I have a problem with chocolate and with cake. Put me in a room with either / or (occasionally in combination) and I become a slave to satiety. In other news, I was at a scientific debate a few months ago in which the topic for discussion was the prospect of downloading one’s consciousness into a computer in the (near?) future - effectively to 'live forever'. How are these two disparate subjects related I hear you cry? To continue briefly from my last post, the answer rests in the brain structure I talked about, the Posterior Cingulate Cortex.
I touched on the notion that this region plays a significant part in generating the concept of ‘self’. There was also brief allusion to the role of the PCC in addictive behaviours. To recap momentarily, activation in this region correlates with awareness of ‘self’ and particularly with ‘being involved in’ or ‘caught up in’ processing of information that has supposed self relevance. And conversely, deactivation in the area tends to associate with the absence of this, and has bearing on mindfulness, and ‘being in the present’. Unhindered by ‘self’ or constraints of ego as it were. With respect to addictive behaviours, likewise, the region is associated with cravings, with desire to satiate said addiction, with fixation upon addiction. And again, reduced activation correlating with reduced craving, reliance on feeding the addiction.
Now to the crux of the matter. On the self’s craving for immortality.
The question asked in the science discussion I mentioned centred round whether ‘I’ (be it your ‘I’ or mine) would want to live forever. Some interesting viewpoints were aired by panel members and public alike. But I felt the point was being missed entirely. I strove to think of a quick way to put my point forth but could not articulate it pithily. Here I attempt to redress that balance with more time and space to do so.
The notion of living forever seems tied up in the need for an individual to preserve his or her sense of self, of subjective perspective (‘conscious awareness’) for time immemorial. Because there is a fear (and perhaps this is culturally specific to the audience that was involved) that to ‘die’ or to ‘lose consciousness’ is the worst thing imaginable. There is a conditioning occurring here towards maintaining sense of identity and fearing being ‘switched off’ as it were. [Think of HAL the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey revealing his childlike terror of being unplugged: “will I dream?”.] Our ‘self’ has built up a defensive mechanism geared towards survival at all costs. Literally self preservation. And like an addiction, the thing we crave is the thing we ascribe all-consuming importance and power to. I must have that cake. It’s all I can think about. It will elevate my mood and reward me for it’s consumption. Without it I will plummet into despair. I can’t (as of this moment) live without it. But of course, the things that we crave we also know are ultimately not very good for us at base level: in the back of our minds we ‘crave’ overcoming that craving.
To be released from the power of addiction is to be truly set free. In rare moments where the satiation is denied us (or better still voluntarily abstained from), the boost in wellbeing afterwards is noted, responded to favourably, and shores up resolve in future moments of temptation. Like the alcoholic going cold turkey, or the penitent giving up chocolate for lent, the benefits are twofold (eventually). That is in the rejuvenation of health, increased energy, lightness of mood (in due course), but also the strengthening of resolve and the regaining of control over one’s choices and habits. Liberation in essence. The self can be construed in these same terms. It would seem to be an entirely appropriate turn of phrase to state that the preservation of self rests in the satiation of a craving. This becomes more obvious when one thinks of the basis of ‘selfhood’ in the recruitment of metabolic resources.
As discussed previously in other posts, the areas of the brain that ‘govern’ self actually use up a disproportionate amount of metabolic resources – the Default Mode Network has been shown to rely on costly upkeep even whilst the brain is supposedly ‘at rest’. And of this network, the Posterior Cingulate is perhaps the most demanding structure in consuming this energy. So it is true to say that it requires feeding. Think about that. The ‘self’ is a hungry construct, and the PCC has a large appetite. It is as if to say the brain has evolved a self that has priority towards preservation of it’s own (selfish) integrity. And it will do anything, like a spoilt and needy child, to feed it’s hunger, to keep itself at the centre of attention, and will mither its ‘parent’ to attend to it even when other more pressing matters require focus. (Again I have talked about how performance on cognitive tasks suffers when attention reverts to / is distracted by thoughts that have the self at basis – ‘mind wandering’.)
The only way to discipline a child of this phenotype seems to be to not give it what it wants, to divert attention towards more productive goals that in the long run benefit the system (brain) as a whole. Which takes resolve of course, lest one succumb to the ‘easy route’ of giving it what it wants. Consequently, the ‘child’ will hopefully grow up (leaving it’s needy ‘self’ behind), and become a mature and collaborative ‘selfless’ being that no longer drains it’s parents resources! The positives of engaging in ‘flow states’ or peak or spiritual experiences in which the self/ego seem to dissolve (i.e. by virtue of metabolic resources NOT being overly invested in these ‘self-embellishing’ brain areas) are well documented. And indeed one might argue the basis for spiritual development and personal growth does appear to rest in this reduction of self-centredness. In terms of ‘enlightenment’ or the ultimate goal to be attained at a personal and perhaps cultural level, might be said to be the abolishing of ‘self’ entirely. For then one can become more connected with the ‘whole’ (selfless and community-spirited).
Which comes back to the point being missed apparently in the discussion I attended. Why should one fear losing one’s ‘consciousness’ or ‘self’, and seek to preserve it for all eternity? Thinking about it in terms of addiction, craving, the self represents an overcommitment of metabolic resources, and a false promise of reward for being complicit in its sustenance. On the other hand, to recognise that it isn’t even a concrete ‘thing’, that we spend a large proportion of our lives absent of self, not unduly bothered by that, and even profiting because of this absence, is to get the point. We sleep and rest from our ‘self’. Many of us may not realise the extent to which we are trapped within our’self’. In a spiralling pattern of rumination, habit and addiction. And to have moments where the self retreats, the brain spends it’s resources on more productive ends, and recoups benefits in kind, is to in fact be blessed. There is nothing to fear: if anything we want to rejoice in the end of a lifetime governed by habit, a brain behaving as an undisciplined child, in it purely for itself. We want to be liberated, and welcome the prospect that this will eventually, inevitably be the case.
On the matter of preserving one’s legacy for the good of all, now that’s a slightly different issue. By doing good deeds, for others, producing creative innovations and insights, lessons that others can benefit from, that is the true path to immortality. Shakespeare, da Vinci, Einstein, and countless others live on forever in the works they offered to humankind. Not for their personal ‘I’s, but for the selfless insights and products they generated (i.e. generated whilst in states that tuned down their self-perpetuating brain resources). With all this in mind, seek to understand that there is no profitable virtue in preserving the subjective ‘I’ for time immemorial. Do you really value your own perspective and opinion so much that you wish to proliferate it through the aeons? Do you really want to be bound to the confines of a centre of reference that effectivly limits itself to one 'point' space-time (abeit frozen and paralysed forever)? Or is it not more appealing to release your dependence on such a construct and bounded notion and set free the bird from the illusory gilded cage and out into the all-encompassing boundlessness of a selfless universe…(!)
If the former still resonates most strongly, then, as Crowded House might melodically intone, ask loudly: “can I have another piece of chocolate cake?”
References: see previous post on 'Negative Psychology'
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.