Tag Archives: brain

The Other Side of Consciousness

It has been said that nobody has ever come back from death to tell us in any really credible way what happens to our consciousness after we die. Of course there have been a lot of near death experiences or experiences of being flat-line technically dead and then revived. People have described a tunnel and a brilliant white light at the end of that tunnel or floating over their dead bodies and watching the people standing around, listening to them. Then they are gently pulled or yanked back into consciousness and our banal daily world.

I would venture a guess that the reason some of us experience these phenomena is that we don’t always die all at once. Once the signal is passed down to all the cells in a body that it’s time to die, the cells start to power down, to stop their functions that differentiate them from non-living organic matter, functions like organization, using energy, growing, responding to changes in the environment, and reproduction, but it takes time to shut down all the cells in a body and, while some of the cells might be dead, others might be still alive and at least partially functional.

If the brain were the first to shut down before the rest of the body, then dying would be a lot easier on us. People often say that it’s a blessing to die in one’s sleep. I think that people are more afraid of dying than they are of death. We mortals don’t seem to be equipped with the ability to conceive of our own deaths, the end of our consciousness forever and ever, in spite of the fact that we all die and many of us have seen someone else die.

But the brain is not always the first to shut down. Imagine for a moment that your conscious mind is trapped in a brain that is trapped in a body that is in the process of shutting down. Our minds are used to being in control of our body functions. Whenever we are in unpleasant situations we try our best to overcome them or to escape them. This experience of entrapment goes against our previous experience and programming. “What can’t be, is happening to me!” screams silently in the outer space of our minds. Maybe we think to ourselves, “This is finally it! I’m really dying now. But I don’t know how to do it or even what to do. I wonder how long it will last.”

But the body has its own logic. Dying is a natural consequence and part of living. The body doesn’t need the brain to tell it how to die. All the mind has to do is to relax and record what is happening for as long as it can.

I am certain that the mind achieves some wisdom or understanding in the last moments before death that would benefit all living mortals if only that dying mind could somehow pass on to us that wisdom, what it’s like to transition to the other side of consciousness.

But nobody really has, have they?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Filed under & Philosophy, Dilemmas, Essays

Who Are You?

Who are you? I mean, really, who are you? More about that later …

In a previous post, Common Sense about Space, Time, and Infinity, I wrote about the finitude of matter and energy (albeit an exceedingly large finitude) and the infinity of space and time. Now I’d like to draw some common sense conclusions about the personal space inside our minds.

Let’s start out with some permutations and combinations from some board games many of us know and play.

Tic-Tac-Toe allows two players to occupy squares on a 3×3 board with their x’s or o’s. There are 26,830 possible legitimate games that may be played.

Chess starts out with two sets of 32 pieces each on an 8×8 square board. The moves of the various pieces are complex and many can move forward, sideways, diagonally, and backwards. The number of possible chess games is estimated to be 2 to the 155th power (almost 10 to the 46.7th power).

The maximum number of Go games played with black and white stones on a 19×19 square board is 2.08 x 10 to the 170th power). That is more than the number of atoms in the observable universe, which is somewhere between 4 x 10 to the 79th power and 10 to the 81st power. In case you don’t know nothin’ ’bout ‘rithmetic, that’s the number 1 with 81 zeroes to the right of it.

Now these are very large numbers and it is highly unlikely that any game master has played all the possible games, but the numbers are not infinite, like space or time.

Let’s think about our minds for a moment. The average number of neurons (grey matter brain cells) in a functioning human brain is about 100 billion. The number synapses (connections between brain cells) is about 100 trillion. That means each brain cell is connected to about 1000 other brain cells. The average brain cell is capable of firing off 200 signals per second. That’s a capacity of 20 quadrillion signals per second produced by the average brain.

Thoughts are internal behaviors, ways in which our brains respond to the outer world, our inner world, and to other thoughts. Like externally observable behaviors, such as our overt actions, thought behavior can be very simple or exceedingly complex. A thought can be a perception of the outer or inner world, it can be concept, it can be a memory, it can be an emotion, and it can be a command that initiates a motor response or a complex string of motor responses.

Going back to games for a moment, the brain may be thought of as a game board and thoughts could be construed as the moves in a game. Given that is so, the number of thoughts in a human brain might be estimated around 3 to the 100 trillionth power. That’s still not infinite, far from it, but it still is much larger than the number of atoms in the universe and even beats hands down the most complex game man could think of.

You’d think that, with the number of thoughts we can think, we could perceive, conceive, and remember everything in the universe. Unfortunately that is not so because the things in the universe are hidden from us by distance, size, and other things, and our brains are architected and built in a limited fashion. The 6 or 7 million cones in our retinas are only capable of perceiving red, green, and blue, which represent a small part of the continuous frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Colors don’t exist objectively. Red is just a range of frequencies around 4×1014 Hertz, while violet is 8×1014 Hertz, and all the colors we can see in a rainbow fall between these two frequencies. So the red cones fire signals up the optic nerve when they get excited by 4×1014 Hz worth of electromagnetism, the blue cones get excited about another frequency and the green cones get off on still another frequency. The optic nerve carries the “color” signals as well as the signals from the 120 million rods in the retina that are excited by individual photons, mostly in the shorter wavelengths. All those signals are interpreted by our brain into an alphabet of shapes, directions, and colors. We can’t perceive something if it’s not a shape, direction, color, or something we’ve been preprogrammed to perceive. Our programming is limited by our evolution. If we had evolved differently, we’d perceive differently.

When we conceptualize what we’ve perceived, say it was a crowd of slightly different individuals, we tend to group them together, smooth out the differences in our own minds, plug them into a hierarchical category, and store an averaged version of those individuals, remembering that there were a lot of them. That’s why we usually make such terrible eye witnesses, especially if we were distracted by having to survive. So unless we are highly trained to disregard our evolutionary programming, we can’t remember more than nine individual things, as they are, for more than a few seconds.

If we had solved the survival problem, maybe things would be different.

Now back to the original question: who are you? Hopefully you will translate that question in your own minds to who am I? I would think that I would know who I am, better than anyone else would know. I’m me. Myself. My personality.

But what is my personality? It’s my inner face (or interface) that I present to the outer world. But I adapt my personality differently to different aspects of the outer world. I present a different personality to my family, to my friends, to the people at work, to strangers, and to my enemies, to name a few. Ah yes, but it is I who present all those different adaptations of my personality.

So who am I? An “I” is a thought, a behavior, a complex game. Many thoughts compete for the title of “I”, but only one gets to win. Only one gets to control the mind, but does it keep control? What would it mean to me if one “I” would win instead of another? Is there another “I” behind it all who decides which “I” gets to be “I”? Are there as many different I’s as there are people or is there only one I?

Can you hear the tug of war inside you?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Filed under & Philosophy, Dilemmas, Essays