The history of stuff

I’ve reported several times here about my reading of the book “My Stroke of Insight” by a neuroscientist who had a stroke and was able to provide a thorough description of the experience. Her stroke knocked out a significant part of her left brain, and she reported a feeling of losing her sense of physical self — of literally being unclear where her body ended and the rest of the world began.

I’ve also commented on a particular New Yorker article that reported on the brain scans of people in meditation or prayer. What was noted is that a portion of the left brain’s parietal lobe — known to be integral to our ability to locate ourselves in physical space — became quiet.

So, it looks like this particular chunk of the brain is integral to our physical definition of ourselves, and when this chunk is “quieted” people seem to fall into this sense of “I’m a part of the universe” feeling.

Of course, the statement “I’m a part of the universe” is the kind of thing hippies are always saying thus it should be mocked and distrusted. My sense is that there’s no real spiritual event happening, but simply that one’s “sense of self” (by this I mean sense of physical self) is a sense like proprioception (our general sense of where parts of our bodies are) or our sense of whether we’re upside down or not (vestibular function.) When this sense is removed, all sorts of funny things happen.

Now, Jill Bolte Taylor, the author of “My Stroke of Insight” would probably disagree. I seem to recall that in her book that she did ascribe to her experience a certain kind of spirituality. In a “sense”, she felt that this sense of “everything is connected” was not merely a neurological tic, but a real, valid experience.

I don’t fully buy this, but I was considering the following this morning. When we look around the world, we see things as separate objects. “This is a book, this is a dog, this is a ham sandwich etc.” But we recognize these objects can have parts removed and still fall under the same classification. For example, I can tear some pages out of a book and it’s still a book. I can surgically remove a dog’s tail and it’s still a dog. Objects are made up of lesser parts. And of course the same is true with the human body. I am one person, but that one person is made up of lungs, heart, skin, bones etc. And those parts break down into cells, and cells can be broken down into molecules, molecules into atoms, and atoms can be broken apart into various quantum particles like protons and neutrons etc. And in between these various units is empty space. (The space between these small units is invisible to our eyes, of course.)

Now we know that these various units can affect each other. On an organ level, the brain can release hormones that travel through the bloodstream to the heart and cause the heart to beat faster. Inside the cell body, different cell structures interact with each other. The same with molecules, atoms, quarks and so on. The “stuff” of the world is constantly interacting with “other stuff.”

Okay, so we realize that objects can be reduced to a much smaller units and these units interact with each other. We also see a lot of interaction in the larger plane of existence most of us operate in. A dog barks at cat, and the cat runs away. I throw a rock at a glass jar and it breaks apart. I tell my girlfriend she’s a whore and this starts a series of physiological changes including increased heartbeat and tears rolling out of her eyes. (And possible slapping.) Again, we’re dealing with “stuff” interacting with “other stuff.”

However, we, as humans, recognize certain forms of stuff as “objects” but not others. I understand a Swiss watch is made up of a number of mechanical parts interacting. And I view that watch as a machine. However, if I throw a rock at a jar, or insult my girlfriend, you could argue I am also part of a machine — a thing made up of “parts” (of which I am one part). To call one thing a “watch” but not call another thing something like “guyinsultinggirlfriend” seems like a rather arbitrary distinction. If anything, the rule is that we recognize objects made up of units that are close together, but we don’t recognize objects that are made up of units with a lot of space between them. (I can think of various exceptions to that second part: we recognize that cities are made up of people, buildings, cars etc. The same point could be made about planets, or galaxies etc.)

There’s another factor here relevant to how we view human beings (and probably most intelligent lifeforms.) We recognize the concept of ego. I happen to associate the collection of cells and organs that make up myself as being connected to my desires, drive, will and what not. Because those units all serve under my ego (well, sort of) I group them together. But what is ego? You could argue it’s both a psychological construct and a physiological construct (e.g. that part of the brain that was lost during Taylor’s stroke.) But it’s hard to argue that it’s “real” in any meaningful sense. Thus, if our sense of what qualifies as an object is based upon either a rather unimportant distinction of how far apart things are from other things or whether the object possesses the ethereal ego, then our distinctions really aren’t all that meaningful. And, thus, we are all connected. Just as parts of the Swiss watch interact with each other, I can interact with a dog who barks at a cat who claws a scientist who accidentally releases a biological weapon that kills all life on earth. It’s merely stuff interacting with other stuff.

I am the new God of the universe!

1 Response to “The history of stuff”


  1. John Saleeby

    Well, I guess if you keep on with this “thinking” of yours something will come of it sooner or later.

    Don’t forget to catch the new episode of my “The Devil Is A Sissy” podcast Friday evening and Saturday morning be sure to Woody Van Dyke’s 1930′s Silly Fuckin’ Movie “The Devil Is A Sissy” on TCM!