Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Shiva’s dance

through the curtain of consciousness

In a fascinating conversation with Susan Blackmore, the renowned neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (Professor of Neurosciences and Psychology and Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego) notes that our conscious existence is “…like the whole dance of Shiva thing, that you think you are an aloof spectator watching the universe, but actually you’re just a part of the cosmic ebb and flow of the world…” That is, we are not separate entities from our bodies- no immaterial soul that can float away from the functional machinations of the brain.

A decade ago, it may have been strange to hear a scientist talk so boldly about what heretofore has been the strict realm of the metaphysical meanderings of philosophy and religion. This is because, until now, the mysterious happenings behind the veil of how our brain functions including the question of the “self” - what consciousness is- have been unanswerable dilemmas.

Stanislas Dehaene aptly describes the brain as “the outcome of five hundred million years of tinkering. It consists in millions of distinct pieces, each evolved to solve a distinct yet important problem for our survival. Its overall properties result from an unlikely combination of thousands of receptor types, ad-hoc molecular mechanisms, a great variety of categories of neurons and, above all, a million billion connections criss-crossing the white matter in all directions.”

In spite of this incredible complexity and the challenge it brings, our understanding of brain function is getting better as neuroscientists manage to peer deep into the minds inner workings gathering significant- and rapidly growing- empirical evidence of actual brain function.

For example, one of Ramachandrans early experiments using a stereogram shed light on how the brain processes perception and merges it with conscious awareness. He inputed separate images in each eye of an observer and found that even if their eyes processed an image in two different ways an internal “stereomechanism” extracted and congealed the information in such a way that the brain consciously saw not individual images, but one in full stereo.

This hinted at how the brain creates mechanisms for efficiently gathering and presenting data into a flexible “package” or self in order to react appropriately to given sensory inputs. In humans, this ability has been taken to breathtaking new levels of flexibility creating, he claims, a unique phenomenon- human consciousness.

In essence, ones “self” can not be separated from the “qualia” or experience1 and no real separation between an “outer and inner” world really exists (this is where dualists disagree). However, the human brain seems to have an added capacity (as compared to other animals) to take these events and examine them recursively- this is the core of experiencing an event as yourself with the “feeling” of you. Ramachandran calls this added layer of analytic capacity a second parasitic brain or meta-awareness. It is not some separate ephemeris soul-like quality but an integral part of the brain.

The human ability to blend sensory experience with this added layer of “capacity” where it can be twisted and turned in a virtual environment is not a redundant computational loop- it actually forms a critical key to thinking.

Ramachandran notes “you’re doing it to fulfill a computational need, namely open ended symbol manipulation in your head. This is what we call thinking: coming up with outlandish conjectures which are made by the imagination, by juggling these symbols in your head. And closely linked to that is the emergence of language: being able to communicate these ideas, intentions, and thoughts with other people; and constructing a theory of other minds.”

These uniquely human traits stem from whatever evolutionary pressures occurred that created a need for this computational hat trick- to create a representation of a representation- to for example enable complex social interaction and cooperation. Part of the emergence of “self” could be due to a kind of “spatio-temporal smearing” as our brains create innumerable inferences from perception (think) and this could cause a sense of internal being.

This construct of how our brains integrate information resembles the Baysean Brain. Here the functions of meta-representation form part of the brains ability to perform according to Dehaens “optimal inferences and make optimal decisions based on the rules of probabilistic logic.”

In other words, the brain elaborates a mental “3-D picture” of the real world- plays with it in all kinds of ways (i.e.; stretching it , turning it inside out, imagining what its like to be in someone else’s shoes…) and finally comes up with -what it thinks- is the best way to respond to that real world. This phenomenon as a whole might be the key to the feeling of "self".

It becomes evident, based on these observations that our “self” seems to be part of an organic phenomenon intimately tied to the whirling activities of innumerable neurons and brain centers. In essence, it may be that our sense of "self" –that consciousness of being- is a temporal and spatial illusion, a “confabulation”, or a post-hoc rationalization.

This realization –if true- would not make life any less wondrous; on the contrary. As Ramachandran notes “It’s ennobling, rather than diminishing… You’re part of this grand scheme of things.” Indeed, poetically speaking our minds are like ghostly, delicately weaved curtains blowing in a cosmic wind that the universe - like a dancing "Shiva"- gently grasps and takes along as it breezes past.

NOTE: Listen to Dr Ramachandran discuss the mind in an illuminating lecture "A journey to the center of your mind".

1)Ramachandran notes that the self and qualia are like two sides of the same coin, or better like a mobius strip. The two sides are just really manifestations of the same phenomenon.


Blackmore, S. Conversations on consciousness. Oxford university press. Oxford, NY. 186-197. 2006

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