Myself, and other myths

I just watched a BBC documentary, Horizon: The Secret You, about recent results in the scientific study of consciousness. There were three experiments discussed in the program which seemed to me to be particularly key.

The first experiment was carried out at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. It involves having the subject wear a stereoscopic VR helmet attached to two video cameras. Using this simple apparatus, the subject can be given an out-of-body experience, without drugs or meditation. In fact, the subject’s sense of self can be relocated into another person’s body, by having them wear the cameras on a helmet.

This experiment shows that the brain tries to work out where “I” am based on sensory data; if the data are confused, it guesses wrong, and locates my consciousness outside my body. So the feeling that “I” exist in my body (or my mind) is really no more than a feeling.

The second experiment involves measuring brain activity resulting from transcranial magnetic stimulation. Basically, an electromagnetic pulse is delivered to a specific part of the brain, and the resulting firing of neurons is mapped. The process is then repeated when the subject is asleep–that is, no longer conscious.

The result is interesting. The first part of the brain fires the same way in both cases. In the conscious mind, the pattern of activity then rapidly spreads out to multiple areas of the brain. In the unconscious mind, the activity remains localized. This seems to indicate that the difference between an unconscious and a conscious mind is interconnectedness. This fits nicely with my pet theory that consciousness is an emergent property of certain classes of sufficiently complex network systems.

The third experiment is the most disturbing. The subject is placed in an MRI scanner, and asked to periodically choose whether to click the button in his left hand, or the one in his right hand, and then immediately click the appropriate button. That’s all.

Based on the patterns scanned, the scientists at the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin can predict which button the subject will push, six seconds before the subject makes the conscious decision.

In other words, the sense that you might be consciously choosing brand ‘A’ over brand ‘B’ at the supermarket may be utterly illusory. Even if you stand there and deliberate, what’s actually happening is that your brain is making a choice at a very low level, and the networked subsystems of the brain are then elaborating on that information to provide the sensation of having decided, several seconds after the decision was actually made.

It seems to me that science is rapidly converging on Zen Buddhism, and telling us that there is no “I” or “self”; it’s all an illusion generated by the brain as a side effect of trying to work out where we are and what’s going on. The illusory self then inserts itself into our thought processes and makes us think that it is important in decision making.

Or as Emo Philips put it: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

The show is available on YouTube, though who knows how long that will last.