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This was not my typical bus ride to work

Nov 11, 2018

I was waiting for the bus that takes me to work. The rain was starting to come down, so I was glad when I saw the bus pulling up.  As it slowed to a near stop right in front of me, the doors didn't open.  It started turning away. So I knocked on the door of the bus. But the driver didn't respond at all.  She kept her eyes straight ahead toward the road as I continued to knock on the door. Finally, the door opened.  "What happened?" I asked, showing my annoyance.  But she wasn't taking any shit from me. "When the bus pulled up, you stepped away.  So I assumed you weren't taking the bus."

Maybe I took a small step back as the bus approached in order to avoid getting splashed, but why was she ignoring me when I was knocking on the door?  I took my seat and let it go.

About 20 minutes later the bus was arriving to the City College stop.  I was the last person on the bus, and  I thought about saying something to her as I left.  Maybe it didn't make sense to stir things up.  Then again, if she's passive aggressive with people riding the bus, maybe someone should say something. 

When I walked up to the front of the bus and the doors opened, I said "When I was knocking at the door and you were ignoring me, you know that wasn't right."   She said "Well the bus is not permitted to open the door once it leaves the bus stop."    I said "How do you think that made me feel to have the bus pulling away as I'm knocking on the door?"  She said "Well how do you think it made me feel when you're knocking on the door and I'm not allowed to open it."

Maybe that was true. "Well, I could see that," I said. I felt the mood start to soften.  "Look," she said, "I didn't want to mess up your day."

I said "I can see it from your point of view."  She said, "Give me your hand." With my hand in hers she said, "I hope you have a great day."  I said "You too". And as I was walking down the little steps of the bus I said "I'm sorry."  "No," she said, "I'm sorry."


Thoughts and Ripples

Jul 30, 2018

When you throw a few pebbles in a lake, you know that a pattern of ripples will appear. But you don't know what the pattern will look like until it emerges, especially if there's a strong water current or some wind blowing. This is similar to what happens when you think about an idea. The pebbles are the ideas you start with -- maybe something someone said to you, something you read or heard on TV, maybe something that just suddenly came to your mind. What's interesting to me is the fact that you don't know what you're going to think until you've thought it; you don't know what the rippled pattern will look like until it's formed.

In a sense, we're the authors of our thoughts. But we're also the observers of our thoughts. It's not easy to notice this. Pause for a moment before your next thought and notice how in the dark you are about the nature of the next thought that will come to your mind. Enjoy the rippled patterns of ideas that emerge. You created them, kind of.

The Conscious Brain

Nov 4, 2017

10/29/17

When people are not conscious, e.g. those in a vegetative state, their brains show very low levels of neuronal activity.  Their neurons may occasionally respond to stimuli, say a loud sound, but not many neurons, and not for very long.

Those in a minimally conscious state, with only occasional periods of awareness, show somewhat higher and more sustained levels of brain activity.

When we are fully conscious, the things we see, think, remember, and our other conscious experiences, are accompanied by strong activation of the neurons in the brain.


So there’s a relationship between conscious awareness and the activity of brain cells.    As I write this post, I’m picturing a brain.  To do this, I'm activating certain neurons in visual areas of my brain that give rise to the mental image.

But not all neuronal activity gives rise to consciousness. Some neurons, for instance, become active just before you grasp a cup, and determine the position for you to place your fingers as you move your hand toward it. If your grasp is wide, these brain areas will quickly send updated commands to your hand muscles so that you grasp the cup in a way that allows you to lift it, and not drop it. Next time you grab for a similar-sized cup, your brain may instruct your hand muscles to produce this 'narrower' grasp. Lots of neurons in several areas of your brain are activated in order to adjust your hand position, and usually this activity falls outside your awareness. The neurons are activated but they don’t give rise to a conscious experience of adjusting your hand position.

What is the difference between the neuronal activity that gives rise to conscious awareness and the neuronal activity that doesn't.
  • Maybe it depends on the part of the brain that's activated.  There may be some brain areas where neuronal activity is off-limits to conscious awareness. You might imagine these areas to include those that control aspects of body movement; habitual, automatized behaviors; and the kinds of thoughts and goals that Freud envisioned residing within the unconscious.
  • Maybe most of the neurons in the brain are off-limits to consciousness. It could be that conscious experiences are made up of the neuronal signals that transmit information to a privileged brain region, a kind of 'seat of consciousness'.  This area (which some neuroscientists imagine to be in the frontal cortex) would be the stage upon which the drama of our inner-lives (the hopes, plans, memories, regrets, and so on) unfold. 
  • Maybe any of my 100-billion-or-so neurons can contribute to a conscious experience -- so long as the neurons fire rapidly enough, or so long as their activity is synchronized with the activity of enough other neurons in the brain.
There are many other 'maybes' about how neural activity could relate to consciousness. But whichever explanations turn out to be true, the nagging and interesting questions would remain: "Why should neurons in those brain areas, and not others, give rise to a conscious experience?" "What's so special about brain area X that I'm only conscious of inputs to that area?" "Why do neurons have to fire at a certain rate, or in a certain rhythm with respect to other neurons, in order to produce a conscious sensation?"