Deric Bownds


(Please email me with any comments you care to make.© 2005 M. Deric Bownds) This brief essay outlines a description of how our minds are composed and how they work, a description derived from ongoing work in several scientific fields. It suggests a few simple tools for observing and regulating our mental and emotional life. The writing gets dense at points, it would be best to read slowly. also could jump to the “Guide” sections that begin at the middle of this writing, but it would really be best to also read through the following background:

We have many layers:

  • Nerve networks and hormones that regulate life fundamentals like blood pressure, digestion, excretion, body temperature, etc. These are the housekeeping functions we refer to as homeostasis, largely occuring outside of our awareness.
  • Basic drives, motivations, and emotions which we are aware of to varying degrees.
  • Our higher cognitive ‘thinking about’ faculties of which we can be much more conscious.

These all regulate each other in an intricate dance of top-down and bottom-up processes in seamless interaction. Insight into our construction comes from noting how these layers appear during our evolution from more simple animals and also during our development after birth. In both, the lower regulatory layers appear before higher ones. They are the starting point or foundation of what we are experiencing right now.


Our most ancient layer, in appearance not that different from the brain of a frog, is a bulbous brainstem region at the top of our spinal cord that is required to regulate breathing, swallowing, body temperature, heart beat, visual tracking, hearing, etc. This core regulates interactions with the physical world that are fundamental to having a self, interactions that we seldom think about, like exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with plants, supporting ourselves against gravity, monitoring chemicals, sounds, tactile pressures, and visual changes in the environment. This reptillian remnant in us also is a central locus of the four F's learned by generations of medical students: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fornicating. Our experience of these instinctual basic drives has a very different quality than our experience of thoughts or more complicated emotions. The urges to remedy hunger, to have sex, to approach or avoid, to flee or fight when suddenly presented with very threatening situations have an urgency and automaticity we all have experienced. Perhaps in the unreflective instant when we are overwhelmed by these drives we are as close as we can come to feeling the processes that constitute the whole mental life of a lizard or frog!

When we feel emotions like affection or empathy we are engaging a new kind of brain cortex - frequently referred to as the limbic system - that appears in lower mammals between the brainstem and the outer layer of the cortex. We observe in rats or shrews, who are descendants of the earliest mammals, nurturing and defending the newborn along with an expanded range of emotional behaviors. There is vocal and olfactory communication between mother and offspring, and between siblings. Many of our pets' external behaviors can seem so similar to our own (affection, fear, anger, sadness, playfulness), that we find it hard not to suppose that they must be having internal experiences similar to ours, and we feel solace and companionship in their company.

Many of these emotions are central to our social interactions. As complicated social structures and relationships extending beyond each parent/offspring family unit have appeared during mammalian evolution there has been a corresponding increase in the size of the top layer of the cortex, the highly folded neocortex that you see in most pictures of our brains. Interacting with the limbic system and brainstem whole this structure supports our ability to store vast amounts of information about past experiences and social relationships.

As we get to mammals like the monkeys and apes whose social behaviors and rituals show striking parallels with our own, the obvious similarity of emotional expressions we share tempts us to imagine that the non-reflective present centered feelings that we experience while observing or expressing these behaviors might be similar. There is debate over whether non-human animals can be self consciously aware of them, or recall and think about them.

Finally, we get to what we might call the “cognitives”, the reflecting, thinking back, thinking ahead, language use, that has been enabled by evolution of uniquely human brain pathways, and particularly the expansion of the frontal parts of our brains. These new structures generated the "I" that is required for social interactions vastly more complex than those of other animals. Our frontal lobes continue to grow and change throughout the socialization of our teenage years and early 20’s.

Our distinctively human selves, which derive from the living presence of the past, together with an anticipation of a future, provide some protection against the present centered tyranny of high jacking by the emotional brain that we share with our primate precursors and that constitutes much more of their mental life. They live more on the cusp of ‘now’, are more largely prisoners of the present. We are more susceptible to becoming prisoners of the past and future, letting our learned opinions and habits rob the present of its potential for naïve insight, openness to novelty, and change. (These points are discussed in the books by Damasio, 1994, 1999; Hauser, 2000; LeDoux, 1996; and McCrone, 1999; listed under Sources, below.)

So there you have it, one vastly oversimplified but useful description derived from our evolutionary history of layers that compose us: homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive. Simple as they are, these distinctions are useful, for each of these systems can have a momentum of its own, hopefully but not always in accord with the others. Indeed, it is in moments of discord - as for example between an emotional urge to inappropriate anger and a cognitive suppression of overt angry behavior - that we can gain some insight into how these layers interact and regulate us. (Damasio, 1994 and 1999, gives a lucid account of how our selves are constructed from this hierarchy of interacting layers.)

To a large extent we are what we spend our time doing. Being engaging, withdrawn, happy, or angry most of the time can make us seek out environments and social situations that reinforce these temperaments. Practice makes perfect. Understanding how this works, probing what we can change and what we cannot, is both fascinating and practical. Observing some of the levers and pulleys that make us tick, and appreciating where they come from, can sometimes help us nudge our inner machinery in more useful directions. Let's delve now into more detail on how these interacting layers form to weave the fabric of our daily lives.


Constructions of our homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive systems starts early in our embryonic life and continues well into our adult years. Only a fraction of the brain we have as adults is there at birth, not that different from the brain of a newborn chimpanzee. The core brain stem circuitry that regulates breathing, heartbeat, body temperature, etc. is in place, along with parts of the cortex that sense the body and move it, but little of the brain that will someday be thinking, remembering, planning ahead. The maturation of our brain follows the evolutionary sequence we just outlined. Housekeeping comes first, followed by basic emotions involved in self-protection and bonding to other humans, and finally higher cognitive and language abilities.

A buzzing cacophony that we cannot remember greeted our entry into this world. Our remembering brains had not formed or begun to construct a world for themselves outside the womb. We did however, have a very ancient kind of knowledge formed over millions of years. We knew to look for the defining elements of a human face, and knew how to direct muscles of the mouth to draw milk from a mother's breast. From a very rudimentary beginning repertoire we began fashioning a network of sensing and acting to finally generate the extraordinary machines that can read a page like this one.

We begin to imitate, or mirror, facial expressions of our mother as soon as 40 minutes after our birth, which means that we come equipped with innate seeing, moving, and sensing systems that speak the language of a self/other model. At birth our emerging experience is into a world of other humans. Touch and stroking by a caretaker is required to support and stimulate growth. In its absence wasting and death can occur both in us and in other mammals. Studies using mice have documented how stroking and licking promote brain growth and development. Its absence can lead to permanent activation of stress hormone pathways and stunted growth of parts of the brain.

We are born into a social world, and the formation of our distinctively human selves depends utterly on complex webs of social interactions with human caretakers and peers. The small number of feral human children raised by animals in the wild that have been studied seem to be very different animals from ourselves, living entirely in the present without the sort of “I” that we know.

We start with inborn equipment for mirroring and imitating the actions of others, and come slowly to appreciate context and intentions implied by their actions. Recordings from the brain cells of monkeys show that they have similar mechanisms. By the time we are 3 or 4 we attribute separate minds to others. We construct then a self-story that provides a new level of nudging, specification, control over these processes that other animals, as far as we can tell, are completely lacking.

The development and programming of our social brain is just as ‘biological’ as the development of our livers or kidneys, and shares many similarities with lower mammals like mice or prairie voles. It is a construction that links our homeostatic brain stem centers, our primitive mammalian emotional and neuroendocrine centers and higher cortical mechanisms that keep tabs on social status, sex, and affiliation. There are virtually no parts of our homeostatic/emotional/cognitive brain systems that are not permeated and patterned by social interactions. (Metzinger, 2003, contains an account that emphasizes how the development of a human self from birth is embedded in its social context.)

It is during the maturation of our brains through puberty and young adulthood that we are are most open and plastic. Tasks like learning a new language or how to ride a bicycle are much more easily mastered when we are young. Even so, our adult brains are much more able to change than we supposed only a few years ago when it was commonly assumed that brain cells could not either form new connections or divide and multiply. Not only can our brains add new cells, the connections between existing cells can be continually shuffling and changing in strength.


Just as we are composed of many interacting cells and organ systems, each of us is one of the cellular components of larger cultural organisms that organize and defend themselves as if they were individuals. It is at the level of these group behaviors that the most damaging conflicts arise between groups of humans and between humans and the environment. The pace and schedule of the supra-organisms of institutions, cultures, or states easily come to take precedence over the biological rhythms and needs of the individual human players that are parts of the system. As sleep deprivation and dependency on chemical stimulants and depressants becomes a common feature of modern western work life, it is clear that the presumed health of our economic supra-organisms is being valued more than the physical and mental health of its humans.

The individualistic, introspective, changeable, achievement oriented “I” that supports this state of affairs is a relatively recent historical development of the past several hundred years and has appeared more prominently in European than in traditional Asian societies. While there have always been exceptional individuals, for most of human history a majority of us have experienced a much more collective “we” identity placing higher value on group cohesion and harmony than on individual accomplishment. We feel this strong energy in moments of public unity or emotion when everyone seems to coalesce in feeling joy or sadness. (See Donald, 2001, for a discussion of the evolution of human consciousness.)

Our animal brain wasn’t designed to face no-meaning and other questions of philosophers; it was designed to be a ‘we’ in a symbiotic confluence with the social body. In normal development each of us moves from a primal union with caretakers through an individuation that separates us from those caretakers. This is most pronounced in advanced individualistic western societies. The pain of the separation into an isolated self can ameliorated by feeling re-owned by a cultural group or major religion. Richness of union can be felt because the same neuroendocrine affiliative hormonal mechanisms stimulated by infant-caretaker interactions are elicited.

We commonly assume that there must be some common set of human behaviors, usually refered to as ‘human nature,’ that all of us share regardless of race or culture. While this is surely the case for the first two layers of our composition - the homeostatic and emotional mechanisms we share with many animals - it is very likely to not be true for the culturally and linguistically generated “I” that we each experience. Our human species has been changing the ways it thinks and behaves since the appearance of modern homo sapiens ~200 thousand years ago, as many cultural and racial variants have appeared. Many different possible genetic constitutions exist within a breeding groups of humans, and this variety has proven useful in adapting to diverse challenges and environments. If we add to this the amazing plasticity of brain development and temperament shown in response to different physical and social environments we have little basis for assumptions about a universal human psychology (see Buller, 2005, for a critical discussion of evolutionary psychology.)

Change has been especially rapid over the past ten thousand years in which agriculture and urbanization has appeared. Development from childhood has been shaped both by our inherited genetic constitution and the increasingly complex instructions of culture. Even over the past few generations, the average IQ of populations in Western cultures has increased dramatically. Brains and bodies that grow in rich versus scarce, or safe versus dangerous, environments are structurally and functionally different. The brains of a Talmudic scholar and a professional tennis player are very different.

In our modern society there are so many choices, so many options, that young people growing up have difficulty internalizing a coherent picture of who they are. The psychiatric diagnosis of our age, formulated in the late 1970s, is “borderline personality disorder,” referring to a needy, scattered, uncertain self or personality. It is the scattered confusion of modern society, with individuals feeling unsure of exactly who they are.

To understand how flexible the generation of the self we each experience is, and appreciate the prospects for changing either ourselves or our culture, we need to understand more about the nature of this “I”. You have surely thought to yourself “OK, I know I’m conscious and I know it feels like there is this person inside that is watching and directing everything. Where is this happening, how does it work?” As we delve into this question we can find ourselves having some uncomfortable moments, for the way we actually work can be contrary to our common sense notions. Still, it is important to persist if we wish to press for an optimistic opinion of human prospects based on scientific understanding rather than one or another of the various religious myths that currently dominate the political world.


So, where and what is the “I” that is having the experience of reading or writing these words? Seems a reasonable question. Feels like it should be somewhere in there between the ears (at least in our culture - in other times and cultures it has been placed in the heart or other viscera). Vast energies are being expended to search for the seat of consciousness, or neural correlates of consciousness. That’s OK as far as it goes… nobody questions that brain has a lot to do with consciousness. But saying the brain is the ‘seat of consciousness’ is rather like saying the heart is the ‘seat of life’, a mere label without any explanatory value.

A beating heart and a working brain are necessary for us to move, grow, eat, respire, reproduce, etc., yet they are only a few of the components whose interactions generate our experience. Seeing, for example, is about a lot more than what is going on in the visual areas of our brain. Seeing goes with using all our other motor and sensory faculties to explore the world in a way that is mediated by our current knowledge of it. Thinking about or contemplating visual scenes requires knowledge of previous sensing and acting involving such scenes. Visual consciousness (as well as other kinds of consciousness), is something we do, a mode of interaction with the world, drawing on a whole range of acting, sensing and knowledge skills. (These points are from O'Regan and Noe, 2001). To a large extent, what we see is what we have learned to see.

Even if we accept that consciousness involves a lot more than just what is going on in the brain, we still have our subjective experience of an “I” somewhere in there between our ears. It turns out that this “I” that we experience as running our show starts up a bit late in the game. In a way, we are late to consciousness. Brain activities that initiate our acting and perceiving can be electrically recorded ~0.2 to 0.4 seconds before we report willing an action or perceiving an object. During this interval a vast underground library of learned knowledge about how to act or percieve is massaging what finally happens. Positive or negative emotional bias and filtering by our self image are also nudging our perceiving and acting before we actually become aware of either. Our conscious self is sort of an after the fact news flash of what our evolved mind thinks it relevant for us to know. It is a product of our brain operations, not a source.

This does not mean that we have lost free will, it rather expands our vision of what is really going on here. The point is that the consequences of an action we take are programmed back into the automatic startup of our next action as an anticipation. This information is presented back to the underground processing that is preparing the next instant of action that we will retroactively `intend.' Our brain thus works in an expanded present that contains the moments antecedent to our awareness of thoughts and actions and that also persists as awareness of their consequences is integrated into the ongoing cycle. Multiple parallel processing is going on continuously.

Predictions ease our passage into the moment. In some sense we are conscious ahead of time. We do not notice the large gaps (.1, .2 sec.) in our awareness because our brains move seamlessly from a state of intelligent forecast to a state of confirmed sensory expectation. Professional athletes do better, as in returning a tennis serve, not because their reaction times are any faster, but because their trained anticipation machinery can usually accurately guess from the initial arm movements of an opponents serve way before the ball is hit, where the ball is going to end up, and start preparing their response then. An accomplished pianist who can immediately play an unfamiliar and complex piano score is actually looking ahead in the score to prepare the necessary finger muscle movements without being aware of doing so. (See McCrone, 1999, from which these points are taken, for more on this.)

Many experiments show that we have an undermind of unconscious autopilots that form during our development as we learn to carry out complex sequential tasks of acting or perceiving, have positive or negative emotional reactions, or grow a cognitive self story. Their advantage is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a complex situation presents itself, but they become a disadvantage if a stereotyped action based on past experience is not appropriate to our current situation. During the 0.1-0.5 seconds during which information is being massaged before entering our consciousness an array of underminds specializing in acting, sensing, defending self, designating emotional valence (good/bad), etc. are active. Our final consciousness present centered awareness rests like a thin veneer over this vast archive of knowledge. (The book by Claxton, 1999, gives many more examples of our underminds at work.)

If you have any doubt about who/what is running the show, a simple exercise dispels it. Decide you are going to close your eyes, relax, pay attention only to your breathing and have no thoughts, i.e. do a form of meditation. OK, if “you” were the only thing running your own show this should be no problem. Decide to have no thoughts, have no thoughts! If you are like most humans, you find this difficult. Thoughts just keep popping up from somewhere. The brain is generating them in spite of your “I” telling it to stop. That is what our brains are designed to do.

The brain is a ceaseless self constructor and defender that goes about its job as automatically as a beaver builds a dam or a spider spins a web (Dennett, 1991), making a self construction that is essentially an after the fact confabulation. This confabulation can go awry if our brain is damaged. There are a number of clinical conditions associated with damage to different areas of the brain in which a `self' seems to be altered or vanish while other faculties persist. In epileptic automatisms or absence seizures a patient temporarily becomes a "zombie" that still senses and moves about, but with no sense of self or interaction with others, having blank face and eyes and showing no emotion. On recovery there is no recall of the intervening time.

Some stroke patients with damage to the right parietal lobe will deny the existence of the left side of their body "Oh, that's not my leg, it must belong to someone else." The idea is that the language center in the left brain, which is not damaged, is making up the best cover story it can to preserve the sense of an intact self. A similar phenomenon is seen in some blind or deaf patients who deny their deficit in spite of the fact that they cannot move without bumping into objects or hear anything spoken to them. Brain damage can lead to feeling of disembodiment, to existence denial, or to loss of cognitive agency and sense of ownership (as in ‘hearing internal voices’ in Schizophrenia). A sense of ownership can be retained with loss of cognitive agency, as in patients that continuously generate a word flow of inconsistent non-sequiturs, a word salad.

A majority of patients with Cotard’s syndrome deny their very existence as an “I”, sometimes using the pronoun “it” instead. They do not generate a self-model, even though they can speak and move about in the world. Selves, parts of selves, and self-agency can not only be denied or experienced incorrectly, they can be hallucinated. A common example is the phantom limb phenomenon in post-amputation patients. In out of body experiences the whole body is confabulated as being elsewhere. Loss of a sense of self-agency can also occur in hypnosis (as in "just sense your arm...your arm is getting heavy...etc."). (Metzinger, 2003, discusses these perturbations of the self-image observed in brain damaged individuals as well as in normal people under certain circumstances.)

We can inappropriately project agency, imagining others responsible for what we in fact are causing. In the seances and Ouija board sessions popular in the late 19th century, things seemed to happen without the experience of conscious willing, but careful observation showed mysterious movements were in fact generated by those present, even if unconsciously. From this same period there is the story of Hans, The Clever Horse, who could tap his hoof the correct number of times to indicate the sum of two simple numbers, but proved to be responding to subtle clues given by the trainer when he arrived at an appropriate answer.

So…what do all these observations tell us about this entity we experience as a self or “I” that senses and initiates actions? It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is a model generated by our brains, a model that may or not be correct, as shown by the examples just listed. We could make an analogy between our consciousness awareness and the dashboard of a car with its indicators, or a ship's compass. Does a compass steer the ship? In some sense it does, because the pilot makes reference to the compass in determining whether adjustments should be made to the ship's course... an idea is that conscious will is like the mind's compass, the result of an interpretive system, a course sensing mechanisms that notes our thoughts and actions and responds with "I willed this" when the two correspond appropriately.

Our feeling of conscious will has many of the qualities of an emotion, for it reverberates through our minds and bodies to indicate when we sense having authored an action. Thinking of conscious will as an emotion of authorship is a way of moving beyond the standard ways of thinking about free will and determinism. The feeling that we are doing things serves as a basis for what we attempt to accomplish and how we judge ourselves to be morally right or wrong. We have evolved emotions of anger, sadness, fear, happiness, etc., related to survival. We can think of the emotion of agency, or conscious will, as the same sort of evolved emotion, obviously a useful capability in sorting out our physical and social world. To an external observer, the behaviors associated with guilt or retribution in groups of humans, monkeys, or apes look very similar, implying ownership of and responsibly for actions.

Our social brains have evolved to generate an “I”, and the integration of our homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive layers requires it. The ephemeral and constantly changing nature of this brain product was clearly recognized by meditative traditions thousands of years ago, well before similar insights were gleaned from more recent scientific and medical observations of the sort mentioned above. It really doesn’t matter that we can show that what we normally experience as a self or self-agency is an after the fact confabulation. It is an illusion that has let humans become the dominant species on this planet, well on its way in fact to wrecking the natural order from which we rose. (Many points in the previous several paragraphs are taken from Wegner, 2002.)

Our self-conscious confabulator or self-constructor gives us a degree of control over our mammalian emotional and homeostatic repertoires vastly greater than that of other animals. Our self-confabulator generates what we take to be the world, what we take to be our social sources of validation. These internal self-creations can be assayed by their utility. The self and its world that we construct can be quite specialized. Some creative people credited with making revolutionary contributions to science or culture have countered the resistance of others to their ideas by cultivating their insights in a world of their own self-esteem.


Where has all this left us with respect to the title of this essay: Mindstuff: A User’s Guide? We have put together a very abbreviated description of what our “I” is, and where it comes from, but we haven’t suggested explicit procedures for introspectively understanding or tinkering with the way we are. A not-so-hidden agenda for many of us trying to understand our minds and brains is wanting to find insights or tools that bring more ease to the living of our daily lives, tools that might also enhance our effectiveness in tasks we wish to accomplish.

Just to recognize the distinctiveness of a few of the internal bureaucracies that run our show is a first step in assembling a user’s guide, and we have already made a start on this in pointing out both the autonomy and interconnections of our basic regulatory (homeostatic), emotional, and cognitive systems. Looking out of ourselves, we also note the external bureaucracies that run our show as we function as cell in the larger social organisms of societies and cultures. Their regulation of our options can be as fundamental and coercive as that of an amygdala, liver or kidney. (The amygdala is the small almond shaped region of our limbic brain activated by threatening stimuli.)

We can begin to distinguish, rather than conflate, these processes within ourselves by using a simple tool. The approach is suggested by the simple exercise mentioned above that showed us that the “I” generated by our brains typically is unable to stop our brains from doing one of its jobs, that of generating thoughts.

Think about this for a moment. In such an exercise we have placed ourselves in the extraordinary position of both being a brain process (generating thoughts) and at the same time being another process observing this first one. We switch from moments of quiet without thoughts to suddenly being the thoughts, and then on noting that fact can switch back to quiet again. You might find it useful now, to bring home this point, to stop and sit quietly with your eyes shut for moment, quiet your breathing, and just observe this process going on in yourself.... What did you observe?

We can make use of this quiet presence that watches to introspectively note many of the processes mentioned above, particularly our homeostatic, emotional, and cognitive layers. Experiments are now being done that show a correlations between what we report as our experience at all these levels and changes in the activity of various areas of our brains monitored by imaging techniques.

Cultivating our observing or watching presence introduces an interesting and useful option. Rather, for example, than having the locked-in experience of ‘being an angry person’ try to feel if there might be an observing presence in yourself that can step back to note in a more impersonal way this organism (you) generating anger, or “angry-ing”. Consider the subtle difference or distance that can result from trying the “-ing” suffix for many of your familiar states of feeling such as hungry-ing, fear-ing, desire-ing. A variation on this exercise is to note not just states of feeling that are persisting for some time, but individual instances in which an emotion suddenly rises, almost like a packet or quantum of feeling. For this, you might try a description using the suffix “-let”, such as angry-let, fear-let, desire-let. (Similar exercises are suggested in Nisker, 1998). There is increasing evidence that these quanta or packets of feeling might correlate with the physical release of neuropeptides and neurotransmitter molecules in discrete areas of our brain.

Being in the grip of emotions of anger, affection, or moral opinion, with their attendant feelings of "rightness", may be closer to what an animal experiences - the "just doing it" of being a moral patient rather than a moral agent. Our more recently evolved narrative devices can make the story, but they are arid without the reinforcement of more primitive limbic circuits that link the story to emotions and neuroendocrine arousal. We have been employing a layered model, with cognitive on top of emotional and homeostatic layers, but we actually are dealing with loops upon loops, with our deepest limbic and brain stem circuitry now innervated by and talking with newer cortical structures in a way that may be absent in monkeys and apes.

A watching or observing exercise can be applied even to the self we are generating at a given moment, our “who-ing”. Changes in the overall "who" that you experience during the day can sometimes be noted. (Does your variety of "whos" include the greedy or scared child, the judgmental parent, the calm rational adult?) It can be useful to apply the discipline to observe when a shift in the resident "who" has happened. Noting the particular “who” you woke up as this morning might lead you to realize a self slightly different from yesterday's version. A reason that experienced meditators often do a meditation practice immediately on waking is that we all can awake from different emotional dreams with different temperaments from one day to the next.

To summarize, an elementary instruction in any “user’s manual” for ourselves would be to cultivate the ability to distinguish - and move back and forth between - being an angry, sad, fearful, loving, etc. person and a presence that quietly notes the processes of angry-ing, sad-ing, fearful-ing, love-ing, etc. The crucial practical point is that in the moment of suspension when this distinction is being noted we are frequently able to make a choice between being the prisoner of habitual emotions or ideas or the observer of the process of their generation. That observer in us can sometimes, if a process (such as angry-ing) is clearly not in our best interests, elect to suspend the actual performance of that feeling energy and let it dissipate.

The ideas here are straightforward and hardly novel. They are at the core of ‘mindfulness meditation’ and many other meditation traditions (Epstein, 1995). The evolved mechanisms that first permitted our human brains to discern cause and effect in the external world, to break events into their components and describe them, have proved to be equally useful when turned towards our inner mental life. Just as we watch the rising and consequences of actions in the physical world, so we also can assume the poise of a watcher or witness in observing chunks of behavior appear in ourselves, moving from being an unwitting player in our own movie script to observing both the movie and the projector which generates it. The particular genius of the Buddha was to discover and codify the consequences of this ability over two thousand years ago. The Buddhist description of how our mind composes itself has similarities to that of modern cognitive neuroscience. (Nisker, 1998).


As we cultivate an observing presence we begin to probe the nature and range of our assumptions, or models, of what we take to be inside the boundary of our bodies and models of what we take to be our outside physical and social reality. As we develop our ability to note and distinguish these models, to render them conscious rather than unconscious, opaque rather than transparent, their actual utility or lack thereof can become more obvious.

The foundation elemental models are of our internal and external physical reality, the positions of our bodies in space, their movement, what we are internally sensing during perception and action. This modeling can be a very plastic process. If we put on eye glasses that rotate our field of view so that our normal hand-eye coordination no longer lets us grasp an object. After a period of trial and error we again can match our vision and hand movements. Then, if the distorting eyeglasses are removed, our coordination is again incorrect, and takes a while to return to normal! In our discussion above of what our “I” is, we noted several instances in which our sense of the ownership or agency of our physical bodies can be in error over a longer term if it has been altered by brain damage or by abnormal genetic endowment or development. Some individuals born without a limb still sense the presence of that limb in their body image. Damage to areas of the right parietal cortex can cause us to deny ownership of our left arm.

We use the assumptions or models implicit in metaphors as a central tool in talking about our own mental states and the minds of others, usually without being aware of this. Most of us view our minds as containers and conceive of thoughts as being like physical objects inside them; we also take thoughts to be natural language utterances inside our heads. If you say, "part of me doesn't believe that John is telling the truth," you are using the convention of talking about mind parts as persons.

We like our commonly held view of ourselves and the outside world, sometimes referred to as our folk psychology, to be fixed and solid, to have a spatial quality. This reinforces homeostatic and emotional/limbic habits that are protecting our security and constancy. These habits can be threatened by vulnerabilities and options for change that are exposed by our becoming more sensitive to the actual temporal flux and changeability of our internal and external reality. Perhaps it is for this reason that self-observing exercises like those mentioned just above have been developed mainly by individuals who have security of setting, as in religious, academic, or other contexts.

Our internally sensed thoughts and feelings are the vehicles of our self-models, of who we are in the social world, constantly modulated by basic evolved emotions that we share with higher primates. There is uncertainty about the number and definition of ‘natural kinds’ of emotions, but you can probably grant from your own experience that fear, rage, lust, separation distress, play/social affection, and nurturance are very deep and fundamental experiences over which you sometimes feels very little control. The behaviors we associate with these feelings are clearly exhibited by dogs, monkeys and apes. Our expression of these emotions can be very plastic, patterned by our childhood environment, our self image, and the strength of more recently evolved prefrontal inhibitory/cognitive processes. These can modulate emotional centers of gravity in the limbic/temporal region of our brains. These frontal lobe mechanisms are being recruited when we are able, by self-observation, to note the semi-autonomous nature of angry-ing, lust-ing, fear-ing, etc. and suppress the actual behaviors associated with them. Neuronal activity in frontal and limbic regions can be imaged with MRI techniques as emotions, strong habits, or compulsions flare up and are (or are not) suppressed by frontal inhibition.

A striking example of how frontal inhibition can be harnessed can be seen in cognitive therapy treatments of obsessive-compulsive disorder (such as obsessive hand washing behaviors, or other repetitive cautionary activities). When patients, on feeling the urge to start the behavior, are successful in using a self instruction like "That's not me, that's a part of my brain that's not working" brain imaging experiments show the same changes in their brain activity as is caused by successful drug treatment. We each accomplish a similar result when we perform the exercise such as the one mentioned above, of noting ourselves “angry-ing” rather than ‘being angry’, and then discover more freedom to either act or not act on that energy.

The amazing thing about our brain is that after it has generated our “I” from the bottom up, from homeostatic through emotional to cognitive levels, that final self conscious product can turn around and decisively influence the brain's lower levels in a top down way. You couldn't ask for a more direct demonstration of the efficacy and usefulness of having our human style of consciousness. Our ability to control our natural emotional drives greatly exceeds that of any animals.

In each of us there can be multiple real or imagined theaters of self, multiple selves or self models, but there is only one homeostatic system underlying all of them, pumping its blood, regulating its temperature, monitoring thirst, hunger, and potential danger. Also much less flexible than the self-story we can spin on short notice are the emotional habits derived from our evolution or our early childhood experiences. It is when a self-script generated by our cognitive upstairs leads us to actions that are aversive to the downstairs limbic emotional systems, or to our basic homeostatic functions that a physiologically debilitating conflict can be set up. We go to war with ourselves, with these semi-autonomous layers tugging us in several directions at once. This can activate mechanisms that evolved for dealing with conflict, releasing stress hormones and over the long run causing cell death and shrinking in some body organs and brain areas.


A constant and pervasive process worth noticing is what we might call “valence-ing”, mediated by our emotional brains. Our reactions to almost everything carry a subtle positive or negative emotional tag that we can discern but frequently do not explicitly notice, a nudge conditioned by our emotional memory to either approach or avoid. Even nonsense phrases can have a pleasing or jarring quality depending on their vowels or consonants (compare your reactions to hearing the phrases ‘lamalelavu’ and ‘rakajaka’.) We have a Manichean undermind, like the Persian religious sect of the 3rd century, that divides most aspects of our world into either good or evil. Our brains persist, usually beneath our conscious awareness, in putting a good or bad label of what we sense. Is it something to go for or to avoid?

Routine activities that occur with predictable frequency can induce a limbic habit, an affect tag of expectation. Violation of this expectation can induce a small pang of apprehension or bereavement, causing subtle arousal of the same part of our emotional brain (centered around the amygdala) that is activated by more overt and obvious environmental threats. Many of these subtle emotional tags can be noted by our watching presence, noted perhaps as suggested above with the suffix ‘-let’, as instances of ‘emot-lets’.

When we are rewarded in a more dramatic way by contexts involving food, sex, love, or drugs the brain’s homeostatic axis - appetitive motivation and reward pathways centering on mesolimbic dopamine pathways - begin to condition us to behaviors that will make those rewards available again. Our brains are designed to be desire generators. Unfortunately, we can habituate to what was once a rewarding level of a stimulus (whether food, sex, or a drug) so that increasing levels are required for the same ‘kick'. In extreme cases, the brain system which evolved to help us seek out essentials of life such as warmth, food, affection and sex can be high jacked. In cases of severe drug or alcohol addiction, brain chemistry has undergone long term changes which are very difficult to reverse. Again, as strong as this kind of conditioning can become, a disciplined internal watching presence has the prospect of sensing the onset of an ingrained addictive behavior, and potentially deflecting it. (The “Four Noble Truths” elaborated by the Buddha over two thousand years ago provided a succinct description of this process, noting the origin of suffering in desire, and how our minds could be trained to new levels of satisfaction and freedom by developing skills of concentration and mindfulness.)


Perhaps the most central element in our sense of well being, apart from basic physical health and robustness, is our perceived role in the social world, our standing in the minds of other humans. Our survival can literally depend on this. Isolation or expulsion from a social group can result in debilitation, stress, and even death. How is it that we feel empathy, infer what is going on in the minds of others, and construct our affiliative alliances?

The evolutionary origin of these abilities may reside in “mirror neurons” observed in the motor and other brain areas of humans, monkeys, and some other mammals that become active not only when we perform a movement but also when we observe someone else performing the movement. Further, our brain activities also monitor the intention of others. They are slightly different, for example, if a person is lifting a cup to drink versus lifting the cup to clean the table. Seeing a persons leg stroked with a brush activates the same sensory areas of our brain that would respond to the same stimulus. Observing an emotional experience in a picture or movie, such as disgust or fear, can activate the areas that would react if the experience were actually happening to us. Mirroring systems such as these could be central to learning by imitation, as in language acquisition in infants or learning to play a musical instrument like the guitar. The processes of empathy and imitation that mirror neurons appear to support are central to the development of our social brain, and appear to be diminished in autistic children. These children do not learn the myriad social cues that are signaled by reciprocal facial gestures and body language. Their sense of self, or point of view, seems to regard other humans as impersonal objects that must be analyzed.

Our empathetic or mirroring brain regions are part of a much larger neuroendocrine axis that regulates human bonding and affiliation. The hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are involved in maternal behavior and male parental behavior. Recent work has shown that intranasal application of oxytocin causes an increase in trust among humans, increasing the benefit from social interactions. The serotonin neurotransmitter system and opiate receptors modulate feelings of attachment, love, and loss. Between mothers and infants an elaborate symphony of interactions including tactile stimulation, olfactory cues, body warmth, and periodicity of feeding generate an emotional or limbic resonance that stimulates homeostatic and immune system robustness. Our nervous system development, as well as our ongoing brain function, requires synchronization with those we are attached to. An important vehicle for this synchronization is the elaborate interactive body language we engage with other humans as subtle facial gestures and body movements are reciprocally noted. Our human physiology is in part an open-loop arrangement in which two individuals can reciprocally alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, and immune function (see Lewis et al., 2000).

Autonomic and emotional empathy has the virtue of bonding each of us to other humans. However, if it is pain rather than happiness or affection that is being shared and there is little prospect of relief, then empathy has the downside of making us feel more helpless. Over time this can trigger the debilitative stress and autonomic arousal of the helplessness syndrome described by Seligman (see his 1991 book on learned helplessness and learned optimism). A subtle balance is needed between the sense of personal autonomy and power that supports our individual robustness and the empathy and caring which supports community!


This brings us to the topic of happiness - a state that most of us wouldn't mind enhancing in ourselves. Many studies have arrived at the same conclusion: happiness has little relationship to physical security, or material wealth and possessions. The happy feeling upon buying a new car fades rapidly, to be replaced by desire for the next acquisition that we imagine might do the job. Our ability to predict our emotional reaction to future events is flawed; careful studies have demonstrated that both good and bad events prove less intense and more transient than we expect. It is life events in the personal domain such as marriage, divorce, health, or disability that have a lasting effect on our happiness, nudging it above or below a set point determined by our genetics and individual temperaments. Happiness correlates with immersion in sustaining social interactions. Nevertheless, most people devote vastly more energy to accumulating professional success and wealth than they do to nurturing and building a network of family and friends.

Vastly more research has been done on negative emotions such as anger, fear, and disgust because they are obviously relevant to our evolutionary survival. During such emotions we tend to focus down on whatever issue is at hand. Positive emotions have more subtle body correlates and are relevant to human affiliation, nurturing, play, curiosity, growth and development. They transform our cognition into a more relaxed and global mode, able to note patterns that are missed in focusing on smaller details relevant to an immediate crisis or danger.

Positive and negative emotions are associated with different activation patterns of the cerebral cortex. An increase in the ratio of left to right frontal lobe activity correlates both with the subjective feeling of happiness and with suppression of limbic areas (such as the amygdala) aroused during fear or anger. Studies by Davidson and his colleagues suggest that experienced practitioners of Buddhist meditations emphasizing compassion and loving kindness show higher ratios of left to right frontal activation than control subjects.

Work by Seligman (1991, 1994) and others has shown that chronic stress, unhappiness, or a sense of powerlessness can compromise health and immune system function, while people with more positive affect are in general more healthy. Can our set point of negative to positive affect be changed? A tool in addition to meditation techniques stressing mindfulness and compassion is provided by cognitive therapy approaches in which we attempt to alter train the stories we tell ourselves about who we in a more positive direction. This can involve defining a new, perhaps less global, theater for ourselves in which we can feel more self-esteem, personal control, and optimism. If a more positive version of ourselves can be rehearsed with increasing frequency, there can sometimes be a positive shift in our equilibrium temperament.


As our social brains develop and are patterned by interactions with others we acquire a set of shared beliefs (assumptions, models) about ourselves, other humans, and the world. At one end of their range are beliefs supported by countless universal observations made by all humans (objects fall if released from our hands.) At the other end are beliefs unique to specific human cultures (such as those regarding God, or gods) that feel correct to their adherents but have no rational basis. It is possible that the feeling of ‘correctness’ in all of these beliefs are arrived at by the same reward-related circuitry in our brains that regulates our judgment of the pleasantness of tastes, odors and other physical stimuli. Belief, or a feeling of rightness or correctness, may be an all-purpose emotion arising in a variety of contexts, in some cases without objective support. We humans have become ascendant because of our relentless drive to understand and control the world, and such understanding probably activates the same reward circuitry in our brains. Given fertile imaginations and faced with forces beyond our understanding or control it is not surprising that we would invent anthropomorphic gods to explain who is running the show.

The issue is whether there is evidence that a particular religious belief actually represents the world. Feelings of conviction are not enough to judge the way the world is, only chains of evidence and argument can do this. Perhaps understanding ethics and spirituality - at the core of what is good about being human - at the level of our brain processes could permit us to remove the shackles imposed by millennia by religious traditions. Perhaps it would permit us to try to forge new contexts for human meaning, cooperation, fulfillment… and survival. There is evidence all around us that religious beliefs can generate xenophobia and genocide. Appreciating evolutionary and developmental forces that might incline us to these behaviors, as well as to cooperation and affiliative bonding, might assist us to inhibit those that threaten our continued viability on this planet. (see Harris, 2004, for a pungent discussion of these topics.)


We are all limited in what we can accomplish in nudging our personal and cultural environments in more healthy directions. Still, strengthening our knowledge of how our minds work along with our introspective capabilities hopefully lets us cope in a more intelligent and discriminating way with our own foibles and those of the world.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the array of personal and social dysfunctions that characterize our society. How can positive feelings and behaviors be sustained as we read daily news accounts of human exploitation, intolerance, xenophobia, and genocide? Most attention is directed to what is not working.

One palliative can be to set aside times when we choose to not let our awareness, our internal dialog, be mulling on social contexts beyond our influence. Spending most of our time attending to higher levels of the hierarchy that defines us (supra-organismal cultural and cognitive rather than emotional and homeostatic) we are letting our self model be set almost completely by ‘top-down’ influences, and some social roles and conflicts can permeate down to compromise detailed aspects of our emotional and physiological homeostasis.

If we reserve time to look inside for solace, we can let our resting beacon of awareness drift not to the traffic jam of discursive chatter in our verbal minds, but instead to the most simple acts of being alive, of breathing, sensing the physical world, of moving against gravity as any animal does. A simple joy can be felt in ‘just being’ instead of ‘being someone.’ This is a poise that enables the ‘watcher’ mentioned above, so that the self that in fact becomes resident is more likely to be a matter of choice. We become more competent to discriminate and choose life-enhancing portions of our mental repertoire, to engage the affiliative external support that sustains neuroendocrine robustness, and to choose more intelligent options for social action. Brain imaging studies have shown that meditation or reflection that emphasizes feelings of kindness towards oneself and others actually enhances activity of portions of the brain (particularly the left frontal lobe) that correlates with positive emotions.


We all have the same problem in dealing with new ideas that might change how we experience ourselves and the world. Even if reading an essay like this one leaves us feeling the correctness of some of its points and slightly transformed in our ongoing experience for a period, we still find ourselves several weeks later exactly where we were before. The novel material, which we may have integrated into our daily lives for a brief time, has vanished. Habit is very strong. do these ideas or techniques prove to be of any real practical use, especially when we feel ‘locked in’ to some ongoing mood or temperament we would like to change. What is the structure of a successful ‘breakout’ or mental phase shift that both lightens us and gives us a view of other options?

Think of your own experience. Have you ever noticed - perhaps after strenuous exercise, or a strong cup of coffee, or switching suddenly from mental chatter to just attending to your breathing - that a moment of mental quiet can happen that is long enough for a partition to suddenly appear in what you have been experiencing as a unitary self. In such an instant the more simple elemental watching presence mentioned several times above is much more easily accessed, a presence more able to note the most recent self or ‘who’ that has been a temporary resident of your now observant animal body.

It hard not to suppose that this partition or deconstruction process must involve some very impressive and fundamental mechanism that our brain can use to can switch itself from a state that is generating one unitary self model into a partitioned state that is generating several self models with the ability to observe each other. (In fact, there is considerable evidence, whose discussion is beyond the scope of this essay, that this is the case.) Those self models that are closer to the non linguistic homeostatic animal substrate that houses our whole organismal animal body (a ‘just being’ rather than a ‘being somebody’ presence) can view with more crisp awareness our emotional or self states recently in force. If the self in place has been angry or depressive, or had an inhibitory effect on our more positive feelings, the appearance of a less negative watching animal presence can feel like stepping aside from an oppressive shroud that has been covering us.

It is from this watching state that we can note many of the ongoing processes that compose us, and make the definitions and discriminations noted above. One option to consider is the assembly of a personal checklist to use as a tool in renewing our awareness of ongoing processes that are most personally relevant. Recall from above the suggestion of trying the "-ing" suffix for familiar states of feeling such as anger-ing, desire-ing, fear-ing, and desire-ing, noting each as one process of our animal bodies rather than its entirety. This can be done even for "who-ing" as you observe that self that your body is generating at the moment can also be distinguished from its other versions.


By this point we have developed a brief description of our self-construction, of what a human is, that is consonant with modern scientific insights as well as some meditative traditions. The introspective techniques briefly described (see the Nisker book noted below for further examples) can form the basis of a toolkit for enhancing more positive and intelligent ways of coping that are less compromised by maladaptive habits.. They are accessible not just to the small number of people who would agree with the scientific and materialistic perspective from which this essay is written, but also to the large majority of humans alive today who ultimately value religious faith over reason. The simple idea is that understanding what in fact we are doing as we carry out emotional behaviors might enhance our ability to regulate them when appropriate. Both the secular humanist and the intolerant religious fundamentalist might note the usefulness in of distinguishing an inside core watching presence from a particular emotion – noting from this core for example the process of being judgmental or judge-ing in a given instance rather than being emotionally high jacked into ‘being an intolerant person.’ Hopefully this process can come to be perceived as relevant not only to regulating relations with family and friends close to us, but also ameliorate the harshness of our opinions or actions towards other humans not sharing our world view.

Partial list of sources:

Buller, D.J., 2005. Adapting Minds. Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Guy Claxton, G. 1999. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. New York: Harper Perennial.
Damasio, A.R., 1994. Descarte's error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, N.Y.:G.P. Putnam's Sons
Damasio, A.R. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace
Dennett, D.C., 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston:Little,Brown & Company
Donald, M. 2001. A Mind So Rare. The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W.Norton & Co.
Epstein, M. 1995. Thoughts Without a Thinker. Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. New York: Basic Books.
Harris, S. 2004. The End of Faith. Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York:W.W.Norton & Co.
Hauser, M.D., 2000. Wild Minds - What Animals Really Think. New York: Henry Holt and Company. See Chapter 9, Moral Instincts.
LeDoux, J., 1996. The Emotional Brain - The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York:Simon & Schuster.
Lewis, T., Amini, F., and Lannon, R. 2000. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.
Metzinger, T. 2003. Being No One. The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge:MIT Press.
McCrone, J., 1999. Going Inside : A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness. London:Faber & Faber Ltd
Nisker, W. 1998. Buddha's Nature. New York. Bantam Books.
O'Regan, J.K., and Noe, A. 2001. A sensorimotor account of vision and and visual consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 24, pp 939-1031.
Seligman, M.E.P. 1991. Learned Optimism. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Seligman, M.E.P. 1994. What You Can Change and What You Can't. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Wegner, D.M., 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge:MIT Press.

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