Out of My Mind
Iíve had some rather disconcerting mental episodes most of my life, beginning at age 17, in which I seem to be in an alternate reality for a little while. I should say partly in an alternate reality, for Iím never totally disconnected from whatís going on around me. When itís happened Iíve excused myself from work or whatever else I was doing that required my full functioning. After an hour or two, itís always gone. And the episodes have never put me or others at risk, for example if I were driving a car. Iíve asked a couple of doctors about it informally, but have not gotten a lot of helpful information. From what Iíve read, itís probably related to epilepsy, something that misfires in my temporal lobe somewhere. I have a cousin who began having seizures in his late adolescence.
After living with these episodes for 45 years, Iím no longer worried about them. But I continue to be curious about what they are, exactly.
Recently, Iíve been reading Exploring Consciousness, by Rita Carter. She writes about the biology of the mind, in the same manner as Steven Pinker, who wrote How the Mind Works. Carter has also written Mapping the Mind, which details what the neurophysiologists know about the activity of the mind. In her new book she addresses what she and others call "the hard question"ówhat, exactly, is consciousness? She admits, finally, that while there are many theories, no one yet knows for sure.
Still, the book illuminates much of the workings of perception and awareness. For example, it seems that while we think we "see" directly, with light from an object creating an image on our retinas, which is converted to electrical activity and transferred to some part of the brain where we are made aware of the object, itís not that simple, not by a long shot. When we are conscious of an object in our environment, we donít get the information directly at all. The visual data that comes from our eyes goes through several separate paths, one sensing color, another sensing movement, still another sensing shape, etc. These separate signals are compared with information held in our memory by a back-and-forth exchange of neuronal blips. By the time all this comparing takes place, the perception itself may have altered considerably. Our awareness is only second hand, at best. Thatís why we sometimes mistake a stranger for someone we know, or read a telephone number and dial it incorrectly.
Even more curious is the fact that our awareness of our own intentions seems to lag behind our intentions. Researchers have monitored brain activity and found the place where actions are initiatedófor instance, I reach for a pencil lying on my desk, and a particular area of the brain shows electrical discharges. They have also isolated the area that is active when a person knows something. When I decide to reach for the pencil; that is, when Iím conscious of my intention, my body has already begun the process of reaching. Carter says, "We have the thought AND we perform the action due to a single cause: unconscious brain processes which determine our behavior." Now, what does that say about free will?
Free will is an illusion, says Carter. We are much less in control of our bodies and indeed of our minds than we think. There are process in the brain that respond to stimuli from our environment and also from our minds that occur independently of our awareness. Another researcher writing in her book distinguishes between mental states that we call perceptions, thoughts, feelings and sensations, and those by which we are aware of those mental states. In other words, thoughts about thoughts. When we are aware of being aware, we are experiencing a "higher-order thought." Even these are not always conscious. I may be hungry, but not be aware of it until something related catches my attention. That big, juicy hamburger in the television commercial may stimulate my saliva glands, and THEN Iím aware of my hunger.
These episodes of mineóI didnít need Rita Carter to tell me that thereís a lot going on in my mind that I donít know anything about. What they seem to be is as though somebody left the door open to my dream room, and some of that stuff is leaking out into my consciousness. Often, itís mostly the feelings that I recognize from recent dreams. Sometimes there are faint memories of images or events. I canít describe them, and I canít be sure just when I dreamed them, but I know it was recently.
I watched a program on the Science Channel about experiments in which subjects who were awakened every time they exhibited REM sleepóthat is, when they began to dreamólater had experiences similar to my episodes. They began to dream while they were awake. In the program they said that dreams are absolutely necessary for our minds to sort out our experiences and make sense of our world. If my episodes had occurred during times when I was sleep deprived, Iíd think I had a good answer to my puzzle. But I canít find any events, situations, or even emotional states in my life that correlate with my episodes. I continue to wonder about them.
This question points up the bigger issueóthat our minds, like the rest of our bodies, have a life of their own independently from our awareness and conscious control. Our beating heart is only the most obvious example of that. Not only do we not know what is going on most of the time (unless something gets out of whack), we canít even be certain that there is a "we" to be in charge. For thousands of years, very bright people have been trying to find the source of what we take for grantedó"I think, therefore I am." Ren Descartesť left it at that, and thatís how most of us leave it. Itís a mystery.
However, if there is truly no "I" to be found, then how can "I" be held responsible for what "I" do? If my body and my mind are off in their own little world, only occasionally letting me in on things when something threatens or the system runs out of fuel, then what part do I really play?
Carter points out that without our cultural agreement of individual responsibility, our societies would fall apart. "Our entire morality and judicial system is dependent on everyone accepting that they are agents of their own misdeeds, and those who donít acknowledge this areóby legal definitionóinsane. We may not consciously control our actions, but the cognitive mechanisms that create the illusion that we do keep society functioning." (italics added)
Still, itís hard for me not to believe that somewhere inside me is a "me" that makes decisions and wonders about the rest of me.óI cannot imagine an alternative.
Unlessóletís try this on for sizeóif we think of society as a single organism, a semi-independent, autonomous being, made up of many parts, each one doing its own thing but the cumulative effect being the life of the society, maybe there is an analogy to the individual body and mind. The society has no central control, no single "mind" that causes the organism to behave in a certain way. Our federal government might like to think that it is in charge, but it can control the society only to a small degree. All of the individual efforts and relationships that make up a society somehow work together to keep it alive. This interdependence cannot be precisely specified, but it works.
Maybe thatís how I can think of the "I" that is myself. The aware part of me may not be in charge, but it is a window of sorts between me and something bigger. Some say that "I" am but a wave in a very large ocean of consciousness. A brief flash of sunlight reflected in the water of a lake. Unmistakably real and present, here for an instant and gone, reminding the rest of us of the Mystery to which we belong.
Donald Skiff, November 8, 2002