The observable examined

Subjectivity of our existence

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As computer users, we are all familiar with the “sleep” or “hibernate” function. Essentially, the computer maintains its current state while “powering down” different parts of the system to conserve power. When you “wake up” the computer, it lets you pick up what you were doing from where you left off. The “sleep” and “wake” nomenclature for this behavior is not happenstance but is a direct analogy to how brains function. But there is one crucial difference. In computers, it is a very well understood process. The current state of the system is stored in non-volatile memory and reinstated on waking up. In brains, this analogous process has the magical property of consciousness – subjectivity.  Below I have excerpted a  passage from Antonio Damasio’s book – The Self Comes to Mind,  that  beautifully captures the essence of this difference (if you had not thought of it in these terms, it will be a true wake up call – sorry, I could not help the pun).

“….We all have free access to consciousness, bubbling so easily and abundantly in our minds that without hesitation or apprehension we let  it be turned off every night when we go to sleep and allow it to return every morning when the alarm clock rings, at least 365 times a year, not counting naps. And yet few things about our beings are as remarkable, foundational, and seemingly mysterious as consciousness. Without consciousness-that is, a mind endowed with subjectivity-you would have no way of knowing that you exist, let alone know who you are and what you think. Had subjectivity not begun, even if very modestly at first, in living creatures far simpler than we are, memory and reasoning are not likely to have expanded in the prodigious way they did, and the evolutionary road for language and the elaborate human version of consciousness we now possess would not have been paved. Creativity would not have flourished. There would have been no song, no painting, and no literature. Love would never have been love, just sex. Friendship would have been mere cooperative convenience. Pain would never have become suffering-not a bad thing, come to think of it but an equivocal advantage given that pleasure would not have become bliss either. Had subjectivity not made its radical appearance, there would have been no knowing and no one to take notice, and consequently there would have been no history of what creatures did through the ages, no culture at all.”

The discovery of mirror neurons in the early nineties and subsequent research to understand their role in social cognition is offering tantalizing insights into the neural substrates underlying this subjectivity – the hallmark of human existence.


Written by asterix98

September 8, 2012 at 6:52 pm

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