May 11, 2013
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Bearing in mind the recent posts here that relate to the notion of a “self“… And thinking about our strongly ingrained consumeristic tendencies in this multimedia age of memetic supremacy… Not to mention our general herd-like behavioural patterns that we all (no matter who we are) get lost in from time to time i.e. at base: if Mr. Smith has an Audi, then so should I… I found myself walking past someone in need the other day without considering to help them.
I was in hurry to get to the bank in order to pay in some cheques I’d received for a bill that had already been paid out from my family’s business account. During the 20 minute march from my front door to the bank, I was focused on getting the cheques paid in so that we wouldn’t go over-drawn. While totally focused on my goal, I dodged families in the park next door (smiling kindly to the children who we dashing down the paths on scooters), crossed traffic laden roads (thanking the drivers who waited for me to cross the road before nuzzling up to the car in front’s bumper a couple of meters away), avoided teenagers walking four abreast on the pavement with no intention to reconfigure to give fair way to other passers by… And I also missed the old lady who was having a hard time bending down after she’d dropped her credit card by the “hole in the wall”.
“Tick-tock” my wrist watch clanged in my mind as I pictured the seconds fluttering past, which drove on the minutes towards a final cascade of closing steel shutters and possible bank charges for going overdrawn. Then, at least five paces further down the road and faced with a person burdened with shopping bags, I wondered why… ?
That’s when I realised what I had done. I had completely missed what had been (and probably still was) happening directly to my right (and back a bit now). The old lady… She had been devilishly having a hard time, clutching her handbag and walking stick in one frail, white hand while trying to defeat the stiffness of her back and legs so as to pick up her card to try to make her weekly withdrawal. I had seen it all unfolding in such obvious detail and clarity and, yet, something in my mind had found reason to overlook the simple bit of aid that I could have given to someone that wouldn’t have taken more than a minute of my time.
“BANK CHARGES!” rang through my mind… So I looked at my watch before I even turned around. I had 10 minutes left to get to the bank. Briefly I spun around to glance at the lady… Someone who had been waiting by the bus stop next to the cash point had noticed and had come to her aid. “Phew,” I thought as I marched on determined to get to where I needed to be. Still, while checking along, I suddenly remembered a few other incidents I had missed in and around Brighton recently due to “pressing” appointments I had had to keep. None of these, I reasoned, would have taken more than a minute or two of my time to offer a friendly hand to help. But even more pressing was the fact that I was totally amazed at the clarity of detail I could recall about the incidents of people to help, especially as I was “somewhere” else in mind. !?
Yes, we all have businesses to run. But, with a bit more awareness about what’s going on around us each moment and a bit better planning (so we don’t leave the proverbial bank run till last thing in the day), we might well find time to offer help where (and when) it is needed.
Bearing this in mind, I remembered a TED talk that Daniel Goleman gave on compassion back in 2007… And I’d like to share it here with anyone passing by… Hoping they have a few minutes to spare.
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To find out where I sourced the above video from, please click here.
To find out more about Daniel Goleman, please visit here his website by clicking here.
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 26, 2012
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The other day I posted a brief essay (of sorts) that continued my investigation into this notion that many of us have about our ‘self’… For over five years now I have been fortunate (or, some may say, unfortunate) enough to stumble upon many ‘seemingly’ unusual and/or socially counter-intuitive views to many Westernised ways or styles of thinking about things… These alternatives, being anything but wrong, from my perspective, have pushed my boat out way beyond what much of Western psychology and philosophy has ‘reasonably’ presumed about the universe in which we live… As well as how we, as sentient beings, relate to it. These ideas have – to say the least – drastically challenged my own personalised philosophies and ideas about what reality might actually be, as well as how I choose to live my life… Not to mention they have changed the way I think about nearly everything I thought I knew anything about i.e. social etiquette, certain scientific knowledge, logical reasoning, etc… doing so to the point that most of the certainties that I had stubbornly held on to over the years have now shown themselves to be – on the whole – nothing more than delusions that are about just as uncertain and biased towards their (or even my) own ends as Russell’s and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” might have been theirs when set aside Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems”.
Be it known… It has certainly never been my intention to undermine any of our Westernised ways of thinking, or any of our socially acceptable habits of being and/or notions of perceiving the world around us. Rather, my aim has always been to challenge any dogmatic certainties that we might have held cradled a bit to close to our psyches (much like Linus’ security/comfort blanket in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips) and/or any overly cherished ‘certainties‘ that we may harbour in our ever-changing mind-streams while going about our busy daily lives on the surface of this planet… A jewel of a planet that ‘floats’ – almost miraculously – in an inky black void amidst a cornucopia of never ending universal changes (stars and galaxies being born and then die). Certainly the universe around us never rests for one second. It always resides in a continual state of unending change. Nothing… And I mean nothing, ever remains the same for very long, let alone for ever. So why should we hold on to any certainties… ? Or live clinging to securities that one day the universe will snatch away from us?
Within this state of perpetual change there lies the natural ebb and flow of chaotic patterns that intermingle, interrelate and feedback upon each other, allowing more complex systems to evolve and/or arise within the non-linear tapestry of atomic inter-reactivity, instability and the resulting conjoined possibilities. These biological frames of living matter (that we call our bodies) are a testament to this natural arising of life and, as such, I have searched both high and low to formulate a clearer sort of reasoning/understanding (at least for my ‘self‘) so as to better understand/perceive the natural order of things (regardless of what the generalised consensus might be), as well as to be able to better to relate to this experience of being a so-called ‘living’ entity.
I am humbled to say that, during this search, I have found many other philosophies and understandings that closely relate to my own, all with minor variations that procure a sort of diversity and, yet, still point towards a sort of perennial philosophy. From these various ‘schools of thought’ I have learnt many pertinent things, as well as been afforded a chance to develop and attune further my own understanding and attitude toward life. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his cryptic lecture “Analogy As The Core Of Cognition“, I continually found my ‘self’ observing a type of affine universal self-similarity between these various ways of thinking… Something that kept reminding me of what some have kept calling “God’s Thumb Print“… Which has allowed me to see a part of the infinite whole and realise that it is all interrelated and interconnected to everything… And it was this interrelatedness that eventually brought me into contact with some highly perceptive and well developed philosophies concerning the natural order of things, the mind and how we perceive things, as seen in “Taoism” and “Buddhism”.
For me, Buddhism has been the most fascinating of all the philosophies that I have learnt about. It’s central doctrines all highlight the most important – and sometimes much overlooked – aspects of living i.e. everything changes – nothing stays the same (impermanence), everything is interconnected to everything else – we are interdependent to everything else (interdependence), mind is all pervasive – our states of mind have a very powerful effect on the way in which we perceive the world around us i.e. the power of mind can do some very ‘supernatural’ things, like changing the shape of the brain, affecting the subtle energy channels within the body to produce highly unusual results and, not least, Thích Quảng Đức, who was the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death without any display of pain or suffering at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 in protest to the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government… As well as developing awareness, especially to our states of mind as they arise and subside, which is the key to finding a balanced and holistic way of living, one that propagates the most well being for all and one’s ‘self’.
As such, I still come back to Buddhism everyday to find new (though they are, in actual fact, near on 2,600 years old) and highly relevant teachings (and/or parallels) about how to understand and relate to this experience of living for positive effect. Many of the Buddhist philosophies that I have learnt about very much mirror some of the scientific philosophies that have recently surface (or have been re-discovered) and, as such, I find a great source of wisdom and inspiration within its bountiful depths. As a sort of testament to Buddhism’s universal usefulness there seems to be a sort of general acceptance within the NHS that Buddhist techniques can actually help people, especially when dealing with much of the anxiety and depression we find in the modern world. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the NHS – here in the UK – now offers mindfulness training, which really seems to helping people cultivate and develop better awareness in their lives, surroundings and ways of being… But, despite this adoption of Buddhist practises by the UK’s health service, a lot of the most important parts to mindfulness training seem to have been skirted over and simply ignored…
Why is this? Well… For starters, many of the eminent Masters who have practised meditation and mindfulness for many “lifetimes” (reincarnation being a subject that I will broach in a coming post) just don’t seem to be included in the scientific equation… No doubt some already are being included, but many are not… Though more importantly, the NHS are not contacting those who are properly educated in mindfulness to seek their advise on how best to implement a course that teaches mindfulness. Perhaps the ‘solid’ scientific background that seems to confidently back-up modern medicine with facts and figures just doesn’t hold the Karmapa or Dali Lama in high regard as contemporaries who were formally trained in their own self-accredited universities of reason and knowledge and, thus, lack the relevant degrees to substantiate passing on their knowledge and wisdom to those in modern Westernised academia… ? Or maybe the deliberate shrouding of many Buddhist practises by the monks and Lamas themselves only adds to the stigma of religious mysticism that already surrounds Buddhism here in the West… ? Either way, the only way to dispel this somewhat ignorant (maybe even arrogant) outlook that the West has about Buddhism is to mention that, what many people fail to understand is, both the Karmapa and Dali Lama have trained harder and longer in these ancient techniques of mindfulness and awareness than any graduate or PhD would or could have done in their respective fields over the course of their lives, making them by far the foremost teachers in their unique disciplines of mindfulness and awareness training. Neither is Buddhism a religion in the traditional sense… Rather, I would say that it is a highly developed philosophy and science of mind, one that has been crafted from years of practise, whereby each exponent has experimented with many techniques until those that work (in developing mindfulness) are recorded and practised diligently by further lineages, all that directly stem back to the Gautama Buddha.
Until this is clearly grasped by many of us, for me, the NHS beginning to train people in mindfulness without proper guidance is a bit like a novice (who has no formal training in the subject) teaching student something that they are not really qualified to teach. Imagine someone – who has no formal training in science whatsoever – however they note that quantum physics actually shows us a lot about the way in which the world works around us (on a mechanical level) – and, yet, then goes on to ignore most of the relevant details behind it, only using snippets of information that seem to suite their own ends i.e. like showing the Double-Slit Experiment and then stating to a student that this clearly demonstrates the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena, and then awarding them a degree. Okay… But what happened to the rest of the data that those researching and studying quantum physical events in proper academia have discovered over many years of research, all of which helps the student develop a deeply penetrating idea that leads to a more coherent and complete picture of the whole of quantum mechanics, so that they can continue the complicated and arduous research at the cutting edge of discovery to help as many others as is possible? For sure, people have to start somewhere… But I strongly feel that they should start as they mean to go on i.e. learn from the people who know what they are talking about.
On a less critical note… At least the NHS is beginning to realise that the mind is a powerful tool that can help heal itself without the need for medical or pharmacological intervention most of the time. Perhaps this will be akin to modern medicine taking the first steps in a philosophy where the patient might well be better and more equipped to treat themselves rather than a doctor (in many instances), especially if given the right teachings and practises to perform… ?
As part of this lifetime journey with Buddhism, I will continue to write entries in this website about what I find and discover along the way. Certainly there is no other aim to this practise other that to arrange and present my thoughts to another who might be interested in reading about what I have to say. As such, I must stress that, while I do my best to make sure that the information provided within these pages is as correct and accurate (from my own perspective) as can be, I am nonetheless a novice. And, so, I would never use anything that I have written here as fact without checking it out for yourself and finding what you really think and feel about it first. Most who have been following the entries in this website for sometime already know my wariness of anything procuring ultimate fact or certainty. As Lord Byron was once noted to have said, “If I be a fool, it is, at least, that I be a doubting one; for I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom…” And as Einstein once said about mathematics, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” As such, I find myself resigned to a continual modification of what I think I know, turning it continually around so as to be able to view it from every possible angle in order to see whether there are any gaps in it… And, as I trawl through the mountains of research that comes my way, I find snippets that offer a ‘possible’ insight, or fit, for some of those gaps… Still, there will always be gaps… Just like with the length of Britain’s coastline being dependent on its length, so too will there be gaps in our understanding that will always somehow leave the puzzle of consciousness, at least for myself, never quite answered entirely… Slightly clearer it may seem than what most of us originally started with… But never complete. Only direct experience will bring about completion.
So, until total, completely pure, immersive and direct experience is achieved, one that can transcend dualistic thought altogether… I continue with my conceptualised trains of thought and make the following offering that might shed a tiny bit of light on how and why the notion of a “self” could come about, one that perhaps evolved (and was naturally selected for) over time in the cellular infrastructure of our brains.
Just the other month, as I was thinking about some of the other unusual aspects about the ‘self’ (of which I will write more about in future posts), while painting the BIG green doors outside, I came across the following New Scientist article that was stuck to the bottom of my paint can, covered in gently arcing streaks of sticky green paint. It was the word “consciousness” that caught my eye… So, prising it gently from the base of the tin, the article’s front page slowly began to reveal itself. Once it was free from the can’s underside, most of the article was still obscured by vibrant rounded strips of summery Buckingham Green, most of which obscured enough of the article to make it unreadable. Thus I took it to the kitchen table and gently wiped it clean with a spirit soaked rag. As the thick streaks of paint slowly spread across the page, covering some of the clean text, the whole became more legible… The green was becoming so thinned that anything printed underneath could now be clearly seen. Once I could read most of the text, I set it aside in the bright heat of the sun and left its wet, soft pulp to dry into a manageable form as I painted another coat of green onto the old barn’s doors.
Not too long after finishing the last over coat, the page was ready to finger… And so I set about to my usual morning ritual of having a cup of tea in the cool morning breeze while taking cover under the waning shade of the granary’s hulking form, as I set about reading the somewhat shabby pea green, but now legible, article that had been rescued from certain doom… And this is what I read…
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Are These The Brain Cells That Give Us Consciousness?
The brainiest creatures share a secret – an odd kind of brain cell involved in emotions and empathy that may have accidentally made us conscious
THE origin of consciousness has to be one of the biggest mysteries of all time, occupying philosophers and scientists for generations. So it is strange to think that a little-known neuroscientist called Constantin von Economo might have unearthed an important clue nearly 90 years ago.
When he peered down the lens of his microscope in 1926, von Economo saw a handful of brain cells that were long, spindly and much larger than those around them. In fact, they looked so out of place that at first he thought they were a sign of some kind of disease. But the more brains he looked at, the more of these peculiar cells he found – and always in the same two small areas that evolved to process smells and flavours.
Von Economo briefly pondered what these “rod and corkscrew cells”, as he called them, might be doing, but without the technology to delve much deeper he soon moved on to more promising lines of enquiry.
Little more was said about these neurons until nearly 80 years later when, Esther Nimchinsky and Patrick Hof at Mount Sinai University in New York also stumbled across clusters of these strange-looking neurons. Now, after more than a decade of functional imaging and post-mortem studies, we are beginning to piece together their story. Certain lines of evidence hint that they may help build the rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships.
Many other big-brained, social animals also seem to share these cells, in the same spots as the human brain. A greater understanding of the way these paths converged could therefore tell us much about the evolution of the mind.
Admittedly, to the untrained eye these giant brain cells, now known as von Economo neurons (VENs), don’t look particularly exciting. But to a neuroscientist they stand out like a sore thumb. For one thing, VENs are at least 50 per cent, and sometimes up to 200 per cent, larger than typical human neurons. And while most neurons have a pyramid-shaped body with a finely branched tree of connections called dendrites at each end of the cell, VENs have a longer, spindly cell body with a single projection at each end with very few branches (see diagram below). Perhaps they escaped attention for so long because they are so rare, making up just 1 per cent of the neurons in the two small areas of the human brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex.
Their location in those regions suggests that VENs may be a central part of our mental machinery, since the ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of our inner lives. Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain or simply the voice of someone we love. When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief. For John Allman, a neuroanatomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, this adds up to a kind of “social monitoring network” that keeps track of social cues and allows us to alter our behaviour accordingly (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1225, p 59).
The two brain areas also seem to play a key role in the “salience” network, which keeps a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and directs our attention to the most pressing events, as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes (Brain Structure and Function, DOI: 10.1007/s00429-012-0382-9).
What’s more, both regions are active when a person recognises their reflection in the mirror, suggesting that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self – a key component of consciousness. “It is the sense of self at every possible level – so the sense of identity, this is me, and the sense of identity of others and how you understand others. That goes to the concept of empathy and theory of mind,” says Hof.
To Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, it all amounts to a continually updated sense of “how I feel now”: the ACC and FI take inputs from the body and tie them together with social cues, thoughts and emotions to quickly and efficiently alter our behaviour (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 10, p 59).
This constantly shifting picture of how we feel may contribute to the way we perceive the passage of time. When something emotionally important is happening, Craig proposes, there is more to process, and because of this time seems to speed up. Conversely, when less is going on we update our view of the world less frequently, so time seems to pass more slowly.
VENs are probably important in all this, though we can only infer their role through circumstantial evidence. That’s because locating these cells, and then measuring their activity in a living brain hasn’t yet been possible. But their unusual appearance is a signal that they probably aren’t just sitting there doing nothing. “They stand out anatomically,” says Allman, “And a general proposition is that anything that’s so distinctive looking must have a distinct function.”
In the brain, big usually means fast, so Allman suggests that VENs could be acting as a fast relay system – a kind of social superhighway – which allows the gist of the situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively on the hop, a crucial survival skill in a social species like ours. “That’s what all of civilisation is based on: our ability to communicate socially, efficiently,” adds Craig.
A particularly distressing form of dementia that can strike people as early as their 30s supports this idea. People who develop fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease, when the main symptom is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy and self-control. “They don’t have normal empathic responses to situations that would normally make you disgusted or sad,” says Hof. “You can show them horrible pictures of an accident and they just don’t blink. They will say ‘oh, yes, it’s an accident’.”
Post-mortem examinations of the brains of people with autism also bolster the idea that VENs lie at the heart of our emotions and empathy. According to one recent study, people with autism may fall into two groups: some have too few VENs, perhaps meaning that they don’t have the necessary wiring to process social cues, while others have far too many (Acta Neuropathologica, vol 118, p 673). The latter group would seem to fit with one recent theory of autism, which proposes that the symptoms may arise from an over-wiring of the brain. Perhaps having too many VENs makes emotional systems fire too intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed, as many say they do.
Another recent study found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes. The researchers suggest that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness (PLoS One, vol 6, p e20936).
VENs in other animals provide some clues, too. When these neurons were first identified, there was the glimmer of hope that we might have found one of the key evolutionary changes, unique to humankind, that could explain our social intelligence. But the earliest studies put paid to that kind of thinking, when VENs turned up in chimpanzees and gorillas. In recent years, they have also been found in elephants and some whales and dolphins.
Like us, many of these species live in big social groups and show signs of the same kind of advanced behaviour associated with VENs in people. Elephants, for instance, display something that looks a lot like empathy: they work together to help injured, lost or trapped elephants, for example. They even seem to show signs of grief at elephant “graveyards” (Biology Letters, vol 2, p 26). What’s more, many of these species can recognise themselves in the mirror, which is usually taken as a rudimentary measure of consciousness. When researchers daub paint on an elephant’s face, for instance, it will notice the mark in the mirror and try to feel the spot with its trunk. This has led Allman and others to speculate that von Economo neurons might be a vital adaptation in large brains for keeping track of social situations – and that the sense of self may be a consequence of this ability.
Yet VENs also crop up in manatees, hippos and giraffes – not renowned for their busy social lives. The cells have also been spotted in macaques, which don’t reliably pass the mirror test, although they are social animals. Although this seems to put a major spanner in the works for those who claim that the cells are crucial for advanced cognition, it could also be that these creatures are showing the precursors of the finely tuned cells found in highly social species. “I think that there are homologues of VENs in all mammals,” says Allman. “That’s not to say they’re shaped the same way but they are located in an analogous bit of cortex and they are expressing the same genes.”
It would make sense, after all, that whales and primates might both have recycled, and refined, older machinery present in a common ancestor rather than independently evolving the same mechanism. Much more research is needed, however, to work out the anatomical differences and the functions of these cells in the different animals.
That work might even help us understand how these neurons evolved in the first place. Allman already has some ideas about where they came from. Our VENs reside in a region of the brain that evolved to integrate taste and smell, so he suggests that many of the traits now associated with the FI evolved from the simple act of deciding whether food is good to eat or likely to make your ill. When reaching that decision, he says, the quicker the “gut” reaction kicks in the better. And if you can detect this process in others, so much the better.
“One of the important functions that seems to reside in the FI has to do with empathy,” he says. “My take on this is that empathy arose in the context of shared food – it’s very important to observe if members of your social group are becoming ill as a result of eating something.” The basic feeding circuity, including the rudimentary VENs, may then have been co-opted by some species to work in other situations that involve a decision, like working out if a person is trustworthy or to be avoided. “So when we have a feeling, whether it be about a foodstuff or situation or another person, I think that engages the circuitry in the fronto-insular cortex and the VENS are one of the outputs of that circuitry,” says Allman.
Allman’s genetics work suggests he may be on to something. His team found that VENs in one part of the FI are expressing the genes for hormones that regulate appetite. There are also a lot of studies showing links between smell and taste and the feelings of strong emotions. Our physical reaction to something we find morally disgusting, for example, is more or less identical to our reaction to a bitter taste, suggesting they may share common brain wiring (Science, vol 323, p 1222). Other work has shown that judging a morally questionable act, such as theft, while smelling something disgusting leads to harsher moral judgements (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096). What’s more, Allman points out that our language is loaded with analogies – we might find an experience “delicious”, say, or a person “nauseating”. This is no accident, he says.
However, it is only in highly social animals that VENs live exclusively in the scent and taste regions. In the others, like giraffes and hippos, VENs seem to be sprinkled all over the brain. Allman, however, points out that these findings may be a red herring, since without understanding the genes they express, or their function, we can’t even be sure how closely these cells relate to human VENs. They may even be a different kind of cell that just looks similar.
Based on the evidence so far, however, Hof thinks that the ancestral VENs would have been more widespread, as seen in the hippo brain, and that over the course of evolution they then migrated to the ACC and FI in some animals, but not others – though he admits to having no idea why that might be. He suspects the pressures that shaped the primate brain may have been very different to those that drove the evolution of whales and dolphins.
Craig has hit upon one possibility that would seem to fit all of these big-brained animals. He points out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. A system that continually monitors the environment and the people or animals in it would therefore be an asset, allowing you to adapt quickly to a situation to save as much energy as possible. “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the body but the sensory inputs from the brain,” Craig says. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. “Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilisation and that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”
If he’s right – and there is a long way to go before we can be sure – it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might have been a big, and very successful accident.
This article has been edited since it was first posted
Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK
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To find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.
OR to learn a bit more about the author, please visit her LinkedIn profile page by clicking 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.
June 2, 2012
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A few months back I watched a three part BBC documentary, entitled “The Code.” In this documentary Professor Marcus du Sautoy – the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science – discussed and demonstrated how our world is underpinned by a myriad of patterns and rhythms, all of which inter-react and inter-relate to one another in sometimes obvious, but mainly not so obvious, ways… However, when we logically work through these anomalies via modes of mathematical inquiry, after much study (so as not to make assumptions based on pure inference alone) we can quite discernibly trace out the workings behind most of their seemingly undefinable methods of unfolding. Thus, through this penetrating gaze of mathematical scrutiny, we can tell a lot about the processes of the world in which we live… As well as how we ourselves – as biological systems that are also based on mathematical unfolding – relate to the world around us.
While my partner is undoubtedly not a fan of Professor du Sautoy – mainly because of what she calls his slightly fanatical slant on how everything mathematical is so utterly amazing and, thus, must be the ‘main’ (if not, only) reason why we are all here – I must say that I still rather enjoy the way he meditates upon complex mathematical subjects and, yet, still manages to bring across a deeply penetrating and intricate understanding about how many universal processes – most of which seem to have no obvious explanation – function and unfold around us and/or within us in such a way that even a layman could grasp the blatant consequence of what these little insights demonstrate to us about our place here in the cosmos.
Still, quirky mannerisms aside, there is one important point in particular that Professor du Sautoy decidedly highlights in this series… One that, at least for me, seems to conspicuously stand apart from the rest. Why? Because it is a finding that, in my eyes, shows us how important everyone’s perspective here on Earth actually is to everyone else, no matter how outlandish or wild it might sound or seem… Especially to those of us who are looking for an answer to something specific.
But, more to the point, what probably makes this point even more fascinating for me is the fact that… Perhaps if it is used wisely by us all, it might allow every human being to gain a more accurate and compassionate insight into many of the most important questions that we all have concerning our existence here on Earth… About what our consciousness actually is… Along with how we perceive ourselves via processes of mind in the daily experience of being human. I mean… What more ‘just’ and ‘ethical’ a way to achieve a better understanding about who we are, than to ask for every individual’s perspective on the subject… Doing so, regardless of how absurd it may sound to any one of us from our own perspective… ?
Sure… To some it might well sound like a recipe for total disaster… One that could only blur and obfuscate our vision of what unknown quantity might actually be… I mean, can you imagine the notion of a God in an atheist’s understanding of how the world came about? Or how Darwin’s ideas on evolution well might go down at creationist meeting? But, even so, this process of asking everyone their opinion never seems to throw the accuracy of any answer derived from this process out. In fact, only when every answer is taken into account, does the accuracy of such a method become clear. And, for me, it is this very fact that demonstrates how all encompassing this method might well be for providing answers to some of the most important questions we could ask.
Perhaps I would even go so far as to say that, because of the promise that this idea holds for finding many accurate interpretations to many of Life’s conundrums and anomalies (Gods, scientific facts, philosophical conundrums, legends, myths and all the more) for us all, we should perhaps be as aware of it as we are of anything that we hold in high esteem and/or regard… Because, by coming together and placing our views into a melting pot of difference, no matter how disparate these views might well seem when set against one another’s… We should always achieve an answer that would be more accurately reflective of what is the actual case… And, thus, when everyone’s view is taken into account, we should all also be able to relate to the answer better, knowing we’ve had a part to play in its unfolding. Thus, if we decide to at least understand this process a bit better, we might well be afforded a slightly better insight into how our world is created (in all aspects), as well as functions… And, so, will have everything to gain… And little to loose… !
This point, which I hope I have not blown too much out of proportion, is somewhat obviously and rather simply called the “Wisdom Of The Crowd.” And before I say any more on the subject, I will introduce this idea properly by presenting a clip from the documentary in question… One that demonstrates this phenomenon in action and the principles behind it.
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So… “The Wisdom Of The Crowd” refers to a process of taking into account the overall collective opinion of a group of individuals, rather than relying on a single expert to answer a particular question. Reason being that a large group’s aggregated answers to particular questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning have generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any isolated individuals within the group. An intuitive and often-cited explanation for this phenomenon is that there is idiosyncratic noise associated with each individuals judgement – noise that stems from the varied and multifarious individual experiences that each person has had specifically in their lifetime – and so, taking the average over a large number of responses, usually goes some way towards cancelling the effect of this noise completely.
Bearing this point in mind… When I come across people (as I have done quite a bit of late) who clearly state that they are either atheist or religious, or whatever group it is that they feel they belong to concerning some form of ideology or another… And procure an answer to some question posed that befits – from their own self-imposed view of the world – a way of thinking that the rest of the world would be best advised to adhere to… I find myself somewhat stumped. Why? Because through all the various modes of investigation that each and every individual is presently embarking upon (or not embarking upon)… Whether through the pursuit of science at a university or in a research institute… Or by striving for enlightenment while sitting in a cave (as Milarepa once did)… Or even looking to express something of Life’s wondrous magic while painting picture after picture… The very act of trying to understand what it is that we actually are – and, thus, what should be doing in respect to the whole greater picture of universal understanding, for the betterment of all – can, and should only, be properly answered (in my humble opinion) by all of us together as One.
Regardless of all the disputes that have recently come to light between all the multifarious modes of varied understanding in this memetic world of ours (whether in the name of scientific reasoning or by way of religious practise) and all the pain and aggravation that these extremist opinions and views (views that seem to always exclude someone else’s view somewhere down the line) seem to cause… They matter not a damn without another person’s validation. And even though I have rarely heard people discussing the possibility that perhaps there could be a bit of truth in each and every one of our own individual views just as much as there may be truth in someone else’s views… Perhaps we might do well to begin to understand the role that our own opinions play within the crowd of people in which we live (a crowd that is fast becoming the largest here on Earth) and thus allow ourselves all a little more room to accommodate each other’s opinions into our own egocentric speculations, even if many do sound like they could be way out there.
Still, despite the positive implications that this normalising effect ‘might’ have for us all when directing us towards an all pervading truth (and I only say ‘might’), there is much to be careful of when considering an issue as complex as this… Just as Larissa Conradt notes in her article below, entitled “Collective Behaviour: When It Pays To Share Decisions.”
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Collective Behaviour: When It Pays To Share Decisions
Theory suggests that the accuracy of a decision often increases with the number of decision makers, a phenomenon exploited by betting agents, Internet search engines and stock markets. Fish also use this ‘wisdom of the crowd’ effect.
Having trouble making a decision? The reason is that you’re probably not sure which is the best option. You seldom have perfect information, so might make a bad choice. Sharing decisions with others can help, because several decision makers can pool their information, and also eliminate individual errors. Consequently, the risk of making a mistake and settling on a bad option often decreases with the number of decision makers. For example, in court cases, juries consisting of several people are supposed to make correct decisions more often than can a single judge. In humans, there are numerous examples of this phenomenon. In social animals, the same principle should apply, but empirical demonstrations are rare.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ward et al. now show that larger shoals of fish not only make more-accurate decisions than do smaller shoals or single fish, but also make these decisions faster. In an elegantly designed experiment, combined with theoretical modelling, the authors gave mosquitofish, Gambusia holbrooki, a choice between a predator-free route and one that led past a predator model. A fish was more likely to make a correct choice (to avoid the predator model) the larger the shoal in which it swam. The size of this increase in accuracy was in close agreement with theoretical predictions. The effect did not arise because large shoals were more likely to contain one particularly clever ‘expert’ fish, which guided the others. In fact, individual fish did not differ much in their ability to make correct decisions and, moreover, were not even good at it. Thus, the authors have demonstrated a genuine ‘wisdom of the crowd’ (or, in biological terms, ‘many eyes’) effect (Fig. 1).
The increase in decision speed with shoal size is especially noteworthy, for two reasons. First, we typically expect a trade-off between decision accuracy and speed, so that decision speed decreases with increasing accuracy and vice versa. This is because more-accurate decisions usually require more information, and information gathering takes time. Second, we expect decision speed to decrease with the number of decision makers, because sharing decisions requires communication between decision makers and it seems plausible that this will also take time. Nevertheless, Ward and colleagues found that both decision speed and decision accuracy increased with the number of decision makers (that is, the number of fish in the shoal).
The reason that larger shoals managed to make not only more accurate but also faster decisions probably lies in the way information is communicated. Fish in shoals often move in a self-organized manner, whereby individuals react rapidly to the movements of close neighbours. Indeed, Ward et al. present convincing evidence that such a reaction to spatially close companions has a crucial role in the mosquitofish choice of route — pairs of fish within less than 6 centimetres of each other reacted very fast to each other’s movement changes; and a fish’s choice of route depended significantly on the average choice of close companions.
This simultaneous, self-organized system of ‘communication’ has two important features. One is that the speed with which information is exchanged is high and hardly decreases with the number of fish in the shoal. The other is that communication is decentralized: that is, information transfer can start from any shoal member. This means that overall decision speed depends crucially on the fastest decision maker(s) within the shoal. For stochastic reasons, a large shoal is more likely than a small one to contain a fish that, by chance, detects a predator relatively quickly, even if the fish do not differ in ‘expertise’.
In short, the higher likelihood of a shoal containing a fast decision maker, coupled with swift, decentralized information transfer, could explain the increase in decision speed with shoal size. However, such fast decision making usually also involves a cost, namely that of an increased risk of false positives. That is, if the fastest decision maker made a mistake (and ‘detected’ a predator that did not exist), this mistake could also be amplified, and the group might stage a costly ‘escape’ when none was necessary. The experiments of Ward and colleagues did not allow for such a situation — there was always one predator model present, and fish could either avoid it (true positive) or not (false negative). It remains to be seen whether accuracy and speed of decision making still increase together if fish are faced with a situation in which false positives are possible.
Fast and accurate decision making is highly desirable in many walks of life, for humans as well as animals. Ward and colleagues’ study shows that it can be achieved by sharing decisions widely and using a self-organized system of communication. This is, of course, exactly the strategy that has long been exploited by Internet search engines, and in this sense the mosquitofish of Ward and co-workers’ experiments are not that dissimilar from Google.
However, there are three caveats about the benefits of decision sharing. First, if the abilities of potential decision makers vary widely, it might still be better to listen to one ‘expert’. Second, there is the danger of information cascades, whereby decision makers no longer contribute independent information but instead amplify shared misconceptions. Finally, in many decisions, the goals of individual decision makers differ: that is, different members of the decision-making group favour different outcomes. In such a context, the sharing of decisions can have disadvantages as well as advantages. Although sharing might still increase the available information, it can also hand influence on the outcome to decision makers whose goals differ from your own. To date, surprisingly little is known about good decision-making strategies in these kinds of conflict situations.
by Larissa Conradt – the Department of Biology, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QG, UK.
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I feel that Larissa Conradt’s article touches on a interesting tonic to my over zealous feelings about the general “Wisdom of the Crowd”… A wisdom that apparently belongs to the humans that have recently gathered here on Earth… As she points out with regards to “false positives” relating to the decision making of mosquitofish shoals when avoiding predators, there seems – at least for me – to be a very striking and obvious similarity that parallels our own human behaviour relating to climate change and how we react to it so as to avoid any certain catastrophic consequences.
Has mankind inadvertently stumbled into a dangerous media driven frenzy of misconstrued memetic deformities? A frenzy that seems to be propagated by the few decision makers who don’t really have all the facts at their finger tips and, thus, seem to lack the general knowledge needed to guide them away from assumptions that can only be based on pure inference alone… ? I dare say that this is a very important question that needs to be answered, especially in today’s global climate of well read and well educated, media savvy inhabitants. Why? Because many of these so-called decision makers are unwitting enough not to realise the power they weld with their writing and words. Nor do the majority of these people even realise that they are acting as decision makers for many of us… In fact, I am usually only too shocked to find out how many people make decisions based on these inadvertent decision maker’s opinions.
The most powerful of these inadvertent decision makers hold esteemed positions, such as writers and reporters, in the great publishing houses and corporations of our world (whether magazines, newspapers or even television) and, having graduated in the ideals of journalism and, thus, completely having missed out the immense importance of data-analysis and/or the psychology behind misconstruing evidence or even philosophical reasoning… They do the people of the world today the greatest disservice by merely amplifying shared misconceptions about whether or not important issues such as climate change and over-population should really be addressed with the urgency that we should… As I’ve said before, our human actions are indeed bigger than all the butter fly wings in the world flapping gently on the winds while procreating… And, as such, we are on the brink of irreversibly upsetting our world’s chaotic weather patterns beyond repair. Chaos is too sensitive to this kind of brunt outburst of carelessness.
Thus I would recommend that the findings of Ward’s research into the decision making behaviour of mosquitofish should be greatly encouraged and the findings be mirrored against mankind’s present decision making strategies to overcome any assuming notions based on inference alone and, so, steer us better into future times with the a more guided view to the “Wisdom of the Crowd.”
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To find out more about the BBC documentary called “The Code,” please click here.
Or to read more about “The Wisdom Of The Crowd,” please click here.
And to find out where I sourced the Nature article from, 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.
July 21, 2010
Having recently been to Dr Bruce Lipton‘s talk, entitled “The Biology Of Belief,” which was held in the Logan Hall of the Institute Of Education in London this last Saturday, the 17th of July 2010, I had reinforced the idea that we are nothing more than a bunch of atomic mechanisms, built from atomic polymers i.e. DNA, proteins, fatty acids, etc… all arranged into intricate cellular clusters, which – given the right circumstances – can function with amazingly natural flows of Being, demonstrating what we can only call, from a self referencing point of view, natural organic movements… And over the years we have – funnily enough – coined these flows to be “Life-Like.”
I really believe that when we begin to see Life in these terms i.e. that Life as we presently know it usually results from the complex interactions of the atomic machinery within an enclosed cellular body, which, if presented with more differentiated versions of itself, can build larger bodies from highly specialised cellular clusters… And then, once in place, out of all this unfolds a nonlinear biology/biochemistry of perceptive functions, all of which came about through the process of what we now know as ‘chaos’ – rather than the result of some divine intervention – and thus becomes nothing more than a complex, naturally occurring chaotic system that ‘intelligently’ reacts and responds, through effective behavioural patterns, to external environmental pressures and stimuli, precipitating survival habits that have been natural selected for… The behavioural patterns allow Life to survive in an ever changing environment, and the chaos inherent in our being affords us the ability to utilise the best survival traits that we can, one of which was the development of self-biased tendencies centred around a distinct notion of “self” and “body” that many of us seem to take for granted on a daily basis.
While I will eventually get around to discussing the reality and validity of the “self” in a future blog (something that is taking me much longer than I had anticipated)… In this blog I’d like try to discuss why this idea of viewing ourselves as a machine is a lot more natural and effective a notion about our “selves” than any previous egocentric notion about what we really are i.e. we were created by one or several Gods, in their own images to be special, etc… Certainly Dr Bruce Lipton’s analogy about us being a group of living cells which function within the confines of this body as a “community” of beings, each performing their own specific roles within the body’s mechanism i.e. just as governments regulate countries and their home economies, while police men arrest criminals, so do certain parts of the central nervous system function as regulators of heart rhythm and bodily temperature, while white blood cells kill of infections from ‘maliciously behaved’ bacteria… This idea of self-similarity within the patterns of Life that we see unfolding here on Earth across all scales and modes of Being will provide us with a very deep and intuitive understanding about the subtle and – what we tend to call – divine aspects of our Being, as well as showing us all how we interconnect and relate to this universally unfolding discourse..
Bearing in mind this ‘rule’ of self-similarity that seems to present itself within and throughout the whole of this universal dynamic so pervasively… And by viewing Life as a type of mechanisation… I am curious as to where – or from which level of scale – the emotive force of Life actually originates from? Is it at the level of the body i.e. does it directly and uniquely come from the sum of all its parts, where each individual part would be able to do nothing whatsoever by itself? Or is this trait of the emotive Life force buried deep down with in the cellular – or even the atomic – matrix? Certainly when we try to address what this experience of Life actually is and how it comes about we can hopefully begin to see it does not only belong to the body as a whole unit, but also comes from the various levels of functionality within the body i.e. at the cellular and atomic levels.
Just as Jung is concerned as much with the individual within society, as the individual is him/her “self” the measure of society, so too we can apply this analogy to the cell and body. Without the individual, society cannot function, let alone exist… And without the cell, the body cannot function or even exist. Life and its dynamism directly stems from the units that comprise the whole. These units, just as much as the whole, are all subject to the same forces and methods of development as each other i.e. those of nonlinear evolution. This ‘Life,’ and its essence, relies upon the parameters of these nonlinear, fractal eddies with their dynamics. These cellular bodies that make up our own larger bodies are driven by and made from the same underlying principles of naturally occurring algorithmic phenomena… Even though at first glance it might not be obvious that they are… But they are. Thus, if these algorithmic patterns reside across all levels of scale, shape and form, why shouldn’t we expect similar ‘intelligences’ to reside across all scales of these naturally occurring systems, whether at the human body’s level or a cellular level? Ultimately it’s up to you what you believe… But to function better I personally would like to know a little bit more about the processes that give rise this “I”; the processes that drive all of Life here on Earth – and possibly beyond too – rather than giving into dogmatic nodes of parrot fashioned understanding.
As Jung once wrote in “The Undiscoverd Self“:
Human knowledge consists essentially in the constant adaptation of the primordial patterns of ideas that were given us a priori. These need certain modifications, because, in their original form, they are suited to an archaic mode of life but not to the demands of a specifically differentiated environment. If the flow of instinctive dynamism into our life is to be maintained, as is absolutely necessary for our existence, then it is imperative that we remould these archetypal forms into ideas which are adequate to the challenge of the present.
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Our denominational religions with their archaic rites and conceptions – justified enough in themselves – express a view of the world which caused no great difficulties in the Middle Ages but has become strange and unintelligible to the man of today. Despite this conflict with the modern scientific outlook, a deep instinct bids him hang on to ideas which, if taken literally, leave out of account all the mental developments of the last five hundred years. The obvious purpose of this is to prevent him from falling into the abyss of nihilistic despair. But even when, a rationalists, we feel impelled to criticise contemporary religion as literalistic, narrowminded and obsolescent, we should never forget that the creeds proclaim a doctrine whose symbols, although their interpretation may be disputed, nevertheless possess a life of their own on account of their archetypal character. Consequently, intellectual understanding is by no means indispensable in all cases, but is called for only when evaluation through feeling and intuition does not suffice, that is to say, with people for whom the intellect holds the prime power of conviction.
In order to emphasise this re-equation that we need i.e. to understand that we are part of a whole ecosystem of Earth, just as a cell is part of the body’s ecosystem, it is here that I’d like to present an article which I read not too long ago in the New Scientist magazine… One that tackles this issue of where emotive Life comes from. When we see that Life’s organic flow resides across all levels of being i.e. atomic, cellular, bodily, biospherically, or even within the planet and its solar system, we might begin to understand that some of our older religious notions of the divine state of existence that We – that is, all Life – experience no longer need to be fantasised over or marginalised in any inaccurate way whatsoever. Now, through the doors of science, we can directly see the mechanisms of Life at work, and thus ‘understand’ the essence behind their patterns and interdependent interactions, all through which we gain the essence of our Being. Natural ordering comes from the patterns of chance and chaos, which give rise to development and originality within all universal systems, whether biological or otherwise. These systems, if given favourable circumstances/environments in which to start, can then begin the arduous process of developing into complex systems of environmentally perceptive and adaptive systems. Human beings are even beginning to use these recursive patterns – which have been called the “Thumb Print Of God” – in their technological developments i.e. to develop semi intelligent robotic systems that can learn fast and develop effective solutions to presented problems in ways that surpass anything we’ve tried or known before.
Thus, with these many new observations, I believe it is time to re-write our archetypal programming. Just as when I first saw the Mandelbrot Set on a postcard from a friend while at school and immediately recognised its tortuous, writhing flow as something so familiar and deeply ingrained in my being… So too do all ‘Gods’ leave this same feeling of familiarity… Of spirituality… And of deep connection to the whole… Here lies an answer to a new understanding… That self-similarity resides within all units of the whole… If you find intelligence within the body… Then why not within cell too… Or even in the atom… After all, one essence is usually found within the other, and so permeates through the entire being. Certainly atoms are just as discerning as human beings are… We all choose what we will or won’t react/socialise/breed with. Does this intelligence then go deeper? Intelligence that can be found within the proton, neutron and/or electron… And, if so, then why not even in the quark… Or the God particle…. Etc, etc, etc… ?
The Secrets Of Intelligence Lie Within A Single Cell
Late at night on a sultry evening, I watch intently as the predator senses its prey, gathers itself, and strikes. It could be a polecat, or even a mantis – but in fact it’s a microbe. The microscopic world of the single, living cell mirrors our own in so many ways: cells are essentially autonomous, sentient and ingenious. In the lives of single cells we can perceive the roots of our own intelligence.
Molecular biology and genetics have driven the biosciences, but have not given us the miraculous new insights we were led to expect. From professional biologists to schoolchildren, people are concentrating on the minutiae of what goes on in the deepest recesses of the cell. For me, however, this misses out on life in the round: it is only when we look at the living cell as a whole organism that wonderful realities emerge that will alter our perception not only of how single cells enact their intricate lives but what we humans truly are.
The problem is that whole-cell biology is not popular. Microscopy is hell-bent on increased resolution and ever higher magnification, as though we could learn more about animal behaviour by putting a bacon sandwich under lenses of increasing power. We know much about what goes on within parts of a cell, but so much less about how whole cells conduct their lives.
Currently, cell biology deals largely with the components within cells, and systems biology with how the components interact. There is nothing to counterbalance this reductionism with a focus on how whole cells behave. Molecular biology and genetics are the wrong sciences to tackle the task.
Let’s take a look at some of the evidence for ingenuity and intelligence in cells that is missing from the curriculum. Take the red algae Rhodophyta, in which many species carry out remarkable repairs to damaged cells. Cut a filament of Antithamnion cells so the cell is cut across and the cytoplasm escapes into the surrounding aquatic medium. All that remains are two fragments of empty, disrupted cell wall lying adjacent to, but separate from, each other. Within 24 hours, however, the adjacent cells have made good the damage, the empty cell space has been restored to full activity, and the cell walls meticulously realigned and seamlessly repaired.
The only place where this can happen is in the lab. In nature, the broken ends of the severed cell would nearly always end up remote from each other, so selection in favour of an automatic repair mechanism through Darwinian evolution would be impossible. Yet something amazing is happening here: because the damage to the Antithamnion filament is unforeseeable, the organism faces a situation for which it has not been able to adapt, and is therefore unable to call upon inbuilt responses. It has to use some sort of problem-solving ingenuity instead.
We regard amoebas as simple and crude. Yet many types of amoeba construct glassy shells by picking up sand grains from the mud in which they live. The typical Difflugia shell, for example, is shaped like a vase, and has a remarkable symmetry.
Compare this with the better known behaviour of a caddis fly larva. This maggot hunts around the bottom of the pond for suitable scraps of detritus with which to construct a home. Waterlogged wood is cemented together with pondweed until the larva has formed a protective covering for its nakedness. You might think this comparable to the home built by the testate amoeba, yet the amoeba lacks the jaws, eyes, muscles, limbs, cement glands and brain the caddis fly larva relies on for its skills. We just don’t know how this single-celled organism builds its shell, and molecular biology can never tell us why. While the home of the caddis fly larva is crude and roughly assembled, that of the testate amoeba is meticulously crafted – and it’s all made by a single cell.
The products of the caddis fly larva and the amoeba, and the powers of red algae, are about more than ingenuity: they pose important questions about cell intelligence. After all, whole living cells are primarily autonomous, and carry out their daily tasks with little external mediation. They are not subservient nanobots, they create and regulate activity, respond to current conditions and, crucially, take decisions to deal with unforeseen difficulties.
“Whole living cells are not subservient nanobots, they respond and take decisions”
Just how far this conceptual revolution about cells could take us becomes clearer with more complex animals, such as humans. Here, conventional wisdom is that everything is ultimately controlled by the brain. But cells in the liver, for example, reproduce at just the right rate to replace cells lost through attrition; follicular cells create new hair; bone marrow cells produce new circulating blood cells at a rate of millions per minute. And so on and on. In fact, around 90 per cent of this kind of cell activity is invisible to the brain, and the cells are indifferent to its actions. The brain is an irrelevance to most somatic cells.
So where does that leave the neuron, the most highly evolved cell we know? It ought to be in an interesting and privileged place. After all, neurons are so specialised that they have virtually abandoned division and reproduction. Yet we model this cell as little more than an organic transistor, an on/off switch. But if a red alga can “work out” how to solve problems, or an amoeba construct a stone home with all the “ingenuity” of a master builder, how can the human neuron be so lowly?
Unravelling brain structure and function has come to mean understanding the interrelationship between neurons, rather than understanding the neurons themselves. My hunch is that the brain’s power will turn out to derive from data processing within the neuron rather than activity between neurons. And networks of neurons enhance the effect of those neurons “thinking” between themselves. I think the neuron’s action potentials are rather like a language neurons use to transmit processed data from one to the next.
Back in 2004, we set out to record these potentials, from neurons cultured in the lab. They emit electrical signals of around 40 hertz, which sound like a buzzing, irritating noise played back as audio files. I used some specialist software to distinguish the signal within the noise – and to produce sound from within each peak that is closer to the frequency of a human voice and therefore more revealing to the ear.
Listening to the results reprocessed at around 300 Hz, the audio files have the hypnotic quality of sea birds calling. There is a sense that each spike is modulated subtly within itself, and it sounds as if there are discrete signals in which one neuron in some sense “addresses” another. Could we be eavesdropping on the language of the brain?
For me, the brain is not a supercomputer in which the neurons are transistors; rather it is as if each individual neuron is itself a computer, and the brain a vast community of microscopic computers. But even this model is probably too simplistic since the neuron processes data flexibly and on disparate levels, and is therefore far superior to any digital system. If I am right, the human brain may be a trillion times more capable than we imagine, and “artificial intelligence” a grandiose misnomer.
I think it is time to acknowledge fully that living cells make us what we are, and to abandon reductionist thinking in favour of the study of whole cells. Reductionism has us peering ever closer at the fibres in the paper of a musical score, and analysing the printer’s ink. I want us to experience the symphony.
by Brian J. Ford
Despite the authors final sentiments, I still feel that this reductionism does provide us with certain, otherwise unobtainable, clarities for understanding the similarities between the processes within and without… After all, one needs to know how to make paper and ink, and understand something about the musical scoring technique before they can write a symphony down for the future enjoyment of others…
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to learn more about Dr Bruce Lipton and some of the brilliant work he is doing, please click here.
June 24, 2010
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by Carl G. Jung (1952)
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The great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from there hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.
by Carl G. Jung (1934)
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Another classic book from Dr Carl Gustav Jung. This is must read for anyone searching for a better understanding about who and what they really are… And how to better relate to others in the social sea of diverse personality types that are found here, and abound here, on Earth.
Most people confuse “self-knowledge” with knowledge of their conscious ego personalities. Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents. People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. In this respect the psyche behaves like the body with psychological and anatomical structure, of which the average person knows very little too. Although he lives in it and with it, most of it is totally unknown to the layman, and specific knowledge is needed to acquaint consciousness with what is known of the body, not to speak of all that is not known, which also exists.
What is commonly called “self-knowledge” is therefore a very limited knowledge, most of it dependent on social factors, of what goes on in the human psyche. Hence one is always coming up against the prejudice that such and such a thing does happen “with us” or “in our family” or among friends and acquaintances, and on the other hand. one meets with equally illusory assumptions about the alleged presence of qualities which merely serve to cover up the true facts of the case.
In this broad belt of unconsciousness, which is immune to conscious criticism and control, we stand defenceless, one to all kinds of influences and psychic infections. As with all dangers, we can guard against the risk of psychic infection only when we know what is attacking us, and how, where and when the attack will come. Since self-knowledge is a matter of getting to know the individual facts, theories help very little in this respect. For the more a theory lays claim to universal validity, the less capable it is of doing justice to the individual facts. And theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid, though it need not necessarily occur in reality. Despite this it figures in the theory as an unassailable fundamental fact. The exceptions at either extreme, though equally factual, do not appear in the final result at all, since they cancel each other out. If, for instance, I determine the weight of each stone in a bed of pebbles and get an average weight of 145 grams, this tells me very little about the real nature of the pebbles. Anyone who thought, on the basis of these findings, that he could pick up a pebble of 145 grams at the first try would be in for a serious disappointment. Indeed, it might well happen that however long he searched he would not find a single pebble weighing exactly 145 grams.
The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way. This is particularly true of theories which are based on statistics. The distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality. Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.
taken from “The Undiscovered Self” by Carl G. Jung
To learn more about Carl Gustav Jung, please click here for a BBC radio documentary about his life and work.
OR to view a most informative video concerning his life’s work, with rare interview footage of Jung himself, please click here.
AND… The first three people to send me an E-mail will receive a free copy of this book. All you have to do is click here and enter the address you’d like the book to be delivered to… And it should be with you in about two weeks time!
June 22, 2010
What a pertinent New Scientist article… Especially after everything that’s been posted recently here at polynomial.me.uk… I’ve said as much in as many ways as I could… And I’m just presently glad to see others saying the same thing now. We certainly need to understand that truths are nothing more than personalised beliefs that suite our own schemas and memetic make ups. Until we grasp this simple principle, and let the importance of our ‘self’ dissipate in varied stances of shifting perception – shifting like the sand dunes of the Sahara, with new daily landscapes uncoiling in the dry desert winds of reason – where we will be afforded many varied and compassionate mindscapes of egoless wonder, we will only grasp at delusions of self imposed, rigid and taught/taut modes of discourse.
As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” Here, within this ‘certain’ construct of human education a sort of deluded Hollywood romanticism is appearing… A romanticism that seems to allow people to understand their educational upbringing is not subject to modification or reinterpretation. In my humble opinion, it is this un-dynamic view of knowledge that cripples the very essence of all our scientific endeavours, as well as science’s educational system itself… If we encourage this fallacy, it will only cause us to scream at every eventuality that we were not prepared for and distrust all we have learnt, rather than simply updating our Operating Systems, as any good computer ‘bod’ will know to do regularly to keep things running smoothly. I know it’s not easy to never be certain of anything. But as Kung Fu Tzu once said, “A scholar who loves comfort is not fit to be called a scholar.” Without this continual updating of our mental schemas and memetic constructs – where we ‘weed’ those erroneous ideas and/or modify them to fit better what we see/observe in actual fact – we can never hope to find that greater perspective that every Taoist sees writhing in the world around us… A perspective of uncertainty; one that complements the natural and inbuilt chaos/nonlinear dynamics inherent within this universal flow… For without this perspective, we can never truly live harmoniously through the Tao.
Just bear in mind one thing before reading this article… Do yourself a favour and don’t get bogged down with Dorothy’s placing hope in the scientific truths we will come to know — after she says that we can never arrive at a truth. This means exactly what it means… Science will show us many aspects of our world, mainly via understanding the patterns unfolding within our dynamic universe… These patterns, while they change and evolve over time, will be repeatable and will show us a functional truth behind their unfolding, one that we can use to understand the world in which we live better. But to ultimately devise a single truth from these patterns – a truth that can only ever satisfy your own schema and memetic self-centred world view – is to lie to yourself. This is not a contradiction… One must see this important point, or we will lose sight of what logic is, and misuse it to trip ourselves up.
Liar, Liar: Why Deception Is Our Way Of Life
How did we get ourselves into this mess? Continual wars and conflicts, climate change and economic crisis loom at the international level, while as individuals we continue, generation after generation, to inflict pain and suffering not only on other people but on ourselves. Why do we have such difficulty in learning what we most need to know to mitigate our most destructive behaviours?
Throughout history there have been a few individuals whose insight into what goes on inside us is as clear as their understanding of what goes on around them, yet with what looks like self-induced stupidity most of us have been wholly unable to learn what they have been telling us.
Take the Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus. He commented on human behaviour this way: “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” In other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our behaviour but how we interpret what happens to us. Thus, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves. Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made.
For me, this uncertainty lies at the heart of what we need to know if we are to understand ourselves and behave differently. And yet throughout history we have denied this truth because what it tells us about ourselves is that, while we are not responsible for most of what happens to us, we are always responsible for how we interpret it. And we seem to dislike taking responsibility for ourselves as much as we dislike uncertainty.
Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that Epictetus was right – and given us important clues about our neuropsychology. They have found that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.
This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.
“Each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. This is frightening…”
Can you bear to remember that time in your life when you were going along feeling secure and thinking, “This is me, this is my world, that was my past, this will be my future,” when suddenly you found that you had made a major error of judgement? When you realised that many of the ideas underpinning your whole sense of being a person – that sense of “I”, “me”, “myself” – had been invalidated by events?
Have you ever had the sensation of falling through infinite space, shattering, crumbling, of being about to disappear like a raindrop into the ocean? Perhaps you knew that what was falling apart was not your sense of self but some of your ideas. You knew that you now had to go through a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerged.
But if you did not know this, you would have been utterly terrified, so terrified that you would do anything never to go through such an experience again.
Psychiatrists and psychologists have either ignored this experience, maximised its significance as a full-scale “breakdown”, or minimised it as a “panic disorder”. Yet this feeling of falling apart is an essential part of our lives and of most of our narratives. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy and her companions emerge wiser and strong from the invalidation of their idea that the wizard could solve their problems, while paradoxically Othello is destroyed by the invalidation of his belief that his wife Desdemona had been unfaithful.
We first experience the terror of being invalidated when we are small children, but by the time we are 3 or 4 we have learned a way of avoiding it: we have learned how to lie. From then on, whenever we glimpse the faintest possibility that our “selves” might be threatened with annihilation, we lie.
First of all, we lie to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that we do not have the strength and courage to face the truth of our situation. We even lie about lying, preferring to call our lies anything but a lie. We say: “He’s in denial” or “She’s being economical with the truth”.
We lie in our private and work lives, to friends, family and colleagues. Often we tell them what we call “white lies”. Some of us do so because we need people to like us: our greatest fear is of being abandoned and rejected. Others tell white lies to avoid the chaotic feelings they get from seeing other people being upset by the truth: they know the world is a chaotic place, and to survive in it they need a personal island of clarity, order and control.
At a public level, we lie about nearly everything, from the true level of corporate wealth to expenses and evidence that humans are responsible for changing the climate.
When it comes to such global-level events, you might think finding out what is true would be a top priority, especially as we start out neurologically blindfolded. But it is not. For all of us there is something more important than finding the truth. We are too frightened to confront the facts because doing so means confronting the danger that most of what supports our sense of who we are could disappear.
Unlike lies, truths require evidence to support them. But no matter how much evidence we accumulate, our truths will always be approximations and absolute certainty will exist only in our fantasies. Lying gives us the temporary delusion that our personal and social worlds are intact, that we are loved, that we are safe, and above all, that we are not likely to overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know.
We can never escape uncertainty: it is part of our very being. Scientists struggle daily to accept uncertainty, and still search for “evidence”. In our personal, professional and collective social lives it looks as if we may have no choice but to confront uncertainty if we are to survive – and survive well.
So we will need to be very careful in future about choosing the situations in which we lie. All lies have networks of consequences we did not expect or intend. The lies we tell may well protect us and our personal – or collective – sense of self in the short term, but in the long term and in a linked-up, complex world, the consequences can be truly disastrous. After all, when we lie to ourselves and to others, we multiply a thousandfold the inherent difficulties we have trying to determine what is actually going on inside us and around us.
One day, neuroscientists may be able to describe the damage we do to our brains when we lie to ourselves and to others, when we create confusion about knowing something that we deny we know. Let’s hope that by then we can start to believe – and to use – the scientific truths we will be telling ourselves.
by Dorothy Rowe
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.