’ Radio interview with ChoQosh Auh-Ho-Oh. It’s on this page: if you want to hear just that, skip to the third segment of the show, and then scrub forward to about 9:45. But she’s a fascinating speaker, and if you have the time I’d suggest listening to more of the program.

If we’re empty of an essence, what is it that reincarnates?

A friend on Facebook just asked me the question above. Although in some ways it’s not at all related to my book because Living as a River doesn’t ever mention rebirth, in other ways it’s absolutely central. So I thought I’d copy the question and my reply from Facebook to this blog.

Here’s my reply:

That’s a good (and classic) question. I have to say that first of all I’m agnostic about rebirth: I don’t have any direct evidence that it actually happens, although it seems extremely likely, from the texts we have, that the Buddha believed that it happened.

Now that’s out of the way, here’s an analogy. When you light one candle from another candle, there’s no essence passed from one flame to another. The chemical activity in one candle leads to similar activity in the other. It’s supposed to be similar with rebirth. There’s no “substance” passed across, but (speaking very loosely) the “energy” from one life leads to similar energy taking place in the next. It’s like the candle analogy, except that you’re lighting a new candle with one that’s just going out.

This, by the way, is why Buddhists talk about “rebirth” rather than “reincarnation.” The term reincarnation suggests something permanent that “takes flesh again” (the literal meaning of re-in-carnate), while the Buddhist term rebirth merely suggests continuity, but no identity.

In a way, all this is what my book’s about, although I never mention rebirth. What I do is talk about how this process takes place right here in this life.

What is consciousness?

There’s an interesting post at Big Think about consciousness:

What does it mean to be conscious? It’s a question that philosophers and scientists have puzzled over perhaps since there have been philosophers and scientists.

In his book “Consciousness Explained,” Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett calls human consciousness “just about the last surviving mystery,” explaining that a mystery is something that people don’t yet know how to think about. “We do not yet have all the answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them,” writes Dennett. “With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist—and hope—that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.”

On a base level, consciousness is the fact of being awake and processing information. Doctors judge people conscious or not depending on their wakefulness and how they respond to external stimuli. But being conscious is also a neurological phenomenon, and it is part of what allows us to exist and understand ourselves in the world.

Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California who has studied the neurological basis of consciousness for years, tells Big Think that being conscious is a “special quality of mind” that permits us to know both that we exist and that the things around us exist. He differentiates this from the way the mind is able to portray reality to itself merely by encoding sensory information. Rather, consciousness implies subjectivity—a sense of having a self that observes one’s own organism as separate from the world around that organism.

“Many species, many creatures on earth that are very likely to have a mind, but are very unlikely to have a consciousness in the sense that you and I have,” says Damasio. “That is a self that is very robust, that has many, many levels of organization, from simple to complex, and that functions as a sort of witness to what is going on in our organisms. That kind of process is very interesting because I believe that it is made out of the same cloth of mind, but it is an add-on, it was something that was specialized to create what we call the self.”

It’s good to point out that consciousness is a mystery, and to emphasize that a mystery is something we don’t even know how to think about. Consciousness may in a way be a second-level or even third-level mystery. After all, no one has yet been able to come up with a watertight definition for life (this is the first-level mystery, and one I explore in the Fire Element chapter of my book). Living things can be conscious, or perhaps, as Alva Noe suggests in You are Not Your Brain, even amoebas have a primitive form of consciousness, in the sense that they interact with their environment, which has a kind of simple “meaning” for them. But what we’re talking about with consciousness here is something beyond merely processing information about the outside world. It’s as if information processing is aware of the process of information processing. Perhaps simple consciousness (responding to the environment) is a second-level mystery, and reflexive consciousness is the third-level mystery. Presumably only a conscious being is able to have a sense of what consciousness is, or to be able to assess whether another being has consciousness.

This sense of a gradation of mysteries, that I mentioned above, has a parallel in the Buddhist teaching of the five niyamas, a late Thervadin teaching of a gradation of levels of conditionality within existence — that is, a series of “laws” governing, or more properly, describing how things operate.

  1. There’s a level (the utu-niyama) of physical laws, which we know as physics and chemistry.
  2. There’s a level (the bija-niyama) of biological laws (such as evolution) which we know as biology.
  3. There’s the citta-niyama, which is the operation of simple consciousness (including much of psychology).
  4. There’s the karma-niyama, which is how self-aware consciousness operates, specifically referring to how the actions self-aware beings choose affect the degree of suffering they experience. This is the level of spiritual practice.
  5. And there’s the dharma-niyama, which is the progressive emergence of a new state of being that arises once the self-aware individual loses his or her sense of having a fixed and separate self. This is the emergence of a non-dual, enlightened consciousness.

From the utu to the citta-niyamas, we see, through evolutionary processes, conscious beings arising. They are driven by suffering, which gives rise to craving and aversion as strategies to deal with that suffering.

In the karma-niyama, we see beings who are aware that craving and aversion cause suffering, and who realize that they have a choice. Self-aware beings are able to examine, reinvent, or rebuild their own consciousness by choosing which mental states they will develop and which they will refrain from reinforcing and allow to wither.

In the dharma-niyama we see a radical move away from the inner and outer actions that cause suffering: radical because we have started to let go of our clinging to the idea that we have a self.

This teaching of the niyamas doesn’t exactly explain any mysteries. And the Buddha wasn’t into doing that. He simply accepted that here we are, thrown into the world with minds predisposed to cause ourselves suffering, and then proceeded to show how we can eradicate that suffering. What consciousness is is still a mystery. Fortunately it’s being a mystery isn’t a hindrance to spiritual progress.