Monday, March 17, 2014

Who You Are is an Interactive Process (Big Think)

For years, I have argued both here and elsewhere that our notions of self, identity, and consciousness are misguided. We typically think of them as nouns, as objects we can study and measure. I believe, however, based on my experience as a Buddhist and as a student of neuroscience, that who we are is not a noun, not an object.

From the Buddhist Abhidharma:
Here (in the the Dhammasangani), the human mind, so evanescent and elusive, has for the first time been subjected to a comprehensive, thorough and unprejudiced scrutiny, which definitely disposes of the notion that any kind of static unity or underlying substance can be traced in mind.
Here is more on the Abhidharma from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The mature Abhidharma thus assimilates the analysis of phenomena-in-time-as-constituted-by-consciousness with a highly complex description of the consciousness process, dissolving the causal relations between ordered successions of consciousness moments into the activity of perception.
We are verbs, we are process. It's slightly humorous that it has taken the West almost 2,500 years to catch up with these ancient ideas, but even now this is still a fringe perspective in the neuroscience community.

Last year Virginia Hughes' Only Human blog covered a couple of then-new research findings about consciousness, and concludes that "consciousness, too, is a process — a very slippery one."

Allan Combs has written about Consciousness as a Self-Organizing Process (An Ecological Perspective). In that paper, he offers this definition of consciousness, which is one of the best I have seen anywhere:
Consciousness is perhaps best understood from an ecological perspective in which the ongoing events that structure it are seen as a rich interacting complex of informing cognitive, perceptual, and emotional information subsystems analogous to the interactive energy driven metabolism of a living cell. The result is an organic, self-generating, or autopoietic, system constantly in the act of creating itself.
YES! Consciousness is constantly in the act of creating itself. But we are not aware of this process happening unless we have spent some considerable time in meditation watching the mind. So why is this? Again, Combs:
Informal introspection reveals the overall fabric of conscious experience at each moment to be constructed of a variety of undergirding psychological processes such as memory, perception, and emotion (e.g., James 1890/1981; Combs, 1993b; Combs, 1995b). This idea is consistent with Tart's (1975, 1985) view that states of consciousness, including dream and non-dream sleep, various drug-induced and ecstatic states, as well as ordinary waking consciousness, are formed of unique patterns of psychological functions, or processes, that fit comfortably together to make something like a gestalt. We may suspect that this comfortable gestalt represents an energy minimum from the brain's point of view.
Anyway, all of this is simply food for thought - as is the article below.

Perhaps if we did not see our self as fixed and unchanging, we might more easily change the dysfunctional patterns that disrupt our lives.

Who You Are is an Interactive Process

by David Shenk
December 23, 2013

We study savants - you know, Rainman and people like that - and we think there’s obviously evidence of innate gifts because these guys are obviously born with different sorts of brains. They’re born with these gifts that enable them to remember every calendar date going back to the year 1200 or whatever.

When you actually look at what is going on yes, these people are born with birth defects if that is what you want to call them. Their brains are certainly wired differently. There is no question about that, but it turns out that the actual skills that they acquire then come after that and that we can actually manipulate our own brains.

The word is plasticity. Everyone has heard the term plasticity. There is a difference in quantity between what these savants are born with and what we can do with our own brains. There isn’t really a qualitative difference. We can alter our own brains but we don’t actually develop the skills to do what the guy in Rainman did or these other amazing savants do. Those differences are already in place. It’s the process of developing these skills, not just being born with the skill or the gift.

I'm trying to help people understand that the old notion of innate, the old notion of giftedness, the notion that we are born with a certain quantity of intelligence or a quantity of talent really isn’t there. We’re all born with differences, no question about that. We have genetic differences, but how those genetic differences actually lead to differences in traits - that’s a dynamic process that we are all very much involved with on the family level, as parents, as kids ourselves, culturally, in terms of nutrition and the environment. Everything we do and everything we are is an ongoing interactive process, which affects how those genes are then subsequently going to be turned into the traits that work for us and against us.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

by David Shenk
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