“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.

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.

Our malleable memories

Ask people what might constitute the basis of a permanent self, and often they’ll point to their memories. We tend to assume that a memory is like a DVD recording — stable, permanent, and unchanging. But research on memory shows that this isn’t the case. Smithsonian Magazine highlights the work of Karim Nader, who has suggested that our memories are in a state of flux.

Nader, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired for the first time the following day. Apparently he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study of 569 college students found that 73 percent shared this misperception.

Nader believes he may have an explanation for such quirks of memory. His ideas are unconventional within neuroscience, and they have caused researchers to reconsider some of their most basic assumptions about how memory works. In short, Nader believes that the very act of remembering can change our memories.

Much of his research is on rats, but he says the same basic principles apply to human memory as well. In fact, he says, it may be impossible for humans or any other animal to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Nader thinks it’s likely that some types of memory, such as a flashbulb memory, are more susceptible to change than others. Memories surrounding a major event like September 11 might be especially susceptible, he says, because we tend to replay them over and over in our minds and in conversation with others—with each repetition having the potential to alter them.

For those of us who cherish our memories and like to think they are an accurate record of our history, the idea that memory is fundamentally malleable is more than a little disturbing. Not all researchers believe Nader has proved that the process of remembering itself can alter memories. But if he is right, it may not be an entirely bad thing. It might even be possible to put the phenomenon to good use to reduce the suffering of people with post-traumatic stress disorder, who are plagued by recurring memories of events they wish they could put behind them.

Read the rest of this article…

The inner zombie

Extracts from Chapter 13: The Consciousness Element

I’m driving along New Hampshire’s long, winding, and rather monotonous Route 4, on my way to teach a class at the men’s prison in Concord. It’s easy to space out, and as usual I’m trying to make the act of driving into a mindfulness practice. The radio is switched off. I’m not listening to any podcasts. I’m not eating or drinking. I’m trying not to multitask in any way. I simply pay attention to what’s going on as I drive. I notice the physical sensations in my body. When another driver is too close or makes a risky maneuver I notice the emotions that arise and let go of them as best I can, while wishing both of us well. I pay attention (of course) to what I’m seeing in front of me and in my car’s mirrors.

Noticing how my gaze can often become fixated on a narrow area in front of me, I become aware of the entirety of my visual field, allowing everything from the center of my visual field to the periphery into awareness. It’s like moving from a kind of “dial-up” connection between the world and my brain to a broadband connection. Doing this generally has a very calming effect on my inner chatter, as if the sheer volume of incoming data I’m paying attention to leaves no bandwidth available for my inner dramas. So as I expand my awareness of my visual field I notice a marked decrease in my inner monologues. A sense of spaciousness arises in my experience. I become distracted less frequently, and it’s easier to keep my awareness in the present moment.

Driving mindfully like this, I’m simultaneously aware of the curve of the road, of the vehicles ahead of me, and of the never-ending trees, buildings, signs, and utility poles that flow past me. My mind is quiet and yet full of sensory impressions. Then I notice a curious thing. I can see my hands on the steering wheel, at the 10 o’clock and two o’clock positions. I can see the steering wheel moving clockwise and counterclockwise, with my hands upon it. I can feel my hands and arms moving. And yet I have no sense that “I” am making these movements. I’m not aware of giving my hands and arms any conscious or explicit directions. They seem to be moving of their own volition. They seem to have minds of their own. And yet, they’re making precisely the movements needed in order to keep the car in its lane. There is an intelligence at work here, and yet it is not under conscious direction. The realization is fascinating, and it’s so hilarious that for the next few miles I keep bursting into laughter.

So who is driving the car? It’s certainly not my conscious self, because my conscious self has only just noticed that my hands are moving. My conscious self has been too busy absorbed in the task of being mindful of my driving to bother about such trivial details as the physical movements involved in, well, the act of driving. But now I’m captivated by those movements, observing in the periphery of my visual field these two hands skillfully moving the steering wheel to the left and right, without my intervention, as if the hands belong to someone else. Who is this stranger with whom I am sharing a driver’s seat, sharing a body? With deft finesse he coordinates the movements of my feet on the pedals and my right hand on the gear stick. It’s clearly my body which is involved in the act of driving, but my conscious mind—which I often identify with as being my “self”—doesn’t seem to be doing anything but observing.

In a way it’s rather spooky, this sense that “I” am not driving the car. It’s as though my conscious awareness is sharing a body with a zombie or robot who does most of the grunt work. It’s as if I’m both awake and sleepwalking at the same time. It’s like a kind of spirit-possession. I feel almost that I’m in the presence of another. Someone else is moving the steering wheel. Someone else is pressing the gas, brake, and clutch pedals. Someone else reaches down at the appropriate moment and slides the gear stick forward from fourth gear to third. The only reassuring thing about all this is that he seems to be a good driver.


Some people, who have experienced brain damage that prevents them from consciously seeing anything—that is, they are profoundly blind—can perform actions such as catching balls, weaving their way unerringly around obstacles in their path, and cleanly picking up objects. This phenomenon has been termed “blindsight” and it produces deeply paradoxical situations. Beatrice de Gelder, of Harvard Medical School and Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has a video of a blind man, “TN” successfully navigating a corridor littered with obstacles. TN is profoundly blind as the result of two strokes that destroyed his visual cortex. His eyes work, but his brain simply cannot process the visual information that it receives—or at least TN cannot become conscious of such visual information. And yet, in the video, we see him deftly threading his way past trash cans, a shredder, a camera tripod, and cartons of letter-sized paper. He moves exactly as a sighted person would—although a little more slowly—neatly avoiding every obstacle. And yet he cannot consciously see a single one of them.

Another patient, a woman called DF, became blindsighted after carbon monoxide poisoning from a broken water heater damaged her visual cortex. Like TN, she cannot consciously perceive shapes or objects. And yet she opens her fingers to the appropriate width when picking up an object, and she can twist her hand to the correct angle when asked to put it through a slot. She acts as if she can see, and yet she can’t.

Conscious awareness is clearly not involved with blindsighted individuals, yet they still process sensory information and respond to it. “Seeing” in this case is taking place in visual pathways that operate outside of conscious awareness. Blindsighted individuals such as these clearly act, and yet there is no conscious perception, nor are decisions to act being made with the involvement of conscious awareness. TN does not even know he is avoiding obstacles when maneuvering a cluttered corridor, and DF is unaware of how she “knows” to open her hand the right amount to pick up a cup one moment and a pencil the next.

The implication of these cases frankly sends a shiver down my spine. We are so used to thinking of our conscious self as having the functions of observing and deciding on actions that it’s a shock to realize the extent to which observing and acting can take place with no conscious involvement. We’re back to the inner zombie with whom we share a body—the stranger within who takes care of the driving while I’m busy being mindful. We think “we” are in control, but presumably the mechanisms that allow TN to maneuver through a cluttered corridor or DF to accurately grasp an object she cannot see operate in the rest of us too. We too respond to visual information being processed in channels of the brain not accessible to conscious awareness. We just don’t notice that this is going on. We’re caught up in the grip of the delusion that the conscious mind is in running the show.

Fully sighted individuals have in fact been shown to act without conscious perception taking place, and without decisions being made consciously. Mel Goodale of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, employs a perceptual trick that makes circular blocks of identical size look as if they’re different sizes. Subjects will invariably report after visual inspection that one block is larger than the other, and yet videotape shows that whichever block they reach to pick up, they open their hands to the same width. The conscious self is fooled by the optical illusion, but the body still responds appropriately. The conscious self may think it is acting in such cases, but it clearly isn’t. Where is the “self” in all this?