I recently mentioned my thoughts and confusion while reading the book “Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë. I was somewhat dismissive after reading it, but while I’m still not quite sure what it was saying, I find some of its ideas still percolating.
The book seemed to be about defining where the limits of a person are. Obviously our physical bodies can be said to extend to our skin (though one could quibble with even that point.) But if you refer to a person as a sum of their experiences, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions etc… where does a person begin or end in that view? Noë’s claim, and I think he’s probably correct, is that modern neuroscience would generally say that the borders of the nervous system (brain and nerves throughout the body) are this beginning and end point.
Let’s consider our conscious experience of life – by this I mean our sights, tastes, smells etc. as well as internal thoughts, feelings and so on. If we consider that sum of perceptions as “us” where do we begin or end?
Think of seeing a bird. What’s going on there? In short, light particles/waves reflect off the form of the bird and some of them make their way to your eyes and to certain retinal cells designed to respond to different wave lengths of light (what we see as different colors.) Those retinal cells connect to other cells, travel up your optic nerve and into you brain where the “information” is “processed” by the brain and this results in our internal perception of the bird. So where is the “us” in this process – who is seeing the bird? Conventional science would probably say, again, that it’s the nervous system (the eyes and brain etc.) And that not a bad view to take, especially for medical purposes. This view would say our perception arises out of the signals traveling through our eyes, optic nerve and brain. But let’s consider what’s happening before those signals fire from our eyes. Light particles bounce off the bird and go to out eyes. In a sense, those particles could be thought of as signals (at least as well as the electrochemical firings of your nerves can.) So could those particles and indeed even that bird be thought of as part of “us”? And where do those bounced light particles come from? If we’re outside, the sun is likely source. So is the sun not a part of “us”?
At this point one starts to sound rather new agey, essentially claiming that “we” are the universe—a complex system of signals of “information.” I’m not really willing to take it that far (though the case could be made.) But I do find it interesting to think of ourselves (if we define “ourselves” to include our conscious perception of the world) as more than just our brain but also our surrounding environment.
And this aligns with another meme you often see in psychology, Buddhism, new age thought etc… that your environment has a great effect on you and thus by placing yourself in the right environment you can flourish. (The opposite would also be true. And I might argue that the real trick is making whatever environment you are in “positive.” Like the prison lifer who nonetheless thrives.)