Monday, October 25, 2021

Awakening: Ramblings on Consciousness and Perspective

I am 67 years old, in the final stages of life, preparing to leave this world. I don't know when I will die, but I know I will die. And this gives me a special opportunity to look back on my life, and ponder...

My wife and I went for a drive yesterday, leaving our Covid cocoon in Hendersonville, taking a left onto Haywood Road, out into the farm countryside of Mills River. We like the back roads, where life is up close, and slow, avoiding the monotonous monoclonal bustle of the Interstate. We pass through Avery Creek, come down along the French Broad River, then left, past the Arboretum, and another left onto the two-lane ribbon of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We're in the woods now, along a narrow corridor of forest, that winds to and through Asheville. There is not a single advertisement, billboard, or distraction, other than the road itself, other travelers, and the occasional glimpses of civilization at overpasses. We are heading north, up into the mountains, riding the rolling hills towards Mt. Mitchell. Our ears pop from the steady climb. After 20 minutes and a few thousand feet, I feel like we are driving forward through time. The trees at higher elevations are a month further into fall. And with nothing but forests, I can imagine we have gone back in time, before Sears Roebuck, into a world where time is measured in the cycle of fall, winter, spring, summer.

Is it any wonder that my mind wanders to introspection?

Sourwoods, oaks, and maples, radiant reds, yellows, and oranges, trees preparing for winter... Do trees think about their existence? Do they contemplate their purpose? Question reality? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But in the span of my lifetime, I’ve been wrong more timesthan I’ve been right. So, if I were a betting man… And yet, it is here, in the woods, away from the bombardment of social media, that my mind settles, soothed by slower rhythms.

What is consciousness? Why is it important? What does it have to do with life? With human life? With my life?

The answer is perspective.

I don’t expect that to make any sense, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you, right away, that I know the answer, more accurately, an answer. For as I’ve mentioned, I’m wrong more than I’m right…

Perspective, point of view, seeing things from a particular position. Perspective is all I have. It’s the way I experience the world, through my eyes, in my mind. I have no other way of feeding my perceptions, other than with my senses. And even my senses are biased, shaped by memory, my past, which leads me to believe what I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, is the same or different from what I remember.

You see, that last paragraph isn’t true! I do have another way of experiencing the world, not limited by my senses, well, sort of… I can imagine.

Every night I have dreams. During the day I have daydreams. In fact, I can close my eyes right now and imagine my wife’s fresh-ground coffee, with a hot, crispy croissant, creamy goat cheese, and tart plum jam. My imagination has no bounds! I can imagine anything. Except what I can’t imagine…

You see, perception is how I experience the world. It is how I form a map of reality. Memory helps build this map. Observing a reality that repeats means it is more likely to be remembered, expected, anticipated. When I experience something, the weight or strength of the experience improves the likelihood that I will remember that experience, that it will get added to my map of reality. The stronger the memory, the more it shapes my reality and my expectations.

And here is where consciousness comes in.

In my head, there is my brain, where all these experiences, memories, maps of reality live. And in those folds of gray matter, an entire universe is built – from my experiences. It is also built from those experiences genetically passed on to me (I am born with my senses). My universe is even built through my imagination, not real experiences, but experiences none the less.

How do I know this? How do I know how the universe inside my head is built? Because in that very same space between my ears lives another (probably many) other brains, whose existence, whose reality, is based on their senses, their experiences. And their senses are limited to sensing what the other parts of the brain are experiencing. In a way, it’s like the story of the blind folks describing an elephant. In my brain, there are parts of my brain that only sense what is connected to them. These brains do not experience the outside world. The existence of these inside brains, their universe, is based on the inside-my-head world. These brains (I’m sure there are many) are the little voices I hear, telling me things like, “Don’t do that!” or “I wouldn’t believe that!” or “Wait, just wait a second!” My consciousness is very closely connected to my conscience, that inner watchtower.

So, here’s my thought, right or wrong, probably wrong, but in a direction worth pursuing: human brains have inherited the “reptile brain”, and the “mammalian brain”. And we talk about another, relatively unique part of a human brain, the executive brain. It’s like the third “fold” or “layer” of brain, all inside our head. What if part of the executive brain is so far removed from any sensory input that it experiences the world in the only way it can, not by observing the world outside the brain through the senses, but by observing what’s going on inside the brain.

The same way our senses pick up and send information to our brain, this “observer brain” gathers information from the other parts of the brain. The observer brain watches, “senses”, our other brain/s. And, this observer brain is able to communicate what it experiences to other brain/s. We experience the communications from this observer brain as self-awareness and self-consciousness, our very own Jiminy Cricket.

Consciousness comes from a trapped brain, one that has no other contact with the outside world other than the experiences of the inside of a person’s brain.

Now what I find so interesting about this is that once I can conceive of an observer brain, I can also conceive of my whole brain, trapped inside my head, getting only sensory data. Even worse, my brain gathers only sensory data that my senses have experienced. And I become aware of how my whole brain, my entire existence, my lifetime experience, is limited to what happens to me. And this is certainly a small, infinitesimally small, amount of all the experiences in all the world (and universe). Luckily, or inevitably, depending on your beliefs, species have developed a way to experience more than what a single organism can experience in its lifetime. Generations of experience are encoded in the genetic code. This is one way to explain why species have the senses they dothose particular senses were passed on because of their positive contribution to the survival of that species. Our senses, human senses, developed and were passed on because they increased our chances of survival. As an aside, our senses are finely tuned to the reality of survival on earth. We need to remember this as we explore other habitats off this planet. We need to remember that senses developed in other environments might be quite different. We might not be able to experience them, or even recognize them, without significant work to understand them.

So, genetics is one way we have overcome the limitations of individual perceptions and experiences. Humans, and many other species, have come up with another way of passing on experience: through teaching. Teaching, passing on valuable memories, passing on lessons learned, has become the primary source of overcoming the limitations of the individual. Teaching first started as an oral tradition, then became a written tradition. And writing tended to remain stable for long periods of time, we needed to develop ways of paring down what people were writing, especially where writings were contradictory. What emerged was a way of sharing perspectives that satisfied the challenges that inevitably arose with every new generation: the scientific method. Here was a process that many agreed upon as a way to eliminate biases of observation by individuals to come up with some fundamental “truths”. (Note, I put “truths” in parenthesis because these truths might more truthfully be described as “current human truths”. And even though we like to believe that we are discovering “universal” truths, it’s not clear we can do that with great accuracy while our perspective remains on this planet.) In any case, the scientific method allowed a way to prove and pass on knowledge that could never have been experienced or learned by a single individual in their lifetime.

So what does this have to do with being an old man, contemplating his death?

I encourage every human being to explore the limits of their perceptions, the limits of their experiences and knowledge. Come to some understanding and acceptance that you don’t and won’t ever know it all, that without others, your experience will be that of a person locked in a perspective that is narrow and limited, that the perspectives of those that don’t agree with yours are important and necessary to increase your own knowledge, that our chances, the human species’ chances of survival depend on our ability to imagine other perspectives, to find ways to combine and winnow these perspectives into something useful to our survival. A good place to start is understanding the brain, and how it works, why you think what you think. We aren’t born with these thoughts. They are learned. And as such, are subject to interpretation and correction. But that’s okay. The brain is a flexible sponge.1

1For me, a good place to start was my anger and frustration, and becoming defensive. These are feelings generated by my brain to alert me to past experiences. These days, I look forward to getting angry and frustrated. It's an opportunity for me to relearn from experiences I had when I was younger and less experienced. With anger and frustration, my brain is telling me that there is something happening that is similar to a past experience, that my brain wants to protect me from this experience. But looking back on my life, I see that there were very few, if any, situations where my anger served me. Much more likely my anger only made things worse. For over 20 years now, I have used my anger and frustration to trigger a process of self-exploration:
- “Why do I feel angry?”
- “What am I angry about?”
- “What situations in my past have led me to have this reaction?”
- “Did I really understand what was going on at that time in my life in those situations?”
- “Is my reaction justified, or more likely, based on the biased and limited knowledge of youth?”