The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

Taking Time Out

The modern way of life and the biology of consciousness

I have been travelling – driving across the country (dog on the back seat) – to see my son who lives on the Oregon coast, from where I am now writing. And it was a conversation with a doctor friend here in Nehalem that provoked the theme of this Blog.

We were discussing the incredible technological advances made nowadays that have changed our concept of, and our involvement in, the Flow of Time – given the instant communication with people and events worldwide, made available by smart phone and computer. Certainly a way of life which has substantially eliminated boredom and loneliness…. but at what cost when you consider how much it has diminished those intervals in Time’s Flow we could spend with ourselves…. in our own company: the silences between ongoing events when the mind (the power behind the brain) takes over, and we muse over the ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefore’s’ that might justify one’s brief existence. At least that’s how I remember my younger days used to be.

Yet nowadays, with the world at one’s fingertips, the compelling attraction is to be in, and of, the world most of the time…. thereby living a predominantly external existence that may well diminish the range of internal musing I describe. For if we progress to the point of leaving little, or insufficient Time, to heed those most personalvoices of the psychological inner Self…. of the imaginative, reasoning, feeling, truth-seeking Self – then we will no longer be human beings: will be less likely to realize one’s own unique individuality; to gain glimmerings of a personal destiny; or to know any scale of values in our transactions with life.

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Such a dualistic inner and outer directed consciousness, would seem to have been around a long time in our evolving ‘humanness’. Yet we might have reached the point when it is on the way out…. should our contemporary ‘electronic’, button-pushing lifestyle result in our living a totally extroverted (external) existence. Then we could live a life bereft of the imaginative mental capacity for reflection and contemplation: as these lines from a World War 1 poet put it:

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

No more ‘Perchance to Dream’, as another poet put it. Dr. Soames echoed my own thoughts concerning the likelihood of this scenario in telling me of brain MRI’s performed on a number of 20 to 24 year ‘olds’ (of both sexes) that showed changes in neural structure connections. These constituted the ‘re-wirings’ of neurons, particularly in the left-brain hemisphere, of young people temporarily institutionalized who were finding it difficult to live a normal life – cope with everyday realities – all of whom spent hours daily on computers, texting and playing video games. In a majority of cases it appeared that the brain was reorganizing itself in order to become solely proficient in virtual reality at the expense of goings-on in the ‘real’ world.

We both agreed that the really ominous aspect of this development was that a newly dominating way of life would cause such significant biological changes to occur in the brain – changes that in the long run could severely modify our concept of ‘personality’ and ‘selfhood’: of ‘humanness’ itself; changes that would reverse the historic course of consciousness’ evolution. Yet, of course, one does need Time for that. So why not some ‘Time Out’ for yourself while you can!

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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