April 14, 2013
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After having read an article on PsyPost‘s website the other day about how scientists have recently induced phantom sensations in non-amputess, I had quite a strong intuitive sense that this study – if tweaked and modified – might actually show how the notion of a separate, independent “self” just as easily comes about in human beings.
I have already discussed a fair bit about the notion of an apparently separate and independent “self” in the two essays entitled “Exploring The Idea, Or Notion, Of A Self -Part 1” and “Exploring The Idea, Or Notion, Of A Self – Part 2“.
In the later of these two essays I try to show how the experience of a separate and independent “self” comes about by making an analogy to the “Kanizsa Triangle”:just as this triangle is not actually there, rather it is only hinted/suggested at to the mind by using three carefully positioned circles (each with slices taken out of them) and three lines (in the shape of arrow heads). Similarly so to does the notion of a separate and independent “self” arise from the five senses… These organs relating to the five senses, being attached to one body, usually correlate all the sensory data of the world around that body into one uniformed temporal experience.
This harmony of experience between the senses, in turn, creates the illusion of an independent and separate “self” that experiences everything in a slightly different manner to “everyone else”. Chapter 1 of Betrand Russell’s book, entitled “The Problems of Philosophy”, demonstrates how appearance and reality never actually appear exactly the same to any two bodies experiencing it. This is because no two bodies/beings can ever experience exactly the same aspects of the table in exactly the same way that the other can. Thus, when one body/being debates with the other about the specifics of the table in question, they will never be able to agree exactly on their experience of the table. This is because they might well experience the table at different times of day and, thus, one may see it at night, observing the varnished surface gleaming under the electric light, while the other might well see it during the day time and so experience the colours of the wood underneath the varnish more vibrantly. Either way, neither of these two experiences of the table is any less correct or vibrant than the other.
As such, when these two bodies/beings debate with one another about the table in question’s actual appearance, their linguistic syntax naturally must sets up the notion of “I” and “you”, so as to discriminate and discern between the different points of view that each of the two bodies/beings have in relation to the table, so as to clearly separate them from each other’s views. This linguistic syntax, when used commonly enough in everyday life, can set up the apparent notion of a seemingly independent and relative “self” i.e. my view is different to your view of the table, thus, we are separate and different from each other.
However, when view the whole experience (which includes the table and the two bodies/beings debating their experiences of the table) from the greater totality of experience derived from the processes that brought everything into being, then we can clearly see that we are all interdependent and arise as part of a whole i.e. we all arise from the greater karmic patterns and processes that brought these two bodies/beings (and the table) into being. When one starts looking at all phenomena i.e. these subtle and grosser biochemical patterns and processes that are all going on around us, we will not be able to find anything that is totally independent and separate from everything else.
Only when we use language without being mindful of the greater interdependent nature of our mind streams with and all phenomena around us will we fall into deluded notions of separate and “selfish ways”. If we continue to use syntax that seems to only expound our own separate experiences of the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum – using “I” for our “self” and using “you”, “them”, etc… for everyone else – will we begin to propagate a perceptual illusion of a separate and independent “self”.
Just as with the following article, entitled “Scientists Create Phantom Sensations In Non-Amputees”, we are clearly shown that scientists can transfer the sense of touch, within less than a minute, to a region of empty space where they only see the paintbrush move over. As the subject’s mind/brain/body/environmental continuum is continually combining the all the temporally related sensations into one correlated and unified experiential understanding, their brains clearly make errors and propagate delusions of mind. Saying that, there are reasonable limits to the delusions we can experience. For example, the studies clearly show that we are not able to replace, say, a block of wood with our own hand… And thankfully so. But we are nonetheless able to relate our experience of something that is invisible to our sense of sight as part of our own body.
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Scientists Create Phantom Sensations In Non-Amputees
The sensation of having a physical body is not as self-evident as one might think. Almost everyone who has had an arm or leg amputated experiences a phantom limb: a vivid sensation that the missing limb is still present.
A new study by neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden shows that it is possible to evoke the illusion of having a phantom hand in non-amputated individuals.
In an article in the scientific periodical Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, the researchers describe a perceptual illusion in which healthy volunteers experience having an invisible hand. The experiment involves the participant sitting at a table with their right arm hidden from their view behind a screen. To evoke the illusion, the scientist touches the right hand of the participant with a small paintbrush while imitating the exact movements with another paintbrush in mid-air within full view of the participant.
“We discovered that most participants, within less than a minute, transfer the sensation of touch to the region of empty space where they see the paintbrush move, and experience an invisible hand in that position,” says Arvid Guterstam, lead author of the study. “Previous research has shown that non-bodily objects, such as a block of wood, cannot be experienced as one’s own hand, so we were extremely surprised to find that the brain can accept an invisible hand as part of the body.”
The study comprises eleven experiments that explore in detail the illusory experience and include 234 volunteers. To demonstrate that the illusion actually worked, the researchers would make a stabbing motion with a knife towards the empty space “occupied” by the invisible hand and measure the participant’s sweat response to the perceived threat. They found that the participants’ stress responses were elevated while experiencing the illusion but absent when the illusion was broken. In another experiment, the volunteers were asked to close their eyes and quickly point with their left hand to their right hand (or to where they perceived it to be). After having experienced the illusion for a while, they would point to the location of the invisible hand rather than to their real hand.
The researchers also measured the brain activity of the participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Perceiving the invisible hand illusion led to increased activity in the same parts of the brain that are normally active when individuals see their real hand being touched or when participants experience a prosthetic hand as their own.
“Taken together, our results show that the sight of a physical hand is remarkably unimportant to the brain for creating the experience of one’s physical self,” says Arvid Guterstam.
The researchers hope that the results of their study will offer insight into future research on phantom pain in amputees.
“This illusion suggests that the experience of phantom limbs is not unique to amputated individuals, but can easily be created in non-amputees,” says the principal investigator, Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, docent at the Department of Neuroscience. “These results add to our understanding of how phantom sensations are produced by the brain, which can contribute to future research on alleviating phantom pain in amputees.”
The study was funded by the European Research Council, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, the Human Frontier Science Program, the McDonnell Foundation, and Söderbergska Stiftelsen.
Taken from the Karolinska Institutet
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I propose that this experiment – if radically adjusted – would also be able to clearly show how easily, through all the years of using linguistic syntax to ‘seemingly’ separate out our own experiences in life from everyone else’s (therefore allowing us all to think of our own experiences as independent and separate realities), we can create delusions/illusions of our bodies being totally separate and independent from the world in which we live. These delusions/illusions cause a separation of mind that, in turn, give rise to a fundamental misunderstanding about the very nature of reality itself. This delusion (created from many arising illusions) propagate “selfish” tendencies and other negative patterns of Being that can only propagate continual suffering and negative activities, all of which prevent us from halting any of our endeavours that pollute the environment in which we live and, in turn, cause more suffering and damage to other sentient beings living here on Earth with us.
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As always, these inspirations come from notions of “self-similarity” that arise directly from my own relative experiences that I have had over the course of my life-time so far. As always, I ask that everyone who reads these experiences only take them as they are meant: experiences from another body/being, to be tested and debated.
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To find out where I originally read this article, please click here.
OR to find out where I sourced the above article from, please click here.
July 18, 2012
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The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.
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While the first part of this exposé on the notion of a ‘self’ discussed how the idea of my own individual ‘self,’ as a distinct and separate entity that (at least in the present social context of most Western understanding) seems to be independently existent aside from everything else outside of it, might – in actual fact – only be an illusory conceptualisation that had been derived from our use of language and fragmented academic understandings (about what we are and what we are not) that aim to separate the world into definable and distinctly measurable/quantifiable parts… Part 2 will focus on the idea of how our senses (which I will parallel with the idea lying behind a particular optical illusion) form the notion of a “self”… When viewed in this way, it poses the question of whether the notion of our “selves” is actually merely just an illusion and, thus, begets whether or not we should be bypassing all and any certainty that we may have that the “self” actually does exist as a separate and independent entity from everything else. Just as a mirage in a desert can fool the thirsty person who perceives it to be a real body of water… Running forward without ever reaching it to quench their thirst… So to can the notion of a ‘self’ be seen as a type of mirage that causes us to function in such a way that is not in line with the true nature of reality.
Certainly we can all – to varying degrees – perceive the world around us using these bio-molecular bodies that we all have come into (I will not doubt this point here, as Descartes did, mainly because other philosophers have adequately covered the ground of this seemingly futile question well enough for me for the moment). Through these bodies, we find our “selves” in near proximity to all that we immediately experience going on around us. It is as though we are continually immersed in all the activity that is directly going on around us, seeing it only from the locality of our own body’s perspective. This is because we perceive all the things/objects/events in our lives via our senses i.e. sight with eyes, hearing through our ears, tasting with our tongues, scents through our noses, touching with our bodies… And as each of our senses are derived from and associated with the various organs we just described, all of which are directly attached to our bodies, is it any wonder that rarely do we see things from the perspective of another body? Our perceptions don’t just easily re-tune into what another person is seeing from their seemingly separate bodily perspective. Thus, on the whole, “I” tend to perceive the world around me exactly as though my very body were the central hub from which all interaction with the outside surrounding world happened. And it is because of this proximity to everything around us that “I” mostly always feel to be embedded right in the middle of ‘my’ body.
So… Is it really any wonder that we perceive our “selves” to be separate independent entities that exist separately from one another, and/or as separately from everything else going on around us? Still… Despite the obvious answer to this question, I would nonetheless like to further expound on the seemingly absurd notion that the “self”, appearing to be independent of everything else around it, actually isn’t… And I aim to make my point by means of drawing a parallel between a well-known optical illusion and the idea of the senses forming an illusion of “self.”
By doing this, I hope not to disprove that the “self” exists at all… Rather my aim is to help us re-equate the notion of our “self” into a softer and more gentle fit for the present world around us i.e. as a designated notion of how our body – along with its feelings, emotions, thoughts, opinions, desires, etc… – can be described as an entity that is different from another’s for the purpose of describing our experiences separately.
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As some of you may already know… I have a tendency to call myself a Buddhist most of the time… Though I dare say that I have quite a bit of trouble walking the path of one nearly all the time. Still, I do my best, and on the whole, whenever some free-time presents itself, I enjoy reading as much as I can about the subject and how it relates back to some of the thoughts that I have while reading about scientific modes of inquiry into what consciousness might actually be.
As it happened, yesterday I was reading about how our consciousness is apparently connected to the world that we perceive around us via a website called the “Mind Lab.” On it, I came across four beautifully presented sessions that aim to investigate and demonstrate how our brain perceives everyday phenomena, as well as how there are in fact clear limits to what and how we can perceive these daily phenomena. While these limits might not be easily noticed by many of us, they nonetheless exist and very much influence the way in which we perceive and understand the world around us.
For the purposes of this entry, I would like to focus on the last session of the “Mind Lab” website, where we are presented with a well known illusion called the Kanizsa Triangle (see diagram immediately below). The Kanizsa Triangle was named after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa who first described its effect.
When you look at the above image your brain creates contours (outlines) of a triangle, even though one does not actually exist. In reality it is simply an illusion created by the the wedges and angles that exist in the image. To further this, on the “Mind Lab” website, in the session on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input”, we are told that:
“The brain sometimes perceives shapes and colours even in situations where there is no corresponding sensory input coming from the outside world.”
“For example (in the image directly above), you should see the missing sections of these dark disks as the sides of a square that is brighter than its surroundings, and even be able to see the vague contour lines of a square that doesn’t actually exist.
“When the brain sees an image like this, it interprets depth relationships to perceive that ‘there is a square set on top of four black disks.’”
The article on “Perception Beyond Sensory Input” then goes on to say, “these non-existent subjective contours can also occur with colour.” We are then presented with two more diagrams that illustrate illusions of this type and, are conclusively, lead to believe “that these subjective contours and colours are constructed by the brain to compensate for missing sensory information.”
Through out the rest of the piece we are presented with various examples that show us how our brain and mind automatically interpret things about the world around us, thus making assumptions about things that appear to be there when, in fact, they are not.
While reading through this section of the “Mind Lab” website, it dawned on me that the “self” came across as something very similar to the points (or disks) seen in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion that suggested to the brain/mind that there was a triangle present. But rather than graphical points in a diagram, when I began looking at what the “self” was, these points became points of a nexus of experiential phenomena that suggested the presence of a contained “self” – or an “I” – that resided in geographical proximity to each other, at the centre of a distinct and seemingly separate body i.e. our physical body.
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In order to make my point clearer, I would like to elaborate on a Buddhist idea that I recently came across called the “Five Skandhas” relating to the nature of compounded reality.
It should be noted here that Buddhism is not a religion in the classical sense i.e. it does not have a centralised omnipotent or omnipresent God or series of Gods that can be worshiped or appeased. Rather, Buddhism is based around the teachings of one man, a man who became the Gautama Buddha, or an enlightened being. And, as one does when ones achieves perfect realisation (so I’m told), he became perfectly aware of the true nature of reality and of all compounded phenomena that give rise to experience and karma.
No doubt, as the Buddha himself stated on several occasions, he was only ever truly just a man… A man who had strived to understand the world around him as best as he could in order to help all beings achieve a state of non-suffering, or Nirvana… And in doing so, he had severed all ties to the Karmic patterns of being that had kept him locked into daily routines of unenlightened activity so as to help other beings achieve the ultimate state of realisation that he had attained. Thus, rather than achieving enlightenment through supernatural means, he had merely learnt many helpful techniques from all the learned masters he had met during his lifetime (and previous lives). Then, along with much diligence, he had practised all these techniques with immeasurable devotion until he became a fully enlightened being.
I suppose I find strong parallels between how the Gautama Buddha learnt these techniques of liberation from all the Karmic patterns of his own making, as well as of those of other learned masters, AND how scientific methods of inquiry looking into phenomena so as to figure out how all the facets of the bigger picture fit into together and work around one another… Just as the Buddha strove to see things clearly and perfectly, without any dis-figuration or misunderstanding, in order to crystallise them into a naturally formed primordial experience devoid of any need for description or intellectualism, so too does science strive to see things clearly and perfectly without dis-figuration or misunderstanding (although without loosing the need for description or intellectualism). Perhaps this is why an eminent Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, wrote in his book, entitled “The Joy Of Living”, Buddhism “is a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a non-judgmental way…” While looking into the idea of what the “self” was, it was this particular quote that encouraged me to see the parallel between the concept behind an optical illusion (the Kanizsa Triangle) and the Buddhist idea of “non-self.”
Bearing this in mind… The Buddhist idea that I would like to have a look at to illustrate my point about how similar certain ‘optical’ illusions are to the notion of “non-self” is the principle of the ‘skandhas.’ The skandhas (which is Sanskrit) are any of five types of phenomena that serve as objects of ‘clinging’ and bases for a sense of ‘self.’ The historical Buddha often spoke of the “Five Skandhas,” also called the “Five Aggregates” or the “Five Heaps,” and taught that nothing among them is really ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ The skandhas, very roughly, might be thought of as components that come together to make an individual. Every thing that we think of as ‘I’ is a function of the skandhas. Put another way, we might think of an individual as a process of the skandhas (just in the same way that the points and angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion ‘suggest’ the presence of a triangle).
When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he began with the first Truth, life is ‘dukkha.’ This is often translated as ‘life is suffering,’ or ‘stressful’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ But it is also well documented in Buddhism that the Buddha also used the word to mean ‘impermanent’ and ‘conditioned.’ To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. The Buddha taught that the skandhas were dukkha.
The component parts of the skandhas work together in such a seamless way that they create the sense of a single ‘self,’ or a notion of ‘I’ (much like the points and angles do in the Kanizsa Triangle when our body observes it). Despite this single sense of an isolated ‘self,’ the Buddha taught that there is no ‘self’ occupying the skandhas (much like there is actually no triangle present in the Kanizsa Triangle). Thus, in Buddhism, developing a deep understanding the skandhas is extremely helpful to seeing through the illusion of ‘self.’
Please note that, while the explanation provided here is very basic, it is suitable to demonstrate how the five senses come together to produce a sense of ‘I’ and/or ‘self.’ Also, it should be noted that the various schools of Buddhism understand the skandhas somewhat differently from one another, so if you were to read more about them you may find that the teachings of one school don’t exactly match the teachings of another.
In a moment I’ll discuss how the Six Organs/Senses or Faculties relate to the Five Skandas. But before I do this, I would like to individually list the Six Organs/Senses, along with their corresponding objects, so that we might get a clearer view of what they are exactly in Buddhist terms.
The Six Sense Organs or Faculties are:
The Six Corresponding Objects to the Sense Organs are (respectively):
1. Visible form
5. Tangible things
6. Thoughts and ideas
Next I will discuss the Five Skandas and how they relate to the Six Sense Organs or Faculties.
1. The First Skandha: Form (Rupa)
Rupa is form or matter; something material that can be sensed. In early Buddhist literature, rupa includes the Four Great Elements (solidity, fluidity, heat, and motion) and their derivatives. These derivatives are the first five faculties listed above (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body) and the first five corresponding objects (visible form, sound, odor, taste, tangible things).
Another way to understand rupa is to think of it as something that resists the probing of the senses. For example, an object has form if it blocks your vision – you can’t see what’s on the other side of it – or if it blocks your hand from occupying its space.
2. The Second Skandha: Sensation (Vedana)
Vedana is physical or mental sensation that we experience through contact of the six faculties with the external world. In other words, it is the sensation experienced through the contact of eye with visible form, ear with sound, nose with odour, tongue with taste, body with tangible things, mind (manas) with ideas or thoughts.
It is particularly important to understand that manas – mind – in the skandhas is a sense organ or faculty, just like an eye or an ear. We tend to think that mind is something like a spirit or soul, but that concept is very out of place in Buddhism.
Because vedana is the experience of pleasure or pain, it conditions craving, either to acquire something pleasurable or avoid something painful.
3. The Third Skandha: Perception (Samjna, or in Pali, Sanna)
Samjna is the faculty that recognizes. Most of what we call thinking fits into the aggregate of samjna.
The word “samjna” means “knowledge that puts together.” It is the capacity to conceptualize and recognize things by associating them with other things. For example, we recognize shoes as shoes because we associate them with our previous experience(s) with shoes.
When we see something for the first time, we invariably flip through our mental index cards to find categories we can associate with the new object. It’s “some kind of tool with a red handle,” for example, putting the new thing in the categories “tool” and “red.” Or, we might associate an object with its context – we recognize a machine as a car because we see them regularly on the roads around us.
4. The Fourth Skandha: Mental Formation (Samskara, or in Pali, Sankhara)
All volitional actions, good and bad, are included in the aggregate of mental formations. How are actions “mental” formations? As is stated in the first lines of the dhammapada (Acharya Buddharakkhita translation):
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”
The aggregate of mental formations is associated with karma, because volitional acts create karma. Samsara also contains latent karma that conditions our attitudes and predilections. Biases and prejudices belong to this skandha, as do interests and attractions.
5. The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness (Vijnana, or in Pali, Vinnana)
Vijnana is a reaction that has one of the six faculties as its basis and one of the six corresponding phenomena as its object. For example, aural consciousness – hearing – has the ear as its basis and a sound as its object. Mental consciousness has the mind (manas) as its basis and an idea or thought as its object.
It is important to understand that consciousness depends on the other skandhas and does not exist independently from them. It is an awareness but not a recognition, as recognition is a function of the third skandha. This awareness is not sensation, which is the second skandha. For most of us in the West, this is a very different way to think about “consciousness.”
It is also important to remember that vijnana is not “special” or “above” the other skandhas. It is not the “self.” It is the action and interaction of all five skandhas that create the illusion of a ‘self…’ This is much like Kalu Rinpoche discusses in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness” when he discusses tendrel in relation to what actually makes the sound of a bell.
As a buffer to this idea… I’d like to highlight an exert from a book that I have been reading, entitled “No Self, No Problem.”
We identify with our body made of flesh, bones, and other components and therefore we believe that we are material, substantial, and concrete. This understanding has become so embedded in our belief system that we rarely question it. The results of that are the inevitable conditions of old age, sickness, and death. We acquire these conditions simply out of believing that we are this physical body. We always pay a high price when we believe false ideas. This perception is not just held individually; it is held dearly by the collective mind of society and has been for many generations. That is why it is so strongly entrenched in our psyche. Our normal, everyday perception of each other is governed by this false identity and then strengthened and enforced by the language we use.
At a very early age we are indoctrinated into this notion of self as the body. For example when we see a small child we say, “He is beautiful. I love his hair. she has the cutest eyes.” Through thoughts and comments such as these we are planting the seeds of this mistaken identity. Of course there is nothing wrong with giving compliments. It is much better than criticism. However it is still a form of misconception. The truth is that, independent of any characteristics, a child is inherently beautiful the moment she is born. So we are are all beautiful.
We are living in an age when people are disconnected from their true identity and this false perception is validated from every angle. Everyone is craving a perfect body and seeking it in others. For example, when you go to the grocery store you see magazines displaying pictures of men and women in a perfect and idealized youthful form. It is very difficult to resist these messages. They come from everywhere, all aspects of society, and they validate this sense of mistaken identity. They validate the sense that this body is who we really are. Given the tendency to establish a perfect idealized standard, many people suffer from pride, narcissism, arrogance, shame, guilt, and self-hatred because of their relationship with their body and their ability or inability to reflect this perfect standard.
Every moment when we wake up and look into the mirror there is a voice in our mind that is constantly judging us and others according to this standard. Have you ever noticed that? Our mind is always judging: “Oh, another wrinkle. She is too fat. He is strange looking. She is beautiful. He is handsome.” These judgements not only create a stumbling block on our spiritual path, they also create clouds of negativity in our consciousness and keep us firmly chained in the prison of duality.
But there is no need to hold onto this. There is the possibility of transcending this identification with our body in each and every moment. It is only when we drop all of these judgements that we will recognize that everyone is divine in their uniqueness. Egoic mind is always comparing self with others because it believes itself to be a separate entity and it uses the body as the divine line between self and others.
We are nonmaterial. We are insubstantial. We are not like a tale that eventually breaks down. The very essence of who we are goes beyond the conditions of decay and impermanence. Yes, our body is impermanent but our true nature is not impermanent. Our true nature is deathless and divine, transcending all imperfections. Because of this we are all equal, we are all one. Nobody is better or worse than anybody else. When someone manifests their true nature, they live out of love, kindness, and joy. They inflict less pain on others. When we meditate, sooner or later we discover that this is not just abstract theory. This corresponds to the truth, to reality.
by Anam Thubten
I hope that here you can now begin to see how the notion of a ‘self’ might comes about, as well as how it relates to an illusionary triangle that is suggested in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion. Just as the three disks and three angles in the Kanizsa Triangle illusion sit within proximity to each other in the diagram to suggest a triangle, so too do the six sense organs join together by way of the body via the 5 skandhas to produce a notion of a “self” or “I.”
I should highlight here that I am in no way suggesting that our “self” does not actually exist… Neither am I saying that it is certainly and independently existent of everything else. Rather I am suggesting that, in a relative sense, the “self” is related to many interdependent phenomena and, so, it should be obvious how the notion of our “self” is not independently existing away from everything/anything else around us i.e. the understanding that we are independent entities is actually a flawed perspective… In reality, everything is interconnected to everything else in a long chain-mail of causes and effects.
When we truly begin to understand this perspective, all the separate aspects of “self” and “other” merge into a unifying whole. What exactly happens at this point is somewhat beyond me as, while I can fairly clearly grasp the conceptual idea lying behind the negation of a certain and independent ‘self’, I find it possibly to be one of the hardest and most problematic notions to actually embrace into my being and way of living… I presume this is because ‘I’ am riddled with all sorts socially accepted forms of memetic vagaries and ideals, all of which relate very strongly and concisely to my living in a highly capitalist and consumerist society, the roots of which appear to be so deeply entrenched in my being that it somewhat reminds me of how I clear out the flower beds around my home from all the “creeping buttercup” that comes back each year… Every effort made to remove this invasive and vivacious plant from my garden’s boarders – even if almost all of the tiny/minuscule roots are removed (and, trust me, removing them all is near on an impossible task) – so as to prevent it strangling the other flowers that lie in the beds, is only as good as partially doing the job that is needed… Just one small part of a root left unwittingly in the bed ensures that the “buttercup” will come back the following year. In many ways, in order to take a decent go at negating my ‘self-ish’ tendencies, I would need to totally remove my ‘Being’ from the daily bombardment of advertising and business that I am presently immersed in, as well as taking solace away from usual social engagements and enactments, all of which would be much like one removing all the contaminated soil in and around the surrounding area to get rid of every last piece of the overbearing buttercup. No doubt it is a problem to develop a more attune sense of ‘self’ in a culture that ubiquitously embraces the ‘self’ as a justified and certain way of understanding and being.
Perhaps the only answer is to remove myself further from this culture’s pervasive and ‘self-ish’ embrace on my psyche? Or perhaps I should find a master to help me progress beyond this point at which I find myself stuck… And allow me to let go of my polarised views of what is right or wrong and so embrace all that simply is as it is… ? As emptiness… ?
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To find out more about Anam Thubten Rinpoche’s book, from Rinpoche himself, please click here.
August 25, 2011
I’ve recently been researching a particular topic… One that concerns aspects about what ‘I’ am… Or, rather, what my ‘self’ is… And while on this hunt for my ‘self,’ I’ve noticed that quite a few scientific publications have also decided to write about this anomaly. Here’s one that I’d like to share with you… One that I read in the New Scientist a couple of months ago about how Buddhism and science are beginning to see eye to eye… Good news, I think!
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What Is The Self
IT’S THERE when we wake up and slips away when we fall asleep, maybe to reappear in our dreams. It’s that feeling we have of being anchored in a body we own and control and perceive the world from within. It’s the feeling of personal identity that stretches across time, from our first memories, via the here and now, to some imagined future. It’s all of these tied into a coherent whole. It’s our sense of self.
Humans have pondered the nature of the self for millennia. Is it real or an illusion? And if real, what is it, and where do we find it?
Different philosophical traditions have reached radically different conclusions. At one extreme is the Buddhist concept of “no self”, in which you are merely a fleeting collection of thoughts and sensations. At the other are dualist ideas, most recently associated with the philosopher Karl Popper and Nobel laureate and neuroscientist John Eccles. They argued that the self exists as a separate “field” which interacts with and controls the brain.
Modern science, if anything, is leaning towards Buddhism. Our sense of self is not an entity in its own right, but emerges from general purpose processes in the brain.
Seth Gillihan and Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have proposed a view of the self that has three strands: the physical self (which arises from our sense of embodiment); the psychological self (which comprises our subjective point-of-view, our autobiographical memories and the ability to differentiate between self and others); and a higher level sense of agency, which attributes the actions of the physical self to the psychological self (Psychological Bulletin, vol 131, p 76).
We are now uncovering some of the brain processes underlying these strands. For instance, Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and colleagues have shown that the physical sense of self is centred on the temporo-parietal cortex. It integrates information from your senses to create a sense of embodiment, a feeling of being located in a particular body in a particular place. That feeling can be spectacularly disrupted if the temporo-parietal cortex receives contradictory inputs, causing it to generate out-of-body experiences (New Scientist, 10 October 2009, p 34).
Being in charge
It is proving harder to find the site of our sense of agency – that feeling of being in charge of our actions. In one functional MRI study volunteers with joysticks moved images around on a computer screen. When the volunteer felt he had initiated the action, the brain’s anterior insula was activated but the right inferior parietal cortex lit up when the volunteer attributed the action to the experimenter (Neuroimage, vol 15, p 596).
But other researchers, using different experiments, have identified many more brain regions that seem to be responsible for the sense of agency.
Within the brain, it seems, the self is both everywhere and nowhere. “If you make a list [for what's needed for a sense of self], there is hardly a brain region untouched,” says cognitive philosopher Thomas Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Metzinger interprets this as meaning the self is an illusion. We are, he says, fooled by our brains into believing that we are substantial and unchanging. Mental disorders also make it abundantly clear that this entity that we regard as inviolate is not so. For example, those suffering from schizophrenia harbour delusions that experiences and thoughts are being implanted in their brain by someone or something else. “In some sense, it’s a disorder of the self, because these people are doing things, but they are not feeling as if they themselves are doing them,” says Anil Seth of the University of Sussex in the UK. “That’s a disorder of agency.”
Another striking condition is depersonalisation disorder, in which people feel a persistent sense of detachment from their body and thoughts. Even the narrative we have of ourselves as children growing up, becoming adults and growing old, which is carefully constructed from our bank of autobiographical memories, is error prone. Studies have shown that each time we recall an episode from our past, we remember the details differently, thus altering ourselves (Physics of Life Reviews, vol 7, p 88).
So the self, despite its seeming constancy and solidity, is constantly changing. We are not the same person we were a year ago and we will be different tomorrow or a year from now. And the only reason we believe otherwise is because the brain does such a stellar job of pulling the wool over our eyes.
by Anil Ananthaswamy
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To find out where I originally sourced this New Scientist article from, please click here.
And to find out more about the author, Anil Ananthaswamy, please click here.
OR visit the author’s website… Please click here.
April 22, 2011
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Knowing others is wisdom… Knowing yourself is enlightenment.
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This is the first part of a series of blogs that I mentioned would be coming… The ones where I was going to do my best to present several ideas which aptly demonstrated that the notion of a ‘self’, a notion which we all seem to cling to so ardently in life, is really nothing more than a sort of grand illusion of consciousness conjured up by the biochemically ‘aware’ molecular systems of our bodies, which – if you’re a human being (or even a bird, perhaps) – use a vocalized type of memetic linguistic patterning to confer ideas, notions, emotions, warnings and/or other data to one another within social groups of a similar species… As it happens, these memes also evolve in a very similar way to the physical bodies that we presently use to convey all these ideas/memes with (after all, we do live in a fractal like universe)… And, it should be mentioned, all of this arose ‘naturally’ from the strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos inherent within the solar system’s accreted mass of star dust… In fact this same strange and unexpected relationship between order and chaos resides at the heart of all universal phenomena… But more on that later.
For the moment… Please do excuse the length of time it has taken for me to realize this post… However, much patience, practice and research was needed to construct the essence of, what I’m sure many experts on the subject will only consider to be, this very rudimentary study. And perhaps, while I am managing to be humble, I should also add – so as to be totally honest and fair – that I’m really no better off reaching any definitive conclusion about what ‘I’, or rather my ‘self’, actually is either!?!?
In fact… This study has only made me more and more unsure – more unsure than I’ve ever been before – about what constitutes an idea of a ‘self’… Demonstrating for me, at least, that what many of us seem to take for granted as being a ‘certain’, ‘definable’ and ‘constant’ notion of identity and/or existence, upon closer inspection, actually becomes a very vague, intangible and indefinable man-made abstraction centered more around linguistic syntax rather than on direct knowledge or experience alone. I know that might sound quite disconcerting to some… However, it should be noted that it is nothing more than an alternative idea to counter the many commonplace views that presently exist on how the majority of us see our ‘selves’ and our position here in the cosmos today… Not to mention that I feel it might well be a good time to start evolving a bit, both mentally as well as physically.
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The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
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I know, I know… Why would anyone want to challenge the socially accepted Western view of the universe that we’re presently running along with… One that seems to set in stone a type of superiority over the rest of life here on Earth… One where the ‘self’ is all pervasive, and yet, it remains silently un-clear and unrevealed to those who need to know the most about it… ? Well, I for one don’t feel that our present state of Being and/or understanding adequately reflects our true circumstance… Let alone our true nature… And, having spoken to many fellow human beings here on Earth recently (so as to clarify whether we’re all functioning properly or not), I have discovered that many of our present problems i.e. over population, food shortages, war, etc… seem to stem from a fundamental error in the way we all perceive how we connect to the environment around us… To be more specific about this error… We all seem to be observing everything we do through an idea – or lens – of ‘self’. One that focuses our minds into modes of specific and present action within the world we presently find our ‘selves’ in.
But why should this way in which we perceiving things actually be a problem? Well… If we were to accept the idea of our ‘self’ somewhat blindly – like many of us do presently – and see ourselves as all being independently standing i.e. our ‘self’ exists separately and independently of everything else (which many of us clearly thinks is the case, seen by most people amassing bank balances, material wealth like gold, jewelry, cars, fashion based clothes, social status, etc)… Then we can actually limit the way that we see, understand and interrelate to everything and everyone else around us here on planet Earth and within the universe… Why? Because if we choose to completely disregard how the notion of ‘self’ came into being, and use only a marginalized approximation of what this unbounded essence of existence really is, then I fear we may mangle and divorce ourselves thoroughly from any real chance that we might have of developing a true and more appropriately connected state of Being that considers who ‘we’ all i.e. all sentient beings, unquestionably are.
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It is astounding that man, the instigator, inventor and vehicle of all these (i.e. political opinions and religious understandings) developments, the originator of all judgments and decisions and the planner of the future, must make himself such a quantité négligeable. The contradiction, the paradoxical evaluation of humanity by man himself, is in truth a matter for wonder, and one can only explain it as springing from an extraordinary uncertainty of judgment – in other words, man is an enigma to himself. This is understandable, seeing that he lacks the means of comparison necessary for self-knowledge. He knows how to distinguish himself from the other animals in point of anatomy and physiology… But as a conscious, reflecting being, gifted with speech, he lacks all criteria for self-judgment. He is on this planet a unique phenomenon, which he cannot compare with anything else. The possibility of comparison and hence self-knowledge would arise only if he could establish relations with quasi-human mammals inhabiting other stars…
Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961)
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I mean… If we could cultivate an understanding of things that is free of ‘self’ centered tendencies and ‘selfish’ attitudes towards natural resources and ecological processes… An attitude that is devoid of all ‘self’ importance… And, thus, prevents our ‘selves’ from taking this idea of a ‘self’ too literally… Thereby relieving most – if not all – of the unnecessary stress and folly that awaits us if we continue with these ‘self’ centered views and relationships i.e. unwittingly promoting deconstructive behavioral patterns within our societies and ecosystems… Then we might well be able to disarm the citadels of ‘self’-importance that we have all imprisoned our ‘selves’ in… And REALLY SEE how ‘we’ all closely interconnect to the world (and universe) around us…
In many ways, this is why this journey to find my ‘self’ was so important… In fact, it’s why I feel it’s a really important journey for us all to undertake. Otherwise we will be cursed to pollute and destroy our delicate ecosystem over and over again, propagating an unsettled karmic pattern from our unenlightened mind streams and resulting behavior patterns, creating a Saṃsāra without end.
Thus, bearing in mind all I’ve written about within this website, it became, for me, a natural evolutionary process to take sometime to ponder over where the true enemy lay hidden… And, by being as humble and as diligent as I possibly could (please bear in mind I still have many faults and, thus, have done only as best as I could with my present defilements of mind, etc…), I managed to catch a glimpse of the enemy within… The enemy within my ‘self’… The one who created all the ‘self’-centered views, stances, opinions, arguments and ways of being that I’ve had, gotten into or done over the years… And I wondered, how can pacify this selfish mode of being… ?
For, once we manage to dismantle this ‘selfish’ perceptive stance, we might well be able to grasp how our present worldview was constructed and, thus, develop a better attitude toward solving our problem of ‘self’ obsession from the inside out rather than trying to do it from the outside in. Nothing we can do outside will ever really permanently change what is going on inside… Why? Well, it’s a bit like what Robert Persig once wrote in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”…
“But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government again and again. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”
In my humble opinion, it’s in building our present conceptualized understanding of things from the inside out that we have created most of our problems here on Earth.
For example, the idea of ‘self’ – which is a designated social construct that allows anyone who can grasp it to relay, say, how they are feeling in relation to the world around them – provides us with the necessary notions/ideas for constructing sentences with, eluding to a “subject” and “object” with regards to some aspect of happening or action, OR change, between – or relative to – the two entities i.e. a subject and an object… From this formulation we derive the ability to describe to others our place in the world around us, along with the changes that effect all within it daily unfolding, and even how they affect our ‘selves’ and each other (see Noam Chomsky’s “Language And Mind”). Thus the notion of a ‘self’ gives us a very handy tool by which we can understand the world around us, conveying what we feel we need to convey to others in order to act with every one’s best interests at heart (or not) and do our best to survive.
Through this conveyance, We i.e. human beings, were able to organize – via the use of language – our ‘selves’ as collective groups who work together more effectively and efficiently as an objective, collective unit, relaying the merits of certain actions, and condemning overly ‘self’-centered interests that broke up group efforts (see Scientific American’s recent article “Groups With Good Social Skills Outperform The Merely Smart“). In this kind of linguistic/collective exchange, the ‘self’ allowed us to find a type of collective ‘fairness’ and/or ‘equanimity’ within the subsequent constructs of moral codes of conduct… Which, in time, became laws of the land.
So the ‘self’ has bestowed us with the advantage of understanding how we – as individuals – would like to be treated morally and, thereby, it allows us to develop a kind of moral, self-referenced exchange that ultimately posits an agreeable universal code of conduct between us all, precluding good living and optimal survival conditions for the majority. This is a type of morality that most of us would agree with one another upon… Why? Because it allows us to see things in relative terms i.e. the body, where our ‘perceived’ center of consciousness ‘seems’ to emanate from (more on this later), is the center of our perspective… And, relative to everything else, we desire a certain amount of ‘happiness‘ from the actions we perform, so that, on the whole, we all lead stress free and healthy lives. Thus, for the most constructive outcome within the complex dynamics of human flourishing, our actions should be morally guided with a concern for the whole… For looking after the interests of the whole precludes looking the interests of the individual.
So… Bearing all this in mind… Perhaps now is a good time for me to introduce the idea that most languages are essentially the same… I know on one level it might sound a bit bizarre i.e. Japanese is certainly not the same as French, which is not the same as English or Tibetan, otherwise we’d all speak like each other… Rather I mean that the syntax of all sentence structure is essentially the same as one another. In order to demonstrate this, I have quoted the following passage, which comes from the introduction to Noam Chomsky’s book, entitled “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.”
Taken from Noam Chomsky’s “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind”, this is a Forward by Neil Smith. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xvi, 230. Reviewed by Gilbert Harman, Princeton University
Here are seven essays that describe and deplore a philosophical double standard that respects the methods and results of physics, chemistry, and biology but not the methods and results of linguistics and other sciences of the mind.
One sign of the double standard is that, while hardly anyone thinks one can do philosophy of physics without knowing physics, it is all too common for one to think that they can do philosophy of language without knowing linguistics.
Chomsky is, of course, the leading figure in contemporary linguistics. Starting in the 1950s, his development of generative grammar was an important factor in the shift from behavioristic to cognitive approaches to language and mind. Chomsky’s approach takes the goal of linguistics to be to characterize the human faculty of language, noting its differences from the human faculties for general problem solving science. As Chomsky and other linguists tried to give explicit characterizations of the competence of a speaker of a language like English, it became clear that a child learning language simply does not have the sort of evidence available that would enable it to learn the relevant principles from scratch. There is a “poverty of the stimulus.” The child must be prepared to acquire language with these principles in a way that it is not prepared to acquire the principles of, say, physics or quantification theory.
It is clear that normal children acquire a language that reflects their particular linguistic environment. A child brought up in Japan acquires a version of Japanese. The same child brought up in Brazil acquires a version of Portuguese. So, these languages must in some sense reflect some of the same underlying innate principles.
Further reflection along these lines and a great deal of empirical study of particular languages has led to the “principles and parameters” framework which has dominated linguistics in the last few decades. The idea is that languages are basically the same in structure, up to certain parameters, for example, whether the head of a phrase goes at the beginning of a phrase or at the end. Children do not have to learn the basic principles, they only need to set the parameters. Linguistics aims at stating the basic principles and parameters by considering how languages differ in certain more or less subtle respects. The result of this approach has been a truly amazing outpouring of discoveries about how languages are the same yet different.
More recently, there have been attempts to try to explain some of the basic principles on the assumption that the language faculty is close to an ideal engineering solution to a problem of connecting the language faculty with the cognitive system and the articulatory perceptual system. This “minimalist program” remains highly speculative, but whether of not it succeeds, contemporary linguistics as a whole has been a tremendous success story, the most successful of the cognitive sciences.
One would therefore expect that any philosopher of mind or language would make it his or her business to understand the basic methodology and some of the results of this subject. But many philosophers of mind and language proceed in utter ignorance of the subject.
For me, at least, this demonstrates – via the tenets of linguistics – that languages used for communication, a ‘universal’ trait of human beings presently here on Earth, are all essentially structured in very similar ways to one another. This notion of the subjective vs. objective in turn aids, what I can only call, the programming of one’s ‘self’ – via a type of memetic feedback loop – into who they ‘feel’ they presently are in this moment of their lives.
Perhaps it should also be mentioned here that, as we use with such daily regularity a linguistic ‘method’ that defines how separate aspects of the world occur in relation to ourselves i.e. we use sentences that include a plethora of ‘nouns’ or ‘names’ for almost everything we can experience tangibly or intangibly (see the dictionary for a full scope on the number of words that we use to describe things seperately with, coupled with their manmade ‘meanings’/'definitions’) along with how these names/nouns/concepts all interrelate to the separate notion of our ‘selves’… Thus we are unwittingly cementing in place a worldview based on an understanding of ‘separateness’… Of ‘independent’ arising… Where everything seems to have an ‘apparent’ individual identity and meaning, independent of everything else. And, if we don’t check ourselves daily, then we will fall foul of this ‘self’ referential system of thought, and think that everything must be ‘separate’ from everything else… Or even have a ‘meaning’ or a ‘purpose’ of some sort… A meaning that differentiates and/or separates it from other things… !!!
Perhaps that is why many of us feel at a loss when we truly realize that there is no inherent meaning to anything i.e. that everything is ultimately empty… Even the idea of our own lives, which is just a fantastical social construct at best, has no inherent meaning beyond that which we create for our ‘selves’… And, something that has scared me recently (though I must say I am slowly beginning to feel more at ease with the idea now), that there is no inherent meaning, or even concrete definition, to the notion of my – or even your – ‘self.’ I know I still haven’t discussed why the idea of a solid, or ever constant, ‘self’ is perhaps a delusion… But I am getting there slowly…
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Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth.
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After we have seen how everything slots together within linguistic constructs – and understood from which direction we constructed the conceptualized notion of the universe around us – we might well clinch a better method of action with which to resolve most our problems of sustainability and war with… Not to mention that it might well become a highly effective method that will allow us to see how we constructed the notion of our ‘self’ within our relative modes of understanding. For, once that is understood, I believe that we might well give our ‘selves’ the power to ‘self’ realize and actualize our own remedy from within.
It’s a bit like a motorbike… If you don’t know how one is constructed… Or even what a screw does… Or, even, how this basic unit of the motorbike functions i.e. a screw… Then you will never be able to repair it when it breaks down… Just because you know how to drive a bike doesn’t mean you know how to fix it. But when you look at all the parts that gave rise to its coming together… Even how it stays together… Then we will be able to at least take the motorbike apart, bit by bit, undoing the of the basic units that built it up… And, thus, through that process, we’d be able to have a better chance at seeing what is wrong with it and, so, have a better chance of repairing it.
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So as to look at some functions within the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum… I’d like to recap on what we’ve already covered in this blog… Mainly because I feel they contain some very important aspects about how the ‘self’ functions within this here website… For example, the notion of our ‘self’ functioning as a sort of feedback loop (as discussed in Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled “I Am A Strange Loop“), along with how analogy can be viewed as the core of cognition, plus how the mind naturally demonstrates that the very process that drives it is based on an engine of nonlinear dynamics i.e. an engine of pure chaos, as well as how we are beginning to use these models of understanding in order to develop artificial intelligence with… Not to mention we have discussed concepts that treat our ‘self’ as nothing more than an amalgamation of ideas/memes that collect over the course of our lives, via a feedback loop between the mind/brain/body/environment continuum, and which are then assimilated into a central memeplex of ‘self’ for relative temporal processing… !!! We’ve also seen how prone to illusion the system of our biomechanical bodies makes us – the very bodies that we use on a daily basis to perceive the world around us with… And, thus, we can see how we should also be aware of the resulting delusions that therefore creep into our own socially constructed understanding about what the nature of reality ‘seems’ to be… !?!? And, bearing that in mind, we’ve even managed to discuss how nothing is permanent and that ‘time’ is really only a conceptualized understanding about how our past memories relate to the only moment that we really have i.e. this present moment… Thus we can begin to understand how we distort the essence of experience with social constructs, like the concept of ‘time’, which we choose to gauge gradients of change with in relation to our own, somewhat ‘self’ biased perspectives, which are usually mainly centered around our own clusters of personalized memories.
I think all these insights are so important to bear in mind… Why? Because rarely do we truly see past these prejudiced, memetically procured views and glimpse at the pure and ultimate nature of everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – which resides in a continually evolving flux of new patterns… Unfolding freely and interconnectedly from one ‘conceptualized’ moment to the next… In fact, there never was any need for conceptualization… Nor was there ever any moment… There was only Being… Being in the now… A Being that was beyond all definition… Continually evolving… Beyond all understanding… Free from any conceptualization…
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None by his own knowledge, or by subtle consideration, will ever really understand these things. For all words and all that one can learn or understand in a creaturely way, are foreign to the truth that I mean and far below it.
John Van Ruysbroeck (1293 – 1381)
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‘Being’ never needed any conceptualization because experience was naturally selected for without it and, so, it spoke completely for its ‘self’… Pure ‘experience’ is unbounded and beyond all dualistic modes of thinking… But once one takes the bitter bite/byte from the fruit that came off the tree of knowledge, we instantly limit our understanding of all things and forget that we are much like butterflies ‘flapping our wings’ of imagination within the parameters of our caged, syntax based existence, ‘using our structured minds’ to shape the world in which we now live… How many of us realize that there is this beautifully unbounded, enchanting, chaotic beast lurking deep within the system of our ‘selves’… ? One that, if ignored, can amplifiy subtle changes to manifest infinitly further down the line, like ‘hurricanes’ ripple off the flutter of a butterfly’s wings… Capable of destroying as much as creating.
Without a better viewpoint of our ‘selves’ and how we relate to the universal system in a karmic manner, it will be very hard for us to develop a pure and compassionate intent that amplifies predominantly constructive modes of living, while diminishing the destructive aspects of actions suitably for optimal flourishing of all sentient beings… For, without constructive modes of living, we only unwittingly harm other sentient beings, including ourselves, much further down the line.
Furthermore… So as free our own existence from a “God created us in his image” induced self-righteousness, which seems to only further this ‘self’ obsession… I’ve also begun to touch on how science, along with other ‘human’ endeavors, are yielding results that clearly demonstrate that ‘We’ all are really nothing more than a bunch of ‘interdependently’ related chemical reactions which are slowly evolving in a closed-off, ‘petri dish’ type of a planetary environment, which is isolated from other planetary ecosystems only through space’s vast and open, inhospitable expanses… Here, on Earth, whether we realize it or not, we are simply ‘doomed’ (though I fear that is very much the wrong word with which to describe life’s bountiful delights with) to do our best to survive and work around any sudden environmental/social/universal changes that might disrupt or hamper our ability to live in stability with the environment and ecosystem we find ourselves in. That is unless, somewhere down the line, we actually forget what our original purpose was.
Here I’d like to take a moment to introduce an article from Paulo Coelho’s blog entitled, “Learned Helplessness”… Perhaps, while reading it, I would beg everyone to consider the plethora of maladies that this modern world – and its medicine – has invented for us i.e. ADHD, anxiety disorder, etc…
The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression.
A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.
Learned helplessness can be seen as a mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile.Learned helplessness results from being trained to be locked into a system. The system may be a family, a community, a culture, a tradition, a profession or an institution.
Initially, a system develops for a specific purpose. But as a system evolves, it increasingly tends to organize around beliefs, perspectives, activities and taboos that serve the continuation of the system. Awareness of the original purpose fades and the system starts to function automatically. It calcifies.
Some experts suggest learned helplessness can be passed on through observation, as in the case of a daughter watching her abused mother passively obey her husband’s commands. The daughter may begin to associate passivity and low self-esteem with the “normal” demands of married life, leading to a perpetuation of the learned helplessness cycle.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences.
A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on.
How many times could I have just given up and gone to sit with the rest of the herd, medicated up to my eye-balls, happy and supposedly contented with my lot in the daily routine of ‘supposedly’ well adjusted human endeavor… And done so until eventually, one day, I died… ? Too many times was I given this option… And how many times could I have just proclaimed helplessness within this capitalist society and given up this quest of ‘self’ discovery and operated in only the confines of some syndrome or mental disorder, looking for immediate gratification and comfortable conformity? Again, all too many…
Perhaps when one begins to formulate all this for themselves… And glimpse at a more adequate type of interdependent reality for themselves… They might well suddenly realize that our own need for stability limits the way we view this ever-changing world and universe… And, once that step has been taken, perhaps we can then also begin to glimpse at a humbling reminder that shows us we are all really nothing more than the ‘left-overs’ of matter reconfigured in the present solar system’s accretion process – all of which was constructed naturally, via processes of chaos, from a mass of fused atomic debris which had been expired, like soot from a fire, by past splendiferous burns of long gone suns…
Here, perhaps we are somewhat fortunate to have developed a type of organic Life that allows ‘us’ to be present, both here and now, and perceive the wonders of the universe as they unfold around us… Using similar structures and processes to those found in and around the universe so as to guide our perceptive mechanisms and understandings..
Well… I’m sure you can imagine how all this began to sound to a layman like myself… Especially when I began compiling and piecing together all the data and experience I had available to me – which, on the whole, was taken from a vast quagmire of scientific journals, published papers, university/researcher websites, books, video lectures and even going to (though I think ‘sneaking into’ is a far better description of events) a few university lectures in person, as well as some transcendent experiences involving psychedelic drugs and certain meditative techniques – so as to understand a bit more about my place, here, in the unfolding non-linear dynamic of the cosmos…
No doubt, while gorging my ‘self’ on the raw data that ‘I’ had amassed, ‘I’ found my ‘self’ restructuring and rearranging it into streams of, what ‘I’ can only call, an intuitive patterning, or sense of reasoning… One that came from my heart and gut as much as it did my head, all the while filling up the pages of this website with these ‘raw’ ideas… Ideas that relentlessly kept flooding into my mind’s memetic stream… And yet, whilst laying out all these ideas for restructuring, I never knew that I’d be slowly coming back round, ‘full circle’ so to speak, to look back at the observer… At the ‘self’… To see this idea of consciousness looking back at its ‘self’ in an eternal feedback loop… Like someone standing in front of two slightly distorted mirrors faced back in upon each other… And then, when I discovered that the observer, them ‘selves’, can actually shape the way in which the world functions around them simply through the act of perceiving it… !?!? Well… That blew a lot of the ‘supposed’ common sense I had learned from school and society right out of the water.
However, during this process of reflection, the hardest thing for me was trying to pin point where this ‘self’, this observer, actually was… Where ‘I’ actually came from… Why? Because, in trying to discover what my ‘self’ was – this powerful perceiving entity that could shape the universe around it simply by observing – I found my ‘self’ using all the antiquated social constructs that I had been provided with during my childhood and teenage years; concepts and ideas that I had learnt while I was at school and university… And in doing so, I found my ‘self’ needing to ask new questions within questions, so as to to puncture the crusty surface of a hard-baked, almost calcified, social reality… Questions like, if I didn’t use any type of language to communicate with, then, in the absence of any conceptualized notion of a ‘self’, would ‘I’ still be aware of my ‘self’ in the way that ‘I’ presently am, etc… ???
‘I’ mean… Surely if this idea of a ‘self’ was meant to be so obvious a fact… Like, “I think, therefore I am…” ! And as obvious as the existence of a ‘self’ seemingly was… Didn’t there have to be an equally obvious and simple answer about what the ‘self’ actually was/is… An answer that could exist independently of everything else – like language seemed to hint at – without the need to unravel the highly complex and infinitely long chain of cause and effect that brought it all into being… !?!?
But every time I looked at boiling any set of these conceptualized notions about the ‘self’ down into a concise and tidy bit of understanding… I only found endless vagaries, each of which did not quite fit the mark… Each of which didn’t satisfy my need for precision… Each of which required more questions to be asked… And each of which required more answers than the last to be defined and clarified… Spiraling into and endless foray of attach and parry that would apparently lead me to a reachable goal. Oh, how deluded I was.
It eventually became evident that a straightforward and transparent concept of the ‘self’ was not possible. In fact, the solution of my ‘self’ – which I found to be impressively colorful, soluble and ‘seemingly’ apparent in the vocalized solution of syntax which we all used in every day life, much like a dye in water – kept evading any type of concise certainty about what the ‘I’, which was being discussed, actually was. Paradox upon paradox kept layering over one another… I mean… How far could it go? Could these questions go on and on forever and ever… ? Like the way we could go on zooming into and/or out of our present scale of conscious resolution (let’s temporarily forget the apparent limits imposed by the Planck length)?
For example… When I wanted to look at the solidity of my body, where I once thought I perceived my ‘self’ to reside… I wondered whether the ‘self’ could simply be a sum of its physical parts i.e. and enduring form relating to all the atoms in their present structural configurations, connected together in cascading molecular lines/chains of environmental functionality?
But then ‘I’ remembered an idea that was discussed earlier in “An Idea About Who We Really Are“… An idea where the body’s apparent solidity comes into question.
Perhaps here it is a good time to introduce one of those paradoxes that I came across not too long ago, entitled the “Ship of Theseus…” For I feel this adequately allows us to grasp the idea of whether physical (even mental) identity – something that is related to the idea of a ‘self’ – is persistent or not…
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“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Plutarch tells us that the ship was exhibited during the time [i.e., lifetime] of Demetrius Phalereus, which means ca. 350-280 BCE.
To make the original puzzle clearer… Let me reiterate this idea in planer English… Over the years, the Athenians replaced each plank in the original ship of Theseus as it decayed, thereby keeping it in good repair. Eventually, there was not a single plank left of the original ship. So, did the Athenians still have one and the same ship? Or was it a completely different ship?
But we can liven it up a bit by considering two different, somewhat modernized, versions. On both versions, the replacing of the planks takes place while the ship is at sea. We are to imagine that Theseus sails away, and then systematically replaces each plank on board with a new one (say it is his habit to carry a complete supply of new parts on board as his cargo). Now we can consider these two versions of the story:
Simple version: Theseus completely rebuilds his ship, replaces all the parts, throws the old ones overboard. Does he arrive on the same ship as the one he left on? Of course it has changed. But is it really the original ship?
Let A = the ship Theseus started his voyage on.
Let B = the ship Theseus finished his voyage on.
Our question then is: Does A = B? If not, why not? Suppose he had left one original part in. Is that enough to make A identical to B? If not, suppose he had left two, etc, etc… Where do you draw the line? I mean… If all the new parts came from the same forest… Or even better… If they all came from the same type of tree as the pieces of wood that ship was originally constructed from did, would this allow one to call it the same ship? Or if these pieces of the same tree were carved by the same person… Would it then be the same ship? Then again… Are these just trivialities? And, if so, would it even matter if Theseus stopped along the way and used different types of wood, whatever came to hand, so to speak… Then would this still be the same ship?
The permutations on this paradox are almost endless… For example, if all the atoms in the ship, atoms that have come together after the processes of accretion and evolution that formed us all along with the rest of the solar system that we now see around us today… If these atoms were replaced in exactly the same position and manner… The only difference being that the atomic matter came from a different set of suns… Would Theseus’ ship still be the same ship? Are the processes that made us more important that the material we are built from?? Or is the notion of ‘importance’ its ‘self’ empty of all inherent meaning… And, thus, is inadequate to describe anything ultimately???
In my humble opinion… We can apply this same principle to the physical notion of our ‘self’… For example we have already seen in a prior blog, entitled “An Idea About Who We Really Are” that, over a 15 year period, the human body replaces almost every single cell within its structure. All the material changes within us… Thus, is this body, that you are now using to read these words with, actually the same body that you had several years ago? I know for me, at least, it certainly feels like it is the same body… In fact it feels similar to the body I had 15 years ago… 15 years ago I was 20 years old, and pretty much looked the same… Albeit now I have a few grey hairs and am slightly fatter than I used to be… I know I ‘essentially’ still feel the same now… And I can still do nearly all the same things I used to, etc… But, despite these similar feelings, am I really the same person?
The same happens with experience. Experience shapes the way we react to the world around us. Different experiences cause different memories to be formed… And with these memories, we temporally choose to guide our ‘selves’ through certain situations… So, if we had to two of me… Exactly the same as each other, up to a specific point in time i.e. all the materials and processes that made us both were exactly identical… Along with all the experiences up to that moment in time, etc… Then, if one of me was to experience something completely different to the other… Would that differing experience mean that ‘I’ am no longer my ‘self’?
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Even if the ‘self’ was simply just a sum of its parts and expereinces… We should ask the question… Where should one draw the lines between all these parts i.e. at a molecular level, or at an atomic level, or even at subatomic levels, as with neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks, etc… ?? Or even, where should one draw the line between all these experiences? I mean… What even REALLY constitutes a part??? Isn’t it just the mind grasping at trying to understand the unfathomable process of everything… And, in doing so, procure its own brand of stupid dependability and definition???? Because to define any part properly, shouldn’t we still also include the processes that brought all these individual parts together to function as they do presently, describing, as well, how those processes arose too, and the ones that gave rise to them, ad infinitum?????
But perhaps more pertinently… Do we actually have any real right to divide the flow of an interdependent system up into conceptualized parts? You know, like we feel we do, for example, with borders between countries i.e. separating these interrelated topographies with merely imagined, fracturing lines that stem from our fractured, intellectualized memetic mind streams… I mean… It obvious that these lines simply do not exist in the real world. Nowhere that I have ever been on Earth is there some line that nature left us that denotes who should live where and how they should live or what they should be called… Nowhere!
And even if we did have a right to divide up them up… What would happen if we were to walk around these imagined borders, examining every nook and cranny of the immense majesty and diversity that fell into and out of every facade of their periphery… ? Wouldn’t we also find what Benoît Mandelbrot wrote about in his 1967 paper, published in Science, entitled “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension“?
Surely with every new question asked, a new level of detail emerges, giving rise to an unbounded and infinite boarder? Just as Lewis Fry Richardson discovered, the length of a given coastline depends on the method used to measure it. Since a landmass has features at all scales, from hundreds of kilometers in size to tiny fractions of a millimeter and below, there is no obvious limit to the size of the smallest feature that should/could not be measured around… And, hence, there is no single well-defined perimeter to the landmass.
In my humble opinion, it is this very idea that should be applied to trying to understand the notion of ‘self.’ For example, when someone asks us the question “who are we?”, various approximations seem to come to mind and, with these approximations, vague assumptions are made about who we are i.e. he/she lives in Tunbridge Wells, wears sunglasses on sunny days, is a vegetarian, etc… And, perhaps, if we were from a scientific disposition, we might also include that we were made from flesh and bone, which in turn is made from proteins, carbohydrates, fats, water, calcium, etc… It doesn’t matter to our conceptualized notions that this flesh and bone changes every few years… Just so long as we can describe what it is that we vaguely want to talk about here and now… !?!?
Just as with landmasses too, various approximations exist when specific assumptions are made about minimum feature size. So… How far can we go on probing the idea of a ‘self’ with out questioning the very logic/ideas/ approximations/processes that created it? Or even the language that we use to describe it? I mean… If we go all the way… ALL THE WAY… Will we not discover that we are really inherently unbounded and indefinable… ?? That we are infinite in a perspective that present social conditioning and understanding has forced us to forget… ???
While looking for my ‘self’, I found that Douglas Hofstadter’s book, entitled, “Escher, Bach and Gödel: And Eternal Golden Braid”, was more pertinent than I had ever really imagined it would be… And recently I’ve found my ‘self’ coming back to it time and again… Because in many ways this search for the ‘self’ reminds me of looking at Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems.” Rather than the ‘self’ being a real entity that can be defined logically and reasonably within axiomatic definitions based on “good-old” empirical evidence – evidence that is derived from many types of experimental observation, and then assessed via modes of logical reasoning, so as to posit how it all fits together into a greater, universal picture… Upon a closer inspection, this ‘I’ or ‘self’ seems to merge with, and become part of, the WHOLE universal dynamic… A tiny part of the WHOLE picture… Like a baby Mandelbrot set in the totality of the WHOLE Mandelbrot set… Each of these little sets is dependent on all the totality of the patterns preceding it… Patterns that, if they were any different further upstream, would not have brought it to rest in its present place, shape, size and/or fashion.
Saying that… I doubt that the factors that brought about our “selves” into this present universal moment are quite as simple as zn+1 = zn2 + c… Rather, in my humble opinion, there would have to be – more likely – an infinite amount of describing equations, all entangled and entwined into one another, rippling in and out of sync with each other, feeding back through and around them ‘selves’, making – from a human’s point of view – such an overwhelmingly complex totality of indefinable and unpredictable occurring precisions that one might only be able to describe it as Baruch Spinoza once did… Simply as “God, or Nature” its very ‘self’.
When I began to view the idea of ‘self’ in these terms i.e. that there is this evolving fractal chain of interdependent events, linked by cause and effect – one that gives rise to the notion of ‘self’ – it reminded me somewhat of Kalu Rinpoche’s writing on “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness.” This unfolding cascade of events stacks up with every conscious and unconscious decision/action creating the karmic patterns that determine the unfolding nature of our reality and, therefore, our circumstance.
I know many of us might well call everything We i.e. humans, do or make or say, even, “man-made…” But in reality it is all a part of the natural flow of things… There is an order there, one that defies comprehension… It’s flow is so uncertain and unpredictable that it flexes with every new action or event that is presented to it… Never does it stay the same… In fact, it is so sensitive to everything, that even a little ripple can manifest huge changes somewhere later down the line… Certain ancient Chinese philosophers once called this the great Tao. It was unspeakable, un-describable, and all pervasive… To talk of it would limit it and destroy its essence… To define it would only end up defiling its purity.
So too with the ‘self’… When we try to define our ‘self’, nothing that we hang on ‘it’ conceptually fits ‘its’ essence properly… Every limiting word presumes a rough approximation of something infinite and unbounded… And to use limitations to describe something which is unbounded is dangerous… It breeds delusion and breaks the delicate balance between what ‘IS’ and what we think ‘it’ is. I’m sure that if we all were to spend most of our time striving for enlightenment, then we would begin to see all this i.e. that we are nothing more than a part of the chaos inherent in a universal – although even the term universal might well seem to limit what I really want to express – system that is continually evolving and unfolding in this present moment. When we let go of our ‘selves’ then we truly become free and we can see that nothing begins or ends… Nor does anything exist independent of everything else, especially in the finite ways that we have been taught to describe the world with.
So… To bring it back round to where we started from… To understand what the ‘self’ is, I found my ‘self’ having to look at all the processes that brought me into being… And while I’m sure I’ve only touched on just a hand-full of these in the infinite majesty unfolding continuously around us… It lays a good idea at the unknowable totality of the interconnectedness we all share with one another AND the universe around us… I know we might well like to describe everything in terms of how it relates to our “selves”… But it would be better not to get too attached to this way of describing things… For it can breed delusion and spread confusion by manifesting fantasies beyond what actually “IS”. I As Douglas Adams once said…
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
I will leave it here for now… The second part to this study of ‘self’ will follow soon.
August 12, 2010
This is a picture that hangs from the living room wall at home… Everyday ‘I’ see it, it triggers a deep reminder of the treachery of delusion and of all wasted narrative. This is my point of entry into a daily meditation that rests upon the delusion of ‘self.’ As my ‘self’ sits cross legged under this framed print, the memetic ideals of my ‘self’s’ identity slowly dissolve into ‘emptiness.’
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We should always remember… Any interpretation always remains – and only can ever be – an interpretation. The actual ‘something’ that is being interpreted i.e. the object of interpretation, say, within an artistic work such as Magritte’s “The Treachery Of Images,” is merely a means of transmission… Means that relay the ‘key’ to the idea of/about ‘something’… That is, the notion of the ‘something’ can be conjured up in the mind of the viewer through simply seeing the ‘imperfect’ painting. Thus the painting of the object becomes a sort of sign… One that is housed, in this case, within two dimensions i.e. laid flat on canvas, allowing us to observe the unambiguous and unequivocal nature of its physical presence, just as it was viewed through the eyes of the artist who originally painted it… But never, at any time, are we viewing the pipe directly! And yet, when many of us look at the pipe in Magritte’s modest reinterpretation, and are asked what we are looking at, a majority will reply, “It is a pipe!”
In many ways, experience itself is like this… What we interpret from our senses – our senses being the artist that paints what he sees/hears/feels/tastes/touches – is not as clear, defined, nor even as present, as the actual ‘object’ itself… Always our ‘minds’ become involved beyond immediate appropriateness, and acts as if everything is on trial; as if it was the high judge him/herself presiding over the case called our ‘Life’ as it unfolded moment by moment… And yet all we can do to support any decision we arrive at – decisions regarding what we perceive through our senses i.e. hardness, softness, colour, hue, shape, etc… – comes not only from all good sense data derived from our eyes, ears, nose, taste buds and sense of touch alone, but from our good (or maginalised) intentions too.
The real interpretation of the pipe in Magritte’s picture is done by the viewer using a set of past observations, which act as points of references through which one compares the observed ‘picture’ to the picture of mind… Through these a priori ideas/memes/schemas, we find meaning in the picture being observed… When we understand this, we can see that the meaning imposed upon experience comes solely from within ourselves… And not from within the picture itself.
No doubt ALL of our interpretations regarding the pipe will not exactly agree with one another. One must only consider all the possible variances in experiencing a pipe i.e. the diversity of each individual’s direct or indirect experience with one, in order to understand this… For example, I remember first hand my uncle smoking a pipe, using pipe cleaners to clean the accumulation of tar from within the pipe, their sticky fur left coated with sweet aromatic gumminess in used ash trays… While after every smoke, is vividly remember the way he ceremoniously and gently tapped out the soft grey ash… Along with the rich aromatic scent of honey-dew tobacco that permeated and lingered on all the apartment’s upholstery… While, on the other hand, my friend George simply has never come across a smoker of pipes in real life… The only way he can relate pipes to comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s fictitious character, Sherlock Holmes, which he read avidly as a child. How different are our experiences? While we can agree on the conceptual aspects of what a pipe is, we have had totally different experiences concerning them. But the important thing remains… Despite these differences, all of our own interpretations and observations about what a pipe is, which have been derived through our experiences, do regularly – and commonly – overlap with other people’s ideas about what a pipe is.
Here, in “The Treachery Of Images,” Magritte reminds us that these interpretations and inspections are not based on direct, or first degree, observations of the object itself… The pipe we observe follows from the sensory input that, when seen from the right angle, merges together with the minds previous experience of a pipe i.e. the shape and coloration, giving rise to what the mind – after all its programming – can only naturally want to call a pipe. But, in actual fact, what our minds sees and recognises as the pipe is nothing more than canvas and paint brushed in a manner that seems to resemble what we think we see as a pipe.
From this ‘brushed’ representation, when we really think about what we are seeing through our eyes, we can all deduce a clear conclusion that, what we are looking at, resembles a pipe… In other words, we all interpret what we see, so as to expose the implicit meaning behind the painter’s ‘subject,’ just like our senses watch temporal events unfold before us in our daily waking lives… But it is our own programming that paints the meaning of this picture. Thus I ask… Are we in error when we reply that we are viewing a pipe instead of a picture of a pipe?? Is our interpretation of life, via religious and scientific modes of understanding, actually real???
With our experiences we paint the abstract meanings we have been taught to ‘bear’ by family, friends and society. But before this ‘rude’ imposition of mankind’s own making, the world was a subject who at first refused to be defined… The blank canvas of our minds saw through the bizarre reality of present day understandings. Then, as we became more laden with successive ideas about the world around us – ideas that no doubt relayed survival tactics and skills, which natural selection seemed to chose prudently – these memes started to forge the schemas of our ‘fantastical’ world, causing us to operate somewhat ‘out-of-alignment’ with our original purpose i.e. to simply survive. Thus, in this strange state of memetic frenzy, we seem to have forgotten what exactly it is that we were really looking at. And so we over pollute, over consume and never question what we see.
We recognise the pipe from Magritte’s perspective… But, despite this recognition, it is not really the pipe. We see the world and all Life through human social constructs i.e. all the mythological and scientific understanding we have learnt… But it is not the real world. Nor is it what Life really is.
“We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.”
If we reply that what we see is a pipe, then we have lost sight of reality… We have become disconnected with the pattern behind our Being… We have lost the simple essence of Life’s organic and fluid form. Like the Tao, Life has no meaning… It requires none to exist. To talk about it misses the point. It simply is, always has been, and always will be a part of the infinite universal flow.
So I ask… Can you see through the fantasy of society’s drama? Can you cut through the taut/taught memetic structures that echo through your own mind to reveal the haunting delusion of society’s limited schema’s of Being? Can you free yourself from the social inertia – those heavy ‘herd’ like constraints – that bind the majority of us to pointless routines and epic errors of under estimating and limiting our own potential? Can you help us break free from the over consumption of raw materials, monetary hoarding for luxurious goods, pointless pollution and en-mass over population? Can we survive the Tao’s “gom jabbar?” Or will we die at the hands of our own insatiable appetites, like the “animal’s” who failed the “Bene Gesserit‘s” test, all because we/they could not see the pain for what it really was i.e. it is nothing more than a sensation that links into a reactive habit for preserving an instinctual and complacent desire to remain in comfortable bubbles of blasé subsistence, and thus withdrew their hand from the box?? Will we simply get lost in the memetic sea of illusion and forgot to exercise any honest measure of self-control, so that we might pay honest concern to the Mother who bore us???
Surely if we have come this far… Then shouldn’t we go all the way? Perhaps it’s time to put the expensive, week long holidays abroad on hold, and instead put solar panels on your roof? Perhaps it’s time to avoid all plastic packaging, and buy your food from a local farm that is slightly further out of town than the immediate convenience of the big, unenlightened supermarket?? Shouldn’t we be discouraging the big petrol companies from digging for more oil by giving up our cars and going electric??? Or even just cycling to where we need to go if only locally??? Perhaps it’s time to consider how you want to love the children you have brought into this world… ??? Shouldn’t we give them the greatest gift of all i.e. a clean planet that can support the complex web of Life for generations to come???
As I walked through town this morning I saw, in a Building Society’s shop window, a slogan on a bill board… It simply read, “Protect what is most important.” Followed underneath, in slightly smaller writing, by the words “Car Insurance.” So I wonder… When I see the amount of this BS littering the high street, I shudder a mighty spinal wriggle. Can we still not really see that the ‘pipe’ that we are all looking at is not the ‘pipe’ itself??? As Gael García Berna’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits Of Control” mentions, “The old men in my village used to say… Everything changes by the colour of the glass you see it through… You don’t think that’s true? Everything’s imagined…” Then, a moment later, he adds… “Do you notice reflections? For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected.”
No doubt we must become what we feel we should become… I, nor anyone else, can – or even should – tell you how to be or what to do… First one must find their ‘self.’ Then, through honesty and a keen sense of observation, one can begin the formidable task of changing themselves. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.”
No doubt reality is arbitrary… And so I leave it to you to create what fate you feel should be ours… Shall we float – here in this garden of Eden – a garden that we call the Earth… Which is really a dot of lively, rare moving magic in the vast inky black void of space and time – where a select group of atoms have been given the chance to spin into an ecstasy of human Beingness – wondering at how fortunate WE ALL ARE to have won this lottery of existence… This lottery of experience… ??? Being naturally so in moderation and with ultimate concern and awareness of where we’re at in the universal pattern… ??? Or should we hang ourselves upon our own fantasies and fictions, obsessively clinging to the very thing that will bring about our concluding demise… ???
Pour en savoir plus sur René Magritte, s’il vous plaît cliquez ici.
August 11, 2010
Damn I love stats… If you don’t understand the stats, then you can really make some blindingly bad calls of judgement. Trust me… I’ve done so at university before.
So… In line with the discussion about illusions of mind i.e. illusions that we are all prone to and, thus, allow to influence the decisions we make in Life… And to demonstrate that sometimes how things initially appear – things that look so obvious upon a first glance – might not actually be what we originally thought they were… It’s no good slamming some poor bloke who didn’t commit a crime in prison, just because it looked like he did it… Seriously… That’s not justice. That’s stupidity on the prosecutor’s behalf.
Don’t believe me (seriously, it’s probably better that you don’t take my word about anything) that stats are seriously handy? Well… I call to the stand Oxford University’s Mathematical Genetics Group leader, Peter Donnelly, to explain…
To find out more about Peter Donnelly, please click here.
And to find out where I sourced this video from, please click here.
July 20, 2010
Just the other day I was going up to London on the train to see Dr Bruce Lipton give a lecture on “The Biology Of Belief.” While travelling up on the rather modern – and very quite – locomotive, I couldn’t help but notice a strange and somewhat perplexing phenomena occurring.
Basically I was gazing out of the window, watching the world pass by, as we effortlessly glided over the steal railings sturdily laid on the track below this hurtling juggernaut. Big beautiful corrugated clouds passed languidly overhead, set against the summer azure and vibrant green hues of sky and English country side. The variance of relative speed which was bestowed upon the objects closer to myself whisking by, while the more distant ones slowed down in a tapering fashion as they reached out towards the distant horizon. Raised slightly above the landscape upon the elevated foundations of the track, I had the momentary impression that I was dashing swiftly over the English country side in a fighter jet, prowling lowly over the earth’s topography to avoid any radar detection. Then “SWOOSH!” would go by another train, jolting me back into my bodily awareness. Minutes of peace, followed by sudden momentary tension, followed by peace again… All the while this movement behind the speeding train’s visual panoply ingrained itself inconspicuously in my neural net… Until we’d slow down for the next train station.
It was during these stops at the station that I noticed a curious phenomena occurring regarding the train’s ‘standing.’ I first noticed it at Tonbridge station. When the train had come to a complete stop, I gazed at one stationary traveller who was waiting for another train to arrive. She seemed to be engrossed in a book of some sort… However, she possessed an amazingly calm demeanour in the throng of station jostle, one that I found to be exceptionally engrossing and somewhat soothing in comparison to the past rush of country side imagery. While gazing at her, I noticed that the train felt like it was moving backwards slightly. However, observing the weekend revellers clambering through the open doors behind and in front of me, blasé to this ‘obvious’ point, I then remembering the strict rules that all railway companies adhered to i.e. making sure that all trains have come to a complete stand still before allowing passengers to embark. So I knew this couldn’t be the case… Well, only unless the station master was severely negligent of his duties… And perhaps the train driver hadn’t applied the brakes properly… !?
So I lined up a speck of dirt soiled to the window and held my head steady as I pin-pointed its position on an external cable, running from floor to ceiling, on the station wall. This, I hoped, would allow me to see if any horizontal movement was actually occurring or not. But the speck remained fixedly over the cable. Still, the sensation that we were moving backwards was overwhelming. Certainly none of the passengers boarding the train seemed to mind this insubstantial backward glide. “So,” I thought, “why should I?” And off we went once again, rushing over the earth towards the next station at Hildenborough.
Trees darted in front of my field of vision, breaking up the gloriously sun lit country side behind them into speckled fragments of green pastures and lubricious skies. Again I became transfixed on this imagery… And to be fair, it wasn’t any wonder why… Having been stuck in front of a computer screen most of the past week, this new window on the world enticed my visual cortex with a appeasing pattern that was as mesmerising and primal as the dancing flames of a night fire. Onwards we all hurtled, speeding towards the city limits, lost in the steady flow of time’s passage and the world’s movement.
Slowly we pulled into Hildenborough, greeted with the gleeful smiles and colourful attires of those patiently waiting for the future promise at the end of the line… Here a marvellous oak caught my attention, as its boughs swayed steadily in the light warm breeze, smattering the sun’s light that was breaking through it’s branches into a shimmering display of green and golden warmth. As might eyes rested on this delight, I again had the distinct impression that the train was moving backwards on the lines. This time feeling slightly apathetic towards this sensation and the effect it might have on boarding passengers, I aligned up the same window speck with another external object. And low an behold… The train was not moving in the slightest. In fact, as a young girl sat down next to me, I nodded in greeting and asked her if it felt like the train was moving. To which she placed her baggage overhead in the racks, sat down and proceeded to look out of the windows for a reference. After several moments, she replied that we were “very stationary” and smiled, saying that I probably had “motion residue” from the previous journey.
Motion residue… Wow! I had never heard of it before. And then I remembered all those times I had been on fair ground rides that span one round and round and round. Disembarking from these amusements, the ride attendant would always urge everyone to watch their step as the walked down the steps to a sure footing on solid ground. For moments afterwards the world would spinning slightly, and usually in the other direction to the way the ride was geared. Even spinning around on the spot, swirling faster and faster into a dizzying rush of blurred movement, could induce a similar effect. So I replied to the girl, “What… You mean like the effect one gets after spinning on the spot?” To which she replied, “Exactly!” And then told me about her experience of how the ground wobbled while standing on the shores of France having just ridden across the English Channel in a small boat during a Force 8.
At every stop there after we looked at stationary objects and noted with joyful presence the degree to which the train seemed like it was moving. We even had a little lad of not more than 10, who was sitting in front of us, join in our game.
This got me thinking once again about illusions and how we, as human beings, are so prone to perceiving things that are not really happening. And upon my return home, I looked up this phenomena and came across the following article in Scientific American.
Using aftereffects to probe visual function reveals how the eye and brain handle colors and contours.
Although our perception of the world seems effortless and instantaneous, it actually involves considerable image processing, as we have noted in many of our previous columns. Curiously enough, much of the current scientific understanding of that process is based on the study of visual illusions.
Analysis and resolution of an image into distinct features begin at the earliest stages of visual processing. This was discovered in cats and monkeys by a number of techniques, the most straightforward of which was to use tiny needles—microelectrodes—to pick up electrical signals from cells in the retina and the areas of the brain associated with vision (of which there are nearly 30). By presenting various visual targets to monitored animals, investigators learned that cells in early-processing brain areas are each sensitive mainly to changes in just one visual parameter, not to others. For instance, in the primary visual cortex (V1, also called area 17), the main feature extracted is the orientation of edges. In the area known as V4 in the temporal lobes, cells react to color (or, strictly speaking, to wavelengths of light, with different cells responding to different wavelengths). Cells in the area called MT are mainly interested in direction of movement.
One characteristic of these cells that may seem surprising is that their activity when stimulated is not constant. A neuron that responds to red, for instance, will initially fire vigorously but taper off over time as it adapts, or “fatigues,” from steady exposure. Although part of this adaptation may result from depletion of neurotransmitters, it also likely reflects the evolutionary logic that the goal of the cell is to signal change rather than a steady state (that is, if nothing changes, there is literally nothing for the cell to get excited about).
How do we know that such cells also exist in humans? Simply put, we descended from apelike ancestors, and there is no reason why we would have lost those cells during evolution. But we can also infer the existence (and properties) of feature-detecting cells in humans from the results of psychological experiments in which the short-term viewing of one pattern very specifically alters the perception of a subsequently viewed pattern.
For example, if you watch a waterfall for a minute and then transfer your gaze to the grass on the ground below, the grass will seem to move uphill. This illusion occurs because the brain normally interprets motion in a scene from the ratio of activity among cells responding to different directions of movement. (Similarly, the wide range of hues you see on the screen of your television set is based on the relative activity of tiny dots reflecting just three colors—red, green and blue.) By gazing at the waterfall, you fatigue the cells for downward movement; when you then look at a stationary image, the higher baseline of activity in the upward-motion cells results in a ratio that is interpreted as the grass going up. The illusion implies that the human brain must have such feature-detecting cells because of the general dictum that “if you can fatigue it, it must be there.” (This is only a rule of thumb. One of us “adapted” to the dreadful climate and food in England, but there are no “weather cells” or “food-quality cells” in his brain.)
The waterfall effect (or motion aftereffect, as it is also known) was first noted by Aristotle. Unfortunately, as pointed out by 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell, Aristotle was a good observer but a poor experimenter, allowing his preconceived notions to influence his observations. He believed, erroneously, that the motion aftereffect was a form of visual inertia, a tendency to continue seeing things move in the same direction because of the inertia of some physical movement stimulated in the brain. He assumed, therefore, that the grass would seem to move downward as well—as if to continue to mimic the movement of the waterfall! If only he had spent a few minutes observing and comparing the apparent movements of the waterfall and the grass, he would not have made the mistake—but experiments were not his forte. (He also proclaimed that women have fewer teeth than men, never having bothered to count Mrs. Aristotle’s teeth.)
The principle of motion adaptation isn’t all that different from the one illustrated by the color aftereffect. Stare at the fixation spot in ‘a’ between the two vertically aligned squares—the top one red, the bottom one green. After a min ute, look at the blank gray screen in ‘b.’ You should see a ghostly bluish-green square where the red used to fall in your visual field and a reddish square where the green used to be. The effect is especially powerful if you blink your eyes.
This color-adaptation aftereffect occurs mainly in the retina. The eye has three receptor pigments–for red, green and blue—each of which is optimally (but not exclusively) excited by one wavelength. Light that contains all wavelengths and thereby stimulates all three receptors equally yields a ratio that the brain interprets as white. If your red color receptors become fatigued from staring at a red square, then when you look at a field of white or light gray, the ratio of activation shifts in favor of greenish blue, which is what you see.
Orientation adaptation, discovered by Colin Blakemore, then at the University of Cambridge, is another striking example of this phenomenon, except that (like the waterfall effect) it occurs in the brain, not the eye. Stare at the anticlockwise-tilted lines in ‘c’ for a minute (while moving fixation within the central disk) and then transfer your gaze to the vertical lines in ‘d.’ You will be startled to find the vertical lines tilted in the opposite direction, clockwise. This perception allows the inference that orientation-specific cells do exist in the human brain: the adaptation to tilt “tilts” the balance of activity among the orientation-specific neurons, favoring those that are attuned to the opposite, clockwise direction.
Even more exciting was Celeste McCollough’s discovery during the early 1960s, while on sabbatical from Oberlin College, of “double duty” cells in humans. Her experiments showed that in addition to cells that respond specifically to a color or an orientation, there are cells that respond only to a line that is both tilted and colored appropriately (that is, a cell for “red line tilted 45 degrees clockwise” or for “green line tilted 10 degrees anticlockwise,” and so on).
Look at ‘e’ (horizontal black and red bars) for 10 seconds, moving your eyes around the central fixation (don’t keep staring just at the fixation) and then at ‘f’ (vertical green and black bars) for 10 seconds. Alternate between them about 10 times each. By doing so, you tire all the color receptors in your retina about equally. If you then look at white paper, you see white—no colors. But an astonishing thing happens if you look at ‘g’ and ‘h,’ which consist of black and white horizontal or vertical bars. (Move your eyes back and forth betweeen them.) The white horizontal lines now look tinged green and the vertical ones red! The effect is even more striking if you look at the patchwork quilt (‘i’).
Why does this happen? The McCollough effect suggests that subsequent to the retinal processing, some cells in the brain’s visual pathway extract two features along independent dimensions simultaneously. For simplicity, assume there are just four types of these cells: red-vertical, green-vertical, red-horizontal and green-horizontal. Because ‘e’ fatigues only the red-horizontal cells, you are left with nonfatigued green-horizontal cells, which are then relatively active when you look at white horizontal stripes. Consequently, the white horizontal stripes look greenish; ‘f’ has the reverse effect on the cells: because green-vertical cells have been selectively adapted, white vertical stripes now appear reddish. But none of these aftereffects occurs when you look at blank white paper because your eye movements ensure that all color receptors are equally stimulated on the retina, whereas cortical cells that have an orientation specificity are not stimulated.
Therefore, with a 10-minute experiment, we have shown the existence of neurons in the brain that require the joint presence of a specific color and orientation to fire. The adaptation effects that result from fatiguing them are called contingent aftereffects. The McCollough effect is an orientation-contingent color aftereffect.
A peculiar aspect of the McCollough effect is that once it has been generated in your brain, it can survive for a long period. Look again next week, and the stripes may very well continue to look red- or green-tinged. (The strength of the aftereffect normally ebbs gradually over time, unless you are submerged in darkness, in which case it endures undiminished!) It has therefore been suggested that contingent aftereffects have more in common with memory and learning than with purely visual adaptation. It is as though during the initial adaptation (or exposure) phase, the brain were saying, “Every time I see horizontal stripes, there’s too much red in the world, so let’s pay less attention to red. Whereas every time I see vertical stripes, I see too much green. So let me damp down the green when I am shown vertical white stripes and damp down red when I see horizontal white.” (In the same way, your brain says, “Any time I set foot into the hot tub, it’s hot, so let me recalibrate my temperature judgment accordingly. I’ll expect it to be hot and won’t withdraw my foot in surprise.”)
It has been shown that certain drugs (including caffeine) can enhance the persistence of the McCollough effect. The phenomenon deserves further study as a way of approaching the neurochemistry of perceptual mechanisms. Visual aftereffects may thus give us insights not only into the neural channels that mediate perception but also into the neural—and possibly pharmacological—basis of memory and learning.
By Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran
No doubt other illusions use similar effect with regards to the colour receptors in the eye…
It still amazes me just how easily this body of ours can be deceived, so as to perceive and deduce one fact, while ‘really’ something rather different is actually happening. !?!?
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
July 2, 2010
“Phenomena as they appear and resound
Are neither established nor real
Since they keep changing in all possible and various manners
Just like appearances in magical illusions.”
June 15, 2010
Just a moment ago a friend sent me a link to an article in Scientific American entitled “The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire.” As I’m particularly interested in delusions that spring forth from varied perceptive stances, or illusions that stem from blind spots within biomechanical processes within the mind, as well as illusions i.e. optical illusions and perceptual distortions, I’m posting this article here, as I feel it pertinently stands to remind us all about how something can sometimes seem greater than it actually is… Or closer than it really might be… Or even stranger than it really is.
Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.
This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example,researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?
Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).
These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.
Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” – two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.
Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.
The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.
In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.