The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Mind

You Just Think You Are

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We’re big fans of Daniel C Dennett here at the S I. This magnificently bearded Tufts philosopher has spent much of his career trying to solve the ancient puzzle of what the mind is, and how it relates to the brain. His slogan: “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made up of lots of tiny robots.”

How is it, he asks in his book Consciousness Explained, that a collection of unthinking nerve cells can somehow go to make up a thinking, feeling being? No single brain cell knows or cares who you are. So how can the ensemble be different? What is the magic step that turns robotic components into a human whole? To try to make sense of this emergence of the self, he introduces the idea of the centre of narrative gravity.

In physics, gravity is potentially a tricky business. Consider a football. Drop a football, and any physicist will tell you it will fall. How do they know this?

It is theoretically possible to go back to first principles: calculate the gravitational attraction between all atoms in the ball and on Earth, work out the details of their interactions, then, millisecond by millisecond, determine that every atom in the ball will ultimately move downwards. But of course this is not what they do. There is a much easier way: give the football a centre of gravity. This is a single, imaginary point that stands for the whole ball. It averages out the incredible complexity of the atoms in the ball, and allows physicists to treat it as a unified entity.

Note that the centre of gravity is fictitious. Although it is located at the centre of the ball, it is not associated with an atom at the centre, or indeed any one atom. A football’s centre of gravity exists only in the minds of people who study footballs.

In the brain, Dennett argues, we have something similar. There are billions of brain cells, all firing all the time, each one telling its own story. Every time a cell fires, a set of conditions is reported – information about what a retinal cell is saying, or what the balance organs of the inner ear are saying, or what other brain cells are saying to each other. To run an efficient organism, these narratives have to be made sense of – and quickly, before the sabre-toothed tiger mentioned by one brain cell has a chance to eat you. The neurons can’t be addressed individually. Wouldn’t it be better to treat them as one thing? This is where the self comes in.

Who are you? You are your brain’s centre of narrative gravity: you are the point in space around which the experiences reported by your brain cells cluster. You, unified, singular you, are a fiction generated by your brain, as flag to rally defences around.

It is your brain cells, working together, that are reading these words right now. You, the person, are not. You just think you are.

Written by The S I

July 14, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Posted in Science

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