Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Where’d you come up with that title, genius? On the fucking toilet?” Well, y… Yes, actually. And that’s because today we’re mainly going to be talking about consciousness and- Jesus what the f- FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAR Fear is an automatic response in your brain to perceived scary shit. But fear itself is not under your conscious control. It is automatic, and if it’s automatic, then that is not you. It is a thing your brain does, but it is not a thing that YOU do – conscious You. So presumably, there’s stuff in your brain you don’t control, and then there’s stuff in your brain that you do control. Stuff that is you. Let’s find out where the line is, then, shall we? Well, for most of the day so far, you’ve been blinking and breathing automatically. Congratulations, keep it up – but now you’re thinking about it, so you’re doing it manually. Anyway, you’ll forget about it in a few minutes, and all of that will become automatic again. So that is not you. Okay, what next? Well, what about the things you like? Surely we choose those. Let’s say, your music taste, for example. Good music activates the part of the brain dealing with euphoric reward response, or the bit that makes you feel nice. Okay, fine. But did you CHOOSE to prefer Metallica over Beethoven, or over the blood-curdling sound of two cats banging outside? No, obviously not – otherwise you’d just choose to prefer everything. Even though you can choose what to listen to, the preference itself – what presses your musical, or food-ish, or social buttons – is out of your control. So that is also not you. Okay, so we’ll push the line over a bit more. You don’t control what scares you, you don’t control basic survival stuff, you don’t control what you enjoy – so, okay, but at least you can choose what your brain is processing, right? Where to put your mind. Yeah, well… Not always. If you’re a native English speaker, or just fluent in English, you’re not choosing to understand these words, are you? They’re just coming in, and your brain is doing the work for you. Like, try to hear these syllables without the meaning. AN ADEQUATE KITCHEN. A STATIONARY FOOTBALL. TWO CATS REENACTING A SCENE FROM THE MOTION PICTURE “TITANIC”, HAVING PROVIDED A RUBBER RING FOR THE MICE. AN ANTHROPOMORPHIZED DOG, OFF FOR HIS FINAL EXAM BEFORE QUALIFYING AS A LUMBERJACK. A MAN SUCCESSFULLY COMBINING HIS RESPONSIBILITIES AS AN ACCOUNTANT WITH HIS LOVE OF NAUTICAL TOURISM. A MAN WITH A HITHERTO UNEXPLAINED EYE CONDITION ATTEMPTING TO PLAY A PIECE OF MUSIC ON THE ABACUS, WHILE NOT GRIPPING THE ABACUS CORRECTLY. AND A DOCTOR WHO IS ABOUT TO DESTROY A BURGER, AS WELL AS THE MAJORITY OF HIS LEFT HAND, WITH THE HELP OF, IF I AM NOT MISTAKEN, A SILENCED WALTHER PPK. It’s impossible – because language processing, when you’re good enough, is automatic. So that is not you. Okay, Jesus, but what about high level stuff? What about playing instruments, or driving a car? That must take awareness. That can’t be automatic. Yeah, okay, probably – for the first while. But if you play an instrument, you may have noticed your fingers just know what they’re doing – automatically. Or if you drive, you know It’s possible to get from A to B in a car, and spend the entire time having an argument in your head with your dad, ’cause he still hasn’t bought you that fucking Etch A Sketch! …while never actually thinking about changing gear or pushing the pedals. So high-level motor coordination, when you practice it, can be completely automatic too. Yeah, okay, but at least simple motor tasks are in your control – moving a hand, or a leg, or whatever. Yeah… Or not. Very simply, Benjamin Libet did a fairly famous experiment with getting people to press a button randomly when they felt like it. He was monitoring their brain activity while they did this. The weird thing is that the brain seems to be preparing to push the button a disturbing length of time before people were reporting choosing to press the button itself. There are problems with this experiment, for sure, but it does seem a bit like the systems underneath you – underneath being conscious – might be way more essential than the conscious systems themselves, and that choosing to do stuff is maybe just a game the brain plays afterwards to justify what it was already going to do anyway. Maybe. Okay, so fear isn’t you, survival stuff isn’t you, preference isn’t you, lots of motor control isn’t you – Christ, what else is going on in there that isn’t you? Well… a fair bit, actually. Like, oh, you know… Balancing when you walk, or falling asleep and waking up, or remembering who you are – or where you are, or when you are, or fetching memories in the first place, or taking all of the perceptions that are coming in through your senses and turning them into a coherent picture of the world that actually makes fucking sense, or even just processing everything at the same time, or processing text, or perceiving color, or just pretty much anything – most of it is automatic, or at least not mediated by you consciously. Is there anything in your brain that you do control, then, you silly… clever mess?! Yeah, let’s start by you closing your eyes. Go on. Are they closed? They bloody better be. Nothing nasty is gonna come up on the screen, or anything. All right? Closed? Cool. If you listen to my voice for a moment, and just try to ignore how grating and pretentious it is, if you put everything else out of your mind – all the anxieties, and the neuroses, all the sensations of your body – You will find that underneath all of that is nothing but awareness. There’s no obvious you on the inside, there’s no tiny cat pulling levers and pressing buttons. There’s no center to being conscious. It’s just presence. It’s just awareness. There are sensations, and awareness of sensations. and then processes – probably most of them automatic. You, as a thing, don’t seem to have a center, if you look for one. You – conscious you – do not really exist, not concretely, to be very simple about it. That is the idea, anyway. Go on, then – open your eyes, you scallywag. Another automatic process in the brain might be the system that says: “I am a thing with a sentient self. There is something on the inside doing the experiencing, and it is me.” But maybe… there isn’t. Maybe there just fucking isn’t. And what then? Well, insulting sign off followed by jaunty classical music. Довиждане! Hang on a second!
Look, even if you are kind of a lie – which you might be, me too – you are still self-aware, whatever happens, and that is pretty unique. We don’t know how self-aware other animals are. Almost no animals recognize their reflection, for some reason. Except maybe some of the great apes, possibly dolphins, elephants, and… magpies, for some… reason? But a bigger question is: if there are other species in the universe – and there probably are – and if they’ve been around a while – and they probably have – are they self-aware? We always seem to make out that advanced aliens will have gone down similar lines to us: starting as cells, going up and up, building fast food joints, smoking doobies, etc. But would they be self-aware necessarily? Like, maybe evolution accidentally made some higher mammals on earth self-aware because it’s better for problem-solving or something in this one case. Maybe it was just one of those weird drunken experiments nature undertakes sometimes, like platypuses, or Winchester. Maybe we just got really lucky. This might be a one-time trick in the Universe, and WE got to take it for a test drive. And that really gets one thinking, because what we need is a global holiday. And we’ll call it “Being Alive Is Fucking Cool” Day, where everyone gets the day off, and just for a bit, even for a few hours, takes the time to remember that everyone you meet, however shit, is kind of a miracle in plain sight. And on global “Being Alive Is Fucking Cool” Day, we’ll all eat donuts and take leisurely strolls in the park, and be cool to everyone, and around three o’clock solemnly put our hands on our hearts and pledge the following: “That as the sperm that won the race, as the mud that woke up, as a blob of carbon currently taking the shape of a human, I do declare that the world is fucking cool, and being self-aware is fucking cool, and I shall henceforth hold doors open for people, and fill pints right up to the top with only minimal foam, and endeavor not to be a knob, unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I do hereby furthermore declare that getting bored in a universe this weird is unacceptable, and if that happens, I should probably take up the tuba, or organize a water fight.” We shall have bad days, yes? We shall have good days, yes? All the while remembering that most things in the universe don’t even have fucking days at all. Even if it’s all a facade, there is something on the inside that knows it’s a thing. And that is the cat’s pajamas. That is the veritable lobster’s bottom. Oh, and there’ll be hats, and free beer, and bouncy castles, and I will see you there, carbon units. Re-Se-Ve-Peh, Byob, now Ge-Te-Fe-Oh. *Jaunty classical music*