The Voice In Our Head: Periscope Or Smoke-and-Mirrors?

Stream of consciousness is a common term for it. Mind wandering and daydreaming are others. These days, more narrowly, “self-talk” refers to our constructive or negative mental judgments of ourselves. “Default mode network,” from neurology, labels the closely interacting regions of the brain that kick in when it is not focused elsewhere.

There is a tension that runs through discussions about stream of consciousness. In science, the reality of any aspect of nature that is under study is acknowledged and respected. Psychologist and neurologists, despite controversies about it, extend such respect to stream of consciousness. On the other hand, the Buddhist or Eastern view of the mind is that the stream of consciousness, while real, is a detrimental spinoff of our psyche. It reinforces the entanglements of our ego with worldly concerns. The wise person will seek to quiet it or ignore it or seek complete release from it.

The tension here is not a disagreement or a debate exactly. It is more a dissonance that stems from the different aims of science and religion. Scientists, committed to objectivity, make judgments cautiously and narrowly. Religious teachings, on the other hand, offer a path towards peace of spirit, a path that invariably calls for the submission of the ego.

It’s no wonder that we read about the marvels of the human brain one day and the unhappiness of the wandering mind the next.

stream of consciousness (musicpeakperformance.com)

(musicpeakperformance.com)

I’m in the middle here. Our biological past is a foundational belief for me and I think that our stream of consciousness serves adaptive functions that can be understood largely in terms of evolution. But I also want to reduce my stress level and strengthen my sense of focus through meditation. The views of science and religion about stream of consciousness are not incompatible, but you don’t hear much about their common ground or a unified approach.

How could we find such a common ground? Probably in looking tolerantly at the ways in which stream of consciousness both serves us and hinders us. Probably by recognizing that it is difficult for most people to enjoy its advantages without also putting up with at least some of its disadvantages.

We can roughly gauge the advantages of stream of consciousness from noting the kinds of items in our own stream. Mine buzzes with flashbacks, flash-forwards, bits of script for conversations and letters to editors, and a mix of sunny and cloudy moods about myself—all of which I can see as beneficial much of the time in one way or another. But like most people’s, my stream sometimes fails badly to tell me what others are really thinking, worries needlessly about what probably won’t go wrong, and obsesses about what is unimportant. Stream of consciousness might be compared to a periscope through which we can fortunately see above the surface and around corners to what lies ahead, but which also captures fragmented and misleading pictures.

Sam Harris in Waking Up puts the spiritual case against stream of consciousness. We are “continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.” As both the speaker and listener in our heads, we create the illusion of the individual self. Harris adds, “We brood about the past and worry about the future. We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist.” Viewed this way, stream of consciousness is the voice of illusions, of smoke-and-mirrors. Still, no matter how we define self, humans like all other organisms need a steady flow of information, no matter how imperfect, to monitor the environment and process our complex social life. Harris, awake as he is, still writes, lectures, and engages with many people.

So I think a common ground between the spiritual and scientific approaches to stream of consciousness might essentially be the recognition that we live in three time frames, not one, and in many locations. These are of two different kinds, the sensory perceptions of the here and now, and the remembered and imagined past and future in other places. We need to process all of these not only unconsciously but through our stream of consciousness. As in so much else, balance between the here and now and other times and places seems a good goal.

I recall a simile—from the popular gestalt therapist, Fritz Perls?—that living solely in the moment can be like listening only to the note in the music that is sounding at the present instant.  Unless we’ve also heard the notes that lead up to that moment, there is no music. And, I would add, if we can hear only the past notes but cannot hear the note of the moment itself, the music can never be new.

How Consciousness Might Have Evolved

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s3.amazonaws.com

Human consciousness. Our wonderful, crazy mind. Our personhood. And our quandary. Where did consciousness come from? How did it become part of us?

Michael Graziano, a neuropsychologist I’ve posted about before, writes in the June 2016 Atlantic about how consciousness might have evolved. He starts with the question that evolutionists ask about any feature of an organism: What is its adaptive value?

The answer, he writes, is that consciousness is a sophisticated solution to a difficulty that plagues the nervous system of all creatures: “Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed.” It’s an old dilemma, with early fixes. Even before the formation of brains, nervous systems 600 million years ago enhanced certain nerve signals at the expense of others. The eyes of insects and crabs, for example, generate “an outline sketch of the world” as signals carrying data about where the edges of objects are  located come in stronger than other visual signals.

Then around 500 million years ago, a controller in the early brains of fish and reptiles began coordinating several senses at a time, “aiming the satellite dishes of the eyes, ears, and nose towards anything important.” The controller did so by generating an internal model, a set of information about the current state of the body parts, and predicting “how these body parts will move next and about the consequences of their movement.” If you had only a reptilian controller for a brain, you would look at the steps in front of you and the controller would check those signals against its model of where your legs ought to be to get you up the steps successfully.

But we have much more than a controller. Some mammals, including us, have the latest upgrade, the cerebral cortex. We can pay attention to something we are not even focused on at the moment—the TV in the other room, for instance—because our cortex can select what to select. What’s more, we can even be self-aware that we are doing so. “I’m not going to go in there, but he’s watching that news again” (my example). Humans can do this because our upgraded controller uses schemas, models of not only all that we know but also of our attention itself. Our brain tracks “what covert attention is doing moment by moment and what its consequences are.” This is where we get that self-aware voice inside us that tells us, “I’ve got something intangible inside me. It moves around from one thing to another and allows me to understand and remember.”

Such evolution of consciousness goes hand in hand with our social evolution, according to Graziano. Animals acquired the capacity to be aware of the mind of other members of their species. Social awareness and self-awareness have evolved “in tandem….We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us.” Consciousness tracks and grows from our social life and our social self.

Graziano acknowledges that the schema theory of consciousness is still new, but he believes it “provides a general framework” for understanding consciousness and its evolution. It seems to me that it does so very well. It’s difficult for us to see our minds in physical terms because we have that voice in our head that insists, “Wow! I’m thinking and feeling all this!” Feeling this cerebral glow, we easily believe we carry an ethereal self, even an undying soul. But I think it’s the opposite conclusion that is exciting: that the splendor of consciousness is not as an outlier in nature but is a thoroughly earthly step in the series of small, accidental, pragmatic adjustments that is physical evolution.

 

Steven Pinker on Emotions and Genes

Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works might well be subtitled “And the emotions too.” It’s one terrific book. It offers a barrage of insights and connections about humans and evolution that can feel intoxicating. It stirs up the nature-nurture controversy with a blender. It does not see you as you almost certainly see yourself. And it is often very funny.

Despite the book’s title, Pinker talks more about emotions than about the mind itself. He sees them working together. The mind, he says, is computational: it processes information. Much of this information comes from the body’s biological systems. Emotions are units, modules, that use this bodily information to take direct steps—fear, anger, hunger, lust, egotism, empathy—that will promote survival and reproduction.

Humans, Pinker writes, are not, as we often believe, divided into thoughts and feelings that work against each other.

The emotions are adaptations, well-engineered software modules that work in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with the emotions is not that they are untamed forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom, or moral values. We often call an act ‘emotional’ when it is harmful to the social group, damaging to the actor’s happiness in the long run, uncontrollable and impervious to persuasion, or a product of self-delusion. Sad to say, these outcomes are not malfunctions but precisely what we would expect from well-engineered emotions. (Kindle location 7688)

So the good news is that our seemingly perverse emotional moments do not mean that something is wrong with us. But the not-so-good news is that our emotional acts are more deeply engrained in us than our well-meaning searches for happiness, wisdom, and virtue.

So are we doomed by the genes that build these emotional responses, responses that often mean we get  carried away just when we want to stay cool and collected? Pinker addresses this issue often, here in a discussion of love:

The confusion comes from thinking of people’s genes as their true self, and the motives of their genes as their deepest, truest, unconscious motives. From there it’s easy to draw the cynical and incorrect moral that all love is hypocritical. That confuses the real motives of the person with the metaphorical motives of the genes. Genes are not puppetmasters; they acted as the recipe for making the brain and body and then got out of the way. (8342)

I like the recipe metaphor. As I take it, genes are like the list of the ingredients and the steps for making a cake, but the flavor and texture of the cake itself is quite different from that sheet of instructions.

A human

A human “cake” and his genetic “recipe”
(images.nationalgeographic.com)

But if the genes have built emotions to keep us alive, doesn’t that mean those emotions are quite inflexible? Yes and no. Our own emotional core might not change much in our life time, but in species-time, the story is different.

Might the software for the emotions be burned so deeply into the brain that organisms are condemned to feel as their remote ancestors did? The evidence says no; the emotions are easy to reprogram. Emotional repertoires vary wildly among animals depending on their species, sex, and age. Within the mammals we find the lion and lamb. Even within dogs (a single species) a few millennia of selective breeding have given us pit bulls and Saint Bernards. (7721)

Pinker, in conclusion, tells us about ourselves in ways we may have difficulty recognizing. Modules and systems fine-tuned to an ancient past may seem non-human and even anti-human. But it’s not so difficult to absorb how science depicts the machinery of our emotions at the same time that we are inquiring thoughtfully about the meanings of our lives. Or, to put it another way, we can come to understand our recipe while we ponder what it is like to be the cake.

For more on the man, the book, and the debate, here is a lively and helpful article.