Sam Harris: The Self is an Illusion

Sam Harris: What one of the problems we have in discussing consciousness scientifically is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. This is a point that many philosophers have made – Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. While I don’t agree with everything they’ve said about consciousness I agree with them on this point that consciousness is what it’s like to be you. If there’s an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system then that is consciousness. And we can’t reduce the experiential side to talk of information processing and neurotransmitters and states of the brain in our case because – and people want to do this. Someone like Francis Crick said famously you’re nothing but a pack of neurons. And that misses the fact that half of the reality we’re talking about is the qualitative experiential side. So when you’re trying to study human consciousness, for instance, by looking at states of the brain, all you can do is correlate experiential changes with changes in brain states. But no matter how tight these correlations become that never gives you license to throw out the first person experiential side. That would be analogous to saying that if you just flipped a coin long enough you would realize it had only one side. And now it’s true you can be committed to talking about just one side. You can say that heads being up is just a case of tails being down. But that doesn’t actually reduce one side of reality to the other.

And to give you a more precise example, we have very strong third person “objective measures” of things like anxiety and fear at this moment. You bring someone into the lab, they say they’re feeling fear. You can scan their brains with FMRI and see that their amygdala response is heightened. You can measure the sweat on their palms and see that there’s an increased galvanic skin response. You can check their blood cortisol and see that its spiking. So these now are considered objective third person measures of fear. But if half the people came into the lab tomorrow and said they were feeling fear and showed none of these signs and they said they were completely calm when their cortisol spiked and when their palms started to sweat, these objective measures would no longer be reliable measures of fear. So the cash value of a change in physiology is still a change in the first person conscious side of things. And we’re inevitably going to rely on people’s subjective reports to understand whether our correlations are accurate. So the hope that we are going to talk about consciousness shorn of any kind of qualitative internal experiential language, I think, is a false one. So we have to understand both sides of it subjective – classically subjective and objective.

I’m not arguing that consciousness is a reality beyond science or beyond the brain or that it floats free of the brain at death. I’m not making any spooky claims about its metaphysics. What I am saying, however, is that the self is an illusion. The sense of being an ego, an I, a thinker of thoughts in addition to the thoughts. An experiencer in addition to the experience. The sense that we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of a passenger in the vehicle of the body. That’s where most people start when they think about any of these questions. Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies. They feel like they have bodies. They feel like they’re inside the body. And most people feel like they’re inside their heads. Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head is an illusion. It makes no neuro-anatomical sense. There’s no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding. We know that everything you experience – your conscious emotions and thoughts and moods and the impulses that initiate behavior – all of these things are delivered by a myriad of different processes in the brain that are spread out over the whole of the brain. They can be independently erupted. We have a changing system. We are a process and there’s not one unitary self that’s carried through from one moment to the next unchanging.

And yet we feel that we have this self that’s just this center of experience. Now it’s possible I claim and people have claimed for thousands of years to lose this feeling, to actually have the center drop out of the experience so that you just rather than feeling like you’re on this side of things looking in as though you’re almost looking over your own shoulder appropriating experience in each moment, you can just be identical to this sphere of experience that is all of the color and light and feeling and energy of consciousness. But there’s no sense of center there. So this is classically described as self- transcendence or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical, new age religious literature. It is in large measure the baby in the bathwater that religious people are afraid to throw out. It’s – if you want to take seriously the project of being like Jesus or Buddha or some, you know, whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence really is at the core of the phenomenology that is described there. And what I’m saying is that it’s a real experience.

It’s clearly an experience that people can have. And while it tells you nothing about the cosmos, it tells you nothing about what happened before the Big Bang. It tells you nothing about the divine origin of certain books. It doesn’t make religious dogmas any more plausible. It does tell you something about the nature of human consciousness. It tells you something about the possibilities of experience but then again any experience does. You can – there’s just – people have extraordinary experiences. And the problem with religion is that they extrapolate – people extrapolate from those experiences and make grandiose claims about the nature of the universe. But these experiences do entitle you to talk about the nature of human consciousness and it just so happens that this experience of self-transcendence does link up with what we know about the mind through neuroscience to form a plausible connection between science and classic mysticism, classic spirituality. Because if you lose your sense of a unitary self – if you lose your sense that there’s a permanent unchanging center to consciousness, your experience of the world actually becomes more faithful to the facts. It’s not a distortion of the way we think things are at the level of the brain. It’s actually – it brings your experience into closer register with how we think things are.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Sam Harris describes the properties of consciousness and how mindfulness practices of all stripes can be used to transcend one's ego.

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Impossible Foods
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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Politics & Current Affairs
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