The illusion of duality

What does it mean to say someone is tall or short, Or to say that something is outside or inside? What are these terms "tall/short" and "outside/inside" referring to? Are they specific designations of particular qualities? If so, then where is the line between someone who is tall and someone who is short?

The fact is that these designations are relative in essence. Something cannot be "tall" without something else being "shorter" to indicate tallness. Outside refers to something external to an "inside"; top refers to having a bottom, etc. These polarities are relational and indicate not a polarized duality, but a cohesive unit with relative aspects; tall and short, light or dark. The illusion is in that we humans tend to forget this unifying principle with duality, but the proof is plain to see. A person of 2 meters is taller than a person standing 1.5 meters, but shorter than a person at 2.2 meters. This illustrates the relational quality between short and tall. The same goes for outside and inside. To illustrate take the human dermal layer (skin and fat), is the skin outside of a human or is the air that touches the skin the outside? Are the underlying layers of dermal material inside and the topmost layer outside? Regardless, on a physical level, the "outside" of our skin is also an illusion because skin is permeable to some things and not to others.

The whole idea of dualities existing as separate entities is illusion. They are relational and completely interdependent upon each other. This goes for "emotions" and "intellect" as well. They cannot be separated into singular classes, because they are interdependent with each other. The intellect informs the emotive centers of the brain, and the emotive centers influence the intellect. If a person is lacking in either intellect or emotional depth, both are adversely affected.

I see the dangers of this illusion everywhere. The illusion of duality is embedded into our language, in our educational infrastructure, in the media we see. It is the illusion that we as individuals are somehow separate from our environment, from our actions, our bodies, from the people in our lives, when in actuality our identities are composed of all of these aspects. This illusion provides a license for dangerous attitudes and exploitive behavior; From the good/ bad religious paradigm to the left/ right political positions... if we are separate from our environment, it is easier to see it only as a usable resource. This is the very illusion that gives rise to selfishness over true identity.

Why is it that we say "my body" or "my mind"? This semantic trap implies some kind of propriety over ourselves, that there is some other thing that is "I", that owns the body and mind. This is a grand illusion that plays out in many ways. But when we look at the matter with any degree of depth, it is obvious that we are our bodies and minds, not some "separate" entity that is driving the vehicle. When either our bodies or our minds are damaged beyond repair, then we cease. This illusion is so rampant in our culture that most people buy into it hook, line and sinker. We start thinking in terms of "control" as in"I just can't control my lusty thoughts". We create these little conflicts within us that are completely neurotic in essence. There isn't a filmstrip playing inside us with another little consciousness watching it. The problem with that idea is that the "little" consciousness inside must also have a "little filmstrip" playing ad infinitum.

To assert that there are real distinctions between our thoughts and our emotions stems from this illusion of being separate from our "selves". Once we make the shift to seeing duality as embodying a relation, then we can easily see how each (our cognitive abilities and our internal emotional content) overlap. This is a liberating act; it liberates us from holding onto assumptions about ourselves that impede our ability to understand.

This same illusory quality of dualism is found in the artificial separation between individuals and the collective. Such as the problem of erroneously calling "the focus on the individual". The truth is that the idea that we as individuals are separate from the lives we lead and the influences both on us and from us is wrong. The self includes not only what is "inside" our skin, but also what is outside it as well. We are the community and the community is us as individuals. It's when this relational aspect is neglected that rampant individual selfishness manifests. In our current social system, the "group" has the upper hand, and severely limits the conscious and active involvement of the individual in their own realm of existence. The "collective" is exploiting this mental illusion of duality and imposing "control" and oppression.

The truth is not that we as a culture are too focused on individualism, but that we adhere to this illusion that we are somehow separate from our society, from our environment, from each other.

The mind as a heterachial structure rather than a binary system.

The problems with making any generalized statement about consciousness arises from the fact that it amounts to consciousness to define itself. The Zen Koan "what is the sound of one hand clapping" is an attempt to call attention to this whole idea of touching ones left index finger with their left index finger. However, despite the difficulties in making any sweeping generalizations about consciousness scientific consensus has made some progress on understanding consciousness.

One of the key advances in neurology and psychiatry is the idea that the brain is not a hierarchal system, meaning that it doesn't have a centralized control unit governing the activities of the brain, but rather a heterarchial system, where each component part is involved with the governance of the brain. This accounts for both neurological and for psychiatric phenomenon (the illusion of Mind/brain distinction).

On a cellular level, the brain works not like a binary system, or a hierarchal system, but each individual neuron may be attached to any number of other neurons working in concert with each other. The electronic "messages" are nonlinear (they do not follow from a single starting point) and they are as close to simultaneous as we can get. This web or network of connected neurons work as the most efficient and complex heterarchial system known to humans.

On the psychiatric/psychological side of things, the idea that we have one distinct mental identity was first attacked by William James, and then by Freud and Jung, Erich Fromm, et al. Each of these learned and intelligent people had their own structure of mind. For Freud there was the Id, the ego and the superego, Jung had his own versions, Fromm as well. The behaviorist movement (Skinner, et al) also saw the complexity of the mind as being relative and not structural unique. According to their school of thought human beings are input/output boxes, and in order to manipulate the output, the input needs to change. This indicates a higher level of complexity than a static identity.

When a person hears/sees/feels/tastes/smells/touches anything, that stimulus is screened through a myriad of inferences before we are conscious of it. Once we recognize the "thought" it continues to add to inferences and memories are recreated, impressions and thoughts in the past. These impressions/memories/thoughts cannot be defined as either emotional or intellectual. The stimulus incorporates both at the same time.

This matrix of memory, inferences, and cognition that all stimulus undergoes is not "controlled" by any single aspect of mentation, but is influenced by them all. Even just physical sensation itself. This complex matrix cannot be coded into a binary function, and in fact at this point the closest we can code it is in a trinary system (which is an exponential difference in complexity). The problem is that the complexity and non-linear aspects of mentation are not amenable to simplistic symbiotics; we cannot reduce the patterns down to simple symbols or systems.

The activity of the brain is a physical heterarchy, each part plays a significant role with the whole, and the activity of the mind is also heterarchial, in that the matrix of experience is composed of many different impulses, memories, and actions.

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Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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