The Ego/Self-System Part II: Neuroscience Perspective

Krishnamurti stated that we are nothing, that the self is not real, in the sense of it not being a thing. What does brain science have to say about this very radical position? Antonio Damasio, an eminent neuroscientist, says in his book, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain: “The answers are unequivocal. There is indeed a self, but it is a process, not a thing, and the process is present at all times when we are presumed to be conscious. We can consider the self process from two vantage points. One is the vantage point of an observer appreciating a dynamic object … The other vantage point is that of the self as knower” (Damasio, 2010, Amazon loc. 205).

 

If there is no physical structure central to self, a self-structure that runs the brain, a me that is in control, what creates this uncanny sense of self as the operator of the system? An answer may lie in looking at how the brain produces consciousness, since this sense of self as operator and knower resides in consciousness.

 

Consciousness is an emergent property. From moment to moment, different modules or systems compete for attention and the winner emerges as the neural system underlying that moment’s conscious experience. Our conscious experience is assembled on the fly, as our brains respond to constantly changing inputs, calculate potential courses of action … The psychological unity we experience emerges out of the specialized system called “the interpreter” that generates explanations about our perceptions, memories and actions and the relationship among them (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 102).

 

Meditation really is a complete emptying of the mind. Then there is only the functioning of the body; there is only the activity of the organism and nothing else; then thought functions without identification as the me and the not-me. Thought is mechanical, as is the organism. What creates conflict is thought identifying itself with one of its parts which becomes the me, the self and the various divisions in that self. There is no need for the self at any time. There is nothing but the body and freedom of the mind can happen only when thought is not breeding the me. There is no self to understand but only the thought that creates the self. – Krishnamurti

 

The Invisible Brain

 

It appears then that there is a close agreement between Krishnamurti and brain science that self is not a physical structure or some immutable, and perhaps sacred or eternal, element. It is a function that emerges from brain activity, as does all that constitutes consciousness, but it is also invisible to itself as far as its internal operations go. It took technology for researchers to be able to peer inside the brain to understand the functions of the brain.

 

The faculty with which we ponder the world has no ability to peer inside itself or our other faculties to see what makes them tick. That makes us the victims of an illusion: that our own psychology comes from some divine force or mysterious essence or almighty principle (Pinker, 1997, p. 4).

 

Since the brain’s functions are not part of consciousness, this could explain, at least in part, why the sense of self seems so real; there is nothing in consciousness to compete with or to contradict the self-image, as it is the sole inhabitant of consciousness. Krishnamurti appears to agree with this in his comments about consciousness being its own content. He presents it as a unit, making no separation for the part self occupies in consciousness, along with the other elements that at any given time may be part of consciousness.

 

Consciousness is its content. The content is consciousness. The two are not separate. That is, the thoughts, the anxieties, the identifications, the conflicts, the anxiety, the attachments, detachments, the fears, the pleasures, the agony, the suffering, the beliefs, the neurotic actions, all that is my consciousness. – Krishnamurti

 

Additionally, if we look again at the Damasio quote above, he proposes consciousness is composed of objects and a knower of those objects. It certainly feels that way, but a more removed view might see these elements are really one flow of consciousness. Is this what Krishnamurti is talking about when he talks about the thinker and the thought being one?

 

The root of contradiction is this division between the thinker and the thought. And the two cannot be integrated. But if one observes the structure of the thinker, you will see the thinker is not, when thought is not. It is the thought that breeds the thinker, the experiencer, the entity that creates time, and the entity who is the source of fear. – Krishnamurti

 

Behind the screen of consciousness is the functioning brain, and what is going on within the brain’s silent functions is amazing. Billions of nerve cells called neurons are being created at early stages of the brain’s development, and throughout our life, root-like connections called axons are constantly adding to the trillions of connections between neurons via locations called synapses. “Moreover, when enough new synapses form in a neuron, the length and number of branches in its dendritic “tree” often expand as well, increasing the strength and number of the neurons that can talk to it” (Sapolsky, 2017, Amazon loc. 2283).

 

These connections are learning. Once these networks are in place, matrix-like assemblies interconnect via electrical and chemical reactions to form representations of elements in the outer world. Basically, these representations are assemblies of simultaneously reacting neurons that, when stimulated, cause what we call memories. They can be assembled and downloaded to become a flow of consciousness that also contains a sense of self claiming to be responsible for the flow, and brain science says a sense of self as a center is necessary for there to be consciousness.

 

The mere presence of organized images flowing in a mental stream produces a mind, but unless some supplementary process is added on, the mind remains unconscious. What is missing from that unconscious mind is a self. What the brain needs in order to become conscious is to acquire a new property – subjectivity – and a defining trait of subjectivity is the feeling that pervades the images we experience subjectively (Damisio, 2010, Amazon loc. 248).

 

It does not necessarily follow that in needing a sense of center, a knower, there must also be an attached causative agent to the center, the self as a doer, an ego. This brings up the issue of free will.

 

Is There Such a Thing as Free Will?

 

In neuroscience, the issue of free will is a hot and undecided topic that, for now, centers around a study first conducted in the 1980s. The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move at the moment they decided to press one button or the other … One fact now seems indisputable: some moments before you are aware of what you will do next – a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please – your brain has already determined what you will do. You then become conscious of this “decision” and believe that you are in the process of making it. (Harris, 2012, p. 8).

 

Libet (1985) and Libet et al. (1967) conducted experiments showing that brain activity preceded seemingly conscious decisions of subject instructed, for example, to raise their finger at will. Since then, it has become very clear that unconscious processes are involved even when we feel we make deliberate choices (Ginot & Schore, 2015, Amazon loc. 756).

 

This can be strange and shocking information that challenges the sense of who or what is actually determining our thoughts and behaviors. Another source puts it this way: Our subjective awareness arises out of our dominant left hemisphere’s unrelenting quest to explain these bits and pieces that have popped into consciousness. Notice that popped is in the past tense. This is a post hoc rationalization process. The interpreter that weaves our story only weaves what makes it into consciousness. Because consciousness is a slow process, whatever has made it to consciousness has already happened. It is fait accompli (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 104).

 

Concerning superstition, Bruce M. Hood in his book Super Sense: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs points out that “In other words, there is no free will in making the decision to believe or not” (Hood, 2009, p. 67). The same could be said of consciousness. One likes music, but was that decided upon or found by discovery? Where do talents or abilities come from? According to science, anything we decide to “do” is not only dependent on brain processes that happen prior to the formation of something in consciousness, but our actions also depend on neurological functions to carry out the decision. Beethoven could no longer conduct because he became deaf, and Ravel could no longer read music after a stroke in his 60s. Yes, we make choices, but in no way are they free. They are forever dependent upon underlying, silently functioning brain systems. What may be important here is that, regardless of what we may or may not be able to choose, the fact that stands out in brain science is that behind everything we do is not a self but a brain. This may be particularly important concerning how the issue of free will may or may not intersect with the teachings of Krishnamurti.

 

Choice less awareness implies to be aware both objectively, outside, and inwardly, without any choice. Just to be aware of the colors, of the tent, of the trees, the mountains, nature – just to be aware. Not choose, say, ‘I like this’, ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I want this’, ‘I don’t want that’. To observe without the observer. The observer is the past, which is conditioned, therefore he is always looking from that conditioned point of view, therefore there is like and dislike, my race, your race, my god, your god, all the rest of it. We are saying to be aware implies to observe the whole environment around you, the mountains, the trees, the ugly walls, the towns, aware, look at it. And in that observation there is no decision, no will, no choice. – Krishnamurti

 

Nobody Home

 

If, as neuroscience indicates, the brain has created the self/ego system, and if its functions are silently behind all behavior, this may turn our idea of who we are and what life is in a very different direction, and the conclusion may be that we are not running things as we thought, perhaps not running them at all. Furthermore, statements from Krishnamurti may support this. First, let us look at what he says about effort:

 

Effort implies control, effort implies conflict, inwardly, psychologically and outwardly. To this state of things we have become accustomed. Religious people, business people of every kind must make effort. And in that effort there is involved a great deal of energy, in conflict and so on. – Krishnamurti

 

He also comments on how the self is trying to reach an ideal position by creating a desired view of the self in the future: Why does each one of us want to be something? If I am ugly, I want to be beautiful; if I am stupid, I want to be clever; if I am envious, I want to be free from envy. So there is a constant battle between what I am and what I think I should be. The ‘should be’ is the aim of every person who wants to become, and in this process there is infinite struggle, pain, fear, frustration. And seeing this process, being aware that my mind is caught in the web of sorrow, how am I to be free from sorrow? – Krishnamurti

 

Krishnamurti seems to be challenging the very role of consciousness in human life. Self/ego, as research presents it, is a projection from the brain that gives a sense of control, and effort and direction in the future. But what is it that is “sensed” as effort? If it is in consciousness, as it obviously is, the sensation must also be a projected image from prior brain activity. Science says the brain’s real efforts have no sensation to them at all. Now, of course, we need some of these sensations to protect the body from damage and danger etc., but those challenges are in the present. I think that if we are honest, we can see self/ego has a preoccupation with a future projection of its fears and desires and, as such, much, or maybe most, of consciousness is filled with these images:

 

Can the eyes observe without the past? Let me put it differently: I have an image of myself, created and imposed upon me by the culture in which I have lived. I also have my own particular image of myself, what I should be and what I am not. In fact, we have a great many images; I have an image about you, about my wife, my children, my political leader, my priest, and so on; so I have dozens of images. Don’t you have them? Now, how can you look without an image, because if you look with an image, it is obviously a distortion. – Krishnamurti

 

An honest appraisal may indicate that we are seldom in the present. There was a passage in one of Krishnamurti’s books where he is speaking to a group of Buddhist monks in which one of the monks, after an extensive discussion, says to Krishnamurti something to the effect that Krishnamurti had led a life of observation, and Krishnamurti replied, “Quite right, sir.” This statement could be taken as a casual reply, but what if the monk had an insight and Krishnamurti’s reply was very literal? Would this mean that Krishnamurti’s utilization of consciousness was predominantly a place of intense observational awareness largely free of future concerns and the sensations of effort associated with the sense of self/ego? Seen from another perspective, Krishnamurti’s position seems to be a complete negation of free will because the behavioral motivators of free will can only exist as a sensation of desire and conflict within the self/ego system as it struggles with the various rules and regulations of life. Would it be logical to say that, without the self/ego system, the future of the self as a projection in “the act of becoming” cannot happen, nor can all the necessary defenses the self employs to guard itself. But also lost are all the attractions and addictive sensations associated with self/ego as desires. Krishnamurti once asked of a questioner: “Do you really want it? Right? What price are you willing to pay for it?” Clearly, if one is in conflict about this price, the effort to understand Krishnamurti may be nothing more than just another “act of becoming.”

 

Since neuroscience is quite clear that the self is an image and therefore imaginary, so the clear indication is that the brain is the source of all that is going on with us rather than the construct we call self. The brain desires and feels it needs the fantasy of self as a controller. In Part I of this series, the motivation for this was explored and proposed to issue from fear. Not fear in the present, but remembered fear projected into the future that has long since been buried deep in the subconscious, and, though buried, still is the source of a preoccupation with the future. Dreaming of a nice future to fill consciousness displaces darker concerns. Does this mean then that consciousness is clogged with obsessive images from memory that creates more obsessive images as future projections? If so, does that mean we are blocking observation of and participation in the present? If we are neglecting the present, how does that influence the actions we take to manage our lives?

 

When one looks at all this, one asks, if you are serious: what is right action? What is the right thing to do in life? Not in one particular department of life, but the whole, total process of living, what is the right thing to do? Right being the word ‘accurate’ – accurate, precise, without any distortion – what is the accurate thing to do, the right thing to do in life? Do you ask that question? So we are going to investigate into this question because unless we find out, every action that we do leads to further confusion, further misery and man becomes utterly a mechanical entity – which we are gradually becoming. So it’s very important for a serious person, and I hope you are serious, to find out what is the right thing to do. – Krishnamurti

 

Other questions are also raised from these concerns. Our brain/body system is a product of the universe. Its elements have been brought to existence over about 3.75 billion years of evolution as a part of the evolving continuity of life on Earth. We are here, just as every aspect of life is, as a development and creation within the same universe. But only the human species seems to not trust the equipment we were given to handle life. Of course, in all fairness, other creatures and lifeforms apparently do not understand the ultimate predicament life puts us in, namely of not having absolute security. Knowing that leaves us either simply accepting things the way they are or creating different diversions and fantasies to push that awareness aside. However, we may pay a high price for psychological escape, and it may cause disintegration with the life systems that we are enmeshed with at the physical level. What we seem to not trust is that, if we take care of the present by being fully aware, the best security will come about without effort simply because that is what the basic design of the brain is intended to do. Not perfect, but the best. In creating the self/ego, has the brain attempted to weasel out from the reality of life as a system of incessant change? Is it possible that, in so doing, misery and uncertainty has been introduced on an unimaginable scale that issues from the connivance of the brain’s own monster creation, the ego?

 

We begin to discover that when there is the destruction of all the authority which man has created for himself in his desire to be secure inwardly, then there is creation. Destruction is creation. Then, if you have abandoned ideas, and are not adjusting yourself to your own pattern of existence or a new pattern which you think the speaker is creating – if you have gone that far – you will find that the brain can and must function only with regard to outward things, respond only to outward demands; therefore the brain becomes completely quiet. This means that the authority of its experiences has come to an end, and therefore it is incapable of creating illusion. – Krishnamurti

 

Can it be that the life Krishnamurti lived was one of accepting the unfolding of events in the universe both inwardly and outwardly? If so, it may indicate that the “now” moment of ongoing creation for the movement of Krishnamurti’s mind and everything happening outwardly were essentially the same; everything going on internally for him, his brain’s functions, issued from the same source as everything else. The irony is that what seems to block the brain from understanding this is the imagination of self which, if this is right, is the memory of fear motivating the creation of a self-system, which necessitates the need for an imaginary future. Krishnamurti replied to a question concerning what his secret is by saying: “I’ll tell you what my secret is. I don’t mind what happens.” From the comments assembled here concerning brain science and Krishnamurti’s own quotes, it seems to be a comment about time. Is Krishnamurti implying that he fully accepted the unfolding of what may happen both within himself and outside of himself, not as a choice or something to practice but as an inescapable fact concerning himself as a creation of the universe interacting with the rest of creation? Would this not mean that the unfolding of creation is a fact beyond control, uninfluenced by the human desire for the basic dilemma, the impermanence of everything, to be different?

 

In summary, it seems amazing that the statements of this man, Krishnamurti, are so closely aligned with the latest scientific discoveries about the brain. But, in addition, he speaks of insight as a function of the brain too, and this has not, and perhaps cannot, be investigated by the tools of science. Krishnamurti seems to indicate that insight is a special operation and special alignment between the brain and the outer elements of creation that results in perception not limited by the inherent bias in the storehouse of memory. One can only wonder if insight is the result of a truthful relationship between the brain and creation, which brings to consciousness an inescapable sense of reality that transcends opinion and interpretation. If so, it would truly represent a radically different dimension in the ability of the brain to perceive reality.

 

To perceive this whole movement of the individual and its activities and its organizations, is to have an insight into the whole movement of it. And that very insight is out of time. I don’t know if we have understood that. Insight is not a remembrance, is not a calculated, investigated, investigative result, it is not a process of recording and acting from that, and it’s no longer the activity of thought, which is time. Therefore insight is the action of a mind that is not caught in time. – Krishnamurti

 

The Immeasurable, Robert F. Steele, MA
Robert is a retired mental health counselor and lifetime student of Krishnamurti

 

References:

Damasio, A., (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.
Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.
Ginot, E. & Schore, A. (2015). The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious: Integrating Brain and Mind in Psychotherapy.
Harris, S. (2012). Free Will.
Hood, B. (2009). SuperSense: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs.
Libet. M., (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary actions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-66.
Libet, M., Alberts, W. W., Wright, E. W. & Feinberg, B. (1967). Responses of human somatosensory cortex to stimuli below threshold for conscious sensation. Science, 158, 1597-600.
Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works.
Sapolsky, R. M., (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

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