Monday, April 30, 2007

Self and brain

The last time I did zazen it was really very deep - there was almost no sense of self, only constantly shifting processes of sensation, feeling and thought. At one point the thought appeared that this was an unborn, undying state, neither eternal nor nonexistent, but free from birth and death.

I had just been reading a text, which had inspired me. But this wasn't a sutra or the writings of some mystic, it was a description of the issues surrounding consciousness and self from the perspective of neuroscience.

For some reason the author decided to write it from the perspective of a fiction person in the future.

...who's running the show? How does the brain, with its diverse and distributed functions, come to arrive at a unified sense of identity? "Soul" doesn't figure in the lexicon of neuroscience, but what about the soul's secular cousin, "self"? Could we speak of a person's brain without, ultimately, speaking of the person? Was the self merely the sum of its cerebral parts? The illusion of the ghost in the machine was compelling - the natural intuition that somewhere in the shadows of the brain there lurks an observing "I", an experiencer of experiences, thinker of thoughts and controller of actions.

This was hard to reconcile with the material facts (the vacant machinery that actually packs the skull) and it was plain to see that the mental operations underlying our sense of self - feelings, thoughts, memories - were dispersed throughout the brain. There was no homuncular assembly point where a little soul-pilot sat watching the dials of experience and pulling the levers of action. We were,
neuropsychologically speaking, all over the place. And anyway, who did we think was pulling the levers in the little soul-pilot's head? If we found a ghost in the machine we'd have to start looking for the machine in the ghost.

Belief in an inner essence, or central core, of personhood, was called "ego theory". The alternative, "bundle theory", made more neurological sense but offended our deepest intuitions. Too bad, I thought. We should learn to face facts. The philosopher Derek Parfit put it starkly: we are not what we believe ourselves to be. Actions and experiences are interconnected but ownerless. A human life consists of a long series - or bundle - of enmeshed mental states rolling like tumbleweed down the days and years, but with no one (no thing) at the centre. An embodied brain acts, thinks, has certain experiences, and that's all. There is no deeper fact about being a person. The enchanted loom of the brain does not require a weaver.

These discoveries and questions echo what has been taught in Buddhism for over two millenia - it's not exactly that the self doesn't exist, it's that rather than being an essence or something objectively real, it's a narrative that we tell ourselves and each other. In other words it is conventional truth rather than ultimate truth. Ultimately there are only processes in a constant state of change.

...Michael Gazzaniga, one of the great pioneers of cognitive neuroscience, pointed to a specialised left-hemisphere system - he called it "the Interpreter" - whose function was to wind disparate strands of brain function into a single thread of subjective experience. It worked by identifying patterns of activity across different brain modules and correlating these with events in the external world: it was a teller of tales. The minimal self gave us our sense of location and boundary, and our intuitions of agency - the feeling that we exercise
control over our actions. But these fundamentals of self-awareness were rather fragile constructs. Disturbances of temporal and parietal lobe function could cause profound dislocations of perception such as out-of-body experiences and autoscopic hallucinations (seeing one's body in extrapersonal space). Damage to the frontal lobes could disturb the sense of agency, with limbs developing a recalcitrant will of their own.

The extended self, too, was neurologically fragile. It could be gradually dismantled by dementia, or shattered by a sudden viral attack, the story of the self dissolved with the dissolution of memory. In contrast, a deep-brain stroke or injury to the frontal lobes could leave memory unaffected but recalibrate the machineries of emotion and temperament. The story continued, but the central character had changed beyond recognition. Sometimes the brain's story-telling mechanism itself broke down, resulting in the confabulation of fictional, often fantastical, autobiographical distortions. As science writer John McCrone put it, we are all just a stumble or burst blood vessel away from being someone else. Selfhood is malleable. That was the message.

The Big Questions: What is consciousness?

When I first came across these sorts of ideas as a psychology and philosophy undergraduate, I found them deeply disconcerting. It was one of the things that drew me to Buddhism - Derek Parfit was perhaps the last straw - I endeavored to find a positive and harmonious way of existing in this 'void' of no-self. But now such descriptions are a source of inspiration.


At May 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Self seems to be a binary thing - it is either their or not. They key thing is a sense of identity coupled with the first-person observer "this is happening to/in ME". That is one step removed.

If the sensations are arising and departing in their own right - they exist rather than "they are happening to me" then that is the absence of Self.

The absensce of Self is no more a state than the presence of Self is a state.

If there is aboslutely no trace of self and involvement is complete then it is also unlikely that memory of the events will be laid down. If the involvement is not total then a hard-to-recall memory will be laid down.

Memory writing requires an observer to catalog and reduce an experience down into a set of concepts which are a subset of the full experience. Memory writing can also only happen if capacity is available to write it. If FULL attention is paid there is no capacity left to write memory and so nothing is written.

Full attention also leads to a sense of timelessness where there is no perception of time passing just of a moment elapsed. Again, the concept of time requires an observer to monitor 'change' and this also requires capacity.

At May 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A good example is sleep. Depending on where you are in practice at night you will be aware of dreams or of the sensation of being in bed or whatever and will be aware of continuity. You might also be aware of gaps in the continuity. These gaps are the equivalent of an observer being absent.

An observer is nothing more than part of the brain cataloging what the rest of the brain/body is doing.

At May 01, 2007, Blogger Anatman said...

Great commentary, Justin, thanks for that. This quote hits home for me: "we are all just a stumble or burst blood vessel away from being someone else. Selfhood is malleable."

In my early days of questioning "conventional" Christian concepts of self and soul, I learned about Alzheimer's disease and asked, "Which is the REAL grandpa that will go to heaven: the grandpa that could not recognize/remember any of his loved ones? Or the grandpa that was a healthy, lively man with a sense of humor? If the latter, then why not the grandpa that was a gurgling, pre-verbal infant?"

MikeDoe, your comments about memory writing are also great food for thought. I realize this is a bit like asking the outcome of a fight between Superman and Mighty Mouse, but if your suggestion about memory writing is correct, would that imply that the Buddha had no memory?

At May 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Interesting question. Why don't you ask him?

The memory writing ideas are not mine per-se but are from current research on the brain. Some people with brain damage can also fail to lay down any memories even if stuff exists in short-term memory.
You can also confirm from your own pratice that sometimes meditation can be timeless - you are aware that you started and you are aware that you finished but you are not the least bit certain about the bit in the middle.

I'm not sure that living in such a way full-time would be helpful. Memory is a useful tool that exists so that we can do things like return to food and water and recognise friends and enemies but it is not necessary for everything. There is probably not a need to remember every conversation that you ever have (unless you are married).

Usually the brain has capacity left for memory writing. Nothing less than intense awareness/concentration is required. Some texts do talk about living so that no trace remains but you have to decide if this is something worth doing.

OBTW I have over-simplified tremendously. ;-)

At May 02, 2007, Blogger me said...

Nice & good comment about the grandpa!

A beefier question: what is the point? why should we spend so much time & interest with the ultimate truth of all things being ever changing processes? Don't we, at best, just use this knowledge to "think" about the practical reality we live in?

I like knowing & thinking about these things - but notice, it's "I" that likes it.

At May 02, 2007, Blogger Jinzang said...

Memory writing requires an observer to catalog and reduce an experience down into a set of concepts which are a subset of the full experience.

I don't see how this follows. Animals do not have abstract, conceptul thought, but they certainly have memories.

At May 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Animals do have a sense of self / an observer. Animals do have abstract thought.

An animal can find a path to water or know where to go for food or know where the bounds of their territory are.

All these are abstract things and require that the animal differentiate between the immediate moment and some future objective (thirst satisfaction) and plan a route through territory unseen. Such a plan requires that the animal be aware that 'they' are 'here' and need to be 'there'.

When I had cats they had favourite places in the house and knew how to indicate to me their desire for food or affection or whatever. They also knew where the cat bowl would be and at roughly what time.

All these are abstract concepts. They do not need conceptual thinking.

The purpose of the observer is to allow the animal (or us) to relate to the environment in a way that allows interaction with the environment.

If I treat this PC as pure visual sensations I am unable to interact with the PC. If however I treat the visual sensations as representing an objec that exists in a 3D space then I can interpret that sense to determine that the object exists at some distance relative to myself and I can change my body position (and again interpret certain senses to indicate body position) and act accordingly.

An observer is in fact an ongoing interpetation of the senses to construct a model of the present environment in a way that allows interaction.

I can interact with this PC in many ways without needing to label it as a PC or define it's memory capacity. For example I could throw it accross the room. Such an action requires no abstract thought about the object beyond the fact that it exists and is not me.

Without the observer (interpreting) of sensory stimuli then all that exists is sensory stimuli. There is no distinction between 'internal' and 'external' stimuli because such a concept requires an observer function.

At May 03, 2007, Blogger Jinzang said...

Just because a task requires abstract thought if engaged in by me does not mean that it requires abstract thought if engaged in by animals. My Tom Tom navigates perfectly well between points, but does not engage in abstract thought. Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico each winter, but do not engage in abstract thought.

Placing an interpretation on sensa, such as an object's distance, size, and so forth, likewise does not require abstract thought. You will flinch if something is thrown at you, interpeting the object as a danger, but this is an unconscious and involuntary reaction.

Memories are not always of abstractions. I recently moved and my new place has a gas stove. I quickly recognized the odor of gas, even though I had not smelled it in more than thirty years. I did not recognize it through any abstract notion of gas, it was the vivid sensation of the smell of gas that was in my momory.

At May 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All memories are abstractions (or for memory condensed summaries of reality)

In the case of the smell of gas [I suspet] that has with it a strong sense of danger and that sense of danger produces a strong memory.

However, if something smelt a bit like gas you would still evoke the same memory.

Where strong emotions are linked to memory the memory tends to be very rich and broad - all the senses are captured and 'stored'.
Retrieving these memories also invariably recreates the same emotions.

You are I am sure familiar with the Tray experiment where things are placed on a tray and you are asked to remember them. People can in fact remember about 7 conceptual things in short-term memory and much more in picture memory.

I'm not sure if anyone has done a tray experiment where part of the test is to tamper with one of the items to replace it with a similar but not identical one to see what would happen.

I don't think it is wise to compare software and brains. Software was written by people to perform a specific tasks. Brains are effectively self-written. There is some functionality hard-wired in to most brains and a large chunk left for user programming. That chunk is smaller as you move to more primitive animals.

Your Tom-Tom can get you from A-B unless there is a road-block or it's map is out of date. Then you have to intervene. A cat would adapt.

Very small creatures such as butterflies, ants, spiders and so on do seem to be much closer to automata than sentience. They seem to have brains that are more like primitive computers following simple algorithms - maybe the butterfly keeps his left wing hot and flies in that direction.

There are also several types of memories that are laid down.

Memories that have no emotional content associated with them tend to be quite weak (where did I put my keys) but can be laid down more clearly by paying attention to the act of placing the keys - observing extra keenly.

Memories that have strong emotional content (and this emotional content is usually tied in with a sense of identity) the memory will be strong and rich with lots of details stored.

Vast tracts of my married life are not available for recall but some events are.

I define abstract as when a token is manipulated to represent something rather than the thing being manipulated directly. If I imagine the act of typing that is an abstraction.


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