The Frontal Cortex

Virginia Woolf and the Self

Robert Krulwich had a really lovely piece on Weekend Edition discussing Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, split-brain patients and the emergent self. Much of the piece was drawn from my chapter on Woolf in Proust Was A Neuroscientist.

Here is how I summarize the paradox in the book, using the phenomenon of blindsight to make my point:

The one thing neuroscience cannot find is the loom of cells that creates the self. If neuroscience knows anything, it is that there is no ghost in the machine: there is only the vibration of the machinery. Your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.

This is all undoubtedly true. And yet, if the mechanical mind is denied the illusion of a self, if the machine lacks a ghost, then everything falls apart. Sensations fail to cohere. Reality disappears. As Woolf wondered in The Waves: “How to describe the world seen without a self?” “There are no words,” she answered, and she was right. Deprived of the fictional self, all is dark. We think we are blind.

Update: While on the NPR website, be sure to check out the live recordings from the Newport Folk Festival. Highlights include Gillian Welch and She and Him.

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. W. R. Klemm
    August 5, 2008

    You say that neuroscience “cannot find the loom that creates the self.” Does that mean that “self” is not created by brain cells or that neuroscience just hasn’t figured it all out yet? The subsequent comment suggests that self does not come from brain cells:”not one of them is you or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist.”

    I think we should consider that self IS created by neurons, and many of them construct a representation of self, just as many neurons create a representation of what we see or hear in the outside world. Where does “self” go when you fall asleep or anesthetized? Why and how can it come back when you wake up?

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 5, 2008

    There may not be a “loom that weaves the self” — but the recursive brain, analogous to the recursive computer, can be seen as “the loom that weaves another loom.”

    Lord Byron’s daughter’s famous phrase compared Babbage’s proto-computer to the Jacquard loom.

    “The Analytical Engine … weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

    But I could not find Lord Byron’s speech (which I seem to recall, but not well enough to locate it) about the need to transcend loom-smashing by Luddites, and look forward to a loom that weaves another loom, which I recall but can’t source, as prefiguring automation.

    He did say this, which seems a propos:

    Lord Byron, speech in the House of Lords (27th February, 1812)

    During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the the county I was informed that forty Frames had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection.

    Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.

    They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise.

    As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.

  3. #3 Matt
    August 6, 2008

    Mystics (and sometimes ordinary people) have described experiences of selflessness and ‘ego loss’. If we are to take them at their word, then the reality that disappears with the sense of self is a small ‘r’ reality that falls away to reveal Something Else — something that can (at least some of the time) feel coherent and not at all dark.

    When writing about this, the authors invariably say that words cannot capture the experience. Then they provide page after page of fascinating prose. Often this writing is structured conventionally with a first-person narrator. But this may partly reflect the limits of language, not the nature of life without the illusion of self.

  4. #4 jb
    August 6, 2008

    Here’s something I was just reading in Rachel Naomi Remen’s book My Grandfather’s Blessings:

    “My grandfather was a scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism….According to the Kabbalah, at some point in the beginning of things, the Holy was broken up into countless sparks, which were scattered through the universe. There is a god spark in everyone and in everything, a sort of Diaspora of goodness. God’s immanent presence among us is encountered daily in the most simple, humble, and ordinary ways. The Kabbalah teaches that the Holy may speak to you from its many hidden places at any time. The world may whisper in your ear, or the spark of God in you may whisper in your heart. My grandfather showed me how to listen.

    “One is encouraged to acknowledge such unexpected meetings with the Holy by saying a blessing. There are hundreds of such blessings, each one attesting to a moment of awakening in which one remembers the holy nature of the world. Heaven and earth meet and greet and recognize one another……..

    “A blessing is not something one person gives to another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in another. By making a place for wholeness within our relationships, we offer others the opportunity to be whole without shame and become a place of refuge from everything in them and around them that is not genuine. We enable people to remember who we are….” (I highly recommend this book for stories about people who have cancer and are members of different faiths; RNR, MD is an oncologist who counsels those with cancer).

    For a visual experience of this rejoining the whole watch the video: “a beautiful red drop of water in slow motion”on UTube.com.

    Sadly Virginia Woolf was unable to keep the dots of her consciousness connected and succumbed to her mental illness by committing suicide. I wonder about her religious background.

  5. #5 John Jackson
    August 12, 2008

    ‘And yet, if the mechanical mind is denied the illusion of a self, if the machine lacks a ghost, then everything falls apart. Sensations fail to cohere. Reality disappears. As Woolf wondered in The Waves: “How to describe the world seen without a self?” “There are no words,” she answered, and she was right. Deprived of the fictional self, all is dark. We think we are blind.’

    Surely consciousness and a feeling of self are not the same thing. Imagine a mind harnessed to the task of keeping traffic flowing smoothly around some city centre, and all its inputs were lengths of queues at traffic lights and the states of those lights, and its outputs were changes to the lights. Perhaps the mind could be a machine, or some isolated “natural mind” with any memories of its pre-computer time erased, and no trace of innate awareness or sensations of body. I think that mind might have no idea where it was, though it could still perceive, act, and perhaps even be conscious. It may well be unable to talk without a feeling of self, though primates can’t talk much but I’m sure they are conscious and self-conscious.

    I had to ask people to stop suggesting on the MINDMECHANISMS list that an important (adequate?) ingredient of consciousness was self consciousness :-( .

    Dr. W. R. Klemm said:
    ‘You say that neuroscience “cannot find the loom that creates the self.” Does that mean that “self” is not created by brain cells or that neuroscience just hasn’t figured it all out yet?’

    I think he meant it’s gotta be there, but still hiding.

    Jonathan Vos Post said:
    ‘There may not be a “loom that weaves the self” — but the recursive brain, analogous to the recursive computer, can be seen as “the loom that weaves another loom.”‘

    I feel it’s done without recursion. I’ve never stopped being fascinated by recursion in a computer, but I don’t think the self or consciousness requires recursion though I admit it can do it a bit since language skills require a little of the ability.

    Matt said:
    ‘Mystics (and sometimes ordinary people) have described experiences of selflessness and ‘ego loss’…’

    I’ve had a feeling in sport once or twice where I felt I was just watching myself performing (from inside, not outside!) and I got the impression it was a kind of state the body/mind was aiming for – when no complex thinking needed doing for adequate performance to be produced – but which was seldom expected to be achieved. “To see was to do.” It was fascinating enough for me mostly just to “watch” it happening, but I did notice a strange feeling of loneliness which I think might have become unpleasant had I the good fortune to enjoy that state for extended periods.