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Alan Watts: What is the self?

Self defined not as individual ego, but the whole universe.

  • Alan Watts believed that we can comprehend a greater sense of the self.
  • The self is not alienated from the universe, but a part of the whole process.
  • Scientists have conceptualized a similar idea that sounds like it's straight out of the Indian Vedanta.

Western cultures rooted in scientific thinking and reductionist philosophies have always flirted with the tempting holism of the East. It was during the 1950s and '60s that these philosophies finally burst through the dividing cultural membrane and finally became a permanent fixture in our culture. Alan Watts was one such philosopher and lecturer of the time that is largely responsible for this popularization of Eastern spiritual ideas.

Whether it was on the way we view education or money — Watts masterfully weaved a synthesis of ancient Eastern philosophy to contend with and understand our chaotic mode of modern life.

One such topic that he touched upon at length was the idea of the self. Many great philosophers have pondered on this great question — what is the self? It is within this sphere of questioning that Watts proposed that all roads of inquiry lead to one central idea, even if they're not aware of it. That the self is an illusion, all is inseparable and part of a continuous wave of existence from beginning to end and back again.

... the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.

Alan Watts and the self

Alan Watts touched upon this subject at length in a talk titled "Self and Other." Watts believed that we could shed the illusion of self and other through simple comprehension. No need for any difficult yoga meditations or even mind-shattering psychedelics.

It is plain to see that in our modern civilization many people lack meaning. As the scientific method has unraveled old mysteries and religions have lost their hold on ontological truth, there is no longer a binding authority to look toward for guidance on the nature of reality.

Great existentialist thinkers heralded this onslaught of meaning in the past two centuries. Science offers us no solace with its nihilistic undertones of blind chance and our supposed infinitesimal place in an infinite and indifferent universe. But the very act of our being is testament to the fact that we are more than a separate entity that is a stranger to this universe, but the whole meaning and process of it. As Watts once mused about the future, "It's going to become basic common sense that you are not some alien being who confronts an external world that is not you, but that almost every intelligent person will have the feeling of being an activity of the entire universe."

There is a prevailing concept endemic to modern cosmology that proposes that life is some kind of cosmic accident. That it's a rarity, an aberration or seen in a sometimes more positive light — a miracle.

Now in the Eastern view and especially in the view that Watts espouses, everything has led up to this point, but not in some kind of planned monarchical clockwork godlike guidance. It simply has come to be. All of the universal processes — from gravitational pulls from one galaxy to the next down to the starlight of our sun to the multiplicitous iterations of conscious life — are one interconnected process and, in a sense, one being.

"You see, if you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you're doing, then you become aware also in the same moment and at the same time that you're not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun."

We come to realize then that self cannot be defined. That we are interdependent on others to define ourselves socially, physically, and spiritually just as we are also the sum total of our environment, genetic makeup, and all matter-bound activities in the universe right down to the beginning of existence.

"In other words, let's suppose that those cosmologists and astronomers are right who believe that this universe started out with an original Big Bang, which flung all those galaxies out into space. It's a continuous energy system. The energy which is now manifested as your body is the same energy which was there in the beginning. If anything at all is old, this hand is as old as anything there is. Incredibly ancient. I mean, the energy keeps changing shapes, doing all sorts of things, but there it all is."

Watts philosophical argument is compelling when integrated into our current understanding of the universe. Some modern day scientists are even conceding the point that was made thousands of years ago by early Hindu and Buddhist philosophies.

Scientific theory on universal consciousness

For instance, the late scientist and philosopher John Archibald Wheeler remarked that every single piece of matter contained consciousness, which he believed made up a proto-consciousness field. The theory eventually was called "participatory anthropic principle," which explains how the human observer is a fundamental part of the process. He stated, "We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago."

Some modern day scientists are taking this one step forward in the only way they know how and thinking about testing for observational evidence of consciousness transmitted through a quantum vacuum. Another name for this phenomenon is called panpsychism.

Perhaps we are the Brahmin who has forget itself. As the ancient Hindu scriptures once believed that we are the soul breath of Atman. The self as the cosmos and the cosmos as the self to experience itself.

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Technology & Innovation
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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