Thursday, February 09, 2006

mind control--I wish!

Daniel Dennett from Tufts has a new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He's making the book tour rounds and appeared on WBUR's On Point interviewed by Tom Ashbrook, and on interviewed by Robert Wright. Ashbrook the "interrupting chicken" was completely unable to slow himself down long enough to get any depth out of Dennett. Ashbrook is so jacked up by his time constraints he keeps one eye on the clock no matter what the subject, yet still manages to yammer on:

"Our time here is short! Daniel Dennett take us on a tour if you will, of your sense of what it means to be Dennett in the here and now. Give us the gist, the flavor, the back and forth, the trip into the provocative new journey of ideas that is Breaking the Spell. Very briefly please! Right after this break!"
Wright on the other hand can take his time and actually knows something, so does better. In Wright's interview, in the topic of consciousness, from about minute 2 to 4, Wright and Dennett really get somewhere.

Dennett says that consciousness is merely "fame in the brain"--an ongoing political battle among "contentful events" vying for control. The event that wins at any given moment is what you are conscious of and that, simply, is what consciousness is. It's not that the winning contentful event in turn kindles some further thing that is consciousness.

This deromanticizes consciousness, which is fine by me. And it matches my prosaic perception of my own consciousness. And therefore must be right! No, I do not claim that because I feel or think a certain way, that it is therefore the case. I do not believe I can influence my health by thinking positive thoughts. I think my thoughts do not matter and that they affect nothing. I think nearly all of my thoughts are trite and fleeting, and are only the result of excess processing power of the frontal lobes. I am Homer Simpson, distracted by butterflies.

Sometimes I walk through Lynn Woods alone, along various routes which take a little more than an hour. Recently along one route I found my mind cranking through one "contentful event" of recent years. Events in the past are stored in the brain as narratives burned into the synapses. Once begun memories of the event invoke the same predictable tedious rationalizations and emotional reactions, in the same predictable sequence. Then after a few minutes, it was on to the next contentful event. Which seemed familiar in turn, at a particular fork in the road.

To my dismay, I realized that not only do contentful events replay themselves with remarkable internal consistency, but that when I go on this walk, they occur at the same point in the walk! At minute 17 of the walk, my thoughts are x1, and so my mood is x2. At minute 26, my thoughts are y1, so my mood is y2. And that whenever we engage in an activity that occupies the body but leaves the mind free to churn, the mind is apt to replay its little collection of anecdotes, in the same sequence, again and again.

Do we have any control over this? Can we direct our own minds, for more than a few moments? Can we "not think" some given contentful event, and think about something else instead, by means of the exertion of will? Grrr, I'm not going to... No. You cannot exert conscious control of your own mind for more than brief moments. It runs on autopilot, not under the control of "you". Off it goes at first chance, either to its habitual list if unoccupied, or to the unselfconscious task of solving whatever procedural chore is at hand otherwise.

Recently I met a guy who had been laid off, who said, "I can be sad about what has happened, or I can think of it as an opportunity to explore new ideas." I thought, that's bullshit. You can't choose how you think or feel about things. You do not have that level of control, because there is no place for "you" to stand outside your thoughts and emotions, to exert control over them, because consciousness isn't a separate place beyond them.

What you can do is practice self-delusion. In which if successful is to be found solace. And you can practice vigilance in keeping stray bits of the stream of consciousness from getting through, by using interference--headphones, radio, chitchat about the weather, even meditation. Or keep it occupied with mundane tasks. Anything to avoid hearing your banal little mind recite its paltry repertoire yet again.

No wonder people are so willing to allow some other agent to drive--the imam, the guru, the vodka.

Meat engines, that's us. Smart lemmings, proceeding zombie-like through the days, reacting predictably to the same stimuli, our minds churning endlessly through the trivial detritus of our puny lives, all the while thinking we are so grand and unique with our deep minds and eternal souls. What greater proof of the existence of god do we need, than our own magnificence!

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