MINDSTUFF: A GUIDE FOR THE CURIOUS USER - (Podcast version here)
(Please email me
with any comments you care to make.© 2005 M. Deric Bownds)
This brief essay outlines a description of how our minds are composed
and how they work, a description derived from ongoing work in several
scientific fields. It suggests a few simple tools for observing
and regulating our mental and emotional life. The writing gets
dense at points, it would be best to read slowly. Now...you also
could jump to the “Guide” sections that begin at the
middle of this writing, but it would really be best to also read
through the following background:
We have many layers:
- Nerve networks and hormones that regulate life
fundamentals like blood pressure, digestion, excretion, body
temperature, etc. These are the housekeeping functions we refer
to as homeostasis, largely occuring outside of our awareness.
- Basic drives, motivations, and emotions which
we are aware of to varying degrees.
- Our higher cognitive ‘thinking about’ faculties
of which we can be much more conscious.
These all regulate each other in an intricate dance of top-down
and bottom-up processes in seamless interaction. Insight into
our construction comes from noting how these layers appear during
our evolution from more simple animals and also during our development
after birth. In both, the lower regulatory layers appear before
higher ones. They are the starting point or foundation of what
we are experiencing right now.
Our most ancient layer, in appearance not that different from
the brain of a frog, is a bulbous brainstem region at the top of
our spinal cord that is required to regulate breathing, swallowing,
body temperature, heart beat, visual tracking, hearing, etc. This
core regulates interactions with the physical world that are fundamental
to having a self, interactions that we seldom think about, like
exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with plants, supporting ourselves
against gravity, monitoring chemicals, sounds, tactile pressures,
and visual changes in the environment. This reptillian remnant
in us also is a central locus of the four F's learned by generations
of medical students: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fornicating.
Our experience of these instinctual basic drives has a very different
quality than our experience of thoughts or more complicated emotions.
The urges to remedy hunger, to have sex, to approach or avoid,
to flee or fight when suddenly presented with very threatening
situations have an urgency and automaticity we all have experienced.
Perhaps in the unreflective instant when we are overwhelmed by
these drives we are as close as we can come to feeling the processes
that constitute the whole mental life of a lizard or frog!
When we feel emotions like affection or empathy we are engaging
a new kind of brain cortex - frequently referred to as the limbic
system - that appears in lower mammals between the brainstem and
the outer layer of the cortex. We observe in rats or shrews, who
are descendants of the earliest mammals, nurturing and defending
the newborn along with an expanded range of emotional behaviors.
There is vocal and olfactory communication between mother and offspring,
and between siblings. Many of our pets' external behaviors can
seem so similar to our own (affection, fear, anger, sadness, playfulness),
that we find it hard not to suppose that they must be having internal
experiences similar to ours, and we feel solace and companionship
in their company.
Many of these emotions are central to our social interactions.
As complicated social structures and relationships extending beyond
each parent/offspring family unit have appeared during mammalian
evolution there has been a corresponding increase in the size of
the top layer of the cortex, the highly folded neocortex that you
see in most pictures of our brains. Interacting with the limbic
system and brainstem whole this structure supports our ability
to store vast amounts of information about past experiences and
As we get to mammals like the monkeys and apes whose social behaviors
and rituals show striking parallels with our own, the obvious similarity
of emotional expressions we share tempts us to imagine that the
non-reflective present centered feelings that we experience while
observing or expressing these behaviors might be similar. There
is debate over whether non-human animals can be self consciously
aware of them, or recall and think about them.
Finally, we get to what we might call the “cognitives”,
the reflecting, thinking back, thinking ahead, language use, that
has been enabled by evolution of uniquely human brain pathways,
and particularly the expansion of the frontal parts of our brains.
These new structures generated the "I" that is required
for social interactions vastly more complex than those of other
animals. Our frontal lobes continue to grow and change throughout
the socialization of our teenage years and early 20’s.
Our distinctively human selves, which derive from the living
presence of the past, together with an anticipation of a future,
provide some protection against the present centered tyranny of
high jacking by the emotional brain that we share with our primate
precursors and that constitutes much more of their mental life.
They live more on the cusp of ‘now’, are more largely
prisoners of the present. We are more susceptible to becoming prisoners
of the past and future, letting our learned opinions and habits
rob the present of its potential for naïve insight, openness
to novelty, and change. (These points are discussed in the books
by Damasio, 1994, 1999; Hauser, 2000; LeDoux, 1996; and McCrone,
1999; listed under Sources, below.)
So there you have it, one vastly oversimplified but useful description
derived from our evolutionary history of layers that compose us:
homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive. Simple as they are, these
distinctions are useful, for each of these systems can have a momentum
of its own, hopefully but not always in accord with the others.
Indeed, it is in moments of discord - as for example between an
emotional urge to inappropriate anger and a cognitive suppression
of overt angry behavior - that we can gain some insight into how
these layers interact and regulate us. (Damasio, 1994 and 1999,
gives a lucid account of how our selves are constructed from this
hierarchy of interacting layers.)
To a large extent we are what we spend our time doing. Being engaging,
withdrawn, happy, or angry most of the time can make us seek out
environments and social situations that reinforce these temperaments.
Practice makes perfect. Understanding how this works, probing what
we can change and what we cannot, is both fascinating and practical.
Observing some of the levers and pulleys that make us tick, and
appreciating where they come from, can sometimes help us nudge
our inner machinery in more useful directions. Let's delve now
into more detail on how these interacting layers form to weave
the fabric of our daily lives.
Constructions of our homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive systems
starts early in our embryonic life and continues well into our
adult years. Only a fraction of the brain we have as adults is
there at birth, not that different from the brain of a newborn
chimpanzee. The core brain stem circuitry that regulates breathing,
heartbeat, body temperature, etc. is in place, along with parts
of the cortex that sense the body and move it, but little of the
brain that will someday be thinking, remembering, planning ahead.
The maturation of our brain follows the evolutionary sequence we
just outlined. Housekeeping comes first, followed by basic emotions
involved in self-protection and bonding to other humans, and finally
higher cognitive and language abilities.
A buzzing cacophony that we cannot remember greeted our entry
into this world. Our remembering brains had not formed or begun
to construct a world for themselves outside the womb. We did however,
have a very ancient kind of knowledge formed over millions of years.
We knew to look for the defining elements of a human face, and
knew how to direct muscles of the mouth to draw milk from a mother's
breast. From a very rudimentary beginning repertoire we began fashioning
a network of sensing and acting to finally generate the extraordinary
machines that can read a page like this one.
We begin to imitate, or mirror, facial expressions of our mother
as soon as 40 minutes after our birth, which means that we come
equipped with innate seeing, moving, and sensing systems that speak
the language of a self/other model. At birth our emerging experience
is into a world of other humans. Touch and stroking by a caretaker
is required to support and stimulate growth. In its absence wasting
and death can occur both in us and in other mammals. Studies using
mice have documented how stroking and licking promote brain growth
and development. Its absence can lead to permanent activation of
stress hormone pathways and stunted growth of parts of the brain.
We are born into a social world, and the formation of our distinctively
human selves depends utterly on complex webs of social interactions
with human caretakers and peers. The small number of feral human
children raised by animals in the wild that have been studied seem
to be very different animals from ourselves, living entirely in
the present without the sort of “I” that we know.
We start with inborn equipment for mirroring and imitating the
actions of others, and come slowly to appreciate context and intentions
implied by their actions. Recordings from the brain cells of monkeys
show that they have similar mechanisms. By the time we are 3 or
4 we attribute separate minds to others. We construct then a self-story
that provides a new level of nudging, specification, control over
these processes that other animals, as far as we can tell, are
The development and programming of our social brain is just as ‘biological’ as
the development of our livers or kidneys, and shares many similarities
with lower mammals like mice or prairie voles. It is a construction
that links our homeostatic brain stem centers, our primitive mammalian
emotional and neuroendocrine centers and higher cortical mechanisms
that keep tabs on social status, sex, and affiliation. There are
virtually no parts of our homeostatic/emotional/cognitive brain
systems that are not permeated and patterned by social interactions.
(Metzinger, 2003, contains an account that emphasizes how the development
of a human self from birth is embedded in its social context.)
It is during the maturation of our brains through puberty and
young adulthood that we are are most open and plastic. Tasks like
learning a new language or how to ride a bicycle are much more
easily mastered when we are young. Even so, our adult brains are
much more able to change than we supposed only a few years ago
when it was commonly assumed that brain cells could not either
form new connections or divide and multiply. Not only can our brains
add new cells, the connections between existing cells can be continually
shuffling and changing in strength.
Just as we are composed of many interacting cells and organ systems,
each of us is one of the cellular components of larger cultural
organisms that organize and defend themselves as if they were individuals.
It is at the level of these group behaviors that the most damaging
conflicts arise between groups of humans and between humans and
the environment. The pace and schedule of the supra-organisms of
institutions, cultures, or states easily come to take precedence
over the biological rhythms and needs of the individual human players
that are parts of the system. As sleep deprivation and dependency
on chemical stimulants and depressants becomes a common feature
of modern western work life, it is clear that the presumed health
of our economic supra-organisms is being valued more than the physical
and mental health of its humans.
The individualistic, introspective, changeable, achievement oriented “I” that
supports this state of affairs is a relatively recent historical
development of the past several hundred years and has appeared
more prominently in European than in traditional Asian societies.
While there have always been exceptional individuals, for most
of human history a majority of us have experienced a much more
collective “we” identity placing higher value on group
cohesion and harmony than on individual accomplishment. We feel
this strong energy in moments of public unity or emotion when everyone
seems to coalesce in feeling joy or sadness. (See Donald, 2001,
for a discussion of the evolution of human consciousness.)
Our animal brain wasn’t designed to face no-meaning and
other questions of philosophers; it was designed to be a ‘we’ in
a symbiotic confluence with the social body. In normal development
each of us moves from a primal union with caretakers through an
individuation that separates us from those caretakers. This is
most pronounced in advanced individualistic western societies.
The pain of the separation into an isolated self can ameliorated
by feeling re-owned by a cultural group or major religion. Richness
of union can be felt because the same neuroendocrine affiliative
hormonal mechanisms stimulated by infant-caretaker interactions
We commonly assume that there must be some common set of human
behaviors, usually refered to as ‘human nature,’ that
all of us share regardless of race or culture. While this is surely
the case for the first two layers of our composition - the homeostatic
and emotional mechanisms we share with many animals - it is very
likely to not be true for the culturally and linguistically generated “I” that
we each experience. Our human species has been changing the ways
it thinks and behaves since the appearance of modern homo sapiens
~200 thousand years ago, as many cultural and racial variants have
appeared. Many different possible genetic constitutions exist within
a breeding groups of humans, and this variety has proven useful
in adapting to diverse challenges and environments. If we add to
this the amazing plasticity of brain development and temperament
shown in response to different physical and social environments
we have little basis for assumptions about a universal human psychology
(see Buller, 2005, for a critical discussion of evolutionary psychology.)
Change has been especially rapid over the past ten thousand years
in which agriculture and urbanization has appeared. Development
from childhood has been shaped both by our inherited genetic constitution
and the increasingly complex instructions of culture. Even over
the past few generations, the average IQ of populations in Western
cultures has increased dramatically. Brains and bodies that grow
in rich versus scarce, or safe versus dangerous, environments are
structurally and functionally different. The brains of a Talmudic
scholar and a professional tennis player are very different.
In our modern society there are so many choices, so many options,
that young people growing up have difficulty internalizing a coherent
picture of who they are. The psychiatric diagnosis of our age,
formulated in the late 1970s, is “borderline personality
disorder,” referring to a needy, scattered, uncertain self
or personality. It is the scattered confusion of modern society,
with individuals feeling unsure of exactly who they are.
To understand how flexible the generation of the self we each
experience is, and appreciate the prospects for changing either
ourselves or our culture, we need to understand more about the
nature of this “I”. You have surely thought to yourself “OK,
I know I’m conscious and I know it feels like there is this
person inside that is watching and directing everything. Where
is this happening, how does it work?” As we delve into this
question we can find ourselves having some uncomfortable moments,
for the way we actually work can be contrary to our common sense
notions. Still, it is important to persist if we wish to press
for an optimistic opinion of human prospects based on scientific
understanding rather than one or another of the various religious
myths that currently dominate the political world.
So, where and what is the “I” that is having the experience
of reading or writing these words? Seems a reasonable question.
Feels like it should be somewhere in there between the ears (at
least in our culture - in other times and cultures it has been
placed in the heart or other viscera). Vast energies are being
expended to search for the seat of consciousness, or neural correlates
of consciousness. That’s OK as far as it goes… nobody
questions that brain has a lot to do with consciousness. But saying
the brain is the ‘seat of consciousness’ is rather
like saying the heart is the ‘seat of life’, a mere
label without any explanatory value.
A beating heart and a working brain are necessary for us to move,
grow, eat, respire, reproduce, etc., yet they are only a few of
the components whose interactions generate our experience. Seeing,
for example, is about a lot more than what is going on in the visual
areas of our brain. Seeing goes with using all our other motor
and sensory faculties to explore the world in a way that is mediated
by our current knowledge of it. Thinking about or contemplating
visual scenes requires knowledge of previous sensing and acting
involving such scenes. Visual consciousness (as well as other kinds
of consciousness), is something we do, a mode of interaction with
the world, drawing on a whole range of acting, sensing and knowledge
skills. (These points are from O'Regan and Noe, 2001). To a large
extent, what we see is what we have learned to see.
Even if we accept that consciousness involves a lot more than
just what is going on in the brain, we still have our subjective
experience of an “I” somewhere in there between our
ears. It turns out that this “I” that we experience
as running our show starts up a bit late in the game. In a way,
we are late to consciousness. Brain activities that initiate our
acting and perceiving can be electrically recorded ~0.2 to 0.4
seconds before we report willing an action or perceiving an object.
During this interval a vast underground library of learned knowledge
about how to act or percieve is massaging what finally happens.
Positive or negative emotional bias and filtering by our self image
are also nudging our perceiving and acting before we actually become
aware of either. Our conscious self is sort of an after the fact
news flash of what our evolved mind thinks it relevant for us to
know. It is a product of our brain operations, not a source.
This does not mean that we have lost free will, it rather expands
our vision of what is really going on here. The point is that the
consequences of an action we take are programmed back into the
automatic startup of our next action as an anticipation. This information
is presented back to the underground processing that is preparing
the next instant of action that we will retroactively `intend.'
Our brain thus works in an expanded present that contains the moments
antecedent to our awareness of thoughts and actions and that also
persists as awareness of their consequences is integrated into
the ongoing cycle. Multiple parallel processing is going on continuously.
Predictions ease our passage into the moment. In some sense we
are conscious ahead of time. We do not notice the large gaps (.1,
.2 sec.) in our awareness because our brains move seamlessly from
a state of intelligent forecast to a state of confirmed sensory
expectation. Professional athletes do better, as in returning a
tennis serve, not because their reaction times are any faster,
but because their trained anticipation machinery can usually accurately
guess from the initial arm movements of an opponents serve way
before the ball is hit, where the ball is going to end up, and
start preparing their response then. An accomplished pianist who
can immediately play an unfamiliar and complex piano score is actually
looking ahead in the score to prepare the necessary finger muscle
movements without being aware of doing so. (See McCrone, 1999,
from which these points are taken, for more on this.)
Many experiments show that we have an undermind of unconscious
autopilots that form during our development as we learn to carry
out complex sequential tasks of acting or perceiving, have positive
or negative emotional reactions, or grow a cognitive self story.
Their advantage is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel
each time a complex situation presents itself, but they become
a disadvantage if a stereotyped action based on past experience
is not appropriate to our current situation. During the 0.1-0.5
seconds during which information is being massaged before entering
our consciousness an array of underminds specializing in acting,
sensing, defending self, designating emotional valence (good/bad),
etc. are active. Our final consciousness present centered awareness
rests like a thin veneer over this vast archive of knowledge. (The
book by Claxton, 1999, gives many more examples of our underminds
If you have any doubt about who/what is running the show, a simple
exercise dispels it. Decide you are going to close your eyes, relax,
pay attention only to your breathing and have no thoughts, i.e.
do a form of meditation. OK, if “you” were the only
thing running your own show this should be no problem. Decide to
have no thoughts, have no thoughts! If you are like most humans,
you find this difficult. Thoughts just keep popping up from somewhere.
The brain is generating them in spite of your “I” telling
it to stop. That is what our brains are designed to do.
The brain is a ceaseless self constructor and defender that goes
about its job as automatically as a beaver builds a dam or a spider
spins a web (Dennett, 1991), making a self construction that is
essentially an after the fact confabulation. This confabulation
can go awry if our brain is damaged. There are a number of clinical
conditions associated with damage to different areas of the brain
in which a `self' seems to be altered or vanish while other faculties
persist. In epileptic automatisms or absence seizures a patient
temporarily becomes a "zombie" that still senses and
moves about, but with no sense of self or interaction with others,
having blank face and eyes and showing no emotion. On recovery
there is no recall of the intervening time.
Some stroke patients with damage to the right parietal lobe will
deny the existence of the left side of their body "Oh, that's
not my leg, it must belong to someone else." The idea is that
the language center in the left brain, which is not damaged, is
making up the best cover story it can to preserve the sense of
an intact self. A similar phenomenon is seen in some blind or deaf
patients who deny their deficit in spite of the fact that they
cannot move without bumping into objects or hear anything spoken
to them. Brain damage can lead to feeling of disembodiment, to
existence denial, or to loss of cognitive agency and sense of ownership
(as in ‘hearing internal voices’ in Schizophrenia).
A sense of ownership can be retained with loss of cognitive agency,
as in patients that continuously generate a word flow of inconsistent
non-sequiturs, a word salad.
A majority of patients with Cotard’s syndrome deny their
very existence as an “I”, sometimes using the pronoun “it” instead.
They do not generate a self-model, even though they can speak and
move about in the world. Selves, parts of selves, and self-agency
can not only be denied or experienced incorrectly, they can be
hallucinated. A common example is the phantom limb phenomenon in
post-amputation patients. In out of body experiences the whole
body is confabulated as being elsewhere. Loss of a sense of self-agency
can also occur in hypnosis (as in "just sense your arm...your
arm is getting heavy...etc."). (Metzinger, 2003, discusses
these perturbations of the self-image observed in brain damaged
individuals as well as in normal people under certain circumstances.)
We can inappropriately project agency, imagining others responsible
for what we in fact are causing. In the seances and Ouija board
sessions popular in the late 19th century, things seemed to happen
without the experience of conscious willing, but careful observation
showed mysterious movements were in fact generated by those present,
even if unconsciously. From this same period there is the story
of Hans, The Clever Horse, who could tap his hoof the correct number
of times to indicate the sum of two simple numbers, but proved
to be responding to subtle clues given by the trainer when he arrived
at an appropriate answer.
So…what do all these observations tell us about this entity
we experience as a self or “I” that senses and initiates
actions? It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is a model
generated by our brains, a model that may or not be correct, as
shown by the examples just listed. We could make an analogy between
our consciousness awareness and the dashboard of a car with its
indicators, or a ship's compass. Does a compass steer the ship?
In some sense it does, because the pilot makes reference to the
compass in determining whether adjustments should be made to the
ship's course... an idea is that conscious will is like the mind's
compass, the result of an interpretive system, a course sensing
mechanisms that notes our thoughts and actions and responds with "I
willed this" when the two correspond appropriately.
Our feeling of conscious will has many of the qualities of an
emotion, for it reverberates through our minds and bodies to indicate
when we sense having authored an action. Thinking of conscious
will as an emotion of authorship is a way of moving beyond the
standard ways of thinking about free will and determinism. The
feeling that we are doing things serves as a basis for what we
attempt to accomplish and how we judge ourselves to be morally
right or wrong. We have evolved emotions of anger, sadness, fear,
happiness, etc., related to survival. We can think of the emotion
of agency, or conscious will, as the same sort of evolved emotion,
obviously a useful capability in sorting out our physical and social
world. To an external observer, the behaviors associated with guilt
or retribution in groups of humans, monkeys, or apes look very
similar, implying ownership of and responsibly for actions.
Our social brains have evolved to generate an “I”,
and the integration of our homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive
layers requires it. The ephemeral and constantly changing nature
of this brain product was clearly recognized by meditative traditions
thousands of years ago, well before similar insights were gleaned
from more recent scientific and medical observations of the sort
mentioned above. It really doesn’t matter that we can show
that what we normally experience as a self or self-agency is an
after the fact confabulation. It is an illusion that has let humans
become the dominant species on this planet, well on its way in
fact to wrecking the natural order from which we rose. (Many points
in the previous several paragraphs are taken from Wegner, 2002.)
Our self-conscious confabulator or self-constructor gives us a
degree of control over our mammalian emotional and homeostatic
repertoires vastly greater than that of other animals. Our self-confabulator
generates what we take to be the world, what we take to be our
social sources of validation. These internal self-creations can
be assayed by their utility. The self and its world that we construct
can be quite specialized. Some creative people credited with making
revolutionary contributions to science or culture have countered
the resistance of others to their ideas by cultivating their insights
in a world of their own self-esteem.
THE GUIDE – NOTICING WHAT HAPPENS
Where has all this left us with respect to the title of this essay:
Mindstuff: A User’s Guide? We have put together a very abbreviated
description of what our “I” is, and where it comes
from, but we haven’t suggested explicit procedures for introspectively
understanding or tinkering with the way we are. A not-so-hidden
agenda for many of us trying to understand our minds and brains
is wanting to find insights or tools that bring more ease to the
living of our daily lives, tools that might also enhance our effectiveness
in tasks we wish to accomplish.
Just to recognize the distinctiveness of a few of the internal
bureaucracies that run our show is a first step in assembling a
user’s guide, and we have already made a start on this in
pointing out both the autonomy and interconnections of our basic
regulatory (homeostatic), emotional, and cognitive systems. Looking
out of ourselves, we also note the external bureaucracies that
run our show as we function as cell in the larger social organisms
of societies and cultures. Their regulation of our options can
be as fundamental and coercive as that of an amygdala, liver or
kidney. (The amygdala is the small almond shaped region of our
limbic brain activated by threatening stimuli.)
We can begin to distinguish, rather than conflate, these processes
within ourselves by using a simple tool. The approach is suggested
by the simple exercise mentioned above that showed us that the “I” generated
by our brains typically is unable to stop our brains from doing
one of its jobs, that of generating thoughts.
Think about this for a moment. In such an exercise we have placed
ourselves in the extraordinary position of both being a brain process
(generating thoughts) and at the same time being another process
observing this first one. We switch from moments of quiet without
thoughts to suddenly being the thoughts, and then on noting that
fact can switch back to quiet again. You might find it useful now,
to bring home this point, to stop and sit quietly with your eyes
shut for moment, quiet your breathing, and just observe this process
going on in yourself.... What did you observe?
We can make use of this quiet presence that watches to introspectively
note many of the processes mentioned above, particularly our homeostatic,
emotional, and cognitive layers. Experiments are now being done
that show a correlations between what we report as our experience
at all these levels and changes in the activity of various areas
of our brains monitored by imaging techniques.
Cultivating our observing or watching presence introduces an
interesting and useful option. Rather, for example, than having
the locked-in experience of ‘being an angry person’ try
to feel if there might be an observing presence in yourself that
can step back to note in a more impersonal way this organism (you)
generating anger, or “angry-ing”. Consider the subtle
difference or distance that can result from trying the “-ing” suffix
for many of your familiar states of feeling such as hungry-ing,
fear-ing, desire-ing. A variation on this exercise is to note not
just states of feeling that are persisting for some time, but individual
instances in which an emotion suddenly rises, almost like a packet
or quantum of feeling. For this, you might try a description using
the suffix “-let”, such as angry-let, fear-let, desire-let.
(Similar exercises are suggested in Nisker, 1998). There is increasing
evidence that these quanta or packets of feeling might correlate
with the physical release of neuropeptides and neurotransmitter
molecules in discrete areas of our brain.
Being in the grip of emotions of anger, affection, or moral opinion,
with their attendant feelings of "rightness", may be
closer to what an animal experiences - the "just doing it" of
being a moral patient rather than a moral agent. Our more recently
evolved narrative devices can make the story, but they are arid
without the reinforcement of more primitive limbic circuits that
link the story to emotions and neuroendocrine arousal. We have
been employing a layered model, with cognitive on top of emotional
and homeostatic layers, but we actually are dealing with loops
upon loops, with our deepest limbic and brain stem circuitry now
innervated by and talking with newer cortical structures in a way
that may be absent in monkeys and apes.
A watching or observing exercise can be applied even to the self
we are generating at a given moment, our “who-ing”.
Changes in the overall "who" that you experience during
the day can sometimes be noted. (Does your variety of "whos" include
the greedy or scared child, the judgmental parent, the calm rational
adult?) It can be useful to apply the discipline to observe when
a shift in the resident "who" has happened. Noting the
particular “who” you woke up as this morning might
lead you to realize a self slightly different from yesterday's
version. A reason that experienced meditators often do a meditation
practice immediately on waking is that we all can awake from different
emotional dreams with different temperaments from one day to the
To summarize, an elementary instruction in any “user’s
manual” for ourselves would be to cultivate the ability to
distinguish - and move back and forth between - being an angry,
sad, fearful, loving, etc. person and a presence that quietly notes
the processes of angry-ing, sad-ing, fearful-ing, love-ing, etc.
The crucial practical point is that in the moment of suspension
when this distinction is being noted we are frequently able to
make a choice between being the prisoner of habitual emotions or
ideas or the observer of the process of their generation. That
observer in us can sometimes, if a process (such as angry-ing)
is clearly not in our best interests, elect to suspend the actual
performance of that feeling energy and let it dissipate.
The ideas here are straightforward and hardly novel. They are
at the core of ‘mindfulness meditation’ and many other
meditation traditions (Epstein, 1995). The evolved mechanisms that
first permitted our human brains to discern cause and effect in
the external world, to break events into their components and describe
them, have proved to be equally useful when turned towards our
inner mental life. Just as we watch the rising and consequences
of actions in the physical world, so we also can assume the poise
of a watcher or witness in observing chunks of behavior appear
in ourselves, moving from being an unwitting player in our own
movie script to observing both the movie and the projector which
generates it. The particular genius of the Buddha was to discover
and codify the consequences of this ability over two thousand years
ago. The Buddhist description of how our mind composes itself has
similarities to that of modern cognitive neuroscience. (Nisker,
THE GUIDE – UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS
As we cultivate an observing presence we begin to probe the nature
and range of our assumptions, or models, of what we take to be
inside the boundary of our bodies and models of what we take to
be our outside physical and social reality. As we develop our ability
to note and distinguish these models, to render them conscious
rather than unconscious, opaque rather than transparent, their
actual utility or lack thereof can become more obvious.
The foundation elemental models are of our internal and external
physical reality, the positions of our bodies in space, their movement,
what we are internally sensing during perception and action. This
modeling can be a very plastic process. If we put on eye glasses
that rotate our field of view so that our normal hand-eye coordination
no longer lets us grasp an object. After a period of trial and
error we again can match our vision and hand movements. Then, if
the distorting eyeglasses are removed, our coordination is again
incorrect, and takes a while to return to normal! In our discussion
above of what our “I” is, we noted several instances
in which our sense of the ownership or agency of our physical bodies
can be in error over a longer term if it has been altered by brain
damage or by abnormal genetic endowment or development. Some individuals
born without a limb still sense the presence of that limb in their
body image. Damage to areas of the right parietal cortex can cause
us to deny ownership of our left arm.
We use the assumptions or models implicit in metaphors as a central
tool in talking about our own mental states and the minds of others,
usually without being aware of this. Most of us view our minds
as containers and conceive of thoughts as being like physical objects
inside them; we also take thoughts to be natural language utterances
inside our heads. If you say, "part of me doesn't believe
that John is telling the truth," you are using the convention
of talking about mind parts as persons.
We like our commonly held view of ourselves and the outside world,
sometimes referred to as our folk psychology, to be fixed and solid,
to have a spatial quality. This reinforces homeostatic and emotional/limbic
habits that are protecting our security and constancy. These habits
can be threatened by vulnerabilities and options for change that
are exposed by our becoming more sensitive to the actual temporal
flux and changeability of our internal and external reality. Perhaps
it is for this reason that self-observing exercises like those
mentioned just above have been developed mainly by individuals
who have security of setting, as in religious, academic, or other
Our internally sensed thoughts and feelings are the vehicles of
our self-models, of who we are in the social world, constantly
modulated by basic evolved emotions that we share with higher primates.
There is uncertainty about the number and definition of ‘natural
kinds’ of emotions, but you can probably grant from your
own experience that fear, rage, lust, separation distress, play/social
affection, and nurturance are very deep and fundamental experiences
over which you sometimes feels very little control. The behaviors
we associate with these feelings are clearly exhibited by dogs,
monkeys and apes. Our expression of these emotions can be very
plastic, patterned by our childhood environment, our self image,
and the strength of more recently evolved prefrontal inhibitory/cognitive
processes. These can modulate emotional centers of gravity in the
limbic/temporal region of our brains. These frontal lobe mechanisms
are being recruited when we are able, by self-observation, to note
the semi-autonomous nature of angry-ing, lust-ing, fear-ing, etc.
and suppress the actual behaviors associated with them. Neuronal
activity in frontal and limbic regions can be imaged with MRI techniques
as emotions, strong habits, or compulsions flare up and are (or
are not) suppressed by frontal inhibition.
A striking example of how frontal inhibition can be harnessed
can be seen in cognitive therapy treatments of obsessive-compulsive
disorder (such as obsessive hand washing behaviors, or other repetitive
cautionary activities). When patients, on feeling the urge to start
the behavior, are successful in using a self instruction like "That's
not me, that's a part of my brain that's not working" brain
imaging experiments show the same changes in their brain activity
as is caused by successful drug treatment. We each accomplish a
similar result when we perform the exercise such as the one mentioned
above, of noting ourselves “angry-ing” rather than ‘being
angry’, and then discover more freedom to either act or not
act on that energy.
The amazing thing about our brain is that after it has generated
our “I” from the bottom up, from homeostatic through
emotional to cognitive levels, that final self conscious product
can turn around and decisively influence the brain's lower levels
in a top down way. You couldn't ask for a more direct demonstration
of the efficacy and usefulness of having our human style of consciousness.
Our ability to control our natural emotional drives greatly exceeds
that of any animals.
In each of us there can be multiple real or imagined theaters
of self, multiple selves or self models, but there is only one
homeostatic system underlying all of them, pumping its blood, regulating
its temperature, monitoring thirst, hunger, and potential danger.
Also much less flexible than the self-story we can spin on short
notice are the emotional habits derived from our evolution or our
early childhood experiences. It is when a self-script generated
by our cognitive upstairs leads us to actions that are aversive
to the downstairs limbic emotional systems, or to our basic homeostatic
functions that a physiologically debilitating conflict can be set
up. We go to war with ourselves, with these semi-autonomous layers
tugging us in several directions at once. This can activate mechanisms
that evolved for dealing with conflict, releasing stress hormones
and over the long run causing cell death and shrinking in some
body organs and brain areas.
THE GUIDE - ENGINES OF HABIT AND DESIRE
A constant and pervasive process worth noticing is what we might
call “valence-ing”, mediated by our emotional brains.
Our reactions to almost everything carry a subtle positive or negative
emotional tag that we can discern but frequently do not explicitly
notice, a nudge conditioned by our emotional memory to either approach
or avoid. Even nonsense phrases can have a pleasing or jarring
quality depending on their vowels or consonants (compare your reactions
to hearing the phrases ‘lamalelavu’ and ‘rakajaka’.)
We have a Manichean undermind, like the Persian religious sect
of the 3rd century, that divides most aspects of our world into
either good or evil. Our brains persist, usually beneath our conscious
awareness, in putting a good or bad label of what we sense. Is
it something to go for or to avoid?
Routine activities that occur with predictable frequency can induce
a limbic habit, an affect tag of expectation. Violation of this
expectation can induce a small pang of apprehension or bereavement,
causing subtle arousal of the same part of our emotional brain
(centered around the amygdala) that is activated by more overt
and obvious environmental threats. Many of these subtle emotional
tags can be noted by our watching presence, noted perhaps as suggested
above with the suffix ‘-let’, as instances of ‘emot-lets’.
When we are rewarded in a more dramatic way by contexts involving
food, sex, love, or drugs the brain’s homeostatic axis -
appetitive motivation and reward pathways centering on mesolimbic
dopamine pathways - begin to condition us to behaviors that will
make those rewards available again. Our brains are designed to
be desire generators. Unfortunately, we can habituate to what was
once a rewarding level of a stimulus (whether food, sex, or a drug)
so that increasing levels are required for the same ‘kick'.
In extreme cases, the brain system which evolved to help us seek
out essentials of life such as warmth, food, affection and sex
can be high jacked. In cases of severe drug or alcohol addiction,
brain chemistry has undergone long term changes which are very
difficult to reverse. Again, as strong as this kind of conditioning
can become, a disciplined internal watching presence has the prospect
of sensing the onset of an ingrained addictive behavior, and potentially
deflecting it. (The “Four Noble Truths” elaborated
by the Buddha over two thousand years ago provided a succinct description
of this process, noting the origin of suffering in desire, and
how our minds could be trained to new levels of satisfaction and
freedom by developing skills of concentration and mindfulness.)
THE GUIDE – SOCIAL BRAIN
Perhaps the most central element in our sense of well being,
apart from basic physical health and robustness, is our perceived
role in the social world, our standing in the minds of other humans.
Our survival can literally depend on this. Isolation or expulsion
from a social group can result in debilitation, stress, and even
death. How is it that we feel empathy, infer what is going on in
the minds of others, and construct our affiliative alliances?
The evolutionary origin of these abilities may reside in “mirror
neurons” observed in the motor and other brain areas of humans,
monkeys, and some other mammals that become active not only when
we perform a movement but also when we observe someone else performing
the movement. Further, our brain activities also monitor the intention
of others. They are slightly different, for example, if a person
is lifting a cup to drink versus lifting the cup to clean the table.
Seeing a persons leg stroked with a brush activates the same sensory
areas of our brain that would respond to the same stimulus. Observing
an emotional experience in a picture or movie, such as disgust
or fear, can activate the areas that would react if the experience
were actually happening to us. Mirroring systems such as these
could be central to learning by imitation, as in language acquisition
in infants or learning to play a musical instrument like the guitar.
The processes of empathy and imitation that mirror neurons appear
to support are central to the development of our social brain,
and appear to be diminished in autistic children. These children
do not learn the myriad social cues that are signaled by reciprocal
facial gestures and body language. Their sense of self, or point
of view, seems to regard other humans as impersonal objects that
must be analyzed.
Our empathetic or mirroring brain regions are part of a much
larger neuroendocrine axis that regulates human bonding and affiliation.
The hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are involved in maternal
behavior and male parental behavior. Recent work has shown that
intranasal application of oxytocin causes an increase in trust
among humans, increasing the benefit from social interactions.
The serotonin neurotransmitter system and opiate receptors modulate
feelings of attachment, love, and loss. Between mothers and infants
an elaborate symphony of interactions including tactile stimulation,
olfactory cues, body warmth, and periodicity of feeding generate
an emotional or limbic resonance that stimulates homeostatic and
immune system robustness. Our nervous system development, as well
as our ongoing brain function, requires synchronization with those
we are attached to. An important vehicle for this synchronization
is the elaborate interactive body language we engage with other
humans as subtle facial gestures and body movements are reciprocally
noted. Our human physiology is in part an open-loop arrangement
in which two individuals can reciprocally alter hormone levels,
cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, and immune function (see
Lewis et al., 2000).
Autonomic and emotional empathy has the virtue of bonding each
of us to other humans. However, if it is pain rather than happiness
or affection that is being shared and there is little prospect
of relief, then empathy has the downside of making us feel more
helpless. Over time this can trigger the debilitative stress and
autonomic arousal of the helplessness syndrome described by Seligman
(see his 1991 book on learned helplessness and learned optimism).
A subtle balance is needed between the sense of personal autonomy
and power that supports our individual robustness and the empathy
and caring which supports community!
THE GUIDE - HAPPINESS
This brings us to the topic of happiness - a state that most of
us wouldn't mind enhancing in ourselves. Many studies have arrived
at the same conclusion: happiness has little relationship to physical
security, or material wealth and possessions. The happy feeling
upon buying a new car fades rapidly, to be replaced by desire for
the next acquisition that we imagine might do the job. Our ability
to predict our emotional reaction to future events is flawed; careful
studies have demonstrated that both good and bad events prove less
intense and more transient than we expect. It is life events in
the personal domain such as marriage, divorce, health, or disability
that have a lasting effect on our happiness, nudging it above or
below a set point determined by our genetics and individual temperaments.
Happiness correlates with immersion in sustaining social interactions.
Nevertheless, most people devote vastly more energy to accumulating
professional success and wealth than they do to nurturing and building
a network of family and friends.
Vastly more research has been done on negative emotions such as
anger, fear, and disgust because they are obviously relevant to
our evolutionary survival. During such emotions we tend to focus
down on whatever issue is at hand. Positive emotions have more
subtle body correlates and are relevant to human affiliation, nurturing,
play, curiosity, growth and development. They transform our cognition
into a more relaxed and global mode, able to note patterns that
are missed in focusing on smaller details relevant to an immediate
crisis or danger.
Positive and negative emotions are associated with different activation
patterns of the cerebral cortex. An increase in the ratio of left
to right frontal lobe activity correlates both with the subjective
feeling of happiness and with suppression of limbic areas (such
as the amygdala) aroused during fear or anger. Studies by Davidson
and his colleagues suggest that experienced practitioners of Buddhist
meditations emphasizing compassion and loving kindness show higher
ratios of left to right frontal activation than control subjects.
Work by Seligman (1991, 1994) and others has shown that chronic
stress, unhappiness, or a sense of powerlessness can compromise
health and immune system function, while people with more positive
affect are in general more healthy. Can our set point of negative
to positive affect be changed? A tool in addition to meditation
techniques stressing mindfulness and compassion is provided by
cognitive therapy approaches in which we attempt to alter train
the stories we tell ourselves about who we in a more positive direction.
This can involve defining a new, perhaps less global, theater for
ourselves in which we can feel more self-esteem, personal control,
and optimism. If a more positive version of ourselves can be rehearsed
with increasing frequency, there can sometimes be a positive shift
in our equilibrium temperament.
THE GUIDE – FAITH AND RELIGION
As our social brains develop and are patterned by interactions
with others we acquire a set of shared beliefs (assumptions, models)
about ourselves, other humans, and the world. At one end of their
range are beliefs supported by countless universal observations
made by all humans (objects fall if released from our hands.) At
the other end are beliefs unique to specific human cultures (such
as those regarding God, or gods) that feel correct to their adherents
but have no rational basis. It is possible that the feeling of ‘correctness’ in
all of these beliefs are arrived at by the same reward-related
circuitry in our brains that regulates our judgment of the pleasantness
of tastes, odors and other physical stimuli. Belief, or a feeling
of rightness or correctness, may be an all-purpose emotion arising
in a variety of contexts, in some cases without objective support.
We humans have become ascendant because of our relentless drive
to understand and control the world, and such understanding probably
activates the same reward circuitry in our brains. Given fertile
imaginations and faced with forces beyond our understanding or
control it is not surprising that we would invent anthropomorphic
gods to explain who is running the show.
The issue is whether there is evidence that a particular religious
belief actually represents the world. Feelings of conviction are
not enough to judge the way the world is, only chains of evidence
and argument can do this. Perhaps understanding ethics and spirituality
- at the core of what is good about being human - at the level
of our brain processes could permit us to remove the shackles imposed
by millennia by religious traditions. Perhaps it would permit us
to try to forge new contexts for human meaning, cooperation, fulfillment… and
survival. There is evidence all around us that religious beliefs
can generate xenophobia and genocide. Appreciating evolutionary
and developmental forces that might incline us to these behaviors,
as well as to cooperation and affiliative bonding, might assist
us to inhibit those that threaten our continued viability on this
planet. (see Harris, 2004, for a pungent discussion of these topics.)
THE GUIDE – ALL SANITY IS LOCAL
We are all limited in what we can accomplish in nudging our personal
and cultural environments in more healthy directions. Still, strengthening
our knowledge of how our minds work along with our introspective
capabilities hopefully lets us cope in a more intelligent and discriminating
way with our own foibles and those of the world.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the array of personal and social
dysfunctions that characterize our society. How can positive feelings
and behaviors be sustained as we read daily news accounts of human
exploitation, intolerance, xenophobia, and genocide? Most attention
is directed to what is not working.
One palliative can be to set aside times when we choose to not
let our awareness, our internal dialog, be mulling on social contexts
beyond our influence. Spending most of our time attending to higher
levels of the hierarchy that defines us (supra-organismal cultural
and cognitive rather than emotional and homeostatic) we are letting
our self model be set almost completely by ‘top-down’ influences,
and some social roles and conflicts can permeate down to compromise
detailed aspects of our emotional and physiological homeostasis.
If we reserve time to look inside for solace, we can let our resting
beacon of awareness drift not to the traffic jam of discursive
chatter in our verbal minds, but instead to the most simple acts
of being alive, of breathing, sensing the physical world, of moving
against gravity as any animal does. A simple joy can be felt in ‘just
being’ instead of ‘being someone.’ This is a
poise that enables the ‘watcher’ mentioned above, so
that the self that in fact becomes resident is more likely to be
a matter of choice. We become more competent to discriminate and
choose life-enhancing portions of our mental repertoire, to engage
the affiliative external support that sustains neuroendocrine robustness,
and to choose more intelligent options for social action. Brain
imaging studies have shown that meditation or reflection that emphasizes
feelings of kindness towards oneself and others actually enhances
activity of portions of the brain (particularly the left frontal
lobe) that correlates with positive emotions.
THE GUIDE - CHANGE?
We all have the same problem in dealing with new ideas that might
change how we experience ourselves and the world. Even if reading
an essay like this one leaves us feeling the correctness of some
of its points and slightly transformed in our ongoing experience
for a period, we still find ourselves several weeks later exactly
where we were before. The novel material, which we may have integrated
into our daily lives for a brief time, has vanished. Habit is very
strong. So...how do these ideas or techniques prove to be of any
real practical use, especially when we feel ‘locked in’ to
some ongoing mood or temperament we would like to change. What
is the structure of a successful ‘breakout’ or mental
phase shift that both lightens us and gives us a view of other
Think of your own experience. Have you ever noticed - perhaps
after strenuous exercise, or a strong cup of coffee, or switching
suddenly from mental chatter to just attending to your breathing
- that a moment of mental quiet can happen that is long enough
for a partition to suddenly appear in what you have been experiencing
as a unitary self. In such an instant the more simple elemental
watching presence mentioned several times above is much more easily
accessed, a presence more able to note the most recent self or ‘who’ that
has been a temporary resident of your now observant animal body.
It hard not to suppose that this partition or deconstruction process
must involve some very impressive and fundamental mechanism that
our brain can use to can switch itself from a state that is generating
one unitary self model into a partitioned state that is generating
several self models with the ability to observe each other. (In
fact, there is considerable evidence, whose discussion is beyond
the scope of this essay, that this is the case.) Those self models
that are closer to the non linguistic homeostatic animal substrate
that houses our whole organismal animal body (a ‘just being’ rather
than a ‘being somebody’ presence) can view with more
crisp awareness our emotional or self states recently in force.
If the self in place has been angry or depressive, or had an inhibitory
effect on our more positive feelings, the appearance of a less
negative watching animal presence can feel like stepping aside
from an oppressive shroud that has been covering us.
It is from this watching state that we can note many of the ongoing
processes that compose us, and make the definitions and discriminations
noted above. One option to consider is the assembly of a personal
checklist to use as a tool in renewing our awareness of ongoing
processes that are most personally relevant. Recall from above
the suggestion of trying the "-ing" suffix for familiar
states of feeling such as anger-ing, desire-ing, fear-ing, and
desire-ing, noting each as one process of our animal bodies rather
than its entirety. This can be done even for "who-ing" as
you observe that self that your body is generating at the moment
can also be distinguished from its other versions.
THE GUIDE - SO WHAT?
By this point we have developed a brief description of our self-construction,
of what a human is, that is consonant with modern scientific insights
as well as some meditative traditions. The introspective techniques
briefly described (see the Nisker book noted below for further
examples) can form the basis of a toolkit for enhancing more positive
and intelligent ways of coping that are less compromised by maladaptive
habits.. They are accessible not just to the small number of people
who would agree with the scientific and materialistic perspective
from which this essay is written, but also to the large majority
of humans alive today who ultimately value religious faith over
reason. The simple idea is that understanding what in fact we are
doing as we carry out emotional behaviors might enhance our ability
to regulate them when appropriate. Both the secular humanist and
the intolerant religious fundamentalist might note the usefulness
in of distinguishing an inside core watching presence from a particular
emotion – noting from this core for example the process of
being judgmental or judge-ing in a given instance rather than being
emotionally high jacked into ‘being an intolerant person.’ Hopefully
this process can come to be perceived as relevant not only to regulating
relations with family and friends close to us, but also ameliorate
the harshness of our opinions or actions towards other humans not
sharing our world view.
Partial list of sources:
Buller, D.J., 2005. Adapting Minds. Evolutionary Psychology and
the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Guy Claxton, G. 1999. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. How Intelligence
Increases When You Think Less. New York: Harper Perennial.
Damasio, A.R., 1994. Descarte's error: emotion, reason, and the
human brain. New York, N.Y.:G.P. Putnam's Sons
Damasio, A.R. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt
Dennett, D.C., 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston:Little,Brown & Company
Donald, M. 2001. A Mind So Rare. The Evolution of Human Consciousness.
New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
Epstein, M. 1995. Thoughts Without a Thinker. Psychotherapy from
a Buddhist Perspective. New York: Basic Books.
Harris, S. 2004. The End of Faith. Religion, Terror, and the Future
of Reason. New York:W.W.Norton & Co.
Hauser, M.D., 2000. Wild Minds - What Animals Really Think. New
York: Henry Holt and Company. See Chapter 9, Moral Instincts.
LeDoux, J., 1996. The Emotional Brain - The Mysterious Underpinnings
of Emotional Life. New York:Simon & Schuster.
Lewis, T., Amini, F., and Lannon, R. 2000. A General Theory of
Love. New York: Random House.
Metzinger, T. 2003. Being No One. The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity.
McCrone, J., 1999. Going Inside : A Tour Round a Single Moment
of Consciousness. London:Faber & Faber Ltd
Nisker, W. 1998. Buddha's Nature. New York. Bantam Books.
O'Regan, J.K., and Noe, A. 2001. A sensorimotor account of vision
and and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol.
24, pp 939-1031.
Seligman, M.E.P. 1991. Learned Optimism. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Seligman, M.E.P. 1994. What You Can Change and What You Can't.
New York: Alfred Knopf.
Wegner, D.M., 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge:MIT