Gobsmacked by Consciousness

I’ve been reading a lot of books on neurobiology lately, research for a workshop that ultimately doesn’t have all that much to do with neurobiology. Even though I won’t use it for the workshop, the research doesn’t seem like a waste to me–I’m so endlessly curious that entanglement in thickets of information is always time well spent for me.

One of the results of the reading is that I’m gobsmacked by consciousness. It’s one of those things you can’t really remember not experiencing, so it’s always there. You take it for granted. But no one knows what it is or why it happens… The thing that really astonishes me is that I can share my conscious experiences with someone whose had completely different conscious experiences, and we can both believe there’s overlap between those experiences. There might not be any overlap, but we can still function as if there is. That’s really amazing, if you think about it.

The other thing I’m having a hard, yet deeply interesting, time wrapping my head around is that consciousness is not continuous. It’s much more like watching a movie: a series of still pictures that the brain turns into a continuous stream. How do we do that? Why do we do that? There isn’t a consciousness center in the brain; it’s a much more complex and elusive process than that. And some of what it does is counter-intuitive sleight-of-hand–I have a vague and muddled recollection that we act and then the part of the brain that would be involved in deciding to act lights up. So first the act, then the decision to act, and the brain cons us into thinking the decision is followed by the act–“Never mind the man behind the curtain, look at the shiny rings!” (I’m probably completely garbling the details, but I am sure that it was as peculiar and inside out as what I’ve described…)

If you want to read some of the books I’ve read and really enjoyed (and been startled by), I can particularly recommend Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind and Shannon Moffett’s The Three-Pound Enigma. Both books are lively, interesting, well-written and informative; both changed the way I look at my own little noodle. Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens was fascinating, even if a little dry and even if a good portion of it went sailing over my head.

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