MIND: Identity rides this horse (3)

Inside and Underside

Inside of a person it’s too dark to read. — after Mark Twain

There is another realm of perception — that of internal (bodily) perception.  On our mind map  (Figure 1) internal perception (in purple) is a gateway connecting the conscious Ego Tunnel with bodily events in the unconscious realm.  Philosophers are interested in our internal events because they long believed that, compared to our perception of the outside world, internal perceptions are special and thus contribute to our gaining and retaining a sense of self.

mindmodelV02

Figure 1: Map of the Embedded Mind

There’s a paradox here.  Even if you were a “philosophical zombie” (behaving like a person but with no sense of self), you would still have a rich inner life because of all the bodily sensations that you have.  But what is special about them is that (to yourself) they are so clearly yours and yours alone.  Nobody else has the itch that you are currently feeling.  Nobody else feels that particular stomach grumble, heart beat, knee pain, nausea, or dizziness.  Nobody else can use your muscles to guide your finger to your nose with your eyes closed.

This knowledge is an instance of the philosophical notion that there are some first person things we cannot be wrong about.  The philosophers say that we can’t be wrong about who we refer to when we say “I believe”, “I am” or “I feel”.  We might be wrong about the truth of a belief itself (such as “Climate change is a Chinese hoax”), or be deluded about some quality that we think we have (”Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”)  But we can’t be wrong about the fact that we are talking about ourselves, that we believe a thing.  Philosophers call this principle “immunity to error through misidentification”.  That is a truly awkward phrasing.  Even they are glad to shorten it to “IEM”, because they like to talk about it a lot.

Some things that our body knows and deals with may never rise to consciousness: that we need more blood flow, more glycogen dumped from the liver, more digestive acids, and other stuff that just keeps the human animal running.  If you went to school in the twentieth century, this was called maintaining homeostasis, a steady state. The idea that life needed a steady state was, in a way, a reflection of the needs for stability that we had in that turbulent century.  Now in the twenty-first we are all about finding and pushing our limits. We only have some inkling of these unconscious processes if we are exceeding our operating specifications.  Such excess can happen, for example, because of disease or because of some cheerleading (”Go! Do something unusual or hard to prove how good you are.”) from the conscious mind.  So a big dessert after a plenty big meal might have you tasting excess stomach acid.  A marathon makes you feel, rightly, that all the glycogen is gone, and that your heart couldn’t possibly pump any faster.  We push beyond homeostasis, and automatic processes can rise to consciousness.

There are some other internal things that we just know, as the philosophers say, transparently, without thinking about them.  These include such things as the position of our limbs, whether we are tired or hungry, where we hurt.  These may pop into consciousness or not, depending on our current needs.  If they do, they are IEM, that is, we know they are happening to us and not someone else. We probably don’t start out life knowing this IEM stuff, because for a while it is hard for us to discriminate between what is true of ourselves and what is true of others, particularly our caregivers.  We presumably learn the difference ultimately by observing others, that their reactions to things are different from our own, which leads to us acquiring the above-mentioned theory of mind.  Theorists have noted that knowledge of others might very well contribute to the development of our own sense of self.

In the long run we get quite sophisticated about inferring (or knowing) things about our selves.  These things divide quite nicely, from a philosophical point of view, into agency and ownership.  Agency is the sense that you and you alone have caused something to happen, such as taking a walking step, or heartburn after over-eating.  Ownership is the belief that some attribute (like your having two legs) is, without a doubt, yours and yours alone. These aspects of self knowledge are not always IEM (immune to error about whether they refer to our self), but we tend to think they are because we are so familiar with other aspects, as explained above, that are IEM.  Philosophers currently love to talk about agency and ownership because (1) they are important to our sense of self or personal identity, and (2) the situations where we can get them wrong are ripe for arguments over what they mean.

What would be some examples of getting them wrong?  In terms of errors about agency, people with schizophrenia often say that someone else put a thought in their own mind, or that someone else caused them to believe or even do something. A more everyday occurrence is when those of us who are not psychotic still find a way to blame someone else for our actions.  Doubt about self agency can be more subtle, as when one says or thinks: “Did I just say that (awkward or regrettable utterance) out loud?”

The most commonly known example of error about ownership is the rubber hand illusion.  This illusion, even though it is really quite mind-blowing, can be produced by anyone; you don’t have to be an experimental psychologist.  The illusion pairs the stroking of a subject’s concealed hand with a view of a rubber hand being touched in the same way.  Eventually the subject will feel his own hand being touched when he sees the rubber hand being touched, even though his own hand is NO LONGER being touched.  In effect the subject takes the ownership of the rubber hand to be his own.  We could also say that some things that happen during hypnotism disconnect us from ownership, e.g., of a physical symptom, or an emotional connection to a traumatic memory.

I leave it to the reader to imagine ways in which drunkenness could mess up agency or ownership.  In general, though, agency and ownership tend to work pretty well nearly all the time. I can tell whether I moved my arm or whether the doctor did it while examining me.  So we know what’s us and what’s not.  Some argue that such knowledge is foundational, that without it you would not have the kind of sense of self that you take for granted.  Even the Buddhists, when speaking about[1] the illusory Self, note that one may identify with some mental events as “me” (= agency) or “mine” (= ownership).  What I want to emphasize here is that these everyday things we know about ourselves, and that give us the feeling that “this is me” generally are either directly retrieved from the unconscious or else built on top of knowledge from the unconscious.

Note that if you are not psychotic, drunk or brain-damaged (which is hopefully most of the time), the self knowledge described above is also, according to Quassim Cassam[2], “trivial” because it is so easy to come by.  Cassam notes that philosophers nearly always ignore the kind of self knowledge we really care about, “substantial self knowledge”: that is, a more or less accurate understanding of our own character, limitations and aspirations.  Such knowledge requires mental sophistication and use of information from other people.  We can be very deceived about this.  A person might not know that he is a narcissistic bastard, while others, perhaps many others, do know.   Nearly all of us choose to believe only feedback about our imagined good qualities, throwing anything else into a mental trash can.

Which brings us to the fact that some deficits in our substantial self knowledge are also traceable to the unconscious.  We often feel things or take actions that seem to come from nowhere, because unconscious parts of us suddenly seize control without yielding any awareness about why.  Some people give the Jungian name, the Shadow, to these part/parts of the mind responsible for perplexing bursts of temper or tears.  These parts may have been actively repressed earlier in life.

Another mode of unconscious expression, according to anthropologist Gregory Bateson[3], is our nonverbal communications.  He said that we express though body language and tone of voice things that are not really translatable into words.  While some nonverbals can be feigned by actors or other speech makers, they normally happen without a conscious decision or even awareness.  Thus some expressions of our personal style and feelings, which might otherwise give us self insight, can be obscured from us, and often are perceived only subliminally by others.

We are only hitting the highlights here, so it is time to talk about how things get to be conscious.

Fishing in the Unconscious Reservoir.

“Consciousness … does not appear to itself chopped up in bits.  It is nothing jointed; it flows.  A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.” — William James, 1890

William James’s metaphor of a conscious stream is meant to emphasize continuity, how one thing flows into another. He says that we have transitions from one focus of thought to another, but each transition partakes somehow of both the previous and following thought, the net result being absolute subjective continuity.  We noted before that with modern research tools we know that  there are tiny gaps that happen in perceiving and mental processing, but we aren’t aware of those in consciousness.  Therefore James is, once again, correct from his perspective of more than a hundred years ago.

Of course a real stream might have different currents going alongside one another.  Sticking with the stream metaphor, that would allow that we could have two or more thoughts running in parallel.  Can you think about more than one thing at a time?  Not at a conscious level.  You might do more than one thing at a time, but you are doing it by rapidly switching back and forth.  So our prized “multi-tasking” is just an illusion, and, research shows, is neither efficient nor harmless.  Trying to do chores and manage young children “at the same time” is incredibly wearing.  Trying to drive and mess with your phone is a major cause of “accidents.”

Now there’s a paradox here.  The brain has often been described as an enormous parallel processor.  And we know that it does fantastic numbers of things at once, like an octopus with a million arms.  But, consider that we have this commonsense concept about “paying attention”.  Attention is also a longstanding concept in psychology.  What both concepts mean is that at any given time the stream of consciousness has a single directed focus.  Our attention is on one thing at a time, such as: the appearance of the person in front of us, or what they are saying, or how what they are saying relates to what they said before, or how having to listen to them is annoying because we need to get a drink instead.  Note that in the first two examples attention is focused on the Ego Tunnel surface facing the external world.  In the other examples attention is focused on the internally facing surface, the border between consciousness and the unconscious.

“Attention” then is our everyday term for changes in the contents of our single stream of consciousness.   For a while I thought that we could blame the I* for changing attention, like it was some sort of channel changer remote control.  But that gives full control over consciousness to the part that we have described as pure awareness, i.e., an observer only.  Changes of attention are the same thing as changes to the contents of our conscious stream.  If we now sort out how those changes happen, then this long-winded “basic” overview of our simple mind map can come, mercifully, to a conclusion.

The stream of consciousness arises from five main mechanisms.

  • Unconscious mental processes have to take turns getting access to consciousness.
  • Subjectively we see this as shifting of our attention. Sometimes the shift seems volitional and sometimes it seems to be imposed upon us.
  • Memories come into consciousness, sometimes being pushed up from the unconscious and sometimes after a mental effort to find them.
  • We explore the future by imagining it.
  • We annotate our own perceptions and thoughts, adding or extracting meaning that also serves to help future extraction from memory.

So we only have a single stream of thought, more like a water pipe, really, but there’s a lot going on, both in the world around us and in the many parts of our society of mind.  How is it determined which things get into consciousness?  My 2 1/2 year old daughter once said to me, “Daddy, I know everything now.”  That would be us if we knew how consciousness keeps filled up. One natural model would be to suppose that thoughts and perceptions have to compete for access to the stream, based on some criteria.  It feels like a competition at some times (when driving, lost, in fast traffic in the rain with a baby crying in the back seat) more than others (reclining on white sand with a mild breeze and gentle waves rolling in).  But what kinds of mental events would compete?

First of all there are immediate, deliberate decisions.  Following our train of thought, we just naturally decide: to look at something, to listen for something, to say something, to recall a name or what someone said last time we saw them, to memorize a phone number, that it’s time to stop and look for birds, to take a selfie, to … OMG did I leave the water running?

I threw that last one in even though it feels different.  It might be an unconscious warning that somehow finally got access to consciousness.  It instead might be the result of thinking about what you have to do when you return home, which causes some kind of mental spark to jump from the idea of home to the memory of turning on the garden hose.  That spark is not necessarily intentional, but is a bit more than a happy accident, because you are a person who tries to avoid goof-ups.

The unconscious is a huge reservoir of stuff that sometimes becomes conscious. As Galen Strawson said, “The conscious/non-conscious border is both murky and porous.”  We symbolize this by double-headed arrow in our Map.  Some unconscious material emerges (from our conscious perspective) apparently spontaneously.  But it is probably the case that we have a large number of unconscious watchers, each with permission to interrupt consciousness when certain things happen.  This could be a long list, including internal and external perceptual events: sudden loss of balance;  the urge to sneeze; large object approaching fast; hearing your spouse’s voice; bell on the shop door rings. Basically our conscious bell gets rung because of unplanned events related to a whole spectrum of biological drives, emotions, motives and preplanned goals or intentions, all of which live in the unconscious part of the mind.

Other changes to the conscious stream are deliberate, activating dormant parts of the mind to do specific jobs.  You might need to do some arithmetic, or estimate your chances of getting away with something, or make a pizza crust, or type on a keyboard. These mental parts have been variously characterized.  For Minsky they were the utility parts of the society of mind.  Metzinger calls them “virtual organs of consciousness.“ The psychologist Robert Ornstein said they are “small minds” of different types, made up of major and minor abilities and biases.

All of your memory is unconscious until you actually recall something from it.  The act of trying to recall can provide a simple demonstration that conscious thinking is not necessarily done in words.  When you try to recall a name or other word you cannot say the word mentally because you don’t at that time know it.  But in some sense you know about it, as a hole or gap in your knowledge.

Suppose you have an intention of telling someone that the new English teacher’s given name is Myrtle.  You might want to ask Dan if he’s met Myrtle.  Mentally you start to formulate a sentence like, “Have you met <what is her name?> the new teacher?”  But you don’t even finish the plan for saying the sentence out loud because you can’t supply her name.  So you try to remember her name, a mental effort that doesn’t use words, but instead is sort of a mental reaching that is associated with thoughts about the missing name.  Maybe you think that the name had an “r” sound, or you can “see” (i.e., recall) her face, or you know where you first met her.  Your conscious mind is doing something like a search engine query, and it somehow knows when the right answer is recalled.  This is because other memories come along with it that confirm the episode in which you learned the name.

Very often we begin with recall of an episodic memory, and then we consciously wander through other memories, exploring the past.  The conscious stream can also be taken over by explorations of the future.  We start to imagine plans and fantasies: how the future might be shaped by actions or events.  We compare this future with the past or present.  Conscious wandering in the past and future is, we think, one of our big adaptive advantages compared to other animals.  But we need our unconscious watchdogs to also take care of the present.  Early humans who were too lost in thought also got “lost” to predation, or walked off a cliff.

There is another category of conscious activity that seems obvious to me, although I have not yet seen it described.  At times when we are experiencing or thinking, we seem to mentally annotate those experiences or thoughts.  We do this by thinking or feeling more deeply about those mental events, perhaps extracting meaningfulness or assigning importance, either of which might change how the “remembering self” has access.

It is probably obvious that any overview of the mind’s structure and function, and certainly this overview, has to be shallow, ruthlessly pruning away sometimes famous material.   For instance, if you were taught Freud or Jung back in the day, you might miss them here. Some important concepts didn’t make the cut yet, but will be developed later if they help with our theme of personal identity.


[1] Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Evan Thompson, 2015.

[2] Self Knowledge for Humans – Beginner’s Guide. Quassim Cassam.  http://www.self-knowledgeforhumans.com/beginners-guide.html

[3] Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Gregory Batesony. University of Chicago Press, 1972.

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