Who Am I Really? My Path to Understanding Consciousness
I am now in a place in my life where I can finally dedicate time and energy to answering this question. I feel that spirituality, philosophy, and neuroscience have valuable things to contribute to the nature of consciousness, but like the blind men and the elephant from the popular Indian tale, they only offer insight into parts of the whole. I hope to extensively study these insights and put together a working idea of consciousness by finding the common theme running through all of them.
At the moment, because of where pursuits in my professional development are taking me, I’m focused on neuroscience. If I asked a neuroscientist what consciousness is, he or she might answer that it is a construct of the brain. I have heard variations of this from three accomplished neuroscientists in videos of their lectures I found on YouTube. Two of them, Jeanette Norden Ph.D and Adam Gazzaley MD said that your self concept is a product of processes in the brain. Dr. Norden stressed the fact that because it is attributed to the brain, it can easily be taken away. She studies Alzheimer’s and the devastating affects it has on the brain and from the stories she tells about patients and their loved ones and what they go through, it is compelling to believe that the Self is truly a product of the mind. Another neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE, said that although consciousness is related to the brain, it cannot be found in any particular area of the brain, and although neuroscience can contribute to the discussion of consciousness, it cannot give an answer to the question, “What makes us who we are?”
I know very little about the brain and how it works, but the little I do know compels me to believe that my self concept may indeed be simply a result of processes in the brain. I have learned that hormonal and chemical imbalances can lead to depression, or rather are factors in the causes of depression. When we exercise our bodies release endorphins which help us to feel good emotionally as well as physically. I have also learned that people who suffer from brain injuries or diseases that affect the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus; areas of the brain responsible for working memory and the memories that make up our autobiography undergo complete personality changes. They cease to be the person they were before the injury or the progression of the disease. So our biology certainly plays a role in how we feel and who we think we are. So then is my self concept merely a result of chemical and hormonal reactions and interactions in the brain and body, or am I more than the sum of my parts?
I’d like to think we are more, and I know I am not alone in this belief. Billions of us believe that to some degree there is more than just the physical realm. Some believe we have souls that live on forever. Others believe we are members of a heavenly family with a divine patriarch lovingly presiding over us all; while still others have a more balanced perspective and believe in a divine mother and father who have different roles depending on their gender.
I was raised Mormon and for the first eighteen years of my life I was an active member of the church. I believed that I had a heavenly father who loved and protected me and that if I was good and followed his teachings I would be rewarded in heaven, but if I was wicked and turned away from him, I would be punished and placed in spirit prison (a gentler form of hell) where I would remain until I repented and returned to his fold. Now I am more of an agnostic. I do not believe in an authoritarian god that is characteristic of most dogmatic religions (i.e. Christianity and Islam). In the case of metaphysics and the existence of a divine higher being or beings, none of us really knows for sure what is true. We must go by faith, and so I have faith that I am more than just the result of synapses firing in my brain. I’d like to believe I am part of Source and that I am connected to every being on earth and beyond because of this fact.
However, like my knowledge of the brain, I know very little about metaphysics. In fact, I would argue that I am more ignorant of spirituality than I am of neuroscience. Where metaphysics are concerned, I haven’t really searched for answers to my question, but both asking deep and probing questions, and the idea of meditation resonate with me. I am a student, and I thirst for knowledge. Religion offers very little to me by way of Self discovery and intellectual expansion, but exploring spirituality and philosophy seem like worth while endeavors to me, and I plan to spend more time in those areas as well.
I feel that until I really take the time to delve into the realms of neuroscience, philosophy and spirituality I will not be able to answer the question of who I really am. I have dipped my toes into the waters of all three areas, but I have not dived in. Now that I have begun to really examine who I am, what I want, and the life I want to live, I am ready to take the plunge. I’m excited to find out what I don’t know I don’t know.
I will begin with neuroscience, so if there are any neuroscientists out there reading this blog please let me know where I can find more information about the brain and consciousness. Right now, I’m looking at lectures on YouTube, and I’ve read several books related to the brain and language and emotions. The first book I read on this subject was “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain,” by Antonio Damasio. Years after that, I read “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker. Recently I’ve read “The Neurobiology of Learning: Perspectives from Second Language Acquistion”by John H. Schumann, Sheila E. Crowell, Nancy E. Jones, Namhee Lee, Sara Ann Schuchert, and Lee Alexander Wood. I have also read a book on applying cognitive linguistics to language teaching by Jeannette Littlemore. Any other authors or suggestions you could give me would be much appreciated, and if you could recommend a good neuroscience program at which to study more about the human brain I would be most grateful.
Until next time, I wish you all the very best.