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Aunt Millie’s Mind

The death of the brain means subjective experiences
are neurochemistry
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“WHERE IS THE EXPERIENCE OF RED IN YOUR BRAIN?” The question was put to me by Deepak Chopra at his Sages and Scientists Symposium in Carlsbad, Calif., on March 3. A posse of presenters argued that the lack of a complete theory by neuroscientists regarding how neural activity translates into conscious experiences (such as “redness”) means that a physicalist approach is inadequate or wrong. “The idea that subjective experience is a result of electrochemical activity remains a hypothesis,” Chop ra elaborated in an e-mail. “It is as much of a speculation as the idea that consciousness is fundamental and that it causes brain activity and creates the properties and objects of the material world.” “Where is Aunt Millie’s mind when her brain dies of Alzheimer’s?” I countered to Chopra. “Aunt Millie was an impermanent pattern of behavior of the universe and returned to the potential she emerged from,” Chopra rejoined. “In the philosophic framework of Eastern traditions, ego identity is an illusion and the goal of enlightenment is to transcend to a more universal non local, nonmaterial identity.” (continue reading…)

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The Sensed-Presence Effect

How the brain produces the sense of someone present when no one is there
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In the 1922 poem The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes, cryptically: Who is the third who always walks beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you.

In his footnotes to this verse, Eliot explained that the lines “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions [Ernest Shackleton’s] … that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”

Third man, angel, alien or deity — all are sensed presences, so I call this the sensed-presence effect. In his gripping book, The Third Man Factor (Penguin, 2009), John Geiger documents the effect in mountain climbers, solo sailors and ultraendurance athletes. He lists conditions associated with it: monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue and fear. I would add sleep deprivation; I have repeatedly experienced its effects and witnessed it in others during the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America. Four-time winner Jure Robic, a Slovenian soldier, recounted to the New York Times that during one race he engaged in combat a gaggle of mailboxes he was convinced were enemy troops; another year he found himself being chased by a “howling band” of black-bearded horsemen: “Mujahedeen, shooting at me. So I ride faster.” (continue reading…)

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