Recently, the BBC aired the excellent documentary ‘The Secret You’ which explored the question of self-identity from the viewpoint of modern science. The presenter was Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at
, who started the show by asking, “What makes me ‘me’?” He then announced that he was going to be the subject in a series of weird & wonderful experiments “to explore something that appears so simple yet is almost impossible to explain.” Du Sautoy revealed that as an atheist he neither believes in gods nor souls, but that what has traditionally been called the soul in many religions is equal to the modern scientific & philosophical idea of consciousness, and that his purpose in the program was “the search for consciousness” For Buddhists too, this search is a worthwhile exercise, as we endeavor to explore & understand consciousness in the pursuit of enlightenment, albeit through somewhat different means to Professor du Sautoy. Oxford University
The first observation that du Sautoy makes regards the myriad physical sensations that he experiences on a moment to moment basis: “Without them, everything would disappear. Without them, I would disappear.” (An interesting point to note is that du Sautoy refers to his sense of self as “the ‘I’” throughout the show, which depersonalizes it, enabling a more dispassionate & objective approach than if he were to talk about ‘my self’ or ‘me’.) To explore this idea of a sensation-constructed world and the ‘I’, he visits the
to observe the Mirror Self-Recognition Test, originally devised by Professor Gallup, who he meets a little later in the program. University of Portsmouth
, the Test involved preschool children looking at a large mirror containing their reflection; a spot was placed on their cheeks and then it was recorded as to whether or not they touched their own face in response to seeing the spot on their mirror image. If they did not, this indicated that they had yet to recognize the image as their own, whereas if they reached for the spot on their cheek, this revealed that they were able to identify with the face in the mirror. Most children recognize themselves in the mirror between the ages of eighteen to twenty months old, which is when they are considered to be ‘self-aware.’ Prior to this, they seem to experience their mirror image as another child, unaware that it was in fact their own face staring back at them. Portsmouth University
This experiment suggests that consciousness, or the quality of consciousness changes. It is not an unchanging, permanent ‘soul’, but rather the result of certain sensations and faculties interacting, the latter of which evolves into a mind that thinks of itself in terms of being a separate & unique personality. This coincides with the Buddhist understanding of self as something impermanent and forever changing. In the work of the British philosopher Douglas Harding, mirror experiments feature prominently (see ‘the
Headless Way’ website linked to on the right of this page). In one such exercise, the experimenter is encouraged to see that whereas his reflection in a mirror is a limited person with a unique face, when attention is inverted, no such features can be found. Harding taught that this reveals the ‘no-thing’ that we truly are, as opposed to the thing (person) that simply appears to be here.
The above Mirror-Self Recognition Test was devised by Professor Gordon Gallup Jr. to test whether animals had a similar sense of self-awareness as humans. In research that he conducted, only chimpanzees & orangutans past the test, suggesting that such awareness is very rare in the animal kingdom. Interestingly, this ability to recognize themselves in the mirror is lost by chimps when they enter the last ten to fifteen years of their life. This may be related to the following reflections spoken by Professor Gallup:
“The price you pay for being aware of your own existence is to confront the inevitability of your own individual demise. Death awareness is the price we pay for self-awareness.”
Perhaps chimpanzees lose this ability to imagine themselves and possibly their own mortality late on in life as a mechanism to soften the blow of knowing that they will soon come to an end. On the other hand, it may be a way of making them more selfless in the context of their troop later on in life, more willing to self-sacrifice than the younger chimps. This would mean that the younger, fitter members would have a better chance of survival, and thereby contribute more for longer periods to the well being of the group as a whole. Whatever the reason may be, this lack of a sense of self mainly occurs amongst older humans as an aberration, such as senility or mental illness; most of us carry this sense of self and its eventual demise with us till the day we die. Unless, of course, we can transcend it in some way, such as through the realization that it is a delusion in the first place, as in the experience of enlightenment as promoted in Buddhism. This issue will be briefly approached later in this article.
Next, du Sautoy visits Imperial College London, where he talks with Dr. Stephen Gentlemen, who dissects a human brain, showing the different areas and explaining that as far as science understands it, consciousness is “a group of defuse nerve cells that project up to a relay station called the thalamus, and that sends projections out to all of the areas of the cortex [the surface covering of the brain]…Consciousness seems to be about a constant activation of the cortex.” This emphasizes the physical nature of consciousness, or at least its relationship to the physical brain, challenging the dualistic notion that body is unconnected to the mind (or ‘soul’), a common idea in philosophy & religion.
“Modern science can keep a body going, but how do you actually tell whether the ‘I’ is still inside that body, and alive?”
In the above comment, Professor du Sautoy reveals the common assumption – by atheists as well as religious types, it seems – that there is something somewhat ‘ghostly’ inhabiting the body. He relates that his wife was once in a coma for a short time, and that while she was unconscious there was no evidence that she was still there, that who she was is inextricably linked to being conscious. Thankfully, his wife recovered fully from the coma. However, in contradiction to du Sautoy’s comments, it seems that consciousness is not so much in the brain as on the brain, a network of nerve cells lying on its surface. Those aspects of the mind that are called the subconscious or instinctual are apparently located deeper inside the brain, just as our experience of the subconscious and our instincts appear at a deeper level of the mind than the conscious sense of being the ‘I’ that exists its ‘surface’.
Dr. Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council researches the condition of people classified as being in a ‘behaviorally vegetative state.’ Patients are asked to visualize playing tennis while their brain activity is monitored; when areas in the pre-motor cortex part of the brain are activated during this procedure, this reveals that the person can respond to instructions, and that therefore they are conscious, despite being completely unresponsive outwardly. This has implications for the treatment of such people, for when they display the fact that they are conscious and able to respond mentally to instructions, it must not be assumed that they are immune to feeling pain, whether physical or emotional.
In deep meditation, we can also appear to be mentally absent & unresponsive to others, whilst perfectly alert within our meditative condition. We may hear outside noises but not react to them, settled into a blissfully peaceful state of mind. On other occasions, outer sense stimuli may be cut off completely as the mind goes deeper into itself exploring the recesses of itself. Whatever the level of meditation experienced, it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t say that it’s okay to mistreat meditators because they’re unresponsive to outer stimuli; similarly, those in vegetative states of mind deserve respect when being interacted with.
“My self [is] sitting in front of…me. But I have the illusion that I am three feet behind myself.”
In an interesting experiment in Sweden, du Sautoy dons the ‘Cyber Mind’ goggles that show him a camera view filmed directly behind him; this confuses his brain into thinking that ‘he’ is in fact sat several feet behind ‘himself’! Moreover, when another person wears the camera on his head, de Sautoy experiences himself as the other participant shaking du Sautoy’s own hand. In the program, the researcher Dr. Henrik [his surname is uncertain] explains that the brain is constantly trying to work out where it is, using all available data to answer this question. Du Sautoy notes that, “According to Henrik, my sense of a separate ‘I’ is an illusion created from my brain processing data from my senses.”
This relates to the age old question as to where consciousness resides. Is it inextricably linked to the body, presumably the brain, or is it something like an alien inhabiting the body but not connected to it? Throughout history, many accounts exist of people’s consciousnesses or ‘souls’ leaving the body and looking down at it, or/and traveling off to some other realm to engage in experiences that have nothing to do with the physical body. Are there hallucinations, dreams, or fantasies? Or perhaps there’s more to consciousness than we have (scientifically) yet to confirm. Of course, the view that the ‘I’ is an illusion created by the convergence of many different elements is noting new to Buddhists; that the sense of ‘me’ as a separate, permanent being is an illusion to be transcended has lead at the heart of Buddhism for millennia.
After this, du Sautoy is seen talking to Professor Christof Koch from the California Institute of Technology, who investigates the nature and relationships of the neurons in the brain. Professor Koch mentions experiments where it is revealed that individual neurons respond to particular pieces of information, explaining to some extent how memory works and how we recognize people and things. So, for example, in his research one patient had a specific neuron that ‘lit up’ every time a photograph of the American actress Jennifer Aniston was shown, whilst another patient’s individual neuron responded not only to a photograph of the actress Halle Berry, but also to her printed written name. Professor Koch calls these neurons ‘concept neurons’, stating that whilst each individual neuron is not aware, conscious emerges from a group of neurons interacting in response to a particular stimulus.
So, even specific memories can be located within the brain, revealing how each thought is dependent upon connections between different neurons in the brain, and that, therefore, if these connections are broken, we cannot remember something. So, when we feel bad about forgetting someone’s name – something that happens to me quite a lot – we might say, “It’s not me, it’s my neurons.” Whether this would excuse one in the eyes of the other is questionable, of course! This interdependency of thought is another aspect of modern scientific research that Buddhists have subjectively experienced for many centuries whilst meditating; that science and Buddhism are converging in their respective understandings of how the mind works is surely a future point of exploration for both scientists and Buddhists.
The next experiment for du Sautoy involved going to sleep with electrodes attached his head, charging the brain with small amounts of electricity to see how it responded. This was conducted under the direction of Professor Marcello Massimi of the
University of Wisconsin and the . This treatment was called Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS for short), and revealed that when awake (and conscious) the human brain reacts to a single point of electrical stimulation in a network of responses, whereas when asleep, localized activity only occurs in the vicinity of the stimulation. Professor Massimi stated that, “Consciousness is about the fact that our brain is a network talking to each other: connections. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” After encountering Professor Massimi, du Sautoy remarks: University of Milan
“Am ‘I’ conscious, or are my neurons conscious? And, is there a difference?”
Again, we return to the theme that the conscious mind is a conglomerate of different mental processes coming together to construct the sense of self. Without these parts, there is no individual being to be called ‘I’. The Buddhist teaching of anatta (not self) seems to be corroborated by modern scientific understandings of how the brain works. The component parts of the brain that go up to make the ‘I’ are not, in themselves, individual persons, but elements in what becomes the sense of self. To experience the ‘I’ is to experience the result of all these converging processes; this ‘I’ is a kind of delusion formed from its myriad elements. It is this delusion of being a self that is to be transcended if we wish to experience what Buddhism deems the-way-things-are (the Dharma.)
After this, du Sautoy visits the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience, and takes part in an experiment where the brain is studied as the participant makes decisions to press one or other of two buttons. A brain scanner showed that du Sautoy’s brain accurately indicated which button he would press a full six seconds prior to he consciously knew which way he’s react himself and actually pressed the button. Professor John-Dylan Haynes who conducted the experiment remarked that our conscious decisions are shaped by a lot of unconscious brain activity that precedes it:
“The conscious mind is encoded in brain activity; it’s realized by brain activity. It is an aspect of your brain activity. Also, the unconscious brain activity realizes certain aspects of you. It’s in harmony with your beliefs and desires…Your consciousness is your brain activity, and that’s what’s leading your life.”
Du Sautoy is visibly shaken by this latest piece of information on how his brain works, for it reveals the experience of a conscious decision-making self into question, suggesting that rather than being individuals capable of free will, we are mental and physical processes that combine to produce consciousness and conscious ‘decisions.’ This echoes the ancient Buddhist teaching that states that everything in life is conditioned from previous occurrences, whether physical or psychological in nature. This teaching is commonly known as karma, literally ‘action’ in English, and revolves around the idea that whatever we do has consequences, and that whatever is occurring at the present moment is (at least partially) conditioned by previous actions. All this has much suffering intrinsically connected to it, and this negative side of life is unavoidable whilst we live under the delusion that we are separate selves. The goal in Buddhism, therefore, is to realize that which is unconditioned and rest in Nirvana. Du Suatoy, whilst not achieving the wisdom of enlightenment, has at least developed considerable understanding regarding the nature of the ‘I’. He concludes by saying:
“It [consciousness] is just the threshold, the final stage in a whole complex of brain activity. I’m unaware of most of it, but the tiny portion I feel…well, that’s ‘me’.”