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Out of our heads

Most of us grew up believing that there is something within us, other than our brain, that makes us who we are- a mind/ a soul or just something not the brain. And for most of us, that belief has religious and cultural grounds. We believe that we perceive, think, act- are conscious because this mysterious force inside of us. But science has always failed to support this theory of “the force”. Science taught us how the neurons & brain cells are responsible for what we do. In this world of scientific observations & calculations, there are some psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists who support the theory – We are not our brains, by carefully analyzing biological observations. Alva Noe, in this book “Out of  heads”, explains that “the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us- we need to look at a larger system of which the brain is only one element”. That’s his mantra.


Alva Noe has based his philosophy of consciousness defining consciousness as an experience. He goes on to explain how the environment is a crucial part of our lives; how the scope of our own being is beyond our bodies- our senses are extended beyond the limits of our bodies. Noe’s main point is that, unlike popular belief of scientists, our brain is not a vat system with the rest of the body present just to support it. He goes on to prove how our brains are nothing without the environment they are brought up & living in.


I am one of those persons who have a belief in ‘the force’ within us, but have been trying hard to fit my belief with science. So, reading a theory, which, although doesn’t acknowledge my belief, talks about our non-brain-centered selves with a biological viewpoint was quite refreshing. For most part, I think the text is quite repetitive as if to hammer it in our brains that the environment is responsible for who we are. But there is one observation/theory that struck my mind- that the brain is seriously developed because of the environment. The experiment that shows this:- rewiring of ferrets’ eyes to the part of brain responsible for hearing doesn’t make the ferret hear because of visual signals but rather, see from the auditory part of brain! Many such observations prove that our brain isn’t born with parts having dedicated functions; rather, it is developed that way because of how we are placed in this body & in this world. Simple example being the brain of a newborn- having almost no sense of speech, perception, etc. But this brain gets ‘wired’ by being a part of the world around us. We begin to recognize faces, understand sounds, distinguish touch & smell, after we are introduced to them & constantly with them.

The book was a good read for the experiments that have been carried out in this field. (Reading about experiments on sensory substitution, I started thinking a lot on how the theory can be applied in assistive technologies!)  But I was expecting some theories about the human nature to think and act according to will. Why and how do we make the decisions we make. Although the author did make a passing comment on how the whole picture of our lives & surroundings, in present and past, is responsible for our being. This reminded me of what Stephen Hawking says in The Grand Design- to understand the future behaviour of an object, we need to have information about its present and its past states. It felt weird to think about how the past states of the billions of different cells in my body can be used to predict how I’ll act at a moment in the present.



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