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July 24, 2021

Brain dissection for everyone

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David Lovejoy pondering the workings of the mind? Photo Felicity Gaze.

David Lovejoy

As I contemplated my seventy-fifth Christmas through the bottom of a glass, I realised that I still have no idea how my mind works. Or if it is ‘my’ mind. Or even if there is such a thing as ‘mind’.

You would think there’s been enough time to have established some elements of self-knowledge by now. But observing yourself is like picking up water with your fingers. Meditation and certain drugs can slow you down enough to give the insight, or perhaps illusion, that thought and personality are separate, but what then?

The greatest illusion

Neuroscientists discovered years ago that a third of a second before we consciously decide on a bodily movement, the appropriate neurons controlling that movement fire in our brains. That fraction of a second is a long time, given the speed of nerve messages.

I remember that this finding gave rise to a philosophy of resolute determinism among those scientists who liked to consider themselves tough minded. An objective fact trumps a subjective one every time, so our subjective experience of being conscious entities, free to choose our actions, must be an illusion when set against the cold objective truth of the brain scan. However grand and convincing the illusion, free will – consciousness itself – is just a chemical phantom in the predetermined lurching of our zombie bodies.

Even the evangelical atheists at the end of the last century found it hard to cope with that bleak prospect, so they found a way to tip-toe past the short-lived resurrection of determinism.

Subjectivity may not be a proper part of the scientific method, but subjectivity itself is a recognised phenomenon; its existence is an objective fact to be examined. And if it exists, then we are (in some sense) free. Perhaps all our thinking processes are based on illusion, but that doesn’t clarify anything, does it? We cannot prove that the universe is not a computer simulation, but most of us don’t obsess over the possibility.

I haven’t kept up with the subject, so perhaps all is now explained – but those threehundred milliseconds between my neurons lighting up, and my decision to scratch my nose, still intrigue me. Does this delay between signal and thought actually hint that the universe is not just matter? Surely a thorough-going materialism would have our brain activity and our thoughts perfectly in sync?

What’s your vibe?

Whatever flirtations I may have had with other realities, I have always found that strict materialism explains more than any other system. And yet…

Those ‘vibes’ we used to feel in the sixties were easy enough to ascribe to unconsciously read body language and non-verbal cues, but can we really account for all atmospherics so glibly? Sometimes sensitive and perfectly sane people detect something invisible in external reality that they can be certain they are not projecting. If it’s a wave or a field, science only recognises the electro-magnetic; if it’s a force it can only be one of the four known forces. But if it is something that only a finely tuned human nervous system can perceive, we prejudge the case by insisting that everything must fit one of our existing categories. By definition something that isn’t in the electro-magnetic spectrum won’t show up in your electro-magnetic wave detecting instruments.

At which point I have always given up, because the likelihood of a ‘psi-wave’ existing, for example, is much smaller than the likelihood of my not being able to think straight. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes, and if a claim threatens to upset the scientific establishment, it needs truckloads of evidence.

And yet… if you press on hard enough through the scientific press, as for example Will Storr does in The Heretics (Picador, 2013: references to page 325), you find that all those experiments in the twentieth century to see if people could correctly read blind cards, above the level of chance, produced an extraordinary amount of evidence.

The extra-sensory perception experiments were abandoned in universities years ago, not because they yielded the sceptic’s expected negative answer, but because there was a slight but significant variation from chance results. There is statistical proof that people can read the standard test cards without seeing them, proof which has been replicated many times.

So tests for ESP yield positive results overall, but there has been no widespread acknowledgement of the fact, and there has been no follow up research. I can guess why; firstly, the statistics give no handle for framing further experiments; they just exist, embarrassing and anomalous, hinting that we know less than we think. Secondly, until there’s an answer to firstly, any scientist who takes up this question is sabotaging their own career.

So, like everyone else I don’t know my own mind. But I’ve just noticed my brain has decided to have another beer. Happy Christmas.

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  1. Cogito, ergo sum; cogito.

    Thanks, David, for something to occupy my mind (?) over new year while others are wasting gunpowder.

  2. Being a silly old arse and as one would at Christmas drop in at the local for an ale whether it was sunny stormy, snowing, raining or blowing a bloody gale, I needed a beer with a full froth of the head and with legs on it. I sat at the bar and sank some and at the end of that Christmas day it all amounted to quite a sum as I slowly, slowly, slowly pulled my wallet out of my back pocket to pay. Oops I had to hang on to the bar to stop the bar from slipping away. I looked at the barmaid and she said “Have a Good Christmas and she said a lot of other gibbership and she had quite a bit to say being a woman. I bet she was a mother.
    The bar was polished and highly lacquered teak, the rainforest wood kind and I looked at the grain and felt a pain from where my wallet had come from in my back pocket and for a moment could not straighten up so I told that wood what was on my mind. Was my mind working? It was from my boots to my knees and from my fleshy behind I said “Thank God Christmas and that nice cold beer was just once a bloody year.”


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