[Advaita-l] The emerging brain

Venkat Shrinivas vsh at verizon.net
Sat Mar 20 22:57:10 CST 2004

Here is a part of speech by Professor V.S. Ramachandran on the current
scientific efforts to understand "the self" - which some Advaitians might
find interesting. You can find the full lectures at:

Venkat Shrinivas.

The question is how does the flux of ions in little bits of jelly in my
brain give rise to the redness of red, the flavour of marmite or mattar
paneer, or wine. Matter and mind seem so utterly unlike each other. Well one
way out of this dilemma is to think of them really as two different ways of
describing the world, each of which is complete in itself. Just as we can
describe light as made up of particles or waves - and there's no point in
asking which is correct, because they're both correct and yet utterly unlike
each other. And the same may be true of mental events and physical events in
the brain.

But what about the self? The last remaining great mystery in science, it's
something that everybody's interested in - and especially if you're from
India, like me. Now obviously self and qualia are two sides of the same
coin. You can't have free-floating sensations or qualia with no-one to
experience it and you can't have a self completely devoid of sensory
experiences, memories or emotions. For example as we saw in Cotard's
syndrome, sensations and perceptions lose all their significance and meaning
- and this leads to a dissolution of self.

What exactly do people mean when they speak of the self? Its defining
characteristics are fourfold. First of all, continuity. You've a sense of
time, a sense of past, a sense of future. There seems to be a thread running
through your personality, through your mind. Second, closely related is the
idea of unity or coherence of self. In spite of the diversity of sensory
experiences, memories, beliefs and thoughts, you experience yourself as one
person, as a unity. 

So there's continuity, there's unity. And then there's the sense of
embodiment or ownership - yourself as anchored to your body. And fourth is a
sense of agency, what we call free will, your sense of being in charge of
your own destiny. I moved my finger.

Now as we've seen in my lectures so far, these different aspects of self can
be differentially disturbed in brain disease, which leads me to believe that
the self really isn't one thing, but many. Just like love or happiness, we
have one word but it's actually lumping together many different phenomena.
For example, if I stimulate your right parietal cortex with an electrode
(you're conscious and awake) you will momentarily feel that you are floating
near the ceiling watching your own body down below. You have an
out-of-the-body experience. The embodiment of self is abandoned. One of the
axiomatic foundations of your Self is temporarily abandoned. And this is
true of each of those aspects of self I was talking about. They can be
selectively affected in brain disease.

Keeping this in mind, I see three ways in which the problem of self might be
tackled by neuroscience. First, maybe the problem of self is a
straightforward empirical problem. Maybe there is a single, very elegant,
Pythagorean Aha! solution to the problem, just like DNA base-pairing was a
solution to the riddle of heredity. I think this is unlikely, but I could be

Second, given my earlier remarks about the self, the notion of the self as
being defined by a set of attributes - embodiment, agency, unity, continuity
- maybe we will succeed in explaining each of these attributes individually
in terms of what's going on in the brain. Then the problem of what is the
self will vanish or recede into the background.

Third, maybe the solution to the problem of the self won't be a
straightforward empirical one. It may instead require a radical shift in
perspective, the sort of thing that Einstein did when he rejected the
assumption that things can move at arbitrarily high velocities. When we
finally achieve such a shift in perspective, we may be in for a big surprise
and find that the answer was staring at us all along. I don't want to sound
like a New Age guru, but there are curious parallels between this idea and
the Hindu philosophical view that there is no essential difference between
self and others or that the self is an illusion.

Now I have no clue what the solution to the problem of self is, what the
shift in perspective might be. If I did I would dash off a paper to Nature
today, and overnight I'd be the most famous scientist alive.

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