Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Soul Dust - The Magic Show of the Mind

This is a beautiful theory by Nicholas Humphrey

"Consciousness is a magical-mystery show we stage inside our own heads -- a show that paves the way for spirituality, and allows us to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in the "soul niche."

"Why a magic show? Why would an organism receive enjoyment from the feeling of existence? Well, the beings that enjoys existence would develop a will to live."

"Rather than being an aid to survival, consciousness provides an essential incentive to survive. Enchantment is itself "the biological advantage of being awestruck." Or, as the poet and Pooh creator A.A. Milne put it, "It's awful fun to be born at all."

Pic By Humphrey

Humphrey lays out his ideas of consciousness as a magic show that we put on for the enjoyment of our selves in the book Soul Dust: the magic of consciousness.

What exactly is the redness of a tomato, the salty taste of anchovies, or searing pain of a burn? Humphrey tells us it is a kind of magical recreation, a show that you lay on for yourself inside your head. In response to the stimulation of your sense organs you create an extraordinary art work for your mind to look at. A simulacrum of sorts.
But the show you put on does more than just recreate the outside world, it steeps it in subjectivity. It makes it not the world but your world and further, storing it in your head adds to the personal dimension as we colour it with emotion. The experience enters your head and is shaped by the previous experiences you have stored in your mind's magic show. Each experience is shaped and re-framed by the show they are slotted into. Like how water stays water but takes on the shape of the jug you pour it into.

What is the purpose of this show in the mind?

2D Penrose triangle
The reason your mind creates a show for you is to sell you the world and to interpret it for you in a stimulating and meaningful. A theater is not a replica of the world it is a place where scenes from the world are acted out to comment and enrich the Crowds by watching it. We go to be entertained and educated. The crowd wants to experience the added magic of watching a symbolic representation. Such it is with our minds Magic Show. It attempts to persuade us emotionally to enjoy the Show of the world. It is one part of our brain staging a show for another part of the brain. A little like the illustration below.

Origins of the show

Sensations have always been a kind of show. It has been a bodily representation of the world around us.
From the very first floating single cell organisms in the pre-cambrian waters beginning to register light and respond to changes in the water pressure as bigger predatory species swam by there has bee some sort of interpretation of the stimulus. What the organism feels is not what happens on the outside. In this way the mental world is fundamentally a representation of the world.
In the very beginning the change of light or pressure might have simply triggered a physiological response such as a flutter of the body to illicit movement and escape or perhaps to get closer to the stimulus. The next step would then be for the organism to be able to delay or choose which response to take to the stimulus. For this to happen the process becomes internalized, or privatized. It was no longer just an instinctual one step response. It would benefit the organism greatly to be able to choose its mode of outward behavior depending on the individual situations. To do this the internal theater had to begin. A very rudimentary representation of the outside world would be needed for the organism to choose. The stimulus would not just be objective anymore but highly subjective, since the immediate needs to stay alive are absolutely based on the subject experiencing the stimulus. 

"Sensation has always been theater of sorts. Its been been theater from the start but it was not magical theater. "

Once the theater of outside stimulation has begun, the leap towards being able to let the scenes run without the actual physical stimulus triggering it is not too great. Becoming what if? Rather than it is.
If the organism now instead of acting instinctively and immediately on the sensory input, one can easily imagine that the original evolutionary use for a reaction to stimuli would become outdated and needing a different response. For this to be possible the responses should become internalized and later evaluated for best possible response.

Why this theater?

Just how does this Theater pay off in terms of biological survival? "How can watching the show be genuinely life enhancing?"
In the process of becoming and remaining conscious, in the simple pleasure of being there, we discover a new purpose.
“The great object of life is Sensation - to feel that we exist - even though in pain - it is this "craving void" which drives us to gaming - to battle - to travel - to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.”

Why, you might ask, would an organism develop enjoyment from the feeling of existence? Well, the beings that enjoys existence would develop a will to live.
Natural selection makes things that are important for the continuation of life pleasurable. Take sex for instance, or eating and drinking. So here we have a case for our consciousness making our experience of the world around us awesome.

From Nicholas Humphrey's book soul dust
The sensations we get from seeing the red of a tomato are actually formed in us. They are not inherent in the tomato itself. What we experience as red is simply a refraction of light at a particular wave length. But since every time we see a tomato we feel the effects of the red, deliciousness we begin to connect the two. In this way we now experience that the tomato is sending out something, and that something is more than just sitting there, it is indeed like a kind of communication, this at least is our experience of it. Like the tomato is sitting there showing us how red and delicious it looks.
So strictly speaking the world just sits there, but through our experience of it we feel like it is speaking to us, it is enticing us and stimulating us and this is a pleasurable process. We basically enchant ourselves into loving life. 


We watch the Magic Show in our minds and through it fall deeper in love with the world. This is why we love the world around us more whilst on mind altering drugs. They enhance our mental representations and all of a sudden the colour of a tomato or the complex details in the bark of a tree becomes staggeringly beautiful and interesting. We get the feeling that the world is sweetly shouting its beauty and its multi level existence to us. The world is always talking to us, giving us the feeling it is revealing but a tiny substrate of its nature but on drugs its shouting.
The experience of perception blows children away and can make them stop in their tracks to study a browning leaf or a bit of silver foil from a cigarette packet as if it were the greatest treasure.
As we get used to the experience of perceiving the world we begin taking it for granted and stop noticing the magic, the novelty wears off.
This is the catch 22 of being a Showman with a novelty act; once people have seen you, the novelty wears off and you become 'just' an act. But put us in a different show, change costume and alter your patter and all of a sudden the experience for the Crowd becomes Novel again, this is what drugs do to us; they enhance our experience of the world. 
With or without drugs we enhance the world and our experience of it. Our Magic Theater gives significance and glow to everything in the world and this is why we feel so connected to it. It transforms the world into an awesome place. "All the more astounding because of the intimate connection we feel we have to it."
Watching a fire or a swirling pool of water we sometimes get knocked back by the immense beauty of it and our sense of union with it. This happens because in the simple act of perception there is an awesome Magical Theater production enhancing the world. 

We are constantly blown away by the feeling that the universe speaks directly to us, like in a way we are the only or at least most significant spectator to it and so say all of us. We are all the focal point of the universe and we are all creating its awesomeness in our minds, in fact that is the fundamental principle of consciousness; a Magical Theater of the mind to please and enchant our souls.

In this view we find individualism, but that is not the end. For as we experience the awesomeness of a sunrise we are immediately closer to the thought of what does this feel like to others. So in this way the creation of awe in us connect us to others and engage us in sharing the awesomeness of the world. From here comes The One Who Face the Other Way.

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