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You are not your brain. Or are you?

The brain. Everybody wants to understand it, but nobody really does. Nevertheless, we don’t stop trying- we want our brain to work for us, not against us and we want to find ways to feel like we are not prisoners of our own thoughts. Alva Noë, a philosophy professor at UC Berkeley, attempts to explain a little bit more about the brain and challenges previous brain-centric ideas of consciousness that lead us nowhere.

As a counterpoint to those ideas, he establishes a new hypothesis in his book Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness”. He plots that consciousness is not something that happens in the confines of our brain, it actually happens outside of us. More specifically, the brain, the body and the environment all interact together to allow consciousness to form. We make and do our own consciousness- it doesn’t happen to us.

This book is an absolute game changer for the study of consciousness and even for the way we think about ourselves and our experiences. If we can make our own consciousness, it’s harder to blame circumstances on external factors and it is harder to walk away from responsibility of your actions.

So, what do you think? You are, therefore you think? Or you think, therefore you are? And if you are, therefore you think- how much power do you have over what you think and your experiences? Can you train yourself to think better?  Are there people that think worse than other people? How do you create a better consciousness for yourself?


4 comments to You are not your brain. Or are you?

  • Erin Finnegan

    At the risk of being “that girl who always brings up Radiolab,” here are my top five Radiolab segments that made me think differently about the brain:

    1. This segment takes a fascinating look at the brains of compulsive liars.
    2. In this episode, a lady has a part of her brain removed which makes her lose sense of time and become a great ultra-marathon runner.
    3. A researcher in Australia develops a new sense for navigation thanks to local language constructs.
    4. In this episode about loops, a woman learns to control her chronic pain by imagining herself as a martyr burning at the stake.
    5. In this segment, deaf people who grew up without words try to recall what it was like without language.

    Setting all that aside for a moment, Patricia, what did you think of this book? It seems to have a lot of bad reviews on amazon, (but I suppose every book does…) Do you agree with the author? Did it challenge how your thoughts about the brain (so to speak)?

    As per your questions:

    > how much power do you have over what you think and your experiences? Can you train yourself to think better?

    I hope so! According to this article about brain scanning monks:

    People who meditate show more left-brain hemisphere dominance, according to meditation studies done at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Actually that wasn’t the article I was hoping to find about that study. Also it doesn’t really address Noë’s theory that the mind is somewhere else.

    I know some of the people in our class our into yoga, and I’ve only recently been practicing yoga myself. I suspect some principles behind yoga suggest that treating the whole body is as important as using the brain to focus, but I’m just speculating based on an interview I once heard with a yoga teacher…

  • John Capogna

    For some reason, this topic made me think of mushrooms. Or more specifically, mushroom networks. More specifically still, the the large fungal network that lives under parts of Oregon and Washington that is thousands of years old and thousands of acres wide. This is a single cell wall-thick network of mycelium and is thought of as the oldest and largest living species on the planet. Each node of this network intrinsically “knows” how things are going at any point along this network, not unlike like how you feel that your toes are cold when it’s cold out side.

    And then that reminded me of an Avatar-like society that functions around a tree and suffers when the tree does. Which made me think of Pocahontas and “I know every rock and tree and creature. Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”

    Then I was reminded of Dimethyltryptamine (or DMT) and how it occurs naturally in your brain as well as in plants and animals. This is thought of as the “spirit molecule” and is said to be released in large quantities right before the moment of your death, something that scientists suggest is an account for the hallucinations and “white light” you see before you die.

    There are biological, chemical and physiological implications that support the “connectedness” of organisms. We don’t know much about consciousness, but many organisms “think” in groups. There is a cloud for collected consciousness, like bees and their “hive minds.”

    Perhaps humans are behind the curve on this one.

  • yj569

    I’d like to join the discussion about brain consciousness. As a photographer, I rely on my eyes of seeing and exploring the world and trying to capture the decisive moments from human activities. However, I can’t help to questioning myself, is the moment I just captured real? Or it was actually an illusion from my brain, from my own-existence? For example, when we photograph/film someone do something, we do not just get the mechanics of their movement; we deduct things about them, about the situation and about ourselves in relation to them as we record. The many levels of attention paid to another person’s behavior take account of why and how another person does something. This process here is the process of interpretation. I feel it could be scary but at the meantime, extremely interesting.

    So, what makes it even possible to interpret other’s behavior? There is an essay from Vittorio Gallese “The ‘Shared Manifold’ Hypothesis ” provided some insightful thoughts. Gallese’s answer, and I would agree, is a shared or common experience of embodied action. “In order to understand the intended goal of an observed action, and to eventually re-enact it, a link must be established between the observed agent and the observer ” This link, Gallese proposes, is empathy, whose roots are actually in aesthetics—denoting “the relationship between an artwork and the observer, who imaginatively projects herself into the contemplated object.” By placing empathy, a term now usually employed in social interactions, child development, and social psychology, back into the aesthetic world of its origin, we can link the history of looking at art to the social practices of looking and interpretation. And I believe, through empathy, we have the ability to rewrite our own looking—even re-imagining a scene our attenuated looking cannot remember on its own. We can also narrate those that would otherwise be forgotten, and indeed, as Gallese states, “Empathy is deeply grounded in the experience of our lived-body, and it is this experience that enables us to directly recognize others not as bodies endowed with a mind but as persons like us.” ☺

  • Nancy

    Good start to a discussion. I’m not sure I get why this book is a game changer. There’s the brain and there’s the mind…neither well-understood and the line between them also blurry, getting blurrier. Is the brain among other things a platform for the mind.. that what you can perceive is somehow depended on the structure of the brain? I believe many researchers and philosophers have written about consciousness in ways that don’t seem so different from this. William James for one. Freud for another. You might also look at the Psychology of Consciousness by Robert Ornstein. The work of Ernest Higard…even Jaynes’ Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind.. which also has HUGE mistakes. But they all say essentially what you say this guy is saying…
    So tell me why it’s very different.