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Attention and the sense of self

December 12, 2009

Scene: A Christmas Cocktail Party. Someone has just asked me what I “do”, and on hearing “Feldenkrais” has asked me “That’s a mind-body thing, isn’t it?”

Me: “Well, I don’t consider ‘mind’ and ‘body’ to be separate things, so I guess I wouldn’t call Feldenkrais a mind-body thing. I just coach people in improving their function. For exa…”

She (interrupts): “I’m not sure what you mean, ‘mind and body aren’t separate’. I certainly have times when I’m totally in my mind, not in my body. You know, when I’m thinking, or designing…”

Me: “Mmm, I would say that’s really a function of your attention. It’s not that you’re ‘in your mind’ as such, but that your attention is focused on a mental process.”

She: “???  I’ll have to think about that…”

Conversation drifted off into more frivolous things, but days later I am still thinking about attention and the sense of self. Volumes have been written on attention: how it works and how we can choose to direct it, the benefits of doing so, and its essential role in neuroplasticity. Perhaps the pithiest and best summation is by William James:

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

from Principles of Psychology. But attention is not the same as self. As Antonio Damasio points out in The Feeling of What Happens:

“Attention is as necessary to consciousness as having images. But attention is not sufficient for consciousness and is not the same as consciousness.”

Current neuroscience holds that attention is a finite resource – that like a flashlight, it can only be pointed in one direction at a time.This is how at the Christmas function, filled with music and chatter and movement and sparkling lights, I could even have that conversation: by filtering the total ‘incoming’ visual and aural stimulus, to focus on my new friend. In other words, attention determines not only what we experience, but also, and most importantly, what we do not.

Except of course, it’s not that clean and neat. The conversation did not seem to me to occur in a vaccuum – the party didn’t disappear from my perception as I conversed. Why? Because whereas I’ve been to plenty of parties in my life, this was the first conversation I’d had with this person. I knew what to expect from the party – therefore didn’t need to pay attention to it – but not what to expect from the person. The capacity to not attend to ‘familiar’ things is beautifully encapsulated in this extract of transcript from the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Radio National program: All in the Mind.

Natasha Mitchell: It’s interesting because we think of the brain ostensibly as a set of sort of functional modules, we have this idea of the modular brain, and if we confuse things a bit we can think of it as a network of neurons as well. And yet here we have two hemispheres that work sort of quite independently of each other, but we still feel like one human being, there’s still one sense of unified, complete, coherent self inside. Is that the left hemisphere’s job?

Michael Gazzaniga:I certainly think it probably is, and it’s probably very closely related to this interpretive function, because we know from studies that we don’t seem to see this interpretive function in the right hemisphere. The disconnected right hemisphere does not have this system. So there is a system in our brain that tries to tell the story, that basically asks the question why, why does it work this way, how come from the cave man’s point of view, how come there’s no—I put meat out here in front of my cave last night and it’s gone this morning—what happened? Well maybe that guy next door…and so forth, you’re off to the races, once the human brain had developed the capacity to ask why are things the way they are—and we’re fabulous theory generators, as you know. And it’s in that generation of theory and that ‘gist’ capacity where we want to get the gist of something so that we don’t have to remember the details and go through the whole process, by which we think about something again. We just want oh, that’s another lecture on Milton, or that’s your typical lecture on the hypothalamus, or there’s that politician saying his bit about health care. We don’t want to listen to it again so we gist it out, we develop a little theory about it. So it’s a very useful capacity we have and sometimes we get it wrong, obviously, and then these hypotheses become nonetheless part of our narrative, our self, they become false beliefs and frequently they become false memories and so forth. So we can all see how it happens by that instantaneous generation of an idea.

So I ‘gisted out’ the party surrounding my conversation – and this is also what happens when we have those moments when we feel ‘in the mind’. We ‘gist out’  proprioception and motor actions. Even at moments of most intense focus on a mental process, we don’t collapse and fall over (although spilling the coffee is probably far more likely). I suspect that when this kind of gist is inaccurate, as Gazzaniga mentions, we set the stage for the poor motor patterns and organisations which cause us pain and damage in the long run.

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