The Interrupted Self
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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In the futuristic sci-fi film "Surrogates" (2009), people stay at home, their nervous system wired to allow them to remote control a robot, their surrogate. The robot and its operator, the human being, are an ontological unity: both share identical, objective experiences. There is one exception: when something bad happens to the robot, its owner is shielded from the consequences by some kind of "firewall", or in-built defense.
Inevitably, things go awry. The design of the robots is unwise: they retain the long-term memories of their masters, which renders them susceptible to malicious hacking; they possess superhuman faculties, which makes them resistant to law enforcement efforts; and in appearance, they are not clones of their owners, which results in mayhem.
The film also ignores the discontinuities of human life: the natural functions of eating, washing, and excretion, or the onset of boredom and attention deficits. It is not clear what the robots are supposed to do when nature calls and how their operators resume the session where it had stopped and pick up their ruptured train of thought.
The movie raises numerous fascinating questions, not the least of which is:
When the owner of a surrogate, cocooned in his den, uses his contraption to visit China, or to have sex, or to stroll along a boulevard - who does the experiencing? Can one really say that one has been to China, or has had sex, or has strolled along a boulevard in autumn if one has never left the comfort of one's home? If one's body is stationary and only one's mind is wandering and acting through a technological extension, does this constitute "being there" and "doing it"?
In the film, it is not made clear whether the brains of the operators of the surrogates are induced to react as they would in "real"-life situations: as the surrogates go about their business, do their owners sweat, smell, and feel pressure, for instance? Do they experience non-life-threatening short breath and elevated heart rate? Do they truly ejaculate? Yet, having gone this far, it is easy to imagine a device that would stimulate the right brain centers to produce these reactions.
Once the experiences of having sex or touring China via such a machine become indistinguishable from the real thing, in which sense are they "less real"? Isn't it all in the mind, in any case? This is the famous "brain in a jar" conundrum: if one's brain were to be placed in a jar and sustained artificially, would one still be capable of experiencing life fully and in which sense would one exist in such "reduced" circumstances? Wouldn't then the brain-support apparatus constitute the full equivalent of one's erstwhile body, only far less fallible and prone to dysfunction?
The hidden and misleading assumption in all these thought experiments is that the brain and its flesh-and-blood container were once united, before science or technology had them sundered. But what about a human brain that has never had a body? A brain that was grown in a jar or rigged to a surrogate from its very inception? Would such a "monstrosity" qualify as an individual member of the human species? In other words: how important is the body to the formation and operation of the mind?
The dualistic differentiation between mens and corpus may be entirely artificial. It seems to be the outcome of our ignorance and of the shortcomings of our language, both of which gave rise to the psychophysical problem.
In a series of experiments described in articles published in Science in mid 2007, British and Swiss researchers concluded that "their experiments reinforce the idea that the 'self' is closely tied to a 'within-body' position, which is dependent on information from the senses. 'We look at 'self' with regard to spatial characteristics, and maybe they form the basis upon which self-consciousness has evolved'", one of them told the New Scientist ("Out-of-body experiences are 'all in the mind'", NewScientist.com news service, 23 August 2007).
The fundament of our mind and of our self is the mental map we create of our body ("Body Image", or "Body Map"). It is a detailed, psychic, rendition of our corporeal self, based on sensa (sensory input) and above all on proprioception and other kinesthetic senses. This model incorporates representations of other objects and results, at a higher level, in a "World Map" or "World Image". This World Map often does not immediately react to actual changes in the body itself (such as amputation which results in the "phantom limb" phenomenon). It is also exclusionary of facts that contradict the paradigm at the basis of the World Map. The Map is involved even in reactions that are largely considered “objective” and triggered by outside stimuli: as Patrick Haggard and his colleague Marjolein Kammers of University College London have demonstrated (Current Biology, online, September 27, 2010) the sensation and experiencing of pain are crucially dependent on the body’s representation in the mind.
This detailed and ever-changing (dynamic) map constitutes the set of outer constraints and threshold conditions for the brain's operations. The triple processes of interaction (endogenous and exogenous), integration (assimilation) and accommodation (see here "Psychophysics") reconcile the brain's "programmes" (sets of instructions) to these constraints and conditions.
In other words, these are processes of solving dynamic, though always partial, equations. The set of all the solutions to all these equations constitutes the "Personal Narrative", or "Personality". Thus, "organic" and "mental" disorders (a dubious distinction at best) have many characteristics in common (confabulation, antisocial behaviour, emotional absence or flatness, indifference, psychotic episodes and so on).
The brain's "Functional Set" is hierarchical and consists of feedback loops. It aspires to equilibrium and homeostasis. The most basic level is mechanical: hardware (neurons, glia, etc.) and operating system software. This software consists of a group of sensory-motor applications. It is separated from the next level by exegetic instructions (the feedback loops and their interpretation). This is the cerebral equivalent of a compiler. Each level of instructions is distinguished from the next (and connected to it meaningfully and operationally) by such a compiler. Here, again, the "body" is the mind!
Next follow the "functional instructions" ("How to" type of commands): how to see, how to place visuals in context, how to hear, how to collate and correlate sensory input and so on. Yet, these commands should not be confused with the "real thing", the "final product". "How-to-see" is not the same as "seeing". Seeing is a much more complex, multilayered, interactive and versatile "activity" than the simple act of light penetration and its conveyance to the brain.
Thus - separated by another compiler which generates meanings (a "dictionary") - we reach the realm of "meta-instructions". This is a gigantic classificatory (taxonomic) system. It contains and applies rules of symmetry (left vs. right), physics (light vs. dark, colors), social codes (face recognition, behaviour) and synergetic or correlated activity ("seeing", "music", etc.).
Design principles would yield the application of the following principles to the organization and architecture of the brain:
- Rational - discrete, atomistic, syllogistic, theory-constructing, falsifying;
- Emotional - continuous, fractal, holographic.
By "fractal and holographic", I mean:
2. That each unit or part contain a "connector" to all others with sufficient information in such a connector to reconstruct the other units if lost or unavailable.
Only some brain processes are "conscious". Others, though equally complex (e.g., semantic interpretation of spoken texts), may be unconscious. The same brain processes can be conscious at one time and unconscious at another. Consciousness, in other words, is the privileged tip of a submerged mental iceberg.
One hypothesis is that an uncounted number of unconscious processes "yield" conscious processes. This is the emergent phenomenal (epiphenomenal) "wave-particle" duality. Unconscious brain processes are like a wave function which collapses into the "particle" of consciousness.
Another hypothesis, more closely aligned with tests and experiments, is that consciousness is like a searchlight. It focuses on a few "privileged processes" at a time and thus makes them conscious. As the light of consciousness moves on, new privileged processes (hitherto unconscious) become conscious and the old ones recede into unconsciousness.
We tend to ignore the fact that the mind is
somehow entangled with the brain and that the brain is "hardware", an
integral part of the body. It is the body that gives rise to the mind. Without
it, the mind would be so different that it could scarcely qualify as human. We
are human because we have bodies. In the rarefied atmosphere of academe, this
crucial observation is often neglected or willfully ignored.
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