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#1724 - Sunday, March 7, 2004 - Editor: joyce (know_mystery) 




Photo by Alan Larus ~ TrueVision

music: Yosemite.mid from 


looking together
across the frozen lake
the heron and I

~  Jan van den Pol  ~

Just let things be in their own way and
there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
and you will walk freely and undisturbed.

~  Sosan  ~



Thomas Zoga Ramsy ~ Evolutionary-Psychology


Is There an Observing Self?

By Thomas W. Clark

Response to Baars et al., “Brain, conscious experience, and the observing self,” Trends in Neurosciences, 26 (12), December, 2003.

In response to the question of whether  “normal conscious experience involve[s] an observing self,” Baars et al. answer in the affirmative (Baars et al. 2003). The question I wish to raise here is whether the notion of an observing self, in the sense described in their paper, is conceptually warranted or useful in explaining consciousness. I suggest that it is not: the concept of observing – a person-level capacity – is misapplied to sub-personal processes of representation and information processing. The authors mischaracterize hierarchies of neural processing, in which information is fed from one level to another, as literal episodes of observation by a neurally instantiated self.

The main distinction the authors make is between processes that are responsible for features of consciousness that constitute objects, e.g., “light, color, contrast, motion, retinal size, location, and object identity” and processes that provide higher-level contextual components of consciousness, e.g., functions that integrate objects into a coherent perceptual gestalt, that create the phenomenal sense of one’s body, and that underlie ascriptions of intentions and actions as one’s own, as opposed to someone else’s.

The authors state that “…conscious experience in general can be viewed as information presented to prefrontal executive regions for interpretation, decision-making, and voluntary control.” This suggests that experience is somehow generated by or consists in the internal observation of information by prefrontal regions, but this is to ascribe a person-level ability to the sub-personal level. When Crick and Koch (2003) (quoted in the paper, p. 673) said that “it is useful to think of the front or higher/executive part of the cortex as looking at and interacting with the back or sensory part” they should have put “looking at” in scare quotes to emphasize that they were speaking metaphorically. What literally observes or experiences the world is the person as a whole conscious system, a system that incorporates sensory information into a constantly updated overarching self-world representation (Metzinger, 2003). What makes this a phenomenal, conscious representation, as proposed by Metzinger, is that it possesses a certain minimum set of representational, informational, and functional properties, e.g., global availability of information for action control and the integration of representations into a coherent, untranscendable reality model (Metzinger, pp. 107-211).

What the authors call the “common intuition of an observing self that has access to conscious sensations, inner speech, images and thoughts” (p. 671) is the modeling of the self within experience, that is, within the larger phenomenal self-world model. The higher level frontoparietal systems that are described in their paper, along with lower level homeostatic systems described by Antonio Damasio (1999), supply subjectivity – the phenomenal self-model – to the larger phenomenal self-world model. So the observing self isn’t needed to “sustain the conscious waking state” (p. 673), rather the waking state normally includes the experience of subjectivity. It’s important to note that in certain types of mystical experiences and pathological conditions the feeling of being a subject is absent (Metzinger, p. 459). This shows that there may be no essential connection between waking consciousness per se and the sense of self, much less an observing self.

Although Baars has elsewhere defended the observing self (Baars, 1996), I think he mistakes the experience of subjectivity for the literal existence of a separate, delimited witnessing subject. Baars et al. take this witnessing subject to be neurally instantiated by a subset of integrative processes, while many people folk-theoretically suppose this witness-self to be some sort of non-physical mental agent or soul. But there is no observing self of either type to whom information is presented or that has access to consciousness; nor is it likely that any sub-personal components of the processes that constitute consciousness observe other components in any sense that merits the term. Experience, like the brain (under normal conditions), is unwitnessed and unobserved, even though it may include the experience and intuition of observerhood, an intuition that veridically models the relationship between the observing person and the world.

Copyright 2004 TW Clark

Thomas W. Clark, Center for Naturalism




dangerous pavements,
but I face the ice this year
with my father's stick

~  Seamus Heaney  ~          




 Photo by Alan Larus



  Thomas Zoga Ramsy ~ Evolutionary-Psychology

The evidence is overwhelming for an observing self in the brain.
  By Bernard J. Baars

Response to Thomas Clark, "Is there an observing Self?" SCR, 2004

Dr. Clark tells us there is no observing self, but he offers no evidence. Like consciousness, the observing self is an empirical question. Clark's denial of a self goes back to Gilbert Ryle, who argued that there could be no observing "homunculus" in the brain, because that would lead to an infinite regress. But even Ryle's famous student Daniel Dennett has given up that argument, and now maintains there is no philosophical objection to an observing self if it can be decomposed into subsystems that are not just other homunculi.

In science, no serious proposal for an observing self has been vulnerable to Ryle's infinite regress argument. Self was always viewed as an executive system related to goals, and in ego psychology, it was specifically a system that balanced competing goals. Forty years of excellent research on split brain patients shows that the Left Hemisphere contains a language-based narrative self system (which you, the reader, are probably hearing right now in inner speech). But very likely the Right Hemisphere has a non-linguistic executive system that has at least receptive language, and which has long been known to accept verbal requests, carry out voluntary control over skeletal muscles (especially the most distal limbs like the hands and feet), and can do intelligent tasks like selecting matching pictures upon instruction.

These are executive systems in a very straightforward sense. They are involved in decision-making over the voluntarily-controlled elements of the nervous system. That implies they can control the voluntary muscles (but not the smooth muscles of the digestive tract), as well as inner speech (just try saying your own name to yourself right now!) The ego psychology claim that the self is involved in reconciling competing goal systems is also plausible; we even know where those goal systems are located. They involve subcortical appetitive and emotional systems, like the hypothalamus, PAG, amygdala, and other limbic regions. It is well established that the prefrontal cortex exercises inhibitory control over these "impulsive" mammalian motivational systems. Overall executive control surely involves regions of the prefrontal cortex, but there are times when subcortical systems take over, as when we are tempted to take one more bite of that delicious chocolate cake, even while warning ourselves (in our Left Hemisphere, which tends to control speech production) not to do so.

In what sense are these executive regions "observing" things? Gazzaniga's "Left Hemisphere interpreter" (his phrase) can observe conscious input from the right side of the visual field. It does not observe the left side (except via eye movements), but it does control the contralateral hand and foot in a voluntary fashion. Since it takes in conscious perceptual information, and interprets it to make voluntary decisions, it seems perfectly accurate to call it an "observing" self.

A great deal of reliable evidence falls into place with this viewpoint. For example, there is a vast literature in psychiatry on "self-alien syndromes." What makes anxiety disorders pathological is the loss of control by executive functions over normal anxiety. What makes obsessive-compulsive disorders so disturbing is the loss of executive control over ordinary actions like checking a door lock. All the Axis I disorders of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) involve self-alien disorders. That classification could not work if we lacked a conception of an observing executive.

Neglect patients may suffer from "alien limb" syndrome, in which they literally feel that their own left arms and legs are not their own, and may try to throw them out of bed. Even physical trauma, like breaking a leg, may leads to a sense of alienation from self, as Oliver Sacks has pointed out in "A Leg to Stand On."

There is much more to be said for an observing self, but this gives a sense of the evidence. (See Baars, 1997, 1988 for further information; It is noteworthy that common sense psychology never dropped the idea of a self, even through a century of philosophical and psychological attacks on the idea. That is because it is so useful and explanatory. And after a century of denial, all the rejected terms are back. Psychologists were told by John B. Watson that consciousness was just "another word for the soul of religion." Today, we see more than 5000 citations in the biomedical literature each year to the term consciousness. For fifty years we were told that mental imagery was a myth. Today there is a flourishing scientific literature on imagery. The same goes for all the taboo terms of behaviorism --- memory, goals, inner speech, emotional feelings --- about two-thirds of the entire vocabulary of English and related languages.

Today we still hear about two taboos, against "volition" and "self." But the evidence for those taboos is no better than it was in the case of consciousness. A search in PubMed online on "voluntary control" and "executive functions" reveals hundreds of recent references, especially based on brain imaging studies. We know where to find these functions in the brain, and we are learning more and more about their details.

Baars et al (2003) suggest that unconscious states may involve not just a loss of conscious contents, but also a loss of functioning of the observing self. The evidence for that comes from brain imaging studies of four deeply unconscious states: deep sleep, comatose states, epileptic loss of consciousness, and general anesthesia. All these states show a steep drop in metabolic activity in cortical regions involved with observing self functions, particularly parietal and prefrontal areas. This cannot be explained by a local loss of conscious sensory functions, because sensory cortex is not involved. This suggests that "self-functions" may be interrupted during these states. That is an empirical hypothesis and prediction. It may be true or false. But it is testable. Whether it is right or not we may find out, as brain imaging gives us better and better understanding over the coming years.

Copyright 2004 BJ Baars

Bernard J. Baars
Affiliate Research Fellow
The Neurosciences Institute
San Diego



Photo by Alan Larus

warming even
an empty room, a
beam of morning sun    
~  Robert Bebek  ~



David Edwards ~


By: David Edwards

March 4, 2004


Personal - Political

Many of the dissident philosophers and rebels of the past like
Rousseau, Rocker, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Emerson and Fromm wrote often about the
personal experiences, motivations and concerns that informed their
political dissent. Tolstoy, for example, eventually came spectacularly clean
about his life as a writer:

“Horribly strange, but I now understand it all. Our genuine, sincere
concern was how to gain as much money and fame as possible. And the only
thing we knew how to do in order to achieve this was to write books and
journals.” (Tolstoy, A Confession, Penguin, 1987, p.24)

This was a deeply personal comment, but it shone a brilliant light on
the intellectual culture of Tolstoy’s time, and ours.

But today, personal, psychological, philosophical and spiritual issues
are hardly mentioned at all, with dissidents insisting that their own
experiences are surely of little interest to the public. The operative
theory seems to be that the world is in the mess it’s in because people
do not have access to the facts revealing the criminality and
irrationality of power.

My own view is that the world is also in the mess it’s in because
people often aren’t interested in, and even actively avoid, these facts. The
point being that the indifference of so many people is often deeply
rooted in personal and philosophical issues.

In reality, for example, few issues are more important than
understanding just how and why some people come to feel motivated to work for
progressive change. Perhaps I am uniquely flawed, but a question that has
always loomed large in my mind is: ‘Why should we care about other
people in the first place? What actually is wrong with being selfish?‘

From the perspective of everyday life these questions may seem
monstrous, but from the perspective of our predicament in the human condition
they are surely not. We are fragile, short-lived beings destined to lose
every last thing and person we love – we are born into an extremely
fraught and demanding situation. Given that this is the case, why should
anyone consider devoting their already inadequate time, energy and
resources to helping others? And yet the 11th century poet Ksemendra wrote:

“Disturbed times produce some who, though buffeted by wild waves, move
through the deep waters to embrace all who suffer. Even when undergoing
fierce suffering themselves, they still extend kindness to others.”
(Leaves of the Heaven Tree, Dharma, 1997, p.421)

[Read the rest: ]

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I do not know if you have even examined how you listen,
it doesn't matter to what,
whether to a bird, to the wind in the leaves, to the rushing waters,
or to how you listen to dialogue with yourself,
to conversation in various relationships and with intimate friends,
your wife or husband...

If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult,
because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas,
our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses;
when they dominate we hardly listen it all to what is being said...

In that state there's no value it all.
One listens and therefore learns,
only in the state of attention, a state of silence,
in which the whole background is in obeyance, is quiet;
then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.
Real communication can only take place when there is silence.

~  Krishnamurti  ~

Thomas Zoga Ramsy ~ Evolutionary-Psychology


Empathy lights up the same parts of the brain as personal injury

By Laura Nelson


"A Peek of Radiance"  

Mandala by Aurora Braun

The ability to appreciate other people's agony is achieved by the same
parts of the brain that we use to experience pain for ourselves.

When we encounter a painful stimulus, such as an electric shock, signals
travel from the site of the stimulus up to the brain. This is then
translated into both a physical and an emotional response.

Tania Singer, an imaging neuroscientist at University College London, and
her colleagues performed an experiment to see whether any parts of this
process happens in the brains of people who aren't experiencing the pain
themselves, but are simply empathizing with someone who is.

The team first delivered an electric shock to the hands of 16 women, and
observed their brain activity using a functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) scan. The team found that their brains were activated in several
areas, including both sensory and emotional regions.

They then delivered an electric shock to the hand of each woman's partner
instead. The women were allowed to see the shock being administered, but
were prevented from watching their partner's face during the
treatment. This eliminated a large part of the emotional response one might expect from
watching a friend in pain.

Even so, the researchers found that the womens' brains still lit up in the
same emotional areas as when their own hand was being shocked.

The study shows that empathy works by tapping into a brain mechanism that
already exists for our own pain, says Singer. This makes us believe we are
feeling pain emotionally even when we are not feeling it physically.

Strong bonds

The emotional activity was stronger in some people than in others. The
response seemed to be greater in those with a stronger emotional bond,
says Singer. "It is very heavy for people who care," says Singer.

The researchers have yet to try the experiment on men, or on people
who are not couples. But Uta Frith, a cognitive biologist also at University
College London, thinks the experiment would show the same result with any two
normal people.

But psychopaths would probably show no emotional response at all, she
adds. Psychopaths don't experience empathy, she says, so they have no
understanding of how much pain they are inflicting on other people.

Singer thinks the empathic response probably enables us to forge loving
bonds, such as between a mother and child. "It has an evolutionary
function," she says. In a broader sense, empathy can help us
understand what someone else is feeling , be it pain, joy or anger. Such an ability may
serve to help ward off danger. "We can ask questions such as: 'Will this
person kill me?'," says Singer.

Researchers think it may be possible to suppress the same part of the
brain through hypnosis. When hypnotised, people can be made apparently
insensitive to pain, stopping them from being conscious of or reacting to painful
stimuli, although no one knows exactly how this works. "Pain is subjective
perception," says Singer.

Read More: Singer, T. et al. Empathy for pain involves the affective
but not sensory components of pain. Science, 303, 1157 - 1162, (2004).

  Learning is the very essence of humility,
learning from everything and everybody.
There is no hierarchy in learning.
Authority denies learning and a follower will never learn.
  ~  Krishnamurti  ~  

Panhala ~ Joe Riley

Now is the Time
Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child's training wheels
To be laid aside
When you finally live
With veracity
And love.
Hafiz is a divine envoy
Whom the Beloved
Has written a holy message upon.
My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
And God?
What is it in that sweet voice inside
That incites you to fear?
Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.
This is the time
For you to compute the impossibility
That there is anything
But Grace.
Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Is sacred.

("The Gift" - versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky)


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Truth is within ourselves, it takes no rise
From outward things, whate'er you may believe.
There is an inner centre in us all
Where truth abides in fullness; and around
Wall upon wall the gross flesh hems it in
That perfect, clear perception which is Truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds all and makes all error, but to know
Rather consists in finding out a way
For the imprisoned splendour to escape
Than in achieving entry for a light
Supposed to be without.
~  Robert Browning  ~

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Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
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