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.

The Fading Individual

I used to see people, including myself, as individuals first and as social creatures after that. Emotions and words, my own and others’, seemed the prime movers; groups, society as a whole, seemed a context, a setting, not an essence. I was me, Brock Haussamen, a unique bundle of thoughts and feelings, and I could insert that bundle into conversations, relationships, and social conventions or not, as I chose. This perspective came easily to an introverted young man. And it was supported by the great romance of male/Western/modern/American individualism.

But over the last decade or two I’ve come to see how life—all life, especially human life—is primarily and profoundly social. It’s been a disillusionment and a revelation at the same time. By social, I mean that living things are largely built by interactions with others and for such interactions. We like to think that we humans are distinguished from other species by our private consciousness and from each other by our winning personalities. But our consciousness and our individual traits turn out to be products of the joys, pains, love, violence, tedium, and necessity of our connections to other people and living things. The social underlies the individual, not the other way around.

Social bacteria, playing different roles (nsf.gov)

Social bacteria, playing different roles
(nsf.gov)

Many ideas and pieces of information have shifted my point of view.

Bacteria: The earliest and simplest life forms relied on interactions. Billions of years ago, bacteria made the great leap forward of developing a nucleus when they absorbed other bacteria. Natural selection took off when bacteria moved beyond cloning themselves to exchanging DNA with each other. And we in turn carry around several pounds of necessary bacteria, interacting with it constantly; our body is literally a community.

Darwin: The engines of evolution described by Darwin—competition and cooperation—are largely social. Even plants, indifferent to each other, are ultimate competitors. For early humans, the social experiences of hunting and village life over hundreds of thousands of years led to language, organization, and morality. Religion relies on concepts articulated by groups and reflects a sense of security in belonging to the group itself. And current research tells us that good health, physical and mental, depends in large part on our engagement with friends, family, and community.

A social animal (peopleint.files.wordpress.com)

A social animal
(peopleint.files.wordpress.com)

Brain: Our intelligence is more of a social instrument than we might think given how private our thoughts seem to be. Whenever we finish a particular cognitive task, such as figuring out a math problem, our brain almost always reverts to thinking about ourselves or other people. (Try it.) And our consciousness itself, our self-awareness, apparently has roots in our brain’s capacity to keep track of other people and relationships; as part of monitoring that complex network, it seems that the brain constructs an “I” as an on-going player.

Species success: Viewed broadly, successful species have acquired special skills that make them effective at living in their particular environmental niches. Our human survival skill seems to be our social intelligence, and our niche seems practically global.

Of course, the importance of our social nature is obvious to us, up to a point. Love, family, community, friendship, charity, compassion, hospitality are all almost universal values. And yet we can also push back hard against the dominance of the social. When the social network feels oppressive, we stand firm on our individuality, our rights. We deny the legitimacy of the social rules, we change allies, feud with the family, withdraw. We agree with Sartre that “Hell is other people” and insist that true peace lies within us. And yet such moves towards solitude never stray too far from how we perceive others and how we imagine they perceive us.

Nodes in a network.  (vidi.cs.ucdavis.edu)

Nodes in a network.
(vidi.cs.ucdavis.edu)

It’s tempting to conclude that we and all living things are essentially nodes, junctions, in a network of living things and that humans happen to be the kind of node with the bizarre illusion of being separate. But that might be going overboard. A better image is a Venn diagram with each of us a very small shaded intersection where the huge ovals of other people, other organisms, and the force of the past all overlap.