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 (


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.

Jahren’s ‘Lab Girl’: The Dramatic Life of Plants

Much as people admire plants, it is difficult to relate to them. It takes a special focus to sympathize with a plant’s struggles, to identify with it, to understand its idiosyncrasies. We have an immense range of words and images for capturing our own inner experiences—fear, exhaustion, revulsion, joy, thirst and so forth—but a mere handful for even the most prominent stages of plant life—growing, blooming, wilting, and a few others. This distance isn’t surprising. Plants are different from us in basic ways. They are anchored to the ground, they don’t have faces, and they make their own food. We acknowledge them as members of the family of life, but they also seem alien.

The poverty of our understanding of plants contributes, I believe, to our uneasiness about the meaning of our lives. We’re prone to feeling that being alive is either an exclusively human pleasure or a lonely human struggle. It’s easy to lose touch with the reality that plants along with animals have been passing through the experiences of growing, struggling, fending off threats, and sometimes flourishing, for hundreds of millions of years and by the billions. We might feel more at home in our own skins if our imaginations could take in the  lives of plants a little more easily.

Hope Jahren helps us do so. Lab Girl, her memoir, traces her life through the rigors of becoming an established research scientist and her workaholic triumphs and disappointments in labs and in the field. The bristling autobiographical chapters alternate with brief essays about how plants function and survive. It’s these plant chapters that most caught my attention. Here are excerpts:

      No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phases, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less, dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. ….The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed.  The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.
But when it wins, it wins big. If a root finds what it needs, it bulks into a taproot—an anchor that can swell and split bedrock, and move gallons of water daily for years.  (52)

     A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods: nobody living there can afford to move…. A desert botanist is a rare scientist indeed and eventually becomes inured to the misery of her subjects. Personally, I don’t have the stomach to deal with such suffering day in and day out.   (142)

     Here’s my personal request to you: if you have any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you’re renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there….
Once your baby tree is in the ground, check it daily, because the first three years are critical. Remember that you are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world. If you do own the land that it is planted on, create a savings account and put five dollars in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty (and it will), you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down….
At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a tree and it will have you. You can measure it monthly and chart your own growth curve. Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective. Stretch your imagination until it hurts: what is your tree trying to do? What does it wish for? What does it care about? Make a guess. Say it out loud.    (282)

It would be easy to characterize this writing as merely heavily personified and emotional. But I take these and other passages as capturing realities about plants that rarely come within our understanding, empathy, or language. Most people would be more likely to imagine what it is like to be on the moon than what it like to be the tree in the backyard that is bracing for winter. And if we think of our human emotions—such as terrified and enjoy— as reactions to situations and not just shifting moods, then a first root really is a terrifying gamble, plants really can be said to enjoy, to benefit from, their mobility as seeds that might find friendly ground, and they really do get exhausted when their physical necessities run short.

And then there’s “you’ll have a tree and it will have you.” Considering the world’s deteriorating environment, Jahren argues, if one tree can rely on you, that tree is well off. I would add that the benefit is mutual; we ourselves are better off if we can share and feel, even faintly, the life of any plant.

Humboldt’s Vision of Nature

Humboldt portrait 1806 Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

An imagining of the young Humboldt at work, in 1806, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

Our imagination may seem to create visions out of nowhere, but it always has its sources. Some are in the psyche, some are in the world around us, many are in history, seemingly out of sight but alive in our culture. Our ecological imagination, our view of nature as a global, animated, interactive and sacred whole, comes to us in large part from Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a manic, prolific explorer and naturalist of the German romantic era. Humboldt’s life and work are the subject of an outstanding biography by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015).

Humboldt’s trademark was the web of connections he drew around whatever he was observing. Nature, he insisted, could not be grasped in the slices and pieces into which other scientists chopped it but only as a whole. He looked at each specimen, whether a plant or a human institution, in its relation to global patterns of earth, weather, and human behavior. Such a perspective called for not only information but imagination and emotion as well. His works are as full of poetic description as they are of data.

His seminal journey was a five-year exploration of Latin America during his thirties. Wherever he went, he compared. In the Andes, a moss reminded him of one in northern Germany. In Mexico he found trees like those in Canada. Measuring temperature and altitude as he climbed stormy volcanoes and crawled across frozen ridges in the Andes, he envisioned the plants of the world in vegetation zones consistent around the planet. He published a large diagram of a mountain with labels for plants at their respective altitudes around the world, from the mushrooms at the depths to the lichens just below the snow line. No one had ever seen a graphic that illustrated ecosystems from a global perspective like this.

Humboldt (


Humboldt was the first to note that cutting down a forest set off a cascade of environmental problems, triggering the loss of topsoil, the rapid runoff of rainwater, the flooding of rivers, the drying up of springs, the decline of agriculture. He observed how the farming of single crops for trade, such as indigo in Peru, ruined the soil ‘like a mine,’ and impoverished the people. “He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other. He criticized unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions” (105).

On his return from South America, Humboldt stopped by the U. S. White House to visit another scholar of agricultural economy, Thomas Jefferson. The two saw eye-to-eye on all subjects but one. Humboldt had seen enough slavery in South America to convince him that it was butchery without justification, economic or otherwise.  For Humboldt, “What is against nature is unjust, bad, and without validity,” and humans, like plants, all come from one root. “’Nature is the domain of liberty,’ Humboldt said, because nature’s balance was created by diversity” (108). Jefferson, while sympathetic, never freed all his slaves (106).

Humboldt noted similarities between the mountains of South America and Africa and argued that those continents had been joined in the past, anticipating the modern theory of plate tectonics.

In his later years in Berlin, he gave a series of free public lectures that packed halls with people from all walks of life. Traffic clogged the city on the lecture days. “He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting….He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna, and the migration of the human race” (194). He spoke from notes layered with clippings, pieces of book pages, scribbled post-its, and illustrations.

From Cosmos, an ethnographic map of South America (

From Kosmos, a map of cultures and peoples in South America

He convened gatherings of scientists from across Europe to exchange information and ideas, thus establishing the modern scientific conference. Fascinated by the earth’s magnetic field, he successfully urged governments to build a network of magnetic stations across the globe, setting a new level of international scientific cooperation.

In consultation with specialists, Humboldt spent his last years writing Kosmos, a multi-volume survey of what was then known about outer space, the climate and geology of earth, the relation among plants, animals, and humans, the history of science, and the perceptions of nature by artists and poets through the ages. The huge work preceded Carl Sagan’s slimmer Cosmos by a century and a half.

In 1831, the 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his own formative voyage, bringing with him Humboldt’s seven-volume narrative of the Latin American expedition. Darwin followed Humboldt in seeing nature as a grand ecological system in constant flux and precarious balance. But while Humboldt looked for the integration of nature, Darwin looked for beginnings. On the Origin of Species appeared a few months after Humboldt’s death in 1859.

In her epilogue, Andre Wulf writes that Humboldt’s name remains unfamiliar to many because, as the last scientist to study his field so broadly, he has been eclipsed by modern specialists famous for singular discoveries and theories. (Darwin is one example.) Yet when I read today’s effusive, popular articles and internet commentary on nature and naturalistic spirituality, I hear Humboldt. The passion and breadth he brought to science set the outlines of the ecological panorama that is many people’s view of the natural world today.