I am relieving my ‘gadget stress‘ by ‘reading offline‘ and allowing some ‘mind wandering‘ to stimulate an increase in my intellectual productivity and creativity with the aid of some walks across green fields and cliff tops. In other words, I have ‘gone walking‘ on a ‘deep vacation‘. If you don’t have the opportunity for a vacation, then at least ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘.
Our senses are bombarded in modern life. When our ears are plugged with sound from the mobile phone to which our eyes are glues, our brain tends to be overloaded with stimuli and we barely register the signals from our other senses: smell, taste, touch. Our smart phones can deliver so much data to our brains that there is little time to savour experiences. Yet, some neuroscientists have suggested that the significant function of consciousness is to provide us with sensory pleasure and a reason to live. In our busy lives, we need to pay attention to the small things in life, such as the taste of your home-made granola at breakfast and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or the feel of a shell or pebble that you keep on your desk [‘Pebbles – where are yours?’ on September 27, 2017]. So, tune into all of your senses and give your mind a break from the digital world. It should make you feel better.
I have written recently about time and consciousness [see ‘Time at the heart of our problems‘ on January 30th, 2019 and ‘Limits of imagination‘ on February 13th, 2019]. We perceive some things as almost constant or changeless, such as trees and landscapes; however, that is just a consequence of our perception of time. Nothing that is in equilibrium, and hence unchanging, can be alive. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that disequilibrium is fundamental in driving all processes including life. Our perception of experience arises from registering changes in the flow of sensory information to our brains and as well as changes in the networks of neurons in our brains. Hence, both time and complexity appear to be essential ingredients for consciousness. Even when we sit motionless watching an apparently unchanging scene, as a consequence of the endless motion of connections and signals in our brains, our minds are teeming with activity, churning through great jumbles of ideas, memories and thoughts. Next time you are sitting quietly, try to find ‘you’; not the things that you do or experience but the elusive ‘I’. We assume that the elusive ‘I’ is there, but most of us find nothing when we look for it. Julian Baggini has suggested that the “I” is ‘a nothing, contentless centre around which experiences flutter like butterflies.’
Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.
Czerski H, Storm in a teacup:the physics of everyday life, London: Penguin Random House, 2016.
Godfrey-Smith P, Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life, London: William Collins, 2018.
Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cuttlefish [see ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve‘ on January 16th, 2019] based on a wonderful book, that I was given for Christmas, called ‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life‘ by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Cuttlefish and octopuses are cephalopods that Peter Godfrey-Smith describes as ‘an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’. The most recent common ancestor of cephalopods and humans is so distant and was so simple that cephalopods represent an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, which is not as many as humans, we have about 100 billion; but still a large number and connectivity is probably more important than absolute size [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. Whereas we have a central nervous system, an octopus has a distributed system with neurons located in its arms which appears to give each arm a high-level of autonomy. In addition to tactile sensory information from its suckers, each arm receives visual information from its skin which is sensitive to light. The extent to which information and control is shared between the neurons in the brain and the network of neurons in its body is unknown. It is difficult for us to imagine our fingers as being able to respond independently to visual as well as tactile stimuli, even more so to think of them as independent problem-solvers. Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests that cephalopods are the closest that we are likely to come to meeting intelligent aliens – their thought processes and capabilities appear so different to ours that our scientific studies and experiments are unlikely to fully reveal their intelligence or level of consciousness. A first step would be to stop eating them!
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.