Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Mind's Theatrical Show

See The Magical Mystery Show of Consciousness by Matt Ridely of the Wall Street Journal. It is a review of the book Soul Dust by Nick Humphrey.

The passage that really caught my eye was: "Mr. Humphrey's intriguing conclusion is that your mind does indeed stage "a theatrical show in order to influence the judgment of another part of your brain.""

Here are other excerpts:

"The genius of "Soul Dust" is to attempt an explanation of both how this is done and why it evolved. Mr. Humphrey's suggestion is that animals first acquired an ability to sense the world and to respond to sensations: When they felt pain (or pleasure), they withdrew (or extended) the affected body part. They then acquired the neural capability to monitor their own responses and, gradually, to produce a virtual internal representation of that response. Now there was an event in the brain called "paining," parallel to the real sensation of pain, or "redding," experienced when looking at a red tomato

So consciousness, Mr. Humphrey believes, comes from our way of mentally re-enacting what happens at our body's surface. Based on rhythmic patterns of activity in our neurons, he even tries to explain what the physical manifestation of this phenomenon might resemble in the brain."

"But why this show? What is the point of being conscious? Mr. Humphrey made his name many years ago with a famous essay on the evolutionary function of intelligence, arguing that it emerged through natural selection not to solve physical puzzles, as many assume, but to solve social ones—to read minds. Here he attempts a similar explanation for why the impartial spectator of consciousness is watching a magical mystery show. His answer sounds startlingly unscientific, even spiritual: to impress the soul.

What he means is that being enchanted by the magic of experience provides a reason to live. Rather than being an aid to survival, consciousness provides an essential incentive to survive. Enchantment is itself "the biological advantage of being awestruck.""

This last part reminds me of Joseph Campbell and "following your bliss," doing what you love because it electrifies you. Campbell also talked about seeing a work of art and being in a state of "aesthetic arrest." This sounds like being awestruck. The article also mentions Adam Smith (economist) and his theory of empathy. So being able to empathize might be tied to our ability to tell stories, which was forged by evolution.

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