A Very Big Place in a Very Small Space

At one time it was common for philosophers to pay scant attention to science. Many preferred to analyze issues through sheer intellectual prowess. But today most philosophers of mind study neuroscience carefully, looking for clues about the nature of consciousness. I’m going to post several entries about mind and brain, starting with comments about the astonishing capabilities that are packed into a few inches of cranial space.

The human brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells. The word “cell” may seem to imply simple shapes, like little boxes, but neurons look more like bushes or trees, with luxuriant branches and tendrils projecting from the cell body. One winter’s day while driving through the countryside I realized that every one of the bare trees lining the highway looked roughly similar to an individual neuron. So next time you’re in a forest or a botanical park, imagine that you’re looking at your own inner “garden.”

Popularized descriptions of the brain tend to be simplistic. When authors refer to brain structures such as channels, pumps, and receptors, they are talking in almost cartoon-like fashion. According to George Johnson, these terms are more like metaphors than like literal descriptions of molecular processes. He says that “faithfully simulating a single neuron would take an entire supercomputer” (In the Palaces of Memory, p. 99). So just one of your nerve cells is as complicated as a computer, and you have roughly 100 billion of them!

Furthermore, the basic building block of brain power is not the individual nerve cell. It’s the synapse, the connection between the cells, and your brain contains at least one hundred trillion of these linkups. Suppose you started counting the links between neurons in your brain, one connection every second, twenty-four hours a day. At the end of a year you would have counted around thirty million. But to count all of the interconnections would take you over three million years.

Can you see why each person is unique? Can you see why we might have amazing abilities? As one neurologist exclaimed, “100 trillion different connections – hell, you can do anything with that. That’s more than enough to contain a soul” (quoted by Hooper and Teresi, The Three-Pound Universe, p. 31, emphasis added).

And that’s just the beginning. We’ve been talking about how many connections there are in your brain at this instant, but these connections are changing all the time. How many possible sets of interconnections could your brain have? Philosopher Owen Flanagan has suggested that the number of possible link-ups in the average brain is ten to the one hundred trillionth power (Consciousness Reconsidered, p. 37). The brain is, indeed, a very big place in a very small space.

I have come to realize that I am inside of this huge little thing, and this giant-brain perspective has revolutionized the way I think of consciousness.

Roger Christan Schriner

Are You Trapped Within Your Thoughts? Here’s a Way to Savor Your Senses

Today I’ll say more about the difference between having a conscious experience and just thinking about it. When I was working as a psychotherapist I noticed that people seemed to live in their concepts instead of in the flow of their own sensual experiences. When asked, “What are you feeling now?” clients would often say how they had usually felt in similar circumstances, how they thought they should feel, how they imagined that most people would feel, what they thought I wanted them to say they felt, how they had generally been feeling in the past few minutes, or what sort of feeling they thought others would applaud. Few were able to tap into the detailed, second-by-second flow of their own stream of awareness.

A woman might initially say, “I feel sad,” for example, but after carefully focusing on her experience she might discover to her own surprise that she was mainly feeling angry. (Perhaps she was taught by her parents that good girls don’t get mad.) Her beliefs about how things seemed to her experientially were quite different from her actual state of mind. Incidently, this could be one cause of the placebo effect. When people expect an inert “drug” to ameliorate their symptoms, they often report that it does. This may be partly because they are not competently monitoring their own sensations. They are living more in their concepts than in their own bodies.

I observe – I assume. This technique from Gestalt Therapy helps us “come to our senses.” It can be practiced in many different situations, but at first try using it in situations where you can observe other people without distraction. Sitting in a restaurant or watching TV are two excellent opportunities. Look at someone unobtrusively and notice something you observe about that individual. Then notice what you are assuming, inferring, or speculating about this person. “I observe that he is wearing a tie. I assume he is a rather formal fellow.” “I observe that she is wearing a red blouse; she probably likes that shade of red.” “I observe that he is laughing; I speculate that he has a nice sense of humor.”

Continue alternating between things you observe and things you guess or assume. See if you can catch yourself confusing an assumption for an observation. For example, “I observe that she is sleepy” is false. You aren’t inside of her head and you can’t be sure sleepiness is what she is experiencing. “I observe her yawning, and I assume she is sleepy” would be correct. But she might be bored. By practicing this technique you can begin to see how much of what we take as obvious facts are merely conjectures. It is remarkably easy to live within our concepts instead of our actual experiences.

Roger Christan Schriner

Conscious vs. Unconscious

I’ll now resume blogging about consciousness, and in general I hope to post an entry at least every two weeks. Today I want to contrast conscious and unconscious states of mind, things that we do and do not experience. Right now, for example, notice the sensations in your legs. You probably weren’t aware of them a moment ago, unless they were uncomfortable. And yet your brain was continually receiving neural signals from those lower limbs. If a rattlesnake had started slithering up your ankle, you would hopefully have noticed a change in those sensations. (Did you feel a creepy little tingle in your calves, just reading that last sentence?) Complex sensory information is constantly flowing into your brain, but the brain has cerebral sentries posted, tasked with letting some things “into” consciousness and keeping others out. These gate-keeping mechanisms recruit a small fraction of your current perceptual inputs into sensory awareness.

The difference between consciously “present” and non-conscious mental events is partly a difference in the way we know things. If I’m paying attention to my legs I know they exist because I can feel them. But suppose someone gives me a drug that prevents me from feeling my legs for the next hour, and blindfolds me as well. Although I would still know my legs exist, “knowing my legs are there” without being conscious of them is different from knowing my legs through feeling them and seeing them.

Is everything in your mind either conscious or unconscious? Some say yes and some say no. I suspect that in borderline cases there is no fact of the matter about whether a mental event is conscious. For example, I was once watching a TV show about hippopotamuses. My mind began to wander and suddenly I realized that the TV had been showing zebras instead of hippos for a minute or two. It seems likely that in some sense I did experience the shift from one animal to another. I was looking right at the screen, and the shapes I was gazing at were a lot different when the striped beasties went away and the much portlier hippos began cavorting. But at first I was not fully aware of this change. So there may be a gray area of semi-awareness. Even so, most would agree that some mental events are clearly conscious and others are definitely unconscious.

In case you’d like to practice focusing on your own stream of consciousness, here is a way to do that.

Just notice. Sit or lie down in a quiet place, set a timer for perhaps 10 minutes, close your eyes, and notice the flow of your own awareness. Start with sound-experiences. Every time you hear something new, even if it’s very soft, just think sound. Then after a while, do the same thing with bodily sensations, thinking body in each case.

Eventually you can do this with everything that moves through your mind: smell, taste, thought, emotion, sight (noticing visual patterns with your eyes closed), and so on. Of course at times you will start pursuing thoughts about some topic and fall away from this exercise. Just say the word “thoughts,” silently, and return to your focus, until the timer rings. This standard meditation technique has numerous benefits in addition to acquainting us with our own mental processes. It will help you become more “conscious of consciousness,” more aware of your own inner life.

Roger Christan Schriner