Jumping to an Outer Self

I had a strange and frightening dream experience today. Then I had a theory of the operation of the mind that I thought of when I lay in bed for a while afterward thinking about the experience. I shall first describe to you the dream, and then the theory.

The dream was that I am photographing a huge concert in Austin. It is nighttime and anything is hardly visible, but I am on a raised rim around a huge rectangular concert ground teeming with a dense population of dark human heads numbering in the tens of thousands. The ground centers on a deep pit of some sort from which a faint red glow emanates, presumably the source of the music, but I cannot see it clearly for the forest of black heads around. Everything is blurry and unclear and dark.

Apparently some others are there to photograph it as well, and with alarm I watch them step off the raised rim onto the sea of people, and the surface of this dark granular sea begins to move swiftly  to the central pit as they step on it, like a crowd of small dark pebbles rolling to create a moving surface. They move along with it until they drop into the central pit.

I do not want to do this so I step away and into a covered area beside the rim. I think there is a person standing there, leaning against an opening, looking out to the concert ground. Maybe not a person. I had a feeling it could be a individual of an alien species of sorts, and this gathering that I am at is not something entirely human.

There is a box or something on the ground that I stumble on, and a jacket or something I was carrying drops to the ground, along with my phone, which opens up as it hits the ground to spill its battery (it’s a Nokia E5 that does this every time it hits the ground in real life).

I stoop to pick it up, and as I do so, the frightening part of the dream begins.

I feel a very sudden onset of a heavy, heavy drowsiness land on me. My eyes get immediately heavy and my body is hard to pick up off the stooping position. Everything in me  wants to lie down and drift away into the unobserving nothingness of sleep, and my mind launches a vigorous and alarmed fight against this. It is a very frightening feeling, because sleep never arrives like this, so it must be something else, and it is my own body that is betraying me. Everything is getting dark, and it is my own instincts that are bullying me to let go and fall asleep, while my self feels like a small person trapped inside this fast-darkening human body machine, taken by sudden fear and shock but not knowing how long it can keep up its small, fragile, important fight.

At this point I look to the floor and notice that the battery that spilled out of my phone is blue. My battery is actually not blue. Which means, I tell myself, I am dreaming. I have been taken already. The battle has been lost. This is not waking life any more.

I think I fall gently to the floor on my back, and the panic inside me soars to unbearable heights. I cannot go like this, I tell myself. I remember the person/alien standing there. I do not know who it is, but surely they shall not be so unfriendly as to not offer me help in such a crisis.

‘I need help!’ I shout out. There is no response.

At this point I half-open my eyes with a lot of effort. And I see bits of my room that I am sleeping in, in Austin. I see a beam on the roof, and the Tintin poster I put on the wall. This part is not a dream. I do really see this with my half-open eyes.

But I am not able to wake up.

This really, really frightens me. This has never happened to me before. I know that I have breached the layer into final wakefulness, but something is still keeping my mind from being able to fully wake up, try as I might. It is also strange because it is not that I am too tired and sleepy to fully wake up, and that I am not trying hard enough out of my drowsiness. There is a full battle going on inside my head, but this highly increased activity has no effect on being able to finally wake up. It is indeed a very, very strange thing to find oneself in.

I put all my resources together into one concerted effort, and then I feel something. I feel a shift in perspective, as if I am now a new person who is outside this experience, looking at the struggle I was going through as a dream that needs to be woken out of. I feel myself as being on the outer loop of a nesting, no longer the character struggling in this story, but a real-life person waking up from a dispensable dream in which this character resided.

And that’s when I actually woke up. I fully opened my eyes and looked through the crack of my blanket at the morning sunlight pouring into my room, illuminating the white ceiling. I checked to see if this is what it felt to be fully awake. My faculties were returning as they always do each morning, and I was assured that I was awake.

An epilogue is that I lay in bed for some more and drifted off into drowsiness again, and somehow managed with my sleepy antics to land a desk lamp on myself that shook my entire half-asleep world and jolted me finally into wakefulness enough to get me out of bed.

Now comes the theory, and the theory is about that final part where I stepped out of a loop and into a surrounding perspective that helped me wake up.

As I was lying in bed after this experience, still in a half-asleep state, I was thinking in my head how such a shift of character was possible. How in my mind I could both be a person, and then in a moment be another person regarding the first person as their dream.

And I had the following ‘insight’. I do not claim this in any way to be a well-founded theory of any sort, but I thought about it later and it seemed to link to some other ideas about the operation of the mind in an interesting way, so I thought it would be good to preserve it.

If you consider the brain as a very complicated computer, which I almost certainly believe it is, only using neural circuits instead of logic gate circuits, one can draw analogies between the working of the brain and that of a computer, although computer architecture today is at an infant stage in many ways compared to the complexity of the human brain.

A computer runs many processes at any given time, and they are interrelated in increasingly complex ways. Without going into the hard problem of consciousness, if the brain is the hardware, the mind, our thoughts, and our sense of self doing things must be some complex fallout of the processes that go on all the time in this vast and complex neural circuit.

It is important now to consider that like a computer, the brain is supporting many processes at once in its network. The sense of self doing things is a fraction of these. It has many subconscious processes, some which we may choose to become conscious of if we direct our attention to, and may let them recede back into the subconscious at our will (think of the exercise of trying to isolate all the noises in a noisy environment, or listening for a particular instrument in a piece of music). Some processes are forever in the subconscious and cannot be brought into attention. Similarly, there is data that can either be consciously pondered or packed away as memories that recede from the consciousness until retrieved perhaps many years later. (There is data in your mind now that you cannot think of unless someone produces a very specific cue, when it jumps right up.) The sense of self and conscious thought is only a group of processes in the brain amidst this sea of processes, illuminating a fraction of the other processes and data by shining its small light on them as and when ‘we want’.

Now this was my theory, that the collection of processes in this neural hardware that embodies the feeling of the self is not a concrete, unchanging one. In other words, ‘we’ inhabit different collections of processes in the hardware at different times.

At this point I think it relates in a way that I’ve been hearing said a lot in the context of mindfulness meditation or vipassana, for example by Sam Harris, that the self is only one of the incessant stream of thoughts arising in this one unchanging background of consciousness. ‘Pure consciousness’ is the substrate on which thoughts evolve, such as hunger or boredom or the feeling of self and having a body and doing things. The final objective of mindfulness meditation as I understand it is to dissolve the state of the mind into this pure consciousness, undisrupted by the arising of thoughts. In the context that I am talking about, the potential in this complex circuit for processes to go on that sense the outside world, take decisions and reflect internally, is the one unchanging substrate. The processes themselves that arise, operate transiently and quit to make way for others are only temporary, and our (so-perceived) continuous ‘sense of self’ is a constant real time transition of inhabiting different collections of processes in the neural circuitry. Note that I do not aim at all to explain how a collection of neural processes can assume a ‘sense of self’. This is related to the hard problem of consciousness that I do not even want to hint that I can solve.

Now, just as in a computer we can have encompassing processes running, observing or controlling subjugate processes, so can happen in the computer inside our head as well. In fact, in a computer of such staggering complexity, it must happen. For example, the rush of anxiety as you face a crowd of people on stage is a process in your mind. You can choose to observe it as it happens (then you’ll be taking the first steps to mindfulness). At that point, the self is a process that is observing this other process, both occurring in this complex neural circuit.

What happens then when the process that ‘we’ inhabit shifts from a nested process to another that observes the first? Would the experience be somewhat like what I went through? That could explain how I was both the actual person struggling to wake up, and then switching to be the other person who felt like they were dreaming of the first and could control its termination.

As I was lying in bed, still half-asleep, these are the thoughts that went through my mind. As I said, I am not claiming any of these to be founded in anything at all. They just seemed to be interesting ideas, and may in future spring new ideas and connections that can actually be placed on firmer logical grounds, so I decided to blog about it.

Let me know what you think.

The following is a truncated clip from one of Sam Harris’ lectures talking about mindfulness meditation in the context in which I referred to him.

Thoughts on the Universe

1.

The refusal to link our origins to ‘lesser animals’ stems from a deep-rooted, audacious pride in our species that is instilled by most religions.
The sooner we understand that the universe is not a grand entertainment arena designed for us, that there is no designer who will watch over us and tide us through our mistakes, and that His ‘plans’ are only what we cause ourselves, the closer we shall be to avert the extinction of the living, including us.
We are an insignificant, expendable product of this universe. Our role, if any, is self-assigned, and it exists in protecting our fellow life, and to continue pushing the boundaries of our inquiry. Only in that, if at all, lies our sole relevance, our final salvation.

2.

Will language decay to sms-speak? Will people forget to write? Will we become semi-cyborgs in some decades? Will religion disappear?
It doesn’t matter what you think is morally, politically, philosophically more correct. Resist change, and you will lose. For history is written by the victors, and change is always the victor.
Look up at the night sky. In the perspective of this ancient universe, there is no morality, politics or philosophy. There is only what survived. And that is the entirety of its truth, no more.
“Existence has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” — Rorschach, The Watchmen.

Unwritten Thoughts

Last night I finished some work on a website I’ve been designing and watched a video lecture before tucking into bed. It was pretty late by then, around half past three, and I was very sleepy. But I think I got a small idea for a blog post (after a long time) and wanted to write it down before I either forgot or lost the enthusiasm the next day. So instead of turning off the laptop, I opened up the blog publishing program. I remember that well, although I was terribly sleepy and there was a film of clouded haze before my eyes, and I was forgetting whether I was asleep or awake.

I wrote down the title, I remember that. What happened next was pretty creepy, but I remember that too.

I collected my half-asleep mind with considerable difficulty in order to type down the formative idea for the post. Then, just as I was about to type it, just as my fingers hovered close above the keyboard, I heard this distinctive patter of the keys. Moderately fast typing, like my speed. I blinked and shook my head, but the haze did not clear. I could still see though that the text area was blank. I looked down and my fingers were still poised above the keys.

The soft sounds of the typing continued. I completely forgot what I was about to write.

I have been going to bed overworked, tired, and very late, a lot lately. So I stopped and tried to figure out whether all this was really happening, or I had smoothly passed from reality to a dream without significant changes in my surroundings. I was thinking that when I realized there was no sound. No typing noises. I sat up, rubbed my eyes and took stock of my surroundings. I was in my dark room under the sheets with a laptop on my lap, staring at a blank blog post. I remembered why I had it open. I remembered what I wanted to write down. So I thought of typing it down before I fell completely asleep and forgot the thought the next day.

Again, just as I was about to touch the keys, there started this soft patter over the keyboard. It wasn’t coming out of the speakers or anything, I was sure. It was coming from the keyboard, as if I was typing. But I wasn’t. I just sort of gave up then and lay back and let it be, much as one does after some shots of alcohol. I kept listening and did nothing. The typing continued. It was fast, and did not pause for long gaps, as if the mind was made. It continued, interjected by the slightly louder tap of the spacebar here and there. It was as if someone had wanted to write down a lot of things on their mind but had for long been unable to, and now took the opportunity of my attempt at a post to pour out their heart and mind. Only that it refused to show up on the screen. But it was as if I knew that someone, with that distinctive typing speed, that peculiar distribution of speeding up in some words and slowing down, pausing, thinking for a moment in others, that so familiar punching of the spacebar…

It was as if that someone was me, from some place else I had long neglected.

I kept listening to the typing in a general sleepy trance, trying a bit to guess from the source of the sounds which keys were being pressed, when there arose from inside me a faint feeling that I wasn’t asleep or imagining this.

I listened to it for a long time, gradually slipping into a deeper haze until I remember no more.

I woke up very late this morning. Afternoon, rather. The laptop was on my lap. It had turned itself off. I remembered last night. Before I did anything else, I booted the laptop and opened up the program.

Something had been written and saved last night. I opened it up and almost fell off my bed.

It was huge. I read through the whole thing for an hour. Then I sat silent for another hour afterwards, not believing, not being able to figure it out.

I don’t remember writing any of this. I don’t remember ever having thought of writing any of this. A person half-asleep, disoriented and hallucinating cannot write like this. But they were my thoughts, my own thoughts. My own wispy odds and ends that had flashed past the mind now and then and been carelessly shelved away for later reflection which I never had time for. Thoughts I had had on a bus, on the road, while looking at the face of a sad young girl in the metro, thoughts while listening to a song, thoughts about the nature of darkness and the lives of animals. Inconsequential thoughts, unfruitful thoughts, the smallest of thoughts. Picked and arranged and nurtured now into a long monologue before my eyes. Everything I had wanted to write about. Everything that is proper to write about, and everything improper.

I have not read it a second time since. I cannot put it in my blog. It cannot be read by any person except me. And the one thing I can swear on, is it couldn’t have been written by anyone except me.

I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know if I am happy, or upset, or scared. I can’t decide. I don’t know how this happened. I need to find out. But I don’t know how. Who else can I ask? I have my doubts whether anyone else can help me.

I just know one thing. I’m going early to bed tonight.

clouds

all these lonely thoughts of mine

like quite friendless clouds

shall float over your cities

and bring dark rain to dreamy foothills

long after i’m gone.

Whispers

When you are in an empty room for some time, you may hear whispers.

There’s a fully sound-proofed room at the annexe of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France. It’s used for measuring and calibrating units of sound intensity and frequency. The decibel was first set in that office, and so was the Hertz.

It’s in a far, secluded corner of the sprawling bureau. From the outside, it looks like a small, ordinary office. But it’s when the huge padded and reinforced metal alloy door hisses open slowly via combined pneumatic and hydraulic pumps, releasing a burst of chilly, lifeless air from within its dark cavern, that you first feel a distinct sense of discomfort.

You enter the room, and the door swings back closed, enclosing you with liquid darkness that you can feel clawing up your limbs and crawling into your clothes. There are no incandescent bulbs inside because the air must be at a uniform temperature throughout the room for correct accoustic measurements. There are no fluorescent tubes either because they produce a constant hum, which would be loud in that chamber.

In short, it’s pitch black.

But it’s not silent, especially not after a few minutes.

The first thing you realize after some time is that there is a constant low sound, pulsating regularly. The man outside would already have told you what that is. It’s the blood flowing through your veins. Even then, it’s unnerving.

Then you sit down on the soft padded floor. You are forgetting whether your eyes are open or closed, it’s so dark. You imagine the darkness facing you, staring at you, cold and expressionless, the ancient darkness that was there before our lights, before our Earth was formed, before all else. A tiny ball of panic starts rising up your throat.

It is then that the whispers start.

You can scream. But nobody will hear you. If you have asked for fifteen minutes, they will let you out after fifteen minutes. Those guys are very particular about time, staying in a place that measured the second.

It is not someone else who is whispering to you. It is you. There’s always so much noise in life, they never got to say anything. Now they know, those voices, that you are listening. For fifteen minutes you are theirs. That is all the time they need. And the things you hear are the things that you never wished to hear ever, even without knowing it. Everyone has things like that, you too.

It’s not a good idea to scream. It will drown out the voices for some time, but there is only a limited amount of oxygen in the room. If you scream, you will notice that you start panting. You will have increasing difficulty in breathing. But they won’t know that outside. They will only let you out after fifteen minutes. That is one clause you must sign before entering the sound room.

When you start having trouble breathing, the whispers get louder. And then you can’t scream any more, because you know that you may start to choke. Then you must huddle up and listen.

You cannot cry. You must breathe normally, in and out. You must sit quietly in the blackness, amidst the pounding of your heart and the rushing of your blood through your vessels, amidst the whispers that are tearing your mind apart.

When they come out from the sound room, they all grow quieter. They walk quietly, drive quietly, and reply in brief to questions. It’s because the whispers will keep knocking about inside their heads till the end of their lives. There’s always so much of it to listen to, there’s no room for other sounds.

Some of them end up in quiet padded cells of a different kind.

In the winter of 1997, when faced with several public cause litigations, the annexe office of the Bureau admitted responsibility for several cases of terminal schizophrenic dementia admitted in various institutions around the country. That same winter, they stopped issuing permits for visitors to the sound room.

Schizophrenia as understood today, is when one communicates with or acknowledges the presence of an other being who is not there. One of the above patients, however, reported in a rare and brief medical interview that she was fully aware that she was talking to herself.

If you want to know what the voices say, there’s a way that sometimes works. After midnight on a clear moonless night, you must go somewhere open, like a roof. You must be alone. Look up so that the sky spans your entire field of view, and there is no source of light in the field. Calm yourself and try to think of who you are. Who are you to yourself? Step outside yourself and observe this being you have been inside for all these years. Don’t look away from the sky. Visualize your face, spell your name inside your head. Who are you? What do you do everyday? How are you different from everyone else? What do you mean? Why are you?

If you are (un)lucky, you might actually start hearing the answers.

Don’t make it a habit.