But this belief is a mirage, an illusion of the mind. The idea that we are separate from others is not the complete picture, and this knowledge is just now starting to be exposed. To re-envisioning who we are we have to understand how the "me" came about. This is a radical idea. Such radical ideas have happened before in our collective history and they have changed how we think about who we are.
There have been a number of radical thinkers who transformed how we think of ourselves. The first such radical thinker moved us away from mythology, and the notion that everything that happens is because "god wants it to happen." Thales of Miletus was a 6th century BC philosopher who suggested that we should observe physical events without assigning the cause to "god." He admonished philosophers to try and understand what they observe as separate from god. This was the birth of science. As a result we began to understand that there is a causal pattern to the world. That there is a logical sequence that does not require the intervention of busy gods. The development of science took us into an amazing logical world that was hidden to us before. We came to see the world in more detail. As a finely tuned mechanical watch. This assurance of solidity was however shattered in the early 1900s on two fronts. The first to dispel the solidity of how we see our world was Sigmund Freud. Freud developed the concept of an unconscious mind that hid psychological energies from us such as the Oedipus complex, libido and death drive among others. Freud's main contribution was the acceptance that we do not know "us", that we have a reality that is hidden from us. What Freud did for psychology, Albert Einstein did for our concept of outside reality. Einstein, a theoretical physicist, developed a general theory of relativity which together with quantum mechanics and the law of the photoelectric effect evolved into quantum theory. Einstein transformed Newtonian mechanics—where object were treated as physical representation but much smaller—to one where at great microscopic details these realities changed into energy and shivering mass. He conceived of the world as composed of waves of energy, a vibrating nexus of excited mass. These ideas later flourished into an idea of reality as a probability of energy waves. Completely transforming how we look at the universe we believed to be solid.
These ideas came from a culmination of prior small developments that helped Thales, Freud and Einstein make a conceptual leap. We are now ready for another leap. Another way of looking at ourselves...again.
It started when scientists started finding that conscious thought is a product of an unconscious process. We are "aware" because there is an earlier process that we are not aware of that wants us to be aware. The late Benjamin Libet from UCSF was a pioneer in showing that a conscious decision can be monitored neurologically sometimes as much as ten seconds before the activity appears—which he termed readiness potential. In effect, by monitoring the brain's EEG we can predict rudimentary activity before people become conscious of it—such as moving your index finger. More recently, Itzak Fried from UCLA recorded single neurons and found that the readiness potential isn't a diffuse state of readiness, but is a very specific set of instructions. Our consciousness was an after thought to a specific decision that has already been taken. This resulted in what Daniel Wegner called in his 2002 book "The Illusion of Conscious Will." It is an illusion that we cannot dispel, despite knowing that it is an illusion, because it is how we think. We think that we have conscious will.
If there is no conscious will, then it brings into question the validity of the division of self/mind and brain/body that René Descartes defined in the 1600s. This Cartesian Dualism has constrained our thinking for more than four centuries. This belief is that there is a separation of the mind from the body and that the self is not defined by the mind but something higher. But this is proving to be wrong. But more important than this—although for academics this is really important—is that if our consciousness is part of a pre-determined process, then what other realities are there that we are not aware of? If there is no such thing as a self/mind and brain/body division, then what is there? I think of "me" as the product of a coherent sequential story that lead me here as a sentient being in a determined place, undertaking a conscious activity. I feel responsible for where I am and what I am doing. Which is why nationalism is so strong even though where we are born is a random event. Most people take ownership of their situation.
Because our brain is so vast in its complexity it is able to create a representation of the world. It uses this model to predict. That is how we survive and flourish. Prediction is also the basis for all scientific theory. My brain builds a virtual reality and interacts within this model. Very much like a computer game where I "am" the avatar. And very much like the avatar, my mind makes me unique, distinct and sequential being with a history that I own. Our reality is a creative process. We create this reality. We negotiate with our body and our mind about how to tell this story of reality. On one side is the concept of "me" and on the other the story of "others." The reality is that there is a place where there is no distinction. Our body holds that special place. It is both part of the environment and part "me". The illusion is the "me." This is especially true of routines of everyday life—those activities and customary habits that are expected and anticipated. Routines are patterns of behavior that we build over time and internalized. We are unaware of these habits of behaving. And it is not just that we are unconscious of them but that our body has adapted without making us aware, and we know about these changes because we can measure them.
Stress chemicals in the body—such as the allostatic load and IL-6—is higher in people that live in communities with greater densities of poor older adults and in racially segregated communities. This relationship was found to be independent of important individual level risk factors (e.g. smoking or obesity). A stressful environment—such a poor neighborhood—results in negative changes in the chemical composition in our bodies. These chemical states initiate other changes. Changing chemical composition in our bodies have lasting effects because they switch the expression of some genes. These epi-genes can be switched on and off, establishing a consistent optimum level of chemical balance within the body. Environmental factors such as mercury in water, second-hand smoke, diet including foliate, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, air pollutants, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, hormones in water, nutrition, and behavior have been shown to affect epi-genetics. Furthermore, epi-genetic changes are associated with specific outcomes such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, infertility, respiratory diseases, allergies, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Our body changes our epi-genes—which establishes an optimum level of chemical balance in response to our environment. Richard Rorty in 1979 said this beautifully “So the paradoxical conclusion offered earlier—that had physiology been more obvious psychology would never have arisen—can be reaffirmed. Indeed, we can strengthen it and say that if the body had been easier to understand, nobody would have thought that we had a mind.” (p 239).
Who we are is not who we think we are. Thales, Freud and Einstein have shown us how our perception is incomplete. The next frontier is the idea of self. Our body has a memory that we are unaware of. There is a reality in our body that reflects the geography of our communities, including people that we interact with on a consistent basis. This is necessarily unconscious since the body is complex. Our consciousness is an afterthought of decisions already taken in order to provide the illusion of active participants, an avatar. It provides us with the illusion of "me". But it is an illusion. The reality is that there is no "me" but a place of interaction. A place where the illusion of a unique "me" interacts with the outside world, the geography the community and significant others.Who I am is not who I think I am. And we feel this reality sometimes as a spiritual existence. Something that extends human identity beyond the self. Learning compassion, empathy and love is when we truly become one with this reality. Try and translate love without referring to a world where their is a union of beings, of community of geographies. All religions start from this understanding, but the way that our mind works—needing to create separateness and pushing us into an egocentric world view—corrupts this initial insight and re-interprets it as "them" and "us." But what we are learning is that there is a union of those around us and the geography that we live in. Our identify of self is an afterthought.
The body and the mind have already determined its strategy for existence. And if I accept that there is not just a "me" but also a "we" inside my body then I can understand how my environment, my community, family and friends can determine my behavior and outcomes, as much as I think I do myself. My interaction with the world leaves evidence in my genes just as I leave traces in my world.
The symbiotic relationship exposes humans to a greater sense of belonging within their geography since we carry our geography within us in our bodies. If we are going to understand how extreme-longevity occurs we need to understand this construct much better than we do today. And perhaps our understanding of why happy people, people that volunteer, people that are religious, people that are in love, live longer should not be seen as a strategy but as an expression of people that are in touch with this reality of who they truly are...a union of their geography and their community.
© USA Copyrighted 2015 Mario D. Garrett
Libet, B. (1985). "Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action". The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8: 529–566. doi:10.1017/s0140525x00044903.
Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. MIT press.
Garrett M. D. (2014) Geograph of Elderly. Oxford Bibliography.