A few weeks ago I realized Intelligent Design is really about identity. That made me feel good because in his book “Making Movies” Sidney Lumet wrote that he likes to reduce the themes of his movies into a single sentence, or better yet, a single word. That single word then becomes the litmus by which all future decisions are evaluated: what stays in the movie, where the camera is placed, where character motivations come from, etc.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Animistic religions talk about the nature of the universe as though it involves all kinds of spirits. Shinto or Taoism, for instance, refer to each aspect of the world as having a different spirit. For a really good visual example, check out the movies of Studio Ghibli, specifically, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke.
One of the first gods in Taoism was the pot/cauldron god, because the early followers of Chuang Tsu practiced what later became alchemy, which later became chemistry. They mixed chemicals in a pot, and some of those chemicals exploded. The pot became very important, and the pot god emerged.
Later, psychology dismissed animistic beliefs as “uncivilized” and dispelled external sources for the various voices we often hear replacing them with internal manifestations of the different sections of our mind, which were later determined through neuroscience to be different sections of our brains.
WHAT ARE WE
Before we get into any talk about externalizing the voices in our heads, I think it’s vital to establish what constitutes the “self”. In the case of the thing we often refer to as our “self”, that exists primarily in the front section of our brains, called the frontal lobe. This is where abstract thought happens, where reasoning and logic take place. It’s where we make methodical decisions.
In his amazing book “Thinking: Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman refers to the consciousness as the slow brain and the subconsciousness as the fast brain.
After reading “Thinking: Fast and Slow” and after reading several books by Carl Jung, and many others, I became convinced that what we call emotions are in fact a highly compressed method of data transfer from our subconsciousness to our consciousness. That compressed data gets expressed in what we call emotions.
I recently found an amazing TEDx Talk by Dr. Alan Watkins a neuroscientist who confirmed my theory.
Through years of mediation, I’ve noticed that beyond that reasoning, beyond that methodical processor, there is another aspect of consciousness I call “The Observer.”
Here’s how I became aware of The Observer (I’ve mentioned this in previous posts and I’m sure I’ll mention it in subsequent posts as well): when we experience extreme emotions our amygdala emits a chemical that limits the capacity for our frontal lobes to conduct electricity. Since our brains are electro-chemical in nature, that chemical functions as a paralytic. In other words, that chemical paralyzes our frontal lobes, allowing our more primal instincts to take over and govern our actions. Our consciousness will shift from our frontal lobe to our subconsciousness. We are unaware of this shift as it happens because to “self” we just seem like we’re still the same person.
However, we are very much not the same person. We are not rational, reasonable, or capable of abstract thought. When those extreme emotions are happening, we are on a spectrum of fight or flight mode.
Yet, despite that neuro-paralytic, chemical, I’ve found I’m still capable of stepping outside the fight or flight mode and asking, Is this how I want to feel? Does this feeling lead in the direction that I want to go long-term?
The fact that I’m able to make that abstraction may be a factor of the pattern recognition I’ve built into my subconsciousness over years of meditation, which then kicks in during fight or flight, but functionally, it creates an entity independent of the built-in system and allows me to decide to circumvent the neuro-paralytic’s effect.
Functionally, The Observer is what I experience. The observer is what allows me to recognize the onset of an extreme emotion and begin to take deep and regular breathes and indirectly regulate the extreme emotions.
VOICES IN OUR HEADS
I ran across an interesting question the other day: Regardless of whether the source of inspiration comes from the existence or non-existence of any external spirit or god, or whether all inspiration is internal, is it useful to us as individuals to conceptualize the different sources of information as “voices”?
In the movie Inside Out, which I highly recommend, the internal voices of the main character are personified. In the BBC series River, which I also highly recommend, the physical and auditory hallucinations resulting from the milder versions of schizophrenia are also referred to as manifestations of deep psychological/subconscious desires.
There are many different sections of our brains that do many different things. Some of our methods of measuring or mapping these processes right now is vague to the point of error, but despite these deep flaws we can still talk about them loosely.
One of the ways we’ve been able to vaguely map the brain with some accuracy is to study functionality after someone has experienced damage to a specific section. When changes in behavior or capacity is observed, then studies of people with damage to the same section are also studied. If the change in behavior is found in both people, there’s a likelihood that the behavior, at least in part, is affected by that section of the brain.
Where exactly those various processes are happening might be vague, but it’s convenient to think about them in terms of co-processors, or parallel processors, each with a specialized task.
Many of these tasks happen without our noticing them. We don’t pay attention to our hearts beating very often, but there’s a part of our brain that governs its rate and intensity. We don’t pay attention to our capillaries, the small blood vessels that go throughout our body, but when we go into shock, or when we need to run, that blood flow is regulated by the capillaries.
Through meditation, I’ve found that can consciously change the speed and intensity of my heart beats, as well as the flow of my capillaries. I’m still exploring exactly how far this conscious control can go, but if Hindu/Buddhists mystics are any indication, it’s pretty amazing.
The fact that those usually subconscious systems are accessible consciously means that they are governed by my brain, which then is subservient to The Observer. This process is made more clear to me by allowing those different processes to manifest to my conscious mind in the form of a person, or a voice, albeit often not in words, but in concepts or tendencies.
WHAT’S THE POINT?
When I listen to my body as though it’s a voice, it limits my subconscious from governing my actions in a way that I find hinders the direction I want to go.
Here’s an example: if I’m in the middle of a task that must be completed on a deadline, and if I haven’t eaten recently, my stomach will start telling me I need to eat. If I continue to ignore my stomach, it will tell my subconsciousness that I’m getting nauseous.
If I give my stomach a voice and allow it to be personified in my conscious mind, then I can interact with it. I can hear what it’s trying to tell me and recognize that not as need but as habit, which trained my stomach it that ought to be filled according to a specified schedule. Deviating from that schedule is in no way life-threatening. I can ignore the schedule for quite a while before it becomes a real problem.
This concept is even more useful with deep emotional wounds that stem from perceived traumatic childhood events. Again, in the movie Inside Out, those significant and often traumatic childhood events are conveniently referred to as “core memories.”
Often, when we act, we’re acting out of a pattern that our brains have recognized as a valid understanding of reality. However, that understanding was constructed when we were children, before we had experienced enough of life to determine what is, and more importantly, what is not a valid pattern.
When we are adults, when we have more life experience, and hopefully more wisdom, we can readdress that previously established and flawed model of the universe, and recontextualize the core memory appropriately.
Because those core memories are so central to the superstructure of what constitutes the subconscious self, altering them can have radical effects that ripple through the rest of our consciousness.
THE ZENS CALL IT SATORI
Giving the neural-processes voices can be dangerous because those voices can be confused with the conscious mind and they can increase in volume and number to the point of separating The Observer from inherent reality into a delusional world of their own making… it can make you crazy for real.
Having that warning out there, by personifying the different processes in our brains/minds we gain the ability interact with them consciously. This allows us to be more aware of where we are, of the choices that we’re making, and of the biases we have.
In Zen, the goal is awareness, and living in the present. When perfect awareness of the present is achieved, that state is called Satori. Even those practicing Zen know it’s extremely hard to maintain Satori.
HEARING WISDOM FROM THE PAST
During Age of Enlightenment, in an effort to separate science from the authoritarian power of the Catholic church, philosophers came up with an argument: They made a distinction between faith and reason. Faith, according to this definition, is the belief in something despite a sufficient amount of empirical proof. Reason, by contrast, is the belief in things based solely on empirical proof.
While that argument is good because it allowed us to use science and gave us the ability to send remote-controlled cars to Mars, it treated as garbage all previous forms of human experience and understanding because they existed and were stored in the form of religion.
OUR BRAINS ARE REALLY COMPLEX
As I mentioned above, science shows us that our brains process the information we take in at different points in our brains. But, science isn’t really anywhere near explaining where consciousness exists in the brain, or even how it might function. This is because of the staggering complexity of our brains.
Modern mobile phone CPUs have over 3,000,000,000 transistors. That’s so complex that we have to have other computers design the CPUs in a process called chip masking. No single human being or group of human beings can design the layout of a CPU in their lifetimes. The human brain has 33 times as many neurons as a CPU has transistors.
A transistor can be in one of two states, on or off. This allows the CPU to function using binary math. Bi, meaning two. Two states. Again, by contrast, each neuron is capable processing 58 different neurotransmitters/peptides/gasotransmitters. In other words, each of the 100 billion neurons in our brains is capable of being any of 58 states, each of which means something different, each of which combines with any other, creating more and more meaning.
I want to make the distinction between the power of the brain and computers more clear: Modern computer security relies on the science of encryption. Encryption works because it uses numbers so large that it’s impossible for all modern binary computers to processes. What I mean is, a password with 13 character of numbers, letters, and symbols would take all known binary computers nearly until the cold-death of the universe to decrypt.
Enter the quantum computer. Modern quantum computers aren’t truly quantum computers. Instead, they allow for the transistor be in a third state. It allows from a switch from binary to ternary math. Ternary-based processors are so powerful that they will make all forms of encryption moot. A single ternary processor can read any encryption in real-time, as though it’s not encrypted at all.
That’s just 3 states for the processor to be in. Our brains have 58 states. We are nowhere near understanding how our brains work. In fact, it may be impossible for humanity to even come up with a valid framework for understanding our brains without our brains being physically integrated with a deep learning AI.
And so, any framework that allows us to better understand how our minds work, even if they seem anachronistic to our modern conceptions of self, I think of as helpful. And, since I’m making a series exploring identity, I really want to dig into exactly how our minds work. It’s a discussion I think we need to be having as a society.