Sunday, April 09, 2006


When someone you know dies, we naturally think about death in relation to us and those we care about. It is a selfish and entirely self-motivated exercise. We, superfically place ourselves in the mindset of the person who lost their loved one so we can try and empathize. It might be the only way we can relate to someone who has to endure a loss. Recently, my dad's best friend's wife died of cancer. She was strong woman who fought off breast cancer, then brain tumor but couldn't fight off lung cancer which finally beat her this past friday morning.

Her son was one of my best friends as a kid. His father and my father went to college together and were best friends, they got married a day apart. They went to their honeymoon together with their wives. His son is a month older than me and we grew up together. The first thing that popped into my mind when I heard was the typical "I can't imagine what they are going through". That was followed by how would I feel if I was in his position but even that thought was superfical because I didn't wanna follow through with that thought because how can it feel to never see the person who brought you into this world and protected you from the world before you could even control your limbs. The person who no matter what you do will never turn their back on you and from whom you can always receive comfort and love. She would sacrifice her life and everything else just to make sure you are happy and safe.

I'm not sure what he can be going through and it made me think more about how much we take for granted our parents and at some level assume their immortality in our lives. The amount of stress and pain they've endured for us, is something amazing. Our parents came from India into a world they didn't know and found a way to give us a stable life and happiness. We can't fully understand the mental turmoil that they endured because we didn't come from a entirely different culture and have to assimilate into an unknown world. The sacrifices they made will will never really know but we take for granted. I think more and more I'm understanding why the mother is considered the most important individual in anyone's life. Our understanding of God comes from our understanding of our mother. She is unconditional in her love for her child, sadly most of us recognize that and we take advantage of it. We do things we know will hurt our parents and we do them anyway because we know for the most part they will always be with us. They are the only thing in our lives that give us that unconditional love and when they are gone...then what? I called my friend and said whatever I could given that you don't know what to say to someone who has just lost the person for whom they were the entire world. To never see, touch, smell, hear or feel again.....except in memory and even that fades. I could add some wisdom but I'm not sure there is anything to say outside of a rationalization in our own minds but I think the emotions that one can feel if you place yourself in those shoes are more than enough.....

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Consciousness: The Final Frontier (Part 2)

Continuing from the previous post let me give a few more interesting facts about consciousness and the brain. Ramachandran describes in his book patients whose had Capgras Syndrome, which in which the connection to the fusiform gyros (the part of the brain that deals with our facial recognition) was damaged. This patient, whose memory was intact and was able to perceive and recognize faces, would think that his mother was not his mother whenever he saw her. He thought that she was someone else who had come to deceive him because whenever he saw her he did not have the emotions he normally does upon seeing his mother. So this poses another problem for us, is the emotional factor something that is integral to the definition and understanding of consciousness? Is it an epiphenomena or necessary element?

Another interesting syndrome is synesthesia, which is when the individual's brain has some cross wiring and they experience different things than we do for normal stimuli. To clarify further, when we listen to music we hear it but those with the above condition will see a color. Another example of this is mixing up pain and pleasure, if you hit someone and cause pain, they will laugh. Again this shows that our perceptions and how we understand the world is entirely under the dominion of our brains/mind.

Clearly emotion is connected to the mind but the question is how? It is a function of the brain, probably due to our evolutionary past, fear probably being the most base emotion from which all emotions may spring from. Anger is correlated with the activation of various cortizols and adrenaline in the body and the recirculation of blood flow to prepare for fighting. Fear does the same but to flee. Happiness is correlated with activation and emission of endorphins and other neurochemicals. Recent studies also show that genes might play a vital role on happiness. The brain controls all these functions of emotions, in an unconscious way.

Ok, well now lets try and address the questions I came upon above. First, from the above I think it appears that consciousness is the property of the mind/brain. The examples given above show that what we normally term to be key arguments for the existence of soul such as laughter, emotion, perception and so on are all dependent on the brain. If a few things in the brain are damaged or meddled with we will have a vastly different experience than we do now. Emotions can be "removed", our perceptions can become contradictory (seeing colors when we hear notes, laughing when being hurt), experiencing God and so on. Doesn't this all destroy the notion of soul?

Well, now we get into the realm of philosophy because it does destroy a few conceptions of the soul but not all. If the soul is linked with emotions, perceptions, memories individual identity and such then it strongly calls into question if such a soul really exists. Descartes notion of mind/body distinction is rendered untenable because the evidence shows that a mind/body distinction doesn't really exist. Our minds exist entirely dependent on our brains, and for the most part are the same thing (unless one day we can "download" our minds into computers and other things/beings but that is the realm of science fiction for now). Are we infact machines and only machines as Dawkins and Dennent contend (super simplification of their very powerful and intricate arguments)?

I'm not so sure. Now is the time as in all my posts that I bring forth some ancient Indian wisdom and philosophy, I mean after all India did invent everything :). Vedanta, end of all vedas or knowledge (VEDA = knowledge and Anta = End) delves into determining what is the soul and what is consciousness, it is not scientific but rather speculative and logical. Shankara in his great Vedanta Sutra Bhasya (commentary on the aphorisms of Vedanta) delves into the discussion of what is the soul. He and other Indian thinkers came to the base concept that the soul is the I, not the Individual Identity but the notion of I, first person experience. Similarly consciousness is the "I"ness, the very act or ability to know or experience. Emotions, Identity (Individual), memories and such are all products of the mind. The mind is distinct from the soul. The Samkhya system of Indian philosophy postulates 8 senses: sight, scent, touch, taste, hearing, intellect, mind and Ego. The Ego is ones personality and individual identity, this is understood by Hindu thinkers to be connected to the body. The Individual Identity or Self is an illusion, has no real existence. Shankara also takes it one step further and says that even the notion of first person experience is an illusion and all there is pure consciousness, this is where many Hindu schools of philosophy differ. But that is another topic.

Similarly, Hindu thought also places free will into the realm of illusion because in truth there is no action. I'll avoid the theological explanations and stick to the philosophical view (although they do go hand in hand). The notion is that we are not really acting because we are really instruments of Being and are also free intrinsically of "bondage" only we don't know it cause we are deluded by the world of illusion we live in. Illusion in this sense is not a ontological illusion (meaning its not inherent in the universe itself) but its a psychological illusion. The I thinks its acting because it experiences the universe in relation and through the brain and body, as such it mistakes the body and brains action for its own. Furthermore, the "I" sees itself as separate from all things and independent of all things when it is caught in state of interdependence (theologically it is also considered dependent on the Supreme Spirit). The idea is that true nature of existence is the "I" or consciousness both as a quality and substance. The I experiences the world through the body and brain but is not touched by it. Its difficult to grasp so I'll try with another example much like the water exists in the world but condition by the form (solid, liquid and gas) yet remains untouched and water still, so does the soul or "I" exist in bodies and brains yet remain untouched. Hopefully that offers some thought and insight or brings more questions, which is great. Any comments are appreciated.

Consciousness: The Final Frontier (Part 1)

Its been a few weeks, well, actually a month since I've last wrote but in the interm I have been doing some reading and thinking. More reading than thinking because my cognitive process is pretty sporadic and short lived. In the last few weeks, I've been reading a lot about biology. Specifically, evolution and neuroscience. First off, my disclaimer I am not a scientist nor an individual who does research or possesses any technical knowledge about these areas. I am merely someone who reads as much as possible about these issues and thinks about them. One of the issues I've been reading about a lot and thinking about is consciousness.

For many years the study of consciousness has been lacking and ignored by the scientific community but in the past couple decades it has come to the forefront. It has been heralded by many scientists as the next great revolution in scientific thinking and progress, the first four being Copernacian, Darwinian, Freudian and Einsteinian/Bohrian (my own addition). I am going to try and be methodical and structured about my thoughts on this subject. So bear with me.Consciousness refers to the quality of the mind to perceive and possess subjective experiences such as thought (in general), emotions, language, awareness and self-awareness. Before we delve into consciousness, I think a basic discussion of the mind is needed.

Most of modern thought and even more adamantly western religion has believed in the dichotomy of mind and body. The mind is fundamentally different from the body and vice versa. This was most staunchly defended and argued by Rene DesCartes . This is called the Cartesian Dualism or the Mind-Body Distinction. His argument is rather intricate and delves into res cognitans and res extensia so I'll avoid that. In brief he argues that just as the body has its root in all things extension (material) so does the mind have its root in all things thinking (mind stuff) which is another name for the soul. They are connected through the pineal gland in the brain or so goes his theory. He even goes further and disavows perception and only admits deduction as how to know a thing. In otherwords, he (the thinking thing) is all that can be affirmed, his longer argument for why he can accept his perceptions involves his view of God and will not be needed here.I only used Descartes to show the philosophical basis for having mind as the object of consideration. Descartes and even most western thinkers place the mind and the soul as synonmous. It is the soul that thinks and the soul that acts and the soul that does all. This is a concept we will return to later.

Now, modern science agrees that the locus of study for consciousness should be the mind and the basis of the mind is the brain. Yep, all 3 pounds of an average human brain is the basis of the mind. Science is and should be about what can be observed, tested and explained. With that foundation, neuroscience attempts and has been providing evidence and data that our minds are nothing more than the bundle of synaptic exchanges in our brains. For example, a study by Ben Libet shows that 500-600 milliseconds before you "decide" to move, the unconscious part of your brain has already begun the action of moving. In otherwords, your thought of moving comes after beginning the movement. So what of free will? I'll come back to that later.

In the book Phantoms of the Mind, Dr. VS Ramachandran of UCSD presents evidence of various experiments that he has conducted in regards to the question of consciousness. He and other researchers have shown that feelings of devotion and spiritual sensations can be stimulated in people by sending electrical impulses through the patient's temporal lobes, they call this the God module. This God Module can either be used to support or contest God. Religious supporters say that its how God makes himself known to us while detractors say it is nature's way to make people more subservient and clan oriented. Another thing is that when parts of the brain which control our spatial perceptions (for us to interact in this 4-D world the brain has to be able to "read" all the spatial-temporal information and create in our minds what we see) are probed or affected, the patients experience of the world expands and the patient has feelings of oneness with the universe and being everywhere at once. This is the basic science stuff in the next post I'll try and deal with issues that all of this brought forth.