I read Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind a week and a half ago; it’s about psychedelics, and the benefits that apparently come from taking them. And one thing that comes up in that book is the “Default Mode Network”, a pattern of brain activity that Pollan says is correlated with the ego, and that subsides in people who are taking psychedelic drugs. (Or in meditators, especially expert meditators.)

What caught my eye was Pollan’s claim that young children don’t have an active Default Mode Network. Which seemed a little odd: I don’t think of young children as exhibiting the sorts of behavior Pollan describes in the other contexts he’s referring to. (It’s been a while since I’ve spent much time with two-year-olds, but I don’t recall being struck with a notion of how meditatively they were acting!) But, despite that, Pollan’s claim stuck with me, because it potentially correlates with one experience that I had when young (and that is probably my earliest childhood memory, though I don’t remember it clearly any more): I was just sitting around or something and was all of a sudden struck with a realization that I was me and was distinct from other people. (Or something like that. Like I said, I don’t remember it clearly any more.)

I’m still kind of embarrassed to type that: it’s simultaneously egotistical and silly. I’ve never written about it before, I’ve only talked about it once in person, to a friend of mine when we were teenagers; but my friend actually reported having a similar sort of memory himself. It seems like it might be a reasonable match for what Pollan is talking about, though? So maybe what my friend and I remembered was our Default Mode Networks starting to switch on, maybe that’s the perceptual side of that change in the brain.


This consciousness thing is weird. I used to think of that moment in my past as when I became conscious, but, reflecting on it, I I’m not so sure that’s right: as described above, it seems like I probably was conscious before then, I just didn’t have the same notion of the self before then? Heck, maybe a better way to say it would be to flip it around: that consciousness wasn’t I before then?

To me, consciousness is the single best argument that there’s something fundamental missing in the model that physics presents of the world. But that Default Mode Network example shows how that’s complicated: assuming that I am correct in identifying Default Mode Network activation with a significant state in the nature of my consciousness, then that’s an example of how consciousness and physical properties are significantly intertwined. Which, yeah, we know; and I can imagine our society going further down that route, and finding more and more physical correlations with aspects of consciousness. But it still feels to me like there will be something fundamental missing in that explanation, unless the conceptual model of physics broadens somehow.

On a related note, there are some interesting psychological / physiological experiments showing that decisions we’ve made reflect themselves in our body before they make it to our consciousness, which casts doubt on the notion of free will. I’m actually more willing to believe that free will doesn’t exist than that consciousness doesn’t exist / is a purely physical property, though many of the arguments I’ve heard against free will seem to me like arguments that would also apply to claim consciousness doesn’t exist, and hence are probably wrong. Hard stuff to understand…


While I’m going down this path of embarrassment: another way one could choose to conceptualize this is to hypothesize that I didn’t have a soul until that moment. I’m not at all sure that that’s a correct way to think about this: if I really was conscious but not self-aware before that moment, and if we accept that the concept of soul makes sense, then I probably had one before then? I’m not completely sure that that’s the case, though; it’s not like I have a better candidate for when I would have gotten a soul. Again, assuming that the concept of soul is a coherent / useful / potentially correct one.

I was recently rereading Mitchell’s Comprehensive Guide to Daoist Nei Gong; the theory presented there often likes dividing stuff up into five parts, and in particular it divides the mind into five parts. Two of those parts of the mind are closer to consciousness; two are closer to the body; one of them is in the middle. And one of those parts that’s particularly tied to consiousness and to the concept of the soul, namely the Hun, is further divided into three parts: one comes from collective consciousness, one comes from past lives, and one comes from your parents.

I don’t take any of that particularly seriously, but actually reincarnation has struck me in the past as something that’s not obviously incorrect: I don’t understand how consciousness enters the body, so I don’t feel like I should have strong confidence in my undersanding on how consciousness behaves once the body falls apart. I certainly don’t have any reason to believe that there’s anything fundamentally correct about that aspect of Daoist theory; but I do like the way it opens up the possibility that, even if we take notions like consciousness or the soul or reincarnation seriously, it could all be a lot more complicated than our (or at least my!) naive imagination of those concepts: it’s not you that’s reincarnating, it’s one third of one fifth of your mind that’s carrying over from an individual past life. There’s potentially all sorts of stuff mixing around in our minds, and until we understand it better, best to be open to the possibility that there’s quite a bit of complexity in how stuff gets in there, let alone how it interacts.


Enough for now. And, enough on this specific topic for quite a while, I suspect: I really do not feel comfortable writing about it…

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