Letter to my life-long friend

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Photo by Veronica Luz

Greetings my dear friend,

I am writing you for the first time since we first met many years ago. I felt it was time to let you know how grateful I am to have you as a friend and having had the opportunity to learn from you and learn with you. I know that we often, even if together, feel lonely in the world, separated from the rest, the whole, by our own ideas and thoughts, our  daily fights and our existential questions… But need not to feel like such, because I believe that’s what brings us together at the end of the day. Our authenticity built upon our very own life-stories shared with many others. You, my dear friend, are unique and you have the potential to further empower your uniqueness if you can find your mission in life, working towards a better community, a better world. You keep reading and learning and searching and wandering and wondering! Do all that, everyday, because you love it and it’s meaningful to you! Because that’s the way of the genius, the nurturing of the mind and soul before the metamorphosis: the apotheosis of the Self.

Thank you and good luck,

Yourself.

Salt-loving plants: saviours of planet Earth?

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Photo by Marco Custódio

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that by 2050 the world population will reach 9 billion mouths and WWF most recent ‘Living Planet Report’ says that humans already consume in 1 year the resources equivalent to 1.6 planet Earths(!). The actual state of over-exploitation and depletion of the planet’s resources are becoming part of our collective awareness and a growing concern at a societal and scientific levels are leading the way to the implementation of more ecologically sustainable methods for an exponentially growing food-production sector.
Global agriculture is largely dependent on salt-sensitive plants(named glycophytes) that only grow in soils with a very low-to-none salt content, which make these crops totally dependent on freshwater irrigation. Freshwater comprises now less than 4% of the world’s total water supply and from these total, 70% is locked up in ice and glaciers, 30% is in the ground and the directly available surface water constitute only 0.006% (!). Depletion of freshwater resources shows no signs to stop and reserves are rapidly deteriorating in many regions of the world.
More recently, a group of plants known as halophytes have captured the attention of the scientific community. They are salt-tolerant plants that grow in highly saline environments (e.g. salt marshes and other coastal ecosystems) to which they evolved to become perfectly adapted. These special plants could produce nearly all that glycophytes now produce and more, in terms of, for example, nutrition for humans and animals, bio-energy and bio-active pharmacological compounds. The advantages of switching to halophytes in the long-run include for instance:

  • Growth in conditions where glycophytes would perish: wastelands, deserts and seawater;
  • Liberation of freshwater sources used for conventional agriculture;
  • Sequestration (up to 20%) of carbon dioxide uptake in root zone, removing it from the atmosphere;
  • Integration in marine aquaculture systems to remediate nutrient-rich effluents (circular economy and ecossystem-based production framework);
  • Production of biodiesel;
  • Diversification of plant-based diets.

Many of those plants are edible, with a slight salty taste, and have been used by plant foragers for centuries. Nowadays, chefs all around the world are experimenting with them to garnish their seafood dishes and salads. They are valuable source of minerals and antioxidants and several bio-active molecules are being isolated in laboratory, including important lipophilic and phenolic compounds.

Just to tease you curiosity, in case you want to try these plants and make your own judgement (and most likely become a fan), here is a small list of species that you can find on specialised stores online or on your nearest salt-marsh:

  • Salicornia spp, Sarcocornia spp  (common names: samphire, sea asparagus, sea beans)
  • Aster tripolium (sea aster)
  • Halimione portulacoides (sea purslane)
  • Beta maritima (sea beet)
  • Crambe maritima (sea kale)
  • Nasturtium officinale (watercress)

If global halophytes agriculture do take off in the near-future we should, nonetheless, contain our optimism. There surely isn’t one power switch to reverse and resolve our environmental issues, and halophytes alone won’t save the planet, but added to other major advances in several areas addressing sustainable methods of energy harvest, from solar power to genetic engineering, we might be confident for a better future in the horizon (of course, we can’t forget politics to promote investments on these sustainable ventures, but that’s another story).

Anyways, be-aware of the halophytes!

More articles to read:
1. https://aeon.co/essays/are-halophytes-the-crop-of-the-future
2. http://www.aaiforesight.com/sites/default/files/FR_Bushnell_Where_Is_It_All_Going_Summer-Fall_2016.pdf
3. http://inhabitat.com/boeing-etihad-ge-and-mist-to-build-worlds-first-aquaculture-and-biofuel-plant-at-masdar-city/
4. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/322/5907/1478

US surveillance, mad politics and the Millennials revolution

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Photo by Mando Gomez (edited)

I’ve been really impressed and entertained by the weekly episodes of HBO’s show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”, where the host, John Oliver (I guess this was obvious), talks during half an hour about seemingly random topics that intend to evoke a debate about important issues (with delightful splashes of humor). Being an American show, it focus mostly on American-related issues, but these naturally become worldwide issues for the impact the US have in the world’s state of affairs. If you’ve never seen an episode, I really recommend you to give it a look.

Now, there was a specific episode (from last year) I saw yesterday which inspired me to write this post, where the host discussed about US surveillance programs in the dawn of an upcoming renewing of the Patriot Act which happened past June 1st of 2015. During that episode, which included a worth-watching witty interview with Edward Snowden, he showed a video where he asked several people in Times Square if they knew who Snowden is and, for my astonishment, most of them had no idea who he was or gave inaccurate responses about him. It’s true that here in Europe (by the way I’m Portuguese) we kind of stereotype Americans for being unaware or uninterested of pretty much everything that concerns foreign issues and for being self-centered and consumerists, but damn (!), domestic mass surveillance is an issue that should concern every single American that values its privacy and Snowden was the CIA whistleblower that brought the discussion to mainstream debate (or so I thought).

Well, so I decided to do my own Internet research to understand why was that…

In my opinion, there are 2 main reasons why Americans aren’t mindful about the situation of mass surveillance and why they don’t know anything about a man named Edward Snowden. And from those who actually do, why does a great percentage of them feel hatred towards him:

  1. A huge chunk of the American population is, by conscious choice, remarkably disengaged of virtually all political matters. The apathy is stunning since 40-50% of the public allowed to vote decide not to participate on the elections and 60% don’t vote in midterm elections (percentages vary depending on the election year of course).
  2. The US media plays an important and dynamic role on framing American’s perspective about domestic and foreign issues, as seen, for instance, on the astonishing delusional belief of the US adult population, up to 70%, about Saddam Hussein’s direct involvement on 9/11. This clearly indicates an active propaganda engagement of mainstream media to deceive Americans into believing false facts for dubious purposes (we all know what happened in Iraq).

Relatively to the media’s information bias and censorship on the particular case of surveillance discussion, here is a pretty elucidative link presented by John Oliver which is as much disturbing as it is hilarious:

Circling back to Snowden again, a poll demonstrated that out of the 2/3 of Americans who were aware of him, only 36% supported him and a few 8% had a positive opinion of him. On the other hand, in Europe, its popularity is dramatically higher. For example in Germany, 95% of the population have heard about him and 84% supported him. These numbers can easily be correlated with the successful American media propaganda campaign against Snowden. Nonetheless, it seems like its popularity increases among the younger adult US population, where 56% of the Millennials support him, meanwhile in Europe, it goes up to 86%. This can be explained by the different and diversified sources of information that this younger generation have access to through the Internet, providing them with a more informed opinion, and their own concern about political and organizational transparency.

Nonetheless, this generation of adults with ages comprehended between 18 and 30 are the less participative in the political debate in America and this fact might be a big reason why important political changes with a positive impact in American society and around the world aren’t being made. We even risk facing the terrible consequences of such abstinence and let the uninformed and ignorant be the only voice (just look at the picture being unfolded by the ongoing 2016 US presidential elections). But maybe Millennials have their own reasons for being apathetic. They can hardly remember a time when jobs were abundant or Washington wasn’t under a political stalemate. Most of them still live at their parents’ house and many have overwhelming student debts. And the main reason why they probably won’t vote is because the politicians and their politics don’t serve their interests, but, conversely, politicians don’t address their interests because they don’t vote…

Can you imagine if this highly informed, literate and heterogeneous population with a growing global consciousness would become active at reforming their political environment? Imagine if voter turnout among Millennials were 75% instead of 25%; wouldn’t politicians be obliged to update their priority lists?

Of course that this is easier said than done. Look at the waves of hope when president Obama was elected, that were imidietely broken before hiting the shore when all the expectations weren’t met and promises left behind. Many felt burned and hopeless about politics and decided to turn their back.

But these apparently disenchanted generation is the exact same group that, for instance, doubled the rate of volunteering in the US during the last decades. Their community values and commitment to make life around them better would be of unmeasurable importance, and a new political mindset would be able to flourish if those core values would be extended to a more national-wide and impactful movement. More Snowdens would be heard and not prosecuted, more open information would be shared and not muzzled and more decisions would be made for the sake of the whole and not of the few.

Millennials, what are you waiting for?

The failure of Liberalism and the Muslim world

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Photo by Vignesh Babu

A common discourse is being identified and widely spread among some self-proclaimed liberals that actively participate on the debate about Islam and the reform of the Muslim world. They usually take a position where they utterly defend the rights of any individual to pursue any given ideology for the sake of freedom of choice, yet they aggressively disprove any attempt of constructive criticism from other actors, that aim to point out fundamental problems that are at the basis of a given ideology that is in conflict with human rights and moral progress. In the particular case of Islam, their speech is typically formulated towards cultural determinism. They defend a right for an ideology based on religious scriptures that clearly promote anti-human rights actions for the sake of satisfying their orientalist fetish. They justify the position against an attempt of Muslim reform in the name of “cultural authenticity” and anticolonialism. But what these liberals are really doing by holding native communities to lesser standards is disempowering them. Muslims are automatically self-segregated into “Muslim areas” and, in the name of liberalism, collective rights are prioritized over individual autonomy within minorities. Such liberals are more like “fellow-travelers” of Islamism that believe are doing a favor to Muslims, but what they are doing is killing any reform attempt. The minorities within the Muslim communities that seek reform have their aspirations murdered. These “fellow-travelers” are making it very difficult for well-intentioned participants of the Islam debate to speak freely and honestly about this important and sensitive topic. These political and social actors are disrupting any true attempt to address the real problems of Islamism that are at the root of religious terrorism, because they assume that all Muslims think on a certain way and anyone that deviates from that ideological framework  is considered not a ‘real’ Muslim and, therefore, his voice is disregarded. For that reason reformist Muslims are disempowered and shut down from the mainstream discourse.

The first stage towards the empowerment of minorities within the Muslim world is, by no doubt, the emancipation of reformist voices so that communities start to take responsibility upon themselves and overcome the victimhood mindset.

It is a fact that religious terrorist groups born from the desire to impose any given interpretation of the Islam on society are flourishing in the midst of a complex geopolitical problem in the Middle East. The jihad (the use of force to spread Islamism) has been felt on the Western countries for a while now, and more recently with a focus on Europe, as seen by the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. But the root of the problem is not being addressed by the main actors of the political discourse for the sake of liberalism. Meanwhile they try to pass the hot potato (look at the refugee crisis in Europe for example) to their neighbor, they keep ignoring the importance of religious indoctrination based on ideological dogmas that frame people’s mind – and more importantly young minds – as the reason at the basis of the problem. A reform of Islam by Muslim actors that are willing to review the more conservative interpretations of their doctrine is imperative if we want to see the Muslim world advance towards a more humanistic and secular mindset. It is a pre-requisite before democratic and human-right values are accepted by them and it is our responsibility to take part on the discourse and empower the Muslim minorities that seek to implement those values in their communities.

Further readings

Book:

Islam and the Future of Tolerance” by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz

Blog post:

Can liberalism be saved from itself?” by Sam Harris

 

 

 

Road to chaos: why you should stop lying

chaosLet’s admit it: all of us tell lies, for one reason or another. It’s part of our human nature. It’s had its utility during our evolutionary history and still has, or so we think. I believe that in very particular circumstances, lying might be a necessary and reasonable choice, for example to escape a life or death situation, but that’s pretty much it. Lying is usually used for the purposes of self-perseverance or social promotion and we, most of the time, go unaware of the repercussions of a lie.

But first let’s define what a “lie” is. A lie is to deliberately deceive someone with false information when they expect honest communication. It is, therefore, intended to make others form a belief that is not true.

We lie to make ourselves stand out, to avoid negative judgments, to hide wrongdoings. We sometimes lie to the ones we love to protect their feelings. We mislead to gain advantage, we hide the bad to highlight the good. But, undoubtedly, every lie is born out of the same principle: intending to communicate one thing while believing another.

The opportunity to deceive others is ever present, and for one reason or another, each and every one of us will hardly go to bed without having told a lie during the past waking hours. Some lies might be more subtle then others and the motivations might vary greatly, but at the end of the day, the one lied to will always be on disadvantage, because deception always provides with fake information.

Previous studies have found that deception is fairly common during communication, either within a couple or between friends (1, 2). Yet, we all know that truth is more rewarding in terms of interpersonal relationships than lies. Moreover, all forms of lying are associated with relationships of poorer quality (3, 4).

“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.” by Sam Harris in ‘Lying’

I would like to focus my attention particularly on the “white lies”. Those lies we consider to be more benevolent because the intention is usually to spare the other person’s feelings, usually to tell her what we think she wants to hear. Let me give you an example that you will likely be familiar with:

Someone you’re very close too, a friend, a girlfriend, approaches you and asks: “Do you think I’m fat?”. The usual answer will be “No”, don’t you agree? We usually think that the person is asking for reassurance, and out of compassion we answer according to that assumption, because we don’t want her to feel sad. And most likely that’s what your friend wants, reassurance. But let’s suppose that your friend is actually fat and out of shape and you know that she is having an hard time with that situation, maybe feeling less self-confident. And you believe she could lose a couple of pounds and get in shape for many different reasons, but most of all she would feel happier and healthier, you think. A white lie, for the purpose of immediate compassion, would simply be the denial of that. You would simply pass the opportunity to guide her in a moment of difficulty, you would be failing as a friend and as a person. Now imagine you know someone that is struggling to follow a career path that you truly believe is not meant for him, that he could be using his skills to become the best on something else. Would you be able to tell him the truth and provide the guidance? That’s a difficult one as well. Most of us would be tempted to encourage him to try harder or tell him that with patience and perseverance he would make it, that “great things come for those who wait”. But, in this case, that would be a negative and destructive encouragement. That white lie would steal him time, energy and motivation that he could be putting on pursuing a better and more satisfying career.

Sometimes the truth might feel really hard to tell, but when you convey your true beliefs to others you provide them with the opportunity to reflect upon your truthful opinion and question their own beliefs on a constructive way. And you will be communicating your feelings of love and selflessness, deepening the relationship with that person.

I believe that the active search for honesty on every action often leads to a much more gratifying experience of interaction with another person. You create bridges instead of building walls, you inspire others into doing the same and feelings of trust and empathy will blossom from within your interpersonal relationships.

Of course that if you dwell in ethically questionable milieus, you will find lying a necessity to keep yourself on “track” or at least extend your time on those dwellings. For instance dealing drugs or scamming for profit. But if you want to make your way out of such vile actions, which will ultimately affect yourself and others around you, you will have to re-look at lies from a whole different perspective and you will see that they are no more useful than bullets are.

In relation with secrets, you might also assume that lying can be required in order to retain information you were asked not to disclose. I’m talking specifically about the kind of secrets that someone, a friend, asks you to keep (leaving aside those that are held for professional reasons, the case for instance with doctors and psychologists, for obvious reasons). And in my opinion, these should also be avoided from the very beginning. Because keeping a secret is a burden, and the story you have to tell in order to hold the secret can put you on a path of deception that you didn’t want to be dwelling into. You should make that very clear next time someone asks you “can I tell you a secret?”

When you lie you are creating a story that collides with reality, and to keep a lie you have to commit to the fictional story and keep track of the plot in order not to be caught, which is energy consuming and psychologically distressing. And, needless to say, no one wants to be perceived as liar. But when you are caught in the habit of using it for whatever reason, people start to get clues from the incongruities on your stories and behaviors, and trust begins to deteriorate. A liar is eventually shunned for reasons he probably never understands.

In our personal lives and within society in general, lies are the basis of all forms of vice. A willingness to lie is behind every adultery act, financial fraud, government corruption, murder, etc. This moral defect slowly corrodes bridges and feeds distrust. Falsehoods spread like disease and a lie brought up into reality can have unpredictable outcomes that always create collateral damage downstream.

The question now is: “How willing are you to embrace truthfulness and gradually eradicate lies from your interaction with others?”

I challenge you to make an effort to become aware of the moments when you are propelled to lie on your day-to-day life. Ask yourself if you can find a proper way to convey the truth, instead of lying, without harming yourself or someone. If not, what is there for you in the long-run if you’d stop lying. How would your relationships change? Could it play an important role on your personal development? Would you become a better person? How might you affect people around you and, consequentially, society if you resolved never to lie again?

These, I believe, are the type of questions worth answering.

References

Article inspired on the ideas developed by Sam Harris on his essay “Lying”

1- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA. 1998. Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 63-79;

2- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA, Kirkendol SE, Wyer MM, Epstein JA1996. Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70 (5): 979 – 995

3- Kalbfleisch PJ. 2001. Deceptive message intent and relational quality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20 (1-2): 214-230

4- Cole T. 2001. Lying to the one you love: the use of deception in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18(1): 107-129

Hiding in plain sight: what is reality?

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Photo by Tinou Bau

Everyday you wake up, open your eyes, and a world of shapes and colors come rushing in, everything in your room looks exactly the same as last time you’ve checked, or maybe your cat moved something around while you were sleeping, but your room still looks familiar. You go outside, not much has changed, your car is still the same, the tree in your front yard is still the same dark green cypress, the houses around didn’t change much from last night. The world, as you perceive it through your senses, doesn’t change much from day to day, allowing you to construct a consistent reality, based on your perceptions and beliefs, that you assume as true. An external world that you are confident that exists independently of you perceiving it, with the same qualities/properties that you attribute to it. The external reality you conceive is made of shapes and colors, scents and motions, textures and tastes and sensations. But have you ever stopped to question about if all of that you interact with, the inputs that you receive from the world around you, represents the ‘true’ reality? Or is it maybe an incomplete representation of reality?

Let’s take a red apple in front of you, for example. You can grab it, look at its round shape, feel its smooth texture, examine its red color and grab a bite and taste its sweetness. It truly feels like an apple to you in every sense, but are you experiencing the ‘real’ apple itself? Or just some properties that you attribute to what you describe as an apple? If you ask someone else who sees and feels the apple, they surely will agree with you in the description. But as soon as you start to look in more detail, doubts can begin to arise. Color might change and different shades of red might appear depending on the light being reflected, or the absence of light will dramatically change the color to dark. For a color blind person the color, in the same conditions of light, will look different, for a dog as well, and there’s no reason to believe that the color you see is anymore real than the color another person or animal sees. The color is, therefore, not something which is inherent in the apple, but something that depends upon it and the observer and the way light reflects on it. The same can be applied to other senses, like texture. The apple looks and feels smooth and even on its surface, but through magnification, with a microscope let’s say, we can see roughness that is imperceptible to the naked eye.

Bertrand Russel (1872-1970), a British philosopher, calls “sense-data” to the things that are immediately known in sensation, like colors, smells, hardness, etc. A ‘sense-datum’ is that of which we are aware, and the awareness itself is the ‘sensation’. Therefore, if you are to know anything about the apple, it must be by means of the sense-data associated with the apple, but the apple isn’t the sense-data. But what does the ‘real’ apple looks like? If my belief that I’m seeing the real properties of what I call a ‘red apple’ is wrong, what is there after all? Am I misinterpreting the nature of my perceptions?

As far as misinterpreting perceptions is concerned, that is not new to us. We used to believe that the Earth was flat and that it was at the center of the Universe. Galileo, who helped us deal with some misconceptions of our place in the physical Universe, once said:

“I think that tastes, odors, colors and so on reside in consciousness. Hence, if the living creature is removed, all these qualities would be annihilated.”

Let’s keep our attention focused on the sense of vision. About 1/3 of the brain’s cortex participates in the visual process. When we open our eyes, billions of neurons engage and the snapshot of the world taken at each moment by the eye is just the very initial part of that process. Most of it involves the creation of the shapes, colors and motions you see, the construction of literally everything you see. For example, visual illusions of movement or shapes that we love looking at just for fun (ex. illusions 1 and 2) are, in fact, an indication of that construction process. But neuroscientists go further and claim that we ‘reconstruct’ reality. That means that the process of vision reconstructs an accurate view of things that would exist even if there was nobody to see. It is accepted that seeing more accurately has an adaptive advantage, evolutionarily speaking, and, therefore, we are the descendants of those who saw more accurately. Vision is accurate and the idea is that accurate perceptions are fitter perceptions (fitness is defined, in evolutionary biology, as reproductive success and reflects how well an organism is adapted to its environment). But visual accuracy doesn’t necessarily mean that you are perceiving reality as it is. Evolution is driven by fitness, as described by mathematical equations that describe it, and not by reality. We have hardwired tricks and hacks that were ‘created’ during the evolutionary process to keep us alive. Evolution has shaped us with perceptual symbols: if you see a snake don’t get near it, if you hear a stream of water in the middle of the desert run to it, if you hear someone crying, go check it; that are designed to keep us safe as an individual and as a species. But that doesn’t give us any indication about if we’re seeing reality as it is.

Now, you can say that you agree with all that, but we’ve already started to unveil the true reality. Physics tell us that the physical world is almost empty space, that all comes down to atomic particles bouncing around and interacting with each other. But Science describing the physical world is like someone looking at a computer desktop and exploring its interface, trying to understand the reality of the computer. And if you try to magnify and look in more detail at the pixel level, you still never left the user’s interface. We’re naturally inclined to think that perception is like a window on reality as it is, but the theory of evolution is telling us another completely different thing. ‘Our reality’ is more like a 3D desktop that is designed to hide the complexity of reality away and guide adaptive behavior. Space-time as you understand it is just your desktop.

If we take any given object, as the red apple, of the sort that is supposed to be known by the senses, what the senses immediately give us is not the truth about the object as it is apart from us, but merely certain sense-data which depend upon the interaction between us and the object. What we see is just an incomplete representation of reality, that is hidden from us and that, perhaps, we still lack the cognitive and processing capacity to address and describe. There is something that continues to exist when there is nobody to see, but it is not space-time and physical objects. When you have the experience of interacting with what you describe as an apple, you’re interacting with reality, but reality itself is nothing like an apple. Likewise, and this is to kick things up, when you have the perception that you describe as a brain, you’re interacting with reality, but reality is nothing like a brain. And that reality, whatever it looks like, is the source of cause and effect in the world, something that underlies our perceptual experiences.

This can have important implications on the mystery of consciousness. An interesting idea is that, maybe, reality is an interacting network of conscious entities that influence each others conscious experiences. Possibilities are still open and probably the next breakthrough in evolution will be the capacity to understand and describe consciousness and its underlying mechanisms, hopefully awarding us with new insights on the true nature of reality that lies beyond our limited perceptions.

Suggested readings:

  1. Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy
  2. Hoffman, Donald. Human Vision as a Reality Engine
  3. Edge. 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT? True Perceptions are Fitter Perception, by Donald Hoffman.

Finding the self: does science has something to say?

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When we start discussing about ideas still so dividing and controversial, we usually begin by wandering through philosophical realms before science is capable of providing us with stronger arguments. In neurosciences it is well understood that the brain is capable of creating illusions through a mechanism of ‘auto-filling’, which is useful during the process of making sense of the world around us with the information available at each moment. For example, let’s say you’re walking in the woods, at a given moment your brain perceives a snake dissimulated under the fallen leaves of a tree, adrenaline kicks in to make you aware of the danger and prepare yourself to ‘fight’ for your life. When you take a closer look, now with more information available because you focused all your conscious attention on that potential source of danger, you realize it is just an old rope and that there is no danger after all. At that first moment of reaction, your unconscious brain perceived a snake after sufficient information was available to increase the likelihood of it being a snake, and a primordial yet efficient defense mechanism was triggered, the “fight-or-flight” response. A series of inputs, like perceiving the woods as a propitious place for snakes, the sound of leaves being moved and an hidden object, somewhere in your field of vision, with a snake-like shape, triggered that response. The brain ‘filled in the gaps’ where information was missing, considering past experiences and genetic per-disposition, creating the illusion of a snake that wasn’t there after all. These illusions are created all the time in order to help us make sense of the world and be fit to ‘survive’ in it (I know we are not living in caves anymore but we bring a lot of baggage from those difficult times, evolutionarily speaking).

However, the idea that the sensation of having a self is an illusion itself, created by the brain, has been difficult to address out of the philosophical discourse. The illusion of the self is a theory that aims to describe the sensation of “I”, a sense of individuality, separateness and self-centered perception of reality, as a creation of the mind and the only thing there is that is aware of that sensation is consciousness. While this idea has been explored for millennia within religious and spiritual circles, being Buddhism the most impactful one, Science only had the audacity (and the resources, of course) to take on the challenge during the middle of the 20th century. A unique opportunity for research on the subject presented itself when a series of patients that were submitted to a callosotomy (a medical procedure to cut the corpus callosum, the main neuronal tissue that connects both brain hemispheres at the neocortex level) in order to treat serious cases of epilepsy started to show some strange yet interesting behaviors. These people are known as the “split brain patients”, and their condition is where I want to focus during the rest of this post.

Splitting the Brain

One of those patients is known in scientific literature as Vicky. Sometime after the procedure, Vicky started to experience some troubling behaviors. For instance, she would find a visit to the supermarket a complete ordeal. Both her hands would not agree on what to pick up from the shelf – “I’d reach with my right hand for the thing I wanted but the left one would come in and they’d kinda fight”. Getting dressed was also a challenge for the same exact reason. Her brain was behaving in some ways as if it was two separate minds. Before fMRIs became mainstream, these patients have proved valuable to determine differences between the hemispheres, which the communication highway has been severed. For example, the left side is where speech and language are mainly processed and the right side specialized in visual-spatial processing and facial recognition. Another patient, WJ, was asked, during one of the experiments, to press a button whenever he saw an image. The researchers would flash words to his left or right field of view . Since the light inputs in the left eye are processed by the right hemisphere and vice-versa, images presented to one side delivers the information to the respective hemisphere while the other is ‘blind’ to the stimuli.

Two-minds
From “The split brain: A tale of two halves” by David Wolman (see References)

WJ had no problem to tell the scientists what he saw when the stimuli was presented to the left hemisphere, or right eye. Yet, he would claim he didn’t see anything when the the image was shown to the right hemisphere, notwithstanding his left hand pressing the button every time a word appeared to the right eye. The left and right didn’t know what the other was doing. On a third experiment, a young patient was asked about who was his favorite girlfriend, with the word ‘girlfriend’ presented to the right hemisphere. He couldn’t answer verbally. His right-hemisphere has seen it, but the language processing left-hemisphere remained unaware. Then, using his left hand (which is controlled by the right-hemisphere, but I’m pretty sure you know that by now), the boy spelled LIZ with the letter tiles in front of him. There is no doubt that the right-hemisphere is experiencing the world but it cannot communicate verbally, only by controlling the left hand.

Despite the impressive effects of splitting the brain through callosotomy, researchers have reported that the patients involved in the studies never expressed feeling anything less than whole, that is, they would still have a unified sense of self. The hemispheres didn’t miss each other in some sense. Further experiments were carried out where subjects were asked to explain with words actions directed and carried out by the right hemisphere. The left-hemisphere would make up a post-hoc answer to fit the situation. This observation has huge implications related with the ‘story-telling’ capacity of our brain. It is important to mention that in split-brain procedures the brain is never completely split. The sub-cortical region, a more primitive region of the brain, continues connected (or the person would become seriously impaired or even die). Patients that mastered a skill before the surgery would still be able to coordinate the hands for the task, for example a fisherman would still be able, with no apparent difficulties, to tie a fishing line (it is coordinated by deeper sub-cortical levels of motor control), but when introduced to less familiar tasks, he would have a hard time to complete them. There are other clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly. In Cotard Syndrome, for instance, the victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit having a life history, or in ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder”, the person seems to harbor multiple selves, each with its own name, memory and voice.

There is still a long way to go until science is capable to clearly describe the self, determine where it is ‘created’ in the brain, how it can survive radical surgical procedures like in split patients, how it can change completely in some cases and how this not-so-apparent illusion shapes our very perception of reality and influence the consciousness in creating the narrative of our life. Consciousness is, without a doubt, a mysterious entity and I believe that the self is itself something that exists as long as there is consciousness to be aware of it, it cannot exist independently of a brain, and it is therefore not real, an illusion. But like our thoughts, sensations, emotions, it is a product of the chemistry of the brain and there is only consciousness at the end to be aware of all of that. The stream of consciousness is all there is, and even if you suffered a serious amnesia or your psychology was replaced by Donald Trump’s, you would still have consciousness. But would you still be You?

References:

  1. David Wolman. 2012. The split brain: a tale of two talves. Nature 483,260–263;
  2. Jim Holt. 2014. Is there such thing as a self? Prospect Magazine;
  3. Sam Harris. 2012. The Illusion of the Self: An Interview with Bruce Hood.

Coursera:

Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Robert Wright, Princeton University