Next time you and I attend the same party, please remind me that I would like to play this game: It begins with a group of people who choose one volunteer to play the role of the “analyst.” The analyst understands that her job is to leave the room, and that the rest of the group will choose somebody (the “dreamer”) who will explain a recent dream that he has had. When the analyst returns, she will begin asking a series of "yes or no" questions of the group. The dialogue might go:
“Does the dream involve a woman?”
“Is the woman a nun?”
“Is the nun Whoopie Goldberg?”
“Does the nun fly?”
And so on. Once the analyst has been able to reconstruct the dream, she is to try to guess which member of the group was the dreamer, and conduct a psychoanalysis of that person based on the dream’s contents. Sounds like a fun game, right? Well, it’s actually even more fun when you find out what the real rules are:
Once the “analyst” leaves the room, nobody from the group actually relates a dream. Someone explains that, when the analyst is invited back in, the team is to answer questions which end with a letter in the first half of the alphabet (A-M) in the negative, and questions which end with a letter in the second half of the alphabet (N-Z) in the affirmative. In other words, the “analyst” is constructing the dream herself, pretty much at random, and in the end it is the group which gets to analyse her!
I encountered a description of this game for the first time in Daniel Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained, and it goes a surprisingly long way toward actually explaining a good amount of how consciousness works. I hope that the reasons for this will make a lot more sense by the end of this blog.
The brain’s job entails creating and processing information 100 percent of the time. The function of the brain comprises countless networks of neurons which serve certain functions, and individual neurons within those networks serve different purposes at different times. In the primary visual cortex, for example, there may be networks of neurons which recognise vertical lines, those which process horizontal lines, those which process angles, and those which help to process faces. This is not to say that each neuron has only one role to play—they all serve multiple purposes. Yet what may be surprising is that, notwithstanding our intuitive sense of how we process sensory information, the neurons which play these roles do not entirely depend on the external world to give us this information—quite the contrary, in fact. The brain’s visual system, just like all of the systems of the brain, instead finds it far more energetically efficient to assign a majority of its neurons the task of creating simulations of the world based on predictions of what we might see. Each network in the brain, and each neuron, makes statistical predictions informed partly by inborn genetic wiring, but mostly on the concepts we have learned in the past, via the body, about the environment. It then has a smaller team of neurons whose job it is to check with the world, via the sense organs, as to whether these predictions have been accurate. Every single moment, the 86 billion neurons in your brain are engaging in the process of creating millions of predictions, which they represent to other neurons as sensory and motor simulations. They then ask other neurons, essentially, to “go out and check” if the predictions were accurate. Our pre-wired concepts are precisely what make optical illusions possible, and prediction-error correction is what gives us that mixture of delight and relief when we finally see behind the curtain, so to speak.
This simulation process functions not only for what we normally think of as sensory “input”—as we saw in my 28 April post “this is your brain on movement,” the brain also simulates every action we instantiate through our bodies. With brain scanning equipment, scientists can actually see the brain simulating bodily movements in real time, even before the subject becomes consciously aware that he is about to make that particular movement. Again, your brain does this as a matter of energetic efficiency: planning the movement in advance and making little adjustments on the way as needed creates a much greater degree of energy-saving elegance in movement when compared to purely flying by the seat of your pants.
This process of prediction, simulation, comparison of the simulation with the environment, and correcting for errors—what Lisa Feldman Barrett calls the “prediction loop,” and Dennett calls the “multiple drafts theory,”—is how consciousness emerges. And I would like to posit that what we tend to think of as “the self” is simply a convenient noun to describe a perpetual process, whose only constant is change itself. This process is, in effect, who you are.
The Dream Analysis game at the beginning of this post actually serves as a wonderful metaphor for the process. In our actual dreams, ever-shifting networks of the brain are establishing their own sensory simulations, essentially by asking “yes or no” questions, and other networks respond—randomly, but not arbitrarily—in either the affirmative or negative. It is not arbitrary, because the answers appear to be statistically tied to previous experiences. The brain is more likely to simulate sensations based on:
- Primacy: Early influences like childhood homes tend to show up in dreams throughout life.
- Frequency: People and places that we encounter often are likely to be regular characters in our dreams.
- Recency: Events from the previous day have a higher chance of affecting dream simulations.
These are the very same qualities that enable learning and drive simulations during waking life as well. This, it seems to me, is why the sensory experiences we have in our dreams can seem so real: we construct them in nearly the exact same manner that we do when we are awake. Yet when we are asleep, the brain normally paralyses the skeletal muscles from the neck down. Thankfully, this keeps us from acting out our dreams. (If the mechanism isn’t working properly, we are liable to sleepwalk or have night terrors.) Due to the fact that the brain is not receiving somatosensory input, the simulations cannot be “checked” against sense data from the external world. Without the ability to correct for prediction error against the (relative) stability of the physical environment, the narratives and forms in are dreams become mercurially surreal when compared to waking life. On the other hand, being awake and grounded in an active, sensing body gives our predictive minds the ability to provide us with a sense of fluid stability.
A simple way of experiencing how mental simulations create the feeling of stability in the external world is simply to turn your head gently a few times. Your body-mind is, of course, wired in a way that simulates such normal types of movement, microseconds before you make them. In doing so, it employs a mental representation of both itself and your environment in order to cancel out the feedback “noise” (as Daniel Wolpert calls it), to maintain a semblance of stability. When we experience movements that the brain is not accustomed to simulating, confusion ensues. You may have had the experience of being on an unmoving train, and mistakenly interpreting the sight of the slow departure of an adjacent train as the movement of your own. Can you recall the odd feeling of your brain cells scrambling to address this cognitive dissonance when you realised your error? That was an instance of catching your mind in the act of redrafting its simulations based on error-corrected external data. Here’s another experiment you can do right now (which you probably did a hundred times as a child): Cover one eye with one hand, and gently poke the other eye’s bottom eyelid in a way that moves your eyeball slightly. Notice how the world suddenly seems to “jump” in a way that it doesn’t when you move your head? Such an unusual eyeball movement has no adaptive advantage, so your brain has simply not bothered to construct a corresponding simulation that would keep the visual field stable during that action. Now please stop poking your eyeball.
If you are still finding this theory a bit difficult to stomach, it might be due to a voice in your head which is trying to appeal to your common sense. It might be saying something like “Yes but, when I look back at my life, even though everything around me has been subject to mutable processes, there still is something that has been me that whole time.” This brings us back to Patañjali’s idea of the Seer, and to Descartes’ notion of the non-physical mind that I argued against last week. It is often this notion of a perpetual essence which serves as the most likely candidate for our true identity, and memory does seem to create a powerful narrative through-line for our lives. But if we are honest with ourselves, when we look back upon the past with as much precision as we can, we find only little bits of memories. (A more accurate way of phrasing that might be that what we remember are actually memories of memories.) The brain makes a deliberate point of forgetting the vast majority of our experiences—and with good reason. If a memory is unlikely to serve as a reliable simulatory representation for purposes of survival or reproduction later in life, it is eschewed in order to free up space for the potential for more helpful processes. Furthermore, memory does not tend to function chronologically. How often do you think of a memorable event and think either: “Wow, I can’t believe that happened five years ago! It feels like it was last month!” or “Wow, I can’t believe that happened five years ago! It feels like it has been an eternity since then!” Other events which occurred before or after the memory in question often seem more recent or further removed. If pressed to do so, you could probably provide a rough timeline; however, the vast majority of our memories challenge us considerably when we attempt to arrange them in chronological order.
Recent research has illuminated one reason why this might be the case. For a long time, neuroscientists posited that the brain created memories in a pair of stages: First, the short term memory, or working memory, created a representation of certain bits of information. Then, the hippocampus would instigate a process which would send the most relevant bits of information to the cortex, where they would be converted into long term memory. Earlier this year, however, a US and Japanese team released a major paper which showed that what we used to think of two consecutive steps actually happen concurrently; that is to say, the brain creates short- and long-term memories at the same time.
It seems to me that this significant temporal overlap between the creation of short-term memories and long-term memories could be one reason for the illusion that we have a sense of continuity amongst all of our memories. In fact, it is just that the neural networks which process new memories are linked to memories which have been stored for long periods of time. Because the involved neurons are “firing” together, it gives us the illusion that the present memories we are creating share an essential, common thread with events from long ago. Once again, the illusion of an enduring “Self” comes about as a result of a present-moment process. As my main man-crush Bertrand Russell put it:
When I look at my table and see a certain brown colour, what is quite certain at once is not ‘I am seeing a brown colour,’ but rather, ‘a brown colour is being seen.’ This of course involves something (or somebody) which (or who) sees the brown colour; but it does not of itself involve that more or less permanent person whom we call ‘I.’ So far as immediate certainty goes, it might be that the something which sees the brown colour is quite momentary, and not the same as the something which has some different experience the next moment.
I recognise from my own experience that this model may constitute a serious threat to your beliefs about who you are. But allow me to frame it in what I hope will be a less menacing manner. From a psychological perspective, the pressure of living up to some notion of a “higher” essential self creates, for many of us, a perennial source of conflict. This happens because, as we have already seen in the examples of “split-brain” patients (and anyone looking at a restaurant menu) the various aspects the mind often have quite different individual needs and desires. Yet we are conditioned to believe that there is something in us that is speaking with the “true” voice, and that if we can simply isolate that voice, we will gain access to all the right answers in life. Our inability to discern this “true” voice creates even more conflict amongst the voices which are competing for prominence, and the resulting cacophony creates a general feeling of tension in and/or disconnection from the body, in whole or in part. This constant conflict and confusion can also cause a sense of disappointment, or a feeling of failure. Whether your perspective takes the form of liberal humanism, religion, or a spiritual doctrine which posits the primacy of the transcendental spirit/soul/consciousness, the cognitive dissonance that emerges when you are are unable to isolate your all-important essence can often lead to disillusionment and cynicism. “Perhaps the spiritual path,” one may conclude, “presents too many challenges that I am simply not strong/good/perfect enough to overcome.” Alternatively, disillusionment in one path can lead to a desire to find another; becoming a “spiritual junkie” in this way is not at all uncommon in New Age circles, as people hop from dogma to dogma in an addictive search for the best way to isolate their “essence” from everything about them which they have been told is “false.”
However, evidence very much seems to point to the conclusion that such isolation is neither desirable nor possible. Our very being is, in fact, a collective doing: many mini parts of “us” are constantly communicating, connecting, networking, simulating, planning, and doing almost all of this in order to instantiate some form of movement. In short, you are not a noun. You are a verb; or rather, you are a collection of verbs.
Who you are is not some unchanging essence with a universal truth; rather, it is a dynamic process to which many unique parameters constantly contribute. And although it may seem as though parts of ourselves are directly at odds with each other, it need not necessarily be so. We don’t need to ignore any parts of ourselves, and nor do we need to force everything within us to want the exact same thing. It is far more realistic—and far more fulfilling, in fact—to allow all of our various “selves” to communicate with each other and to contribute to finding a sense of harmony in the process. And although it may seem that the massive meditation advocate has again painted himself into a corner (“Aren’t we human beings, not human doings?"), next week we’ll begin to see how the attention we can develop through an embodied meditative process can help us create new patterns and concepts which allow us to incorporate this sense of harmony into the soma (body-mind) and, therefore, into our lives.