Only the POM A piece of my mind for the peace of yours

There are (still) only two things

Monday, July 10th, 2017

It's useful to have a purpose in mind when learning about any subject. Having a goal allows you to focus on the relevant information and can help you avoid getting bogged down in the minutia or technical data that isn't useful to you. I learned to write code, build a bike, rewire my house, etc. by having a reason for doing those things other than mere curiosity. I didn't learn any of this stuff as part of a structured course; which would've covered a lot of information I wouldn't need to know.

From a POM perspective, my interest in learning about the brain is to understand why I do the things I do and why other people act the way they do. For this goal, the brain is the obvious starting point, but what I'm trying to do does not require the same level of knowledge as that of a brain surgeon or evolutionary biologist. What I need from this is a model or general understanding that's easy to understand, is accurate, and is backed up by science.

Until now, my understanding of human behaviour has been profoundly brain centric and based on a dual-process theory model. Although I have previously acknowledged the endocrine system in my posts, I have tended to model and understand human behaviour exclusively using the different systems of the brain (automatic/controlled, old/new, fast/slow, System 1/System 2 etc.). As models go, this has worked extremely well for me.

Recently, however, I've been reading more about what scientists are calling "the second brain": the gut, or microbiome, home to 100 million neurons outside of the brain that exerts a profound influence on our behaviour. What has struck me most is that the process of digestion existed before brains evolved and is therefore not a secondary actor - as the name 'second brain' might suggest, but a primary influencer of behaviour.

Given my own struggles resisting cravings for junk food (albeit vegan junk food) despite knowing (in my brain) of the harmful effects, I can attest to the validity of the idea that actors outside of the brain have a profound influence on our behaviour. I've stood in the supermarket aisle looking at a tube of Pringles and consciously said to myself "I don't need this - walk away" while my arm takes on a life of its own and reaches out for the potato chips.

It seems obvious, now, that the entire nervous and endocrine systems with their neurotransmitters and hormones cannot be sidelined from the model I am using. Every cell or gland in the body that acts upon, or secretes hormones, or contains neurotransmitters, directly influences our behaviour regardless of what's happening locally within the brain and this counts as relevant information for our understanding of human (and animal) behaviour.

I am, however, reluctant to complicate my existing model with multiple new systems even if it improves the model's technical accuracy. After giving this problem a lot of thought, I have concluded that expanding the brain-centric model to cover the entire body, requires expanding the scopes of both the old System 1 and newer System 2.

My updated model still contains just two things. That is to say that, within the human body, there are two discernable systems.

The Conscious System (the 'I' function)

The Conscious System is a slightly expanded understanding of the old System 2 part of the dual-process model and shares its limitations.

This system initially evolved to handle language processing and every thought or idea you ever had, and the voice in your head, all happened in this area of the brain (within the neocortex). In fact, everything you have ever been aware of occurred here because self-awareness/consciousness is a byproduct of this system; although it wasn't always that way.

The primary role of this system is rooted in language and is (probably) to find the words the old brain (System 1) requires - i.e. to act as a living dictionary/thesaurus.

For example, the old brain, which is just one part of a wider nervous system, would hear the word 'elephant' and pass this sound to the early Conscious System (not yet conscious) to translate that sound into a picture of an elephant.

Another example: if you stub your toe, you might blurt out "f**king hell!" without consciously thinking to do so. So it's not just the pictures or sounds this system translates but also the feelings and emotions. Simply put: it translates into words (language) everything the old brain (System 1) throws at it.

In both of these examples, this system is only acting as a translator. It is not creating the words; it is merely retrieving the appropriate ones. In this context, the words come automatically without any conscious thought behind them. Far from being slow (a characteristic of using this system for non-language reasoning), the retrievals and translations are instant and automatic.

Translation is all that's needed if languages only comprised of simple sounds, but human language evolved from simple sounds to words to basic sentences and then more complex grammar structures. The added complexity of just adding verbs and adjectives dictates the necessity of additional processing power the old brain (System 1) doesn't have: reasoning and decision making - the ability to go beyond translating into creating; to make a sentence that did not exist until you created it.

(To recap: the old brain/System 1 is a reactionary machine that responds to circumstances based on past experiences - there is no thinking/reasoning/decision making in the old brain. There is no 'I' or consciousness in the old brain.)

Think about this for a moment. We are translating when we look at an object and say, "apple", "ball", "cat", "dog" etc. But, to say "I'm going to throw the ball for the dog to chase to distract him from the cat that is climbing the apple tree" requires reasoning and decision making; something that is needed whenever we think forward in time.

Therefore, complex languages and reasoning are inter-dependent. You cannot reason without complex languages, and you cannot have complex languages without reasoning. At some point in the long evolution of the human brain, the language function of the brain evolved the ability to reason. Whether language drove the development of reasoning, or reasoning drove the development of language doesn't matter. All we need to know is they evolved together, and they co-exist in the neocortex.

Reasoning (which we also call thinking) leads to the most significant part of the human experience: self-awareness and consciousness. We became aware of ourselves through reasoning, and this self-awareness became what we call commonly call consciousness.

You, that mysterious thing that experiences your life, you the person reading these words, you that you might identify as a soul within your physical body, are the self-aware part of the reasoning function of the language processing area of the brain.

Language > reasoning (thinking) > self-awareness (consciousness/I).

Bear in mind that although I'm describing this particular part of the brain as the reasoning function, it evolved to make decisions about language. It didn't evolve to do mathematics, for example; which is why the famous 17 x 23 example from Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is so difficult for our reasoning brain to compute; and why we don't engage in reasoning (thinking) anywhere near as much we might expect.

Using the reasoning function to do anything other than language processing is difficult, slow and often stressful. In fact, when we try to do something else with it, we often convert the task into words (language) to help us perform it. For example, we don't remember a telephone number by taking a mental picture/photograph of the complete number; we repeat the individual digits as words in our head (seven, five, six, three, zero, nine, etc.). When we do arithmetic, we do a similar thing. If we didn't have the ability to write things down, also using language (to offset some of the load from our reasoning function), our reasoning ability would be significantly impaired.

It's also worth noting that the combination of having language and being self-aware allows us to create words. Reasoning (thinking) makes it possible to make decisions, solve problems, predict the future and make plans; something the old brain simply cannot do, because there is no thinking taking place in the old brain. Therefore, it is a mistake to claim that ALL our words, and ALL human behaviour, is purely reactionary and a result of circumstance. Your consciousness uses the reasoning function to create and is not merely a passive observer. It has a limited capacity to influence your behaviour, but the impact can be profound.

To summarise: one of the two systems in the human body that affect behaviour is the self-aware part of the reasoning function of the language processing area of the brain, and we commonly call this system 'consciousness' or 'I'. It is not a special gift; it doesn't have divine, cosmic or spiritual properties; it is a byproduct of the reasoning function. When the brain dies, consciousness dies along with it. Everything you experience happens in this system. You are this system. As a self-aware, conscious human being, you can use this system to perform reasoning, planning and problem-solving.

Everything Else System

The other system is comprised of everything else. That is to say, every organ, cell, and gland of the body that can function automatically and without thought, including the nervous and endocrine systems are part of this system. The old brain/System 1 is just one part of the wider 'everything else'. The gut, its microbiome and its 100 million neurons are also part of this system.

The key characteristics of the Everything Else System are that it's automatic, dominant, and self-sufficient. It is the primary (but not exclusive) driver of all human behaviour. It is a reactionary machine that is driven by circumstance, previous experience, DNA, genes, and hormones, etc. - everything other than reasoning (thinking). THERE IS NO REASONING (THINKING), NOT EVEN SUBCONSCIOUSLY, IN THE EVERYTHING ELSE SYSTEM - IT IS ONLY REACTING.

Free Will

Our capacity for free will, or rather, the ability of our Conscious System to exercise its influence (willpower) over the Everything Else System is limited to the point of being practically non-existent. The extent to which we can use our conscious will is subject to how aligned both systems are and how much we can find alignment in the Everything Else System.

If both systems are aligned and want to eat a tube of Pringles, it will happen. If the Everything Else system seeks to eat a tube of Pringles, it will almost certainly happen. If the Conscious System objects, it's probably going to happen anyway unless it can find a way to change the will of the Everything Else system.

What usually happens is we adapt our Conscious System, through creative reasoning, to align it with the desires of the Everything Else. ("It's okay to eat these Pringles today because I'll start my diet on Monday")

From a POM perspective, understanding the Conscious and Everything Else systems is useful because once we recognise that our behaviour is driven primarily by something other than rational thinking and that it is almost impossible to do anything other than what we do, we can forgive ourselves (and others) for our behaviour. That, in itself, is incredibly powerful for relieving anger, stress, regret and anxiety. Silly concepts that often trip us up, such as good and evil, selflessness and selfishness, etc. can all be considered normal human behaviours without the need to apply judgements to them.

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Truth

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

I wince when I come across someone exploiting using the word 'truth'. In my opinion, it's a tainted word, and I deliberately avoid using it here, or in my comments on other sites, for a few reasons.

Firstly: while it's certainly possible to be factually correct in our assertions, often, the word 'truth' is added to give weight to weak arguments that are little more than opinions. In my experience, if you have to use the word 'truth', there's a pretty good chance you're not speaking it. The facts, if credible, should speak for themselves. If people can't accept the facts, telling them it's the truth isn't likely to help.

Secondly: the truth rarely matters. People don't form their opinions or change their minds because something is true; they do so if there's a perceived benefit to doing so. Conversely, if there's an adverse consequence, such as when people go against popular opinion, the truth can easily be ignored. If you believe the truth matters simply because it is the truth, you might want to ask yourself why you think that.

Lastly: I like to err on the side of caution and only make definite statements when I'm completely sure of what I'm saying. I also try to limit my definite statements to the facts I believe are correct and not extend them to related, but shaky, concepts.

Recently, I stopped posting for a little while to spend some time contemplating circumstance. I wanted to be sure I am on the right track with the 'I' function. I'm posting again, because, after giving it a lot of thought, I am confident in what I'm saying, but I wouldn't go so far as to say this is the truth.

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Peace of the 'I'

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

This started as a reply to Axels' comment on my last post, but as I got into my reply I realised this should be a post.

When you boil it down, what I'm saying is there is a part of the brain that does the 'I' function. You are using it right now when reading this and thinking about these words. Denying the 'I' function exists is the same as denying you have thoughts.

Recognising it exists, but more importantly, acknowledging it's limitations and contrasting what it does against the outputs of the vastly more powerful reactionary machinery, allows us to understand our actions and the actions of others better. Both of which are hugely beneficial to POM.

In fact, POM is peace of the 'I' function. It's not peace of the reactionary machine. You (as in your 'I' function) are never troubled by the reactionary machine; it does its thing entirely without thought. You are only aware of how the reactionary machine is responding to circumstances through your 'I' function. Awareness of anything is 100% dependent on the 'I' function; awareness is what the 'I' function does.

I note that the folks who deny the existence of the 'I' function also seem to be the most troubled. I suspect their troubles have something to do with their experiences not matching the story they are telling themselves.

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