Consciousness: The Real Mystery

Below is a Part 1 excerpt from Chapter Four of my book, The Embodied Sacred. More to follow..

The Intentional Stanc

It’s late at night in the mountain cabin, and all is quiet except the crackling fire and the occasional sound of finger on paper as you turn the page. Your reading lamp and the light from the fire create the only pools of visibility in an otherwise pitch-black world. Your spouse has already gone to bed, and as you read these words your trusty Labrador, Max, is asleep by your feet. Suddenly, there is a cracking sound followed by a deep thud outside the window. A pile of snow has fallen from the tree branches, one of which has broken under the weight. But you don’t know this —and, roused from your sleepy reading, you impulsively call out:

“Who’s there?”

While turning your head to glance at the windows and doorway

Max lifts his head and growls, baring his teeth. He gets up and lumbers over to the front door, anticipating an invader.

These are automatic, instinctive reactions, based on an innate assumption that philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “the intentional stance.” From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that when animals hear an unexpected sound, it is a good idea to act as if it might be a predator. The creature that reacts as if rustling leaves, cracking branches, moving shadows or strange shapes in the dark could be caused by a predator is more likely to survive than the one who plays it cool. On this hypothesis, the genes that can imagine an intentional agent behind the sound or movement, and the creature that can therefore act as if there is a mind on the other side of that stimulus, even without enough evidence to know for sure, will survive.

The capacity to project mind where there may not be, and often is not one, is a creative survival strategy that has paid evolutionary dividends. Could it be that, as an unintended side effect, it combines with our complex human imaginations to also make us afraid of ghosts and bogey-men, and conjure up a Great Bear spirit, invisible sky god or infinite disembodied mind behind all of visible reality?


Theory of Mind

A game I like to play when I am in the right mood and in a natural setting populated by different kinds of trees, involves letting my mind imagine the personalities, ages and even genders of the various trees, as if they were people. One tree may seem like it is a rebellious teenage boy, another conveys a wise and beautiful older woman, a third looks like a proud businessman, a fourth like a shy little girl. Children do this kind of thing all the time with dolls, toy cars, stuffed animals etc, and many adults will imbue their automobiles with a name and a sense of personality. This kind of imaginative play reveals the deeply anthropocentric way we look at the world around us, and may be related to how tribal cultures personified the forces of nature and created pantheons of animal gods.

Cognitive science tells us that we have what is called a theory of mind module at play in how we interact with reality. Though we do not directly experience the minds of others, we trust certain cues, behaviors and signals that tell us there is a mind similar to our own operating in other people. Our minds interact with other minds via body language, facial expression, tone of voice and language. Most of us can tell pretty quickly, for example, if someone’s cognitive abilities are impaired, based on these cues. Even if we are just watching someone else, we theorize intuitively about what is happening in their minds —about things like their mood, intention or character, and what they might do next.

Like the intentional stance, this ability to interpret the minds of others is of course also helpful in evolutionary terms. For survival: stay away from the violent looking ones, and for social cohesion: because we are more likely to cooperate and get along with others in the tribe if our theory of mind perceptions about them are accurate. But there is an interesting extension of this creative ability to imagine the minds of others that moves in the direction of personifying trees, mountains or lightning storms, and perceiving them as if they were conscious or intentional.

People with pets love to sit and watch their behavior and put into words what we believe the animal to be thinking or feeling. We delight in a shared human experience of the animal mind. We can imagine not only the emotions and intentions of dogs and cats, whose brains are fairly similar to us, but also those of a pet lizard or snake, creatures that literally do not have the limbic wetware to bond with us or feel emotions like ours.

But this doesn’t stop with living creatures; who among us has not intuited a convincing sense of deep wisdom, like an ancient and all-seeing mind, looking back at us from the sheer cliff face, the expanse of the evening sky or the rolling swell of the endless ocean? Of course we are right to be moved by this intuition and by the feeling of connection with nature that it evokes, but does this mean there is literally a mind behind or within these vistas? It seems more likely that we are overawed by their vastness and enter a mildly altered state in which we project various human qualities of mind into the natural world.


A Black Box in the Brain

All of these questions relate to a particularly fascinating aspect of consciousness: the fact that, in experiential terms, our brains are unknowable to themselves. The brain is remarkable in so many ways, but consider for a moment its inability to be aware of itself. The brain literally does not know it is a brain! For this reason, learning about brain research is literally mind-blowing, especially when we contemplate that brains are themselves constructing and conducting experiments on other brains. Brains are correlating and interpreting the ensuing data, and your brain is reading about this right now…. All while being unable to directly experience their own inner workings!

The presence of this blind spot or black box in each of our experiencing minds has meant that we do not directly know ourselves as brains. We do not experience anything we do or feel or think as having its origin in the brain, or as being processed through the brain. Likewise, when they are functioning optimally, we cannot feel our nerves, taste our tongues, hear our ears, or see our eyes.

Imagine for a moment that you were aware of the millions of neurochemical processes involved in reading this page, standing up to get a drink, or deciding whether to order a pizza or heat up last night’s left-overs. Each of us would be paralyzed by the sheer complexity of these processes if we were aware of them, let alone if we had to consciously intend our way though each detail. Just like the beating of the heart, the hormonal activity of the endocrine and digestive systems and the firing of nerves to activate muscles, it would be completely impractical and ineffective for our consciousness to be cluttered with chronicling those automatic activities instead of being occupied with the experiential awareness that they make possible.


The Mind/Body Question

Because we experience an awareness space in which things happen and a sense of self that they are happening to, and not the brain function behind these phenomena, it has been intuitively convincing to believe that the mind is something distinct from the physical body and it’s organs —including the brain. Though most modern scientists and philosophers would say it is incorrect, it appears that the perception of mind/body dualism is our natural state. Because consciousness is such a unique phenomenon, it is literally hard to “wrap our heads around it” as emerging from the body itself. Traditional dualistic conceptions say that there is a physical body on the one hand, and on the other, some kind of non-physical self, mind or soul. This dualism is central to religious belief in a soul that survives bodily death —and to an invisible, omnipresent non-physical God.

These ideas can be traced as far back as Plato (around 400 BCE) – who argued that the body was of the physical world, while the immortal soul was of the world of ideas or “Forms.” The soul, said Plato, was only temporarily united with the body, and would leave it at death to return to the “world of Forms.” Also, because the mind or soul (these terms were once interchangeable) was not subject to the time and space limitations of the body, it could access universal truths. Later, Plato’s student Aristotle rejected these ideas in favor of the notion of an essential nature rather than a mind or soul belonging to a literal world of Forms. He felt that to postulate such a world of independent, existing Forms above and beyond the physical world was problematic, but he still asserted that the mind could not be physical because it was not limited as the sense organs are in the kinds of information it could receive. It therefore must not be a physical organ but an immaterial entity. Given what was known about the brain in their times, one cannot fault the logic —consider that Aristotle thought the brain was a kind of radiator for cooling the blood!

In the Seventeenth Century the philosopher Renee Descartes, most famous for his statement “Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am” proposed that the pineal gland was the seat of the soul —a kind of doorway through which it engaged with the body. The soul was described as a non-physical entity that controlled the machine-like physical body from the pineal gland through the cerebrospinal fluid. Descartes thought that only human beings had minds or souls and that other animals, despite the presence of both brains and pineal glands in their heads, were without what Gilbert Ryle would later call a “ghost in the machine” that would allow them to truly experience things like pain.

Descartes used this rationale to justify vivisection; the cutting open of live animals to study their anatomy. For him the uniquely human mind and the body were two distinct and different substances, and this is the definition of Cartesian Dualism. Descartes made great contributions to the fields of optics and mathematics, and his formulation of the mind/body problem in philosophy remains a jumping off point for Philosophy of Mind courses to this day, but did he steer us in the wrong direction on this big question? More pervasively, it seems that Descartes mind/body dualism may have ridden on the coat-tails of an incorrect but intuitively convincing language distinction that is still with us today in spite of it’s inadequacies.

Since Descartes, many philosophers have debated the nuances of the mind/body problem, and many schools of thought on how to solve this conundrum have emerged. Of course advances in the scientific understanding of the brain have made the question more and more the domain of neuroscience, and Pat and Paul Churchland have even recently coined the emerging field of “Neurophilosophy.” This husband and wife philosophy team represent a position called eliminative materialism, an argument considered radical by some, that (with regard to consciousness) there is only the brain, and that the common underlying folk psychology conceptions of what we have called belief, desire, and even a self with free will are imprecise misnomers that we will eventually need to dispense with if we are to accurately describe the way consciousness works. Daniel Dennett, whose idea of the intentional stance inspired the log-cabin opening vignette of this chapter, is in substantial agreement with the Churchlands.

With Regard To The Mind, The Brain Matters

The famous 1848 case of a railroad construction foreman named Phineas Gage was a major clue as to the relationships between areas of the brain and that aspect of mind we call the personality. The twenty-five year old Gage was using a “tamping iron” to pack blasting powder into a hole drilled in the rock while preparing the ground for laying railway tracks. The powder exploded, projecting the three-and-a-half feet long and an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter iron rod into the side of his face. The impact shattered his jaw, and the rod passed behind his left eye, exiting through the top of his head. Incredibly, Gage spoke within minutes of the explosion, walked without assistance and apparently sat upright for the three-quarter mile ride back to his lodgings.

Edward Williams, the first attending physician, did not believe what the still conscious Phineas said had happened, until the young man stood up to vomit – the force of which pressed “about a teacupful of brain” out onto the floor.

Despite the seriousness of his injury, the massive loss of blood that ensued and some of his brain falling out, Phineas Gage made a full physical recovery after about six months. While accounts vary as to the extent of the change, it is widely held that this unfortunate young man’s personality was significantly altered by the accident. Contemporary analysis of his skull suggests that the metal rod appears to have damaged either the left or both frontal lobes of the brain.

Gage, says Dr. John Harlow, the second physician who attended him, went from being a well respected and responsible worker, a “shrewd, smart business man, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation,” to being “a child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations” but with “the animal passions of a strong man” who was “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned…”

So much so that his friends said he was “no longer Gage.

Which of course raises the core question: Who is the real Phineas Gage, and how dependent on his brain’s functioning and health are the qualities we assign to this person?

That a person’s behavior and demeanor could be altered by an injury to the brain was a revelation for nineteenth century medicine and still challenges some of our fundamental intuitions about what it is to be a person and from where we locate our particular sense of self. There are however countless cases of traumatic brain injury via accident or stroke that support this observation. Who we are and how we behave is inextricably tied to brain function.

In 1940 William Van Wagenen performed the first series of surgical operations to sever the corpus callosum in patients with intractable epilepsy. This tissue connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and severing the connection reduces the severity of the seizures because it stops the escalating cycle of chaotic neuronal firing between the two hemispheres. Over forty years later Roger Sperry and his colleagues David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel won the Nobel prize in medicine for research done using some of those original split-brain patients that led to the discovery of hemispheric specialization – the now commonly known difference between right and left brain functions. These experiments together with those done later by Michael Gazzaniga once again force us to challenge our intuitive assumptions about consciousness and the self. This is why:

First bear in mind the fact that the logical and analytic left brain, specialized to deal with speaking, writing and numbers, receives information from the right visual field, and the holistic and intuitive right brain, which is specialized to perform non-verbal and spatial tasks, receives information from the left visual field. Information is normally shared between the two hemispheres via the corpus callosum, but not so in the split-brain patients. This specialization was demonstrated in the following way: Split-brain patients who were shown an image in their left visual field would be unable to name the image, because the speech centers in the left brain had no access to the image, they could however pick up a object that correlated with the image with their left hand —showing that they knew what the image represented, but could not name it verbally.

Similarly, after being shown the image of a chicken in the right visual field and a snowy field in the left, when the patient was asked to choose from a series of cards with images on them, they would correctly choose a chicken foot to associate with the chicken and a shovel to associate with snow, but when asked why they would only be able to associate the shovel to the chicken, for example: to clean up the chicken coop. This is because the right brain recognizes the connection between shovel and snow but without left-brain reasoning, does not know why and so defers to the left-brain association, and the fabricated language-based answer.  When a young woman’s left visual field was shown an image of a naked man she began to laugh, but her left-brain couldn’t say why, only that it must have something to do with images the machine was projecting. Paging Dr. Freud..

The two hemispheric qualities of attention that are normally shared via the corpus callosum are literally split in these patients – leading Dr. Sperry to say the following:

“Each hemisphere is indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and… both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel.”


Searle’s Solution

If we follow our conventional intuitions of what it means to have a self, we have to then ask if the split-brain patient has two selves, and if we follow traditional ideas of the soul it really gets confusing! Like: Do those two selves represent two souls, and if one believes in Jesus and the other doesn’t (for example) does one go to heaven and the other to hell?

Perhaps these are concepts that need to be redefined.

In an elegant solution to the mind-body problem, contemporary American philosopher John Searle has said that the mind is causally reducible to the brain, but not ontologically reducible to the brain —and this is at the heart of the confusion. He argues that body/mind (or brain/mind) dualism is a mistake of vocabulary; a problem with outdated words that don’t actually mean what we thought they meant.

Speaking of words, let’s unpack causal and ontological, to get more of a sense of what Searle means about the mind:

When Searle says that mind is causally reducible to the brain, he means that the experience we call mind is caused or created by activity in the brain. We are biochemical, neural creatures and the mind is a feature of that activity in the brain, just like wetness is a feature of water.

Ontology is defined as the study of being, existence or reality in general. so when Searle says that the mind is not ontologically reducible to the brain, he means that it does indeed exist in a unique domain, even though it is causally reducible to brain activity. In other words, even though it is causally reducible to the brain, the actual first person experience of mind cannot itself be reduced to the brain, for the simple reason that mind is an emergent experiential phenomenon, which we cannot find in the neurons and biochemistry by examining them.

Another way that Searle states this idea is to say that consciousness or mind is a state that the brain is in, just like liquid or solid are states that water can be in. There is no mind separate from the brain, and the brain doesn’t create a separate thing in itself called “mind” —this is the mistake of language, of outdated concepts from a time before we knew as much as we do now about how the brain works.

As Searle points out, the problem is one of how to relate the interior to the exterior, the first person subjective experience of the mind to third person objective structures of the body. Thinking about some other bodily phenomena, like, say, low-back pain, is helpful: We can correlate objective third person data from an x-ray of a bulging disc in the lumbar spine impinging a spinal nerve root with the subjective first person account of pain in the low back or shooting down the leg. Now of course the pain is causally reducible to the physical nerve impingement being communicated to the brain, but the subjective experience of pain is in the domain of consciousness or mind.

Similarly, as shown by Helen Fisher’s research included in her book, Why We Love, we can correlate a first person subjective account of being in love with a third person objective measuring of increased dopamine and oxytocin and decreased serotonin. When we are falling in love increased dopamine (objective, 3rd person) creates a feeling of elation (subjective, 1st person). Likewise, the oxytocin released in the activity of sexual interaction creates the feeling of being bonded with our beloved. Decreased serotonin creates obsessive thinking – the subjective sense of not being able to get the object of our love out of our minds.

Fisher and other researchers have also demonstrated that the relationship between the faces people most often subjectively rate as highly sexually attractive and those faces’ objective symmetry, shape and bone-structure is a reflection of hormonal levels and overall genetic health. Like it or not, we are physical, biochemical, neural beings – and everything we experience has its genesis in bodily processes.

As new frontiers of brain research are explored, philosophers continue to debate the question of consciousness. Many neuroscientists and philosophers believe that the mind-body problem has been solved in principle —consciousness or mind is a natural property of the brain, but that the details and nuances of this extremely complex and unique phenomenon are still being worked out. Some still argue though that while we may eventually discover all the neural and biochemical correlates for consciousness the so-called “hard problem” will always remain as to why it feels a specific way to be conscious of something.

These theorists, like David Chalmers, talk about “qualia” —a kind of qualitative experience unit. Examples of qualia: the experience of looking at the color red, the taste of wine, smelling a rose, or the feeling of a headache. They maintain that there is not as yet and may never be a causally reducible relationship between qualia and brain activity.

The counter-argument to this says that we most likely have complex systems of self-representation that may be too difficult at this or any point to pin down to specific neurons or brain regions, but are higher features of a synergistic brain process; part of the mind-blowing phenomenon of consciousness.

As with quantum physics, many who would like to hold open supernatural possibilities point to the so-called hard problem of consciousness as evidence of a gap in our understanding of the brain – a gap through which a god, a soul dualistically distinct from the body, or some other metaphysical belief can be inserted. This is not good logic – but it is a good entry point into our next discussion.

Are the mind and the brain the same thing? Well, yes and no. Mind is a totally unique first person experience that the brain is having, and our language is largely inadequate to describe how this process works. To make matters more complex, the way we use our minds can alter the way our brains function – as we’ll find out later on!

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