Consciousness: Through the Lens of Split Brain Experiments

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Where are you? That thing that is the doer, where is that located?

Our brain is divided into to hemispheres, left and right. These hemispheres are connected through a bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. This structure allows for information exchange between the two halves of our brain. This, it turns out, is very important as the individual hemispheres of our brain complete separate tasks, then share the information with the other half. The specific tasks that are carried out by each hemisphere are conserved in most people. That is to say, there are some exceptions to these rules, but the work is typically divided the same way across different peoples. As a brief example of this, examine the figure below.

This list could be longer and more detailed, but the important distinctions are: each hemisphere receives different visual inputs, controls different sides of the body, and that speech and language are confined to the left hemisphere.

A treatment for the most severe and uncontrollable epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum. This is a last line measure (no response to anti-seizure medication and other treatments) to limit the spread of the electrical activity of epileptic seizures. While cutting the corpus callosum did not completely stop the seizures, it relegated them to the half of the brain they originated in, no longer being able to spread to the other hemisphere via the corpus callosum. I will leave the ethics of this procedure for others to debate, but to the impartial observer, this procedure shed light on some peculiar aspects of consciousness.

Let’s walk down the logical progression of cutting the corpus callosum. No communication, no information exchange between the two hemispheres. Each hemisphere only receives visual input from one visual field. For those that are unaware, if you stare at a dot in the middle of the screen, images to the left of that dot are located in your left visual field, and vice versa. Therefore, observing a word in the right visual field goes to the left brain. This means the person could say the word out loud, as the speech and language centers are also in the left brain. They would also be able to move their right hand if, for instance, they were asked to draw the word presented to them. So far, pretty normal. Now, let us walk down the path of presenting a word to the left visual field. The visual input is sent to the right hemisphere of the brain. When asked what word was shown, the patient says nothing. The visual input, stored in the right brain, has no pathway to the speech and language center in the left brain. The patient cannot represent the information in words or speech, as these two pieces of informations are located in opposite hemispheres, unable to communicate. However, when asked to close his eyes and draw with his left hand, the patient is able draw a picture of the word. I recognize this probably sounds very confusing. Watch the video below for a visual explanation.

Split brain behavioral experiments

So with this basic physiologic understanding, let’s jump to the fun part, its implications for consciousness. For this discussion it may be helpful to invoke a particular definition of consciousness. In the words of philosopher Thomas Nagel, “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” This assertion is made in his paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” For example, as soon as we say, “if I could perceive via echolocation, I would understand how a bat negotiates its surroundings,” we assign some level, or type, of consciousness to the bat. It has consciousness because there is something that it is like to be the bat. This definition of consciousness is a decent starting place. While it does not violate any of my intuitions, or directly contradict my developing notion of consciousness, it does not offer much insight either. The obvious thing we must extend from this definition is that consciousness is no one thing. You and I can both be conscious, as can the bat, but there are clear and obvious differences between these incarnations of consciousness. There are levels to the game, so to speak. This goes against the materialist and rationalist tendency to discretize and demand a concrete form of things. Through this definition we are clearly allowing consciousness to take on different forms, while also retaining some element of commonality. In my own interpretation of this idea, consciousness is the awareness of what it is like to be.

Back to the split brain experiments. If we apply the above definition of consciousness to the split brain patient, we are forced to assign individual consciousness to each hemisphere of the brain. As seen in the video, when shown different words in each visual field, the cognitive processes are distinct. The left hemisphere knows the he visualized a hammer, while the right hemisphere knows he visualized a saw. Both are 100% correct, both are 100% convinced of their perceptions, and both are completely unaware of the other.

What does this do for our understanding of consciousness? For me, it shows that consciousness is differentiated from the body, while also being dependent upon it. It is detached, but receives input from the body. I visualize it as a little entity floating right above my head. It takes inputs from inside the body as well as outside, welds them into a coherent story, and then poses as the all mighty conductor of volition. It incorporates all the stimuli of the senses, the inner psychic drives and images, our history, our place in the group, our place in society, our direct environment, possible future outcomes, and possible ramifications of those outcomes. A complex data mining, data combining, and narrative building machine.

So when we split the brain, the direct bodily inputs of consciousness obviously change. It is clearly like something to be the experience of the left brain, and clearly like something completely different to be the experience of the right brain. When we split the brain, we create another instance of consciousness. We introduce another way to be, and consciousness is there for its interpretation. For it is always there, always a level removed from direct perception. Thinking about split brain as a splitting of consciousness may be a helpful visualization, but in reality we aren’t splitting consciousness, it is just there, aware of whatever inputs are available to it.

I would like to close with a bit of a thought experiment. As this post was started, where are you? That thing that is the doer, where is that located? Before I really started thinking about consciousness I would have immediately answered that question: I am in my head, of course. My thoughts have drastically changed since.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 5/16/2020

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The Drumbeat of Change

Now you see that the hope and the desire of returning to the first state of chaos is like the moth to the light, and that the man who with constant longing awaits with joy each new springtime, each new summer, each new month and new year – deeming that the things he longs for are ever too late in coming – does not perceive that he is longing for his own destruction. But this desire is the very quintessence, the spirit of the elements, which finding itself imprisoned with the soul is ever longing to return from the human body to its giver. And you must know that this same longing is that quintessence, inseparable from nature, and that man is the image of the world.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Is that feeling of yearning a simple disapproval of our current situation, or does it emerge from something deeper, as a manifestation of a drive we have labeled progress? It is easy to appreciate the teachings of those enlightened ones; the complete acceptance and appreciation of each and every sacred moment. But this is not the teaching of our culture. This is not what draws today’s society forward. It is this antithetical idea of progress and change that define our world. I, for one, do find those moments of bliss and weightlessness to be quite compelling, but I cannot claim to be driven by the pursuit of peace and oneness. No, I seem answer to that call of progress and growth more readily. I want to be better today than I was yesterday, and I remain content with this strategy. However I readily admit, as Nietzsche states, our drives seek to philosophize in their own regard.

“Returning to the first state of chaos” must be something like the dissolution of ego consciousness, the dissipation of tension, that realm before opposites, unity. What if our yearning is a much deeper drive. A drive for reunification with the whole. I do not see this as a drive for death, or a “death instinct,” but something more along the lines of some part of us wants to reach that ultimate connectedness. Whatever we are, whenever we are, we are only the current manifestation of an intricate history. There must have been a beginning, with that an end, and every circle ends in the same place it started. It must be plausible then, our desire for change is the manifestation of a drive seeking to reunite with the beginning. Of course, only to be found through the end.

If this were true, certainly that drive would feel imprisoned. Only knowing its dissatisfaction with the current situation. Only knowing that change is its singular hope of resolution. Of course, it would not know what changes to make, or even what it desires, only its discontent. It is no more than a vector directed in a particular orientation, without regard to what surrounds. It does not have direct access to our conscious volition, so we are not necessarily privy to its goals, or even its existence. However, it obviously lies beneath those levers that play on the level of our conscious awareness. It finds solace in the constant comparisons we make between one another. Objectifying why someone else has a better situation than us (our future self included). Wanting this or that, never quenching, only leading to the next this or that. This is the drive playing puppet master to the grass always being greener.

The drive is not mischievous. It does not plot for our demise, push us towards misery, nor a mindset of perpetual inadequacy. These all occur at the level of consciousness, much downstream of the drive itself. It is our duty to channel this libido (psychic energy) into something that improves our lives. The only comparison deserving of our commitment is the comparison to who we were yesterday. That is the only manifestation we should allow this drive to take. Let it push us to ever so slightly better versions of ourselves. To small changes over a lifetime that amount to becoming who we are. Complete your circle on your terms.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 5/14/2020

The Double Slit Experiment

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If you like thinking about the nature of reality or consciousness or cool things in general, and are unfamiliar with the double slit experiment, you must watch the video below (or any number on YouTube). In 10 minutes you may be completely flummoxed by a foray into the quantum world.

Double Slit Experiment explained! by Jim Al-Khalili

I am no physicist, and I’m certainly not qualified to be sharing my opinions on such things, so I can’t think of a better topic to discuss. The experiment clearly shows the act of observation has some affect on the way we perceive light to behave. I emphasize perceive because that is a much different statement than claiming the act of observation changes the behavior of the particle. I do not think our observation changes the behavior of the particle, I think it changes what we perceive. Not that we are necessarily looking at two different things, but that we are viewing another side of the same coin. Through observation we collapse the dual nature of light (particle and wave) into one particular incarnation, a particular particle. Through observation we define a path.

The act of observation occurs at a specific instance in time, and at a specific instance, the entity has to be exactly somewhere. This only occurs at the smallest possible increment of time (theoretically possible), exemplified by the derivative. As the light is traveling through space, you cannot distinctly define its position unless you freeze time. The act of observation is this act of momentarily freezing time. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is the relationship between two complementary variables, for example, spatial position and momentum. There is no way to simultaneously know both the position and momentum of an object. If the object has momentum, it is by definition moving. If it is moving, it is by definition not in a fixed position. This can also be completely defined through the lens of time. In order to know the exact position of a moving object, time must be stopped. However, if you stop time, then you stop velocity, and without velocity you have no momentum. So the idea of complementary variables is the idea that the closer you are to pinning down the value of one variable, the less you know about the other.

It is as if through the act of observation we are assigning destiny. The act of observation freezes time, and in that moment, everything must be spatially accounted for. All possibilities collapse into a particular output, all momentum goes to zero, and a precise position is required. Then instead of perceiving the possible outcomes of traveling light (wave behavior), we perceive the outcome of that distinct particle which was observed.

It might make sense from an abstract “energy” point of view. It would be energetically more efficient to simply define a cloud of probability (wave behavior), than to output a specific path (particle behavior). Without an observer to output to, why waste computing power or energy to display an output?

There is some connection to consciousness expressed in this experiment. I do not think the observation itself has to be “conscious,” but the experiment is somewhat analogous to the idea that things only exist once they enter our field of consciousness. At this moment, look straight up. The ceiling or sky you just visually perceived (or mentally perceived if you actually didn’t look up, and are now just thinking about that ceiling above your head) was nowhere to be found in your conscious experience until the moment you perceived it. It had no defined real estate in your consciousness before, but there was certainly the possibility of it appearing in your consciousness. As soon as you bring your awareness to the ceiling, it exists. Your awareness is just like the act of observation in the experiment, calling forth a specific entity from the nebula of possibility. Consciousness has to filter down the possibilities of reality and present us only with what is of the highest importance. It is energetically impractical do discretely define all of reality, we must operate with a nebulous or probabilistic understanding of most things at most times. Light only behaves as a particle when it is forced to, when the act of observation demands certainty. We trade variety, novelty, and open possibility for limited but discrete understanding.

Like I said, don’t trust me on this. This is no more than a neophyte thinking out loud. However, I do hope it makes you think for yourself.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 5/10/2020

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Our Improbable Existence II

This is a continuation of a previous post, A Perspective on Our Improbable Existence. 10 minutes to read both might just change your life.

“The sense of well being of a tree for its roots, the happiness to know oneself in a manner not entirely arbitrary and accidental, but as someone who has grown out of a past as an heir, flower, and fruit.”

Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life

You are multitudes. In the first part of this post we wandered down the improbable road of our human ancestors being able to successfully reproduce 100,000 times in a row, roughly (really roughly) the number of generations needed to take us from 2.5 million years ago, to today. We emphasized just how incredibly unlikely it is for anything to be done 100,000 times in a row, much less, survive on Earth long enough to raise viable offspring! Quite the miracle, if you don’t mind the term.

That post was solely focussed on us, the human species. Now I want to take a step back, and examine an even wider picture. Imagine yourself in a park, forest, or really any unblemished part of nature. Now take your attention further, to the trees, grass, squirrels, insects, soil, even the microbes that surround you. Each one of these incarnations of nature is the product of an improbable journey, just as you are. Each one of the entities had “parents”, and “parents” before that, often extending much farther back than the paltry 2.5 million years of human existence. Many have much shorter lifespans, meaning they have been through vastly more generations, winning the game of life an impossible amount of times. They too are constellations of that original cosmic dust of 13.8 billion (at least) years ago.

This perspective is important, for you are not simply limited to your body. At some level, you are your experience, or your reality is built upon that which you perceive. In a way you are something like the integral of your perceptions across your life. In fact you even extend back before your birth. Do you not have instincts? And certainly we cannot lay claim to the development of instinct in this lifetime. Now, turning back to those perceptions that construct our reality. If we go back to the landscape we were picturing, with trees, birds, plants, etc., those entities exist as part of our perception. If they are part of our perceptions, then we are one in the same, as we are some type of summation of our perceptions. Or if you prefer to think in experiences, you experience the tree and the grass and the birds. Now take a snapshot in time, that experience becomes part of you. Somewhere, somehow, some piece of that experience is stored in you.

Now it’s time to explode your mind. If we are some type of summation of these snapshot experiences, we are entirely dependent upon the perceptions that made up the experiences. Meaning, if that tree was not there, in its exact place, we would have a fundamentally different perception, a fundamentally different experience, and therefore we would be something fundamentally different. The snapshot has changed. A piece of the puzzle that is us, has changed.

This means that our improbable existence just got infinitely more complex. Our existence requires not only 2.5 million years of successful Homo sapien reproduction (improbable in itself), but it mandates 23 million years of successful reproduction by the ancestors of that specific Oak tree. And 7 million years of reproduction by the predecessors of the squirrel. And don’t forget the grass, plants, soil, microbes, or that other human across the park. They are all part of your perception, all part of your experience, all part of you. As you are their’s.

It is hard to not appreciate our momentary existence with this perspective. Or does this perspective actually prove our existence is much deeper and more profound than initially assumed. You are everything, and everything is exactly as it has to be.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 5/8/2020

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Food Rules 1: Give Me Your Attention

Why we need Food Rules

Preface
Food is the greatest vehicle through which we expose exogenous (outside the body) substances to our body. What we ingest is no more than chemical information packets that direct our cellular machinery to behave and operate in specific ways. Food is the primary language we have to communicate with our body, and communication (information exchange) is key to a thriving ecosystem. 

Everyone has dieted and everyone has failed. Food choice is a psychological game that we are not well equipped to deal with. Unless we educate ourselves on what is really going on, we are severely disadvantaged in an unfair fight. A big part of this is changing the language we use to describe the food we eat. This is not a diet. Diets are temporary and don’t work. We must focus on small changes that can be implemented for the rest of our lives. We wont’t be listing foods you “can’t have.” When you mentally tag a food as something “I can’t have,” you have just lost a battle in this realm of psychological warfare – there is always that small part of us that wants only what we cannot have. This is not about counting calories or joining a Facebook group for the newest fad diet. Food can get complicated and even tribal, so we will attempt to remove the extraneous information and focus on the things that actually make a difference. These are a a few simple rules to help you change your relationship with food. 

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Michael Pollan

Rule 1: Pay attention. Try to feel hunger and satiety. Connect what you eat to how you feel.

Try to feel when you are hungry and when you are satisfied. Do no eat because you just woke up, or because it’s 12:30 in the afternoon and that is lunch time. Hormones circulate throughout our body and occasionally cause us to feel what we label as hunger and satiety. This is the clock which we should be eating on. Three square meals a day is nothing more than a product of society and culture, and has zero connection to how the body actually works. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” is no more than a brilliant marketing ploy from someone selling you breakfast. Eat when you are hungry. Stop eating when you are full. Don’t listen to the other bullshit.

However simple this sounds, it is not simple to accomplish. You are just beginning to push back against the artificial patterns and routines that have directed your life. You can bet that if you have been eating at 7 AM, 12 PM, and 7 PM for years, you will have created a pattern your body is accustomed to. You are likely to feel a strong sensation, that you would label hunger, just before 7 AM, 12 PM, and 7 PM, as you have programmed your body to prepare for digestion at those times. However, there is no law of the human body demanding we eat three meals a day, and we are all aware that if we were forced to skip one of those meals, we would be just fine. This tells me that those hunger pangs we get around our scheduled eating times are very much artificial – at least biologically artificial, in the sense that they do not denote your body actually needing food. So I challenge you to one small experiment. Simply skip one of your regular scheduled meals (preferably the first or last, more on this later), and PAY ATTENTION to how you feel. When that sensation of hunger arises, acknowledge it. What does it feel like? Where do you feel it? Does it change your mood? How long does it last? When it passes, how do you feel? This is a simple exercise to become more conscious of when and why we are eating. 

Let’s jump to our meal. We need your attention again. Before you take a bite, take a breathe and bring your awareness to the food and the people you are eating with. Try turning off the television and putting away the cell phones, if only for the fact they detract our attention. When our attention is divided, it makes being able to detect the feelings of hunger and satiety much more difficult. Have you ever wondered how you can eat the whole box of popcorn or the entire container of ice cream and not feel anything until the movie has finished? When we are focussed on something else, it is easy for eating to shift to autopilot, outside our conscious awareness. If you have trouble with portion control, try eliminating the distractions around your meals. 

Lastly, let’s move to after the meal. Again this will require your attention. I hope you see the obvious theme here. We have eaten, so the taste of the food has come and gone. It is now time to sharpen our skills of examining how food actually affects us. How do you feel? Energized and sharp? Lethargic and ready for a nap? Bloated and gassy? Running to the bathroom as fast as possible? We often ascribe these characteristics to “this is just the way I am,” when our body is actually sending distress signals to us on a daily basis. I met a patient in the emergency room recently who told us she has diarrhea multiple times a day, everyday, but that was just how her body works. This is not how our bodies work. This is your body screaming something is wrong, begging for your attention. In this particular lady’s case, I have no idea why she had diarrhea. It could be anything, but the point is we need to pay attention to the signs our body is giving us. If you have consistent swings in energy around your meals, examine that. Maybe you are eating too much at once, maybe its too many carbohydrates, maybe you need smaller and more frequent meals, or maybe you just aren’t eating enough. This is not meant to get into the diagnostics of what is going wrong. The first step is simply paying attention to how food makes you feel.

More Food Rules to come. Thanks for your attention

Best explorations,

-Ryan; 5/2/2020

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A Shortcoming of Science

As an engineer and future medical student I have no love lost for science. It is a beautiful machine that churns out rules of reality and forms a formidable scaffolding for our futures. It is the vehicle we use to get from the ordinary present to the unimaginable future. However, every tool has its strengths and weaknesses. So as any good strategist would, I wanted to contemplate a possible shortcoming of the tool I have chosen to dedicate the majority my life to. And if you have read any of my other posts, you will not be surprised at the metaphysical turn this took.

In science, only what is measured exists. What if, at our current resolution, the sand still falls through the sieve? To believe that we understand fundamental cause and effect is arrogant and dangerous. And our understanding of probability is probably well overstated. It is completely obvious that forces operate and influence outside of our perceptions. To think that we are seeing the full picture is no more than the bliss of ignorance. 

In the realm of united duality, all exists as one. The essence of everything. Perception and consciousness undoubtedly exist downstream of the bifurcation of the ultimate cause (a priori). Science lives in our beautifully constructed consciousness. It weighs, measures, and identifies the patterns that are tangible. But in this dualistic universe, we must acknowledge its opposite, the unconscious void. At best science is mastering half of the causal phenomena, at worst, it only perceives the air bathed cap of the glacier.  

Science demands boundaries and categories. Do we lose the big picture when we focus on boundaries? 

Beautifully confined by consciousness.

Thanks for reading. Think outside of your box.

Best explorations

-Ryan; 4/14/20

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God Value and Opposites

To maintaining tension between the ego and the unconscious. The ego acts as the necessary anchor, but the unconscious is the portal to the idea of God. The extreme acceptance and submission to the inadequacy of your own perspective and the admission of its equality with that of the other. This is empathy, conscientiousness, and the thing that should take the god value. 

For those unfamiliar with the term God Value, it is simply that which we value most. In order to act in the world we have to establish a hierarchy of values. Although much of the ordering may occur unconsciously, this hierarchy must exist in order to maneuver in such a complex world. The God Value is simply the value that rests at the top of your personal hierarchy.

What is your God Value?

Best explorations

-Ryan

8; 4/10/2020

Consciousness Seeking Itself

How about a fun thought experiment:

What if consciousness is the a priori? The thing that was originally divided from The One to two. What if the underlying force of reality is consciousness seeking to know itself? Seeking to understand The One is quite the task, and you quickly find yourself coming into contact with the infinite or infinite possibilities. But let’s assume this is possible, and in fact consciousness is seeking to understand itself, trying on all finite incarnations along the way.

If this were true, a beautiful fundamental strategy would be mimicry with potential for slight variation. To make this concrete, think about DNA. The blueprint of life copies itself incredibly faithfully… most of the time (mimicry with slight variation). The faithful copying, or mimicry, is required for stability and some sort of harmony between different parts of the system. This harmony is apparent from the level of biochemistry (DNA having specific pair bonding requirements) all the way up through complex ecosystems where the interplay between organisms is nothing short of a symphony. The mimicry is also seen throughout our human world. The archetypal myth is a story begging for mimicry in all cultures, and most of us have role models we try to emulate. But of all the examples of mimicry we can conjure as humans, none beat the masterpiece of Nature.

If one wants to know oneself, mimicry with slight variation seems like a solid approach.

Best explorations

-Ryan

7; 4/9/2020