Deric Bownds

NOTE:  This is a web version of the talk and slides presented at the International Cognitive Neuroscience Meeting (Cognitive VII - see held in Istanbul, Turkey,  May 18-20, 2010.  Organizers of the meeting asked me to present a 30 minute piano recital before the talk,  and for this reason the talk includes comments on the evolution and significance of music.  I have posted a video of the piano performance and lecture that I received from meeting organizers,. It is missing a short bit of audio just after the beginning, and unfortunately deletes the last part of the talk on the evolution of music. Performances of the pieces on the Steinway B at my home in Middleton, Wisconsin can be found at


Who wants to know?

The nature of our subjective "I"

Deric Bownds

    (Emeritus Professor, Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Wisconsin, Madison WI., USA)

This talk is an effort to set some context on, to try to frame,  the 'who' or 'I' in each of us that is studying how our minds work.  Our experienced selves are supported by evolved social brains  whose neuronal circuitry allows mirroring or mimicry between the selves that each of us experience so that we can feel, for example,  an emotional resonance that goes with listening to a piano performance of the sort I just offered.  I chose short pieces with feeling and clear emotional content to make this point,  two quite explicitly titled as Romantic or Erotic, one as Melancholy.


The emotional resonance of music:

F.  Chopin - Nocturne Op. 27 no. 2  

F.  Chopin - Prelude Op. 28, no. 17 

E. Grieg - Lyric Pieces Op. 43, no. 5 Erotic Piece  

E. Grieg - Lyric Pieces Op. 47, no. 5 Melancholy 

E. Grieg - Lyric Pieces Op. 54, no. 4,  Notturno  

C. Debussy - Reverie

C. Debussy - Minuette from Suite Bergmanesque

C. Debussy - Valse Romantique

Some simple experiments I will mention compel us to conclude that the self or "I"that can have rich feelings on hearing music like this  is in fact a 'virtual machine' whose operation is quite alien to our experienced self.    Metzinger has used the term 'ego tunnels' to refer to these machines.

-I want to start by talking about the  the lack of a correspondence between our subjective experience and what we as neuroscientists know to be actually going on inside our heads.   There are a number of simple experiments or demonstrations, some are probably familiar to some of you,  that give us a glimpse of the martian inside that is really running the show that our self illusion usually takes credit for.  

Perhaps the most simple demonstration,  which given our limited time I don't think I will actually do today, would be to ask each of you in the audience to close your eyes, become quiet for a few moments and just breathe, and then instruct you to have no thoughts, images, or feelings in your head, wait quietly for 3 minutes, and then ask how many of you were able to follow this instruction.  The answer would be zero, unless a few of you were experienced meditators.

Well,  if you're running your own show what's the problem? Thoughts just keep popping up from somewhere,   well, I guess that is not 'you'  that's some kind of 'it' or martian in there, a brain that is is generating this stuff in spite of 'your' conscious best intentions.  This is what it is designed to do, generate stuff,  regardless of whether 'you' in quotes, want it to or not.

It is this 'thing', this 'it'  that I want to focus our attention on today. 

Here is a slide summarizing the topics I want to mention:


I.  Evidence for the illusion of agency:




II. Modeling the subjective self:

   The virtual machine

   Virtual organs


   Varieties of 'I'

   Emotions as evolved organs of consciousness

III. Music as an example of an evolved emotional organ of consciousness

IV.  Summary - the Self Illusion

I want to deal first (I.) with how our subjective self does not monitor what is really going on in action, perception or even our assignment of our location in space.

After describing in (I.) how far off base our subjective experience is in knowing what is going on inside our heads, I want in the Second (II.) part of the talk to discuss how we might make a model, attempt an explanation of, our subjective self as a virtual machine of consciousness comprised of what are essentially virtual organs  (such as emotions that form and dissipate according to the occasion) and note how it is based on mirroring with the virtual machines of others, and finally how our use of increasingly sophisticated levels of mirroring generate through evolution increasingly complex varieties of consciousness or "I".

Alongside this evolution of the self, we can view the increasingly complicated emotions of human communication through facial and body gestures as evolved emotional organs of consciousness.

Having done this bottom up modeling in the first two sections of the  talk   I would like in part III to take music as an example of way in which these impersonal mechanical processes can ultimately yield the richness of our subjective emotional lives. In this section I will discuss arguments that our music faculty is an evolutionary adaptation that has enhanced the survivability of groups of humans - this is specifically considering music as an evolved emotional organ of consciousness. 

-Finally (IV.), I will offer a summary of our "I Illusion."

TOPIC I - Evidence for the illusion of agency

SO,  to begin with action (Summary slide  3 -  I.  Action)



-In the well known experiment by Benjamin Libet the subject is instructed: "Flex your finger to push the button when you feel like it, and tell us where the hand on the rapidly moving clock is when you decide to do that."

The time at which an EEG signal indicating brain activation for movement occurs is set as zero time, the report of awareness of intention to push the button is about 350 msec (0.35 seconds) later, and the actual EKG, the voltage in the finger muscle doing the push, happens about 200 msec later than that.

We are 'late for consciousness', the action had already started. The brain has started on our acting  earlier than our consciousness of it.  We usually assume that the experience of consciously willing an action and the causation of the action by our conscious minds are the same thing.  However, they are entirely distinct, and the tendency to confuse them is the source of the illusion of conscious will.

Actually the situation is even more dramatic than suggested by Libet's experiments.  In more recent fMRI experiments activity predictive of movement was already present in frontopolar motor cortex 7 seconds before the subject's motor decision.

This figure is Daniel Wegner's way of summarizing the situation.


Something inside is generating the first preparations for the actual movement, and also generating our thinking we are starting the movement, the actual causal paths,  but our experience is this apparent causal path

-What's the point of this delay?. What's the point of our even being conscious if everything is ready to go before we know about it.   We do become aware before it happens and can veto it.  Most of the time it is OK and to be efficient we really ought to get going with it fast and now wait for consciousness,  but in case the movement ought to be suppressed, like socking someone,  we can inhibit it at the last minute.  

-By the time we are aware of willing a movement it is well under way, but we get to cancel or edit it.

It may be that we, that is, our conscious selves, don't so much have 'free will', as we do 'free won't.' [Sept. 2019: More recent work now questions these conclusions. The question of free will is far from solved. More recent experiments, have suggested that the brain signals noted in Libet's original experiment ~500 msec before a movement was made may not be the actual neural initiator of the movement. An artificial intelligence classifier comparing control brain noise in subjects not instructed to move shows divergence from noise in those instructed to move about 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making the decision to move in Libet's experiment.]  

So, this suggests two points about acting:


-The point is that the consequences of my action are programmed back into the next automatic startup of the 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 their consequences are integrated into the ongoing cycle. 

A delay in the time it takes us to be conscious of things that are already going on in our brains  can be illustrated another simple way, and I move to the second item on my list under topic  I (see lecture outline in summary slide 3) -


Here the instruction is to push the button in response to a light coming on.  The button push occurs about 200 msec after the light comes on. If the instruction is:  'slow down your response by the tiniest possible amount,' then approximately 700 msec  passes before the button push.  There is a quantum jump of 500 msec, waiting for consciousness to develop if a conscious rather than unconscious response is requested.


So, we add to our developing summary the fact that sensing can be faster than consciousness.


-What's the point of this half second delay for consciousness?  There is one:  our unconscious undermind can shape what we think we are perceiving out there in the real world.

If SLIDE 8 is rapidly flashed on the screen,  many people watching report seeing an ace of spades or an ace of hearts,  not the impossible red ace of spades. 


We compare the information that comes with our library of images, and frequently assume that the stored image is the correct one.  

A brief summary then is that both acting and sensing are faster than our awareness of them, permitting editing functions to intervene and shape both our final actions (free won't and expanded time) and perceptions (what ought to be there). 


A spectacular recent demonstration of our brains transforming and editing power comes the work of Blanke and his collaborators showing that we can move our perceived ownership of body parts or our whole bodies out in space,  to avatars,  making the movie 'Avatar' seem very timely.

This moves us to the third item on my lecture topic list in Slide 3, I. - Location.  We can disrupt the spatial unity between our selves and our bodies, we can change the perceived Location of our physical selves.


A participant (dark blue trousers) sees through a head mounted device his own virtual body (light blue trousers) in 3D, standing 2 m in front of him and being stroked synchronously or asynchronously at the participant's back. Dark colors indicate the actual location of the physical body or object, whereas light colors represent the virtual body or object seen on the head mounted device.

So, there is a multisensory conflict here,  the subject is feeling a stroking on his back but seeing a similar stroking of his virtual image projected two meters forward.  This is a multisensory conflict,  vision of the virtual image being stroked is telling him something different from the felt touching on his back.  In such a situation, vision typically dominates over proprioception and touch, and in this case participants start to feel that the virtual body seen in front of them is their own body and they mislocalize themselves to the virtual body, to a position outside their bodily borders. This indicates an amazing plasticity,  with spatial unity and bodily self-consciousness being based on multisensory and cognitive processing of bodily information.

The simple experiments (Topic I in the lecture summary SLIDE 3) I have mentioned thus far show us that our subjective I is late to acting and sensing, essentially being an after the fact report, and can place our subjective bodies outside our actual ones...  I could continue this list, noting experiments showing how flexible our assignment of agency is, how easy it is to think we are responsible for an action when we are not, and vice versa,  or experiments  showing how our value assigning emotional brain works largely outside of our awareness. 

Showing how much of the real machinery of mind our subjective "I" is unable to experience  brings us back to the title of this talk,  "Who wants to know? - the nature of our subjective I" What is the best description we can manage of what is really in there.

TOPIC II  Modeling the subjective self.

So, I want to move on to the second chunk of this talk  (Topic II in summary SLIDE 3 - Modeling our subjective selves. 

A number of philosophers of mind and cognitive neuroscientists are outlining an emerging consensus  view that is subjectively and objectively satisfying, ...describing the subjective "I"  as a virtual machine.    I think Thomas Metinzger has done one of the most clear and accessible summaries, and I follow some of his points.

SLIDE 12 -

What he calls the Ego Tunnel (or PSM) is a complex property of the global neural correlate of consciousness (NCC)  - what make 'Mineness' or 'I' possible - a vastly reduced model of what is really 'out there'

- It is a transparent mental image  that allows the conscious experience of being a self  to emerge. (Transparency is our not seeing seeing the firing of neurons in our brain, only what they represent for us).

- The model at a given moment is transparent because the brain has no chance of discovering that is is a model - it is a higher order representation integrating its information in longer time window than the lower order information processing in smaller time windows.  Our visual perception time window is much larger than the time windows of primary visual processing and so those more rapid underlying processes are completely invisible to it (the same thing as not being able to see the individual frames in a movie reel,  because our visual integration time is much longer).   It is a metabolically efficient, quick and dirty way of knowing only what our evolution has deemed it necessary for us to know. 

- Our ancestors did not need to know that a bear-representation was currently active in their brains or that they were currently attending to an internal state representing a slowly approaching wolf....All they needed to know was 'Bear over there!' or 'Wolf approaching from the left!'

-In this view, Consciousness is taken to be the space of attentional agency,  that set of information currently active in our brains to which we can deliberately direct our high level attention.  Low level attention is automatic and can be triggered by entirely unconscious events.  

-A further assertion is that consciousness is epistemologically   irreducible... one reality, one kind of fact, but two kinds of knowledge: first-person knowledge and third-person knowledge, that never can be conflated.

-There is a long list of ideas on why consciousness evolved, what it is good for, doing goal hierarchies and long-terms plans, enhancement of social coordination, etc. 

I like Metzinger's description of consciousness as a  as a new kind of virtual organ - unlike the permanent hardware of the liver, kidney, or heart it is always present. Virtual organs form for a certain time when needed (like desire, courage, anger, an immune response)...they are a new computational strategy, that makes classes of facts globally available and allows attending, flexible reacting, within context.....

 'Reality generation' allowed animals to represent explicitly the fact that something is actually the case, the world is present.  (conscious color gives information about nutritional value, red berries among green leaves, empathy gives information about the emotional state of conspecifics). 

Old things in the evolution of consciousness are ultrafast and reliable (like qualities of sensory experience) and transparent.  They are evolved hardware (as are our autonomic and neuroendocrine emotional chemistries)  that support the new classes of transient virtual organs.   Abstract conscious thought is not transparent or fast,  it is slow and unreliable, experienced as 'made.' 

Only our species has evolved advanced additional abilities to run offline simulations in the mind,  experiencing some things are 'real' and other elements of our tunnel as mere thoughts about the world, representing that we are representational systems. 

Underlying all of this are our brain's mirroring systems.

 As monkeys view other monkeys (or humans) making purposeful actions towards a goal, nerve activity is observed in nerve cells (dubbed mirror neurons) that would become active if they were carrying out the task themselves. 

  Observed emotions are also mirrored by activity in emotion areas of rat brains, monkey brains and our brains,  suggesting they are a basic substrate for building empathy - building blocks of social mirroring systems. 

A common view is that the mirror system is a complex form of representational content that functions  as a building block for social cognition and  for a  more complex, consciously experienced representation of the first-person perspective as well.

Moving on to the fourth section of  topic II in summary slide 3.

we note several  Varieties of "I"


We would have to say that our sense of "I" has several nested components. First is the phenomenal animal substrate "I" looking out on a world with a sense of `just being' that doesn't include explicit self referential awareness of being in that state.

Animals do not see into a moment, rather they look out from it. Subjectively, the animal brain would always be facing forward, focused not on where the latest shift in viewpoint has come from, but where it is heading. Rather than feeling like an observer or a passenger, and animal would have a feeling of simply being the vehicle, of doing the journey.

Then there is, suggested by the mirror self recognition experiments in monkeys, dolphins, and some birds, a more advanced sense of `mineness',  having a self, yet still not reflecting on it, it's history or its future.  Our human feeling of being there during a moment, observing, supervising, and taking decisions, may be a veneer, or habit, grafted onto this kind of basic animal consciousness.

Then follows our visual gestural mimetic (most likely pre-linguistic) "I" that reflects on itself as well as a past and a future. Finally there is the "I" that recruits language, both inner and outer dialog, giving us the more grandiose "I" that underlies myth and artistic expression, things like the grandiosity of this maenad from the cult of Dionysus. 


Now,  can we build towards a description of how, over evolutionary time, the impersonal mechanics by which our brains generate these increasingly complex virtual models of our subjective self might have led to the experienced richness of our emotional and artistic expression? 

To do this, I think we can use the model of describing aspects of consciousness such as our emotions as evolved  transiently expressed virtual organs, as I've already mentioned, unlike permanent hardware of liver, kidney, heart... that form for a certain time when needed.  (see summary SLIDE 3,  II. - Emotions as evolved organs of consciousness.)

As human and animal social emotions appropriate to a given situation form and then dissipate, they are supported by evolved hardware - an outstanding example being the neuromuscular, neuroendocrine circuits that regulate our  facial expression of emotions - expressions that are universal across cultures and were first documented Paul Ekman.  Here is a frequently shown figure illustrating expressions of  anger, happiness, disgust, surprise, sadness, and fear.


Keltner and others have documented the slightly more subtle facial and body language of signals of embarrassment, smiling, laughing, teasing, touching, loving, compassion, and awe - all reflecting evolved social repertoires, affiliative as well as aggressive.   These emotions and their muscles are guarantors of authenticity, as people in all cultures unconsciously and easily can distinguish the genuine, or Duchenne smile, which automatically recruits muscles around the eye and mouth, from the non-Duchenne smile - which mainly moves only muscles around the mouth.


It is these emotional repertoires, these evolved virtual organs of consciousness  that we marshall in the support of human artistic expression and creativity. 

TOPIC III - Music as an example of an evolved emotional organ of consciousness.

We can use the example of music to examine the span from our basic biology, our evolved neurobiology, to the sort of social artistic expression that can recruit all of the emotions illustrated by the faces in the last two slides.  (This moves me to the third topic noted in summary slide 3:  III -  Music as an example of an evolved emotional organ of consciousness.)

Generating music is one of our artistic activities that, like visual art, design, or dance,  wants to be considered in the context of our evolutionary biology, our evolved social brain.  Evolutionary rationales of the sort I am going to mention for music expression can also be advanced other kinds of human artistic expression.   


-Darwin proposed a role for music in sexual selection, music being one of the several way in which potential mates display for each other and advertise their reproductive fitness, and Geoffrey Miller has written on how music plays this role in contemporary society.

-Music is universal across cultures, with evidence for musical instruments dating now back to over a 100,000 years ago. Throughout most of our history as a species music was not experienced as an appreciative audience listening to a class of experts perform but rather a communal embodied fusion of musical sounds and body movement.    It has historically served in social bonding and cohesion, promoting feelings of group togetherness and synchrony. 

Children's lullabies seem to qualify as a universal — nearly every culture has a genre of music geared towards infants, and there is considerable consistency in how they sound, generally being slow, repetitive and featuring descending pitch contours. Other features that are common, if not completely universal, among cultures include the inclination to dance to music, musical metre, and the hierarchical organization of pitch, giving structural prominence to particular notes over others.

A further argument is that music evolved because it promoted cognitive development, possibly being the main activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the cognitive representational flexibility necessary to become humans, that it helped refine our motor skills, to make possible the fine muscle control required to vocal or gestural signed speech.  Music processing helps prepare infants for complex cognitive and social activities, also for language and prosody, the intonations that adds emotions to syntax. 

 A fourth argument for music as an adaption comes from other species. Birds who clearly use birdsong in sexual selection.  Whales, frogs, chimpanzees, gibbons, prairie dogs, and many other species have musical vocalizations used to establish territory, signal approach of predators, etc.   Animal vocal intonations, analogous to the prosody in our human spoken language,  communicate or induce emotions. 

Finally,  Brain lesion and other studies suggest specialized structures for music,  lesions reveal that rhythm, metrical extraction, melody outline and analysis all can be dissociated, with damage to the left hemisphere diminishing ability to perceive and produce rhythm, but permitting meter to be extracted, while damage to the right hemisphere has the opposite effect.   Lesions also reveal dedicated memory systems that can remain functional when other memory systems fail.  Pleasing music activates brain regions implicated in reward, just like food, sex, and drugs.

Music is better than language for arousing feelings that through mirroring and emotional resonance can bind a group of humans together in joy, love, compassion, anger, or aggression.

I was very intrigued recently to come across and iPhone App called mood agent that explicitly plays with the these affective components of music...


 .... it scans your music library and the libraries of other users, classifying each musical piece with with algorithms that detect the characteristic emotional features of music and letting you set the relative levels of sensuality, tenderness, joy, aggression, or speed you would like to experience while listening to playbacks.   I have found it quite amazing to play with this. 

TOPIC IV.  Summary - The Self Illusion

Well,  to begin to summarize (Summary Slide 3 - IV - Summary), I began this talk making a description of how most of the machinery that runs our actions, perceptions and thoughts is independent of our experienced self or "I" (Part I). This machinery generates a phenomenal self model, Metzinger's ego tunnel, that is the illusion that it is running the show,  sort of like the instrument panels of your car taking themselves to be the driver (Part II).

This machinery generates richness of our subjective emotional life and also makes the temporary virtual organs that have evolved to carry out music and other artistic endeavors that either now or at some point in history have most likely enhanced our survivability, passing on our genes. (Part III)

We are in the position of being able to know, describe, what seems like this alien, almost Martian, machinery that is actually running our show at the same time we can experience being one of its affectively or emotionally rich products. 

 We can understand ourselves at bottom as a homeostatic vegetative life core with muscles, nerves, etc. at its service that exists only because it has proven effective at reproducing itself,  with brain complexity increasing during during our evolutionary history to enhance our robustness and survival,  culminating with our ability to generate phenomenal self models, ego tunnels, whose strong identities and purpose can integrate and vitalize the equipment that generated it. 



In human culture we have evolved a networked system of individual virtual "I" self models,  (shown as "I" elements at the top) resonating ego tunnels,  whose artistic products feed back, in a top down direction to enhance the homeostatic robustness and survivability of individual human elements whose impersonal mechanical processes ("It" elements) generate the virtual self models in the first place. 

 Bottom Up and Top Down causation.  It seems likely that the adaptive advantages and emergence of this supra-organismal intelligence were a driving force for the emergence of our reflective mirroring selves.

 It seems to us that we have selves, have conscious will, have minds, are agents.  While it is sobering and ultimately accurate to call these illusions or virtual models, they have proven to be useful ones in monitoring and modulating our behavior in a reality vastly more complex than we can sense, in enhancing our energy and individual survival. 

To accept the evidence, provided by both modern neuroscience and ancient meditative psychologies,  that the "I" of  our subjective self is a virtual model can be disconcerting, perhaps have a sort of arid or 'dry' feel.  But  this knowledge  does not need to bother us.   The illusions piled on top of apparent mental causation are the building blocks of human psychology, social life, art and music.  The consequence of these constructions and their networking is our dominance as a species on this planet. 

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