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Trading Consciousness
May 24, 2008, 9:05a - Life

(Written on Dec 13, 2007, after finishing my first semester @ MIT, on the plane ride from Boston to LA)

To be productive, or not? That is the question.

Each of us has been blessed with the opportunity to *feel*, yet we so often act like machines, churning out productivity with the utmost efficiency. At least I feel that way so often. I felt that way at Google, and I'm feeling that way again in grad school. It's the endless grind, the inevitable rat-race. It pushes on, grinding down, the pace-setter for a life. It suppresses my conscious experience, and I don't like it.

I went to grad school with the grand, non-unique goal of studying consciousness. Grad school seemed like the right place for this endeavor, as thousands of years of philosophy have given us some progress on this issue, but it seems to be mostly at a stand-still in terms of definitive results. What is consciousness? Why is there something instead of nothing? This is one of the deepest philosophical questions, and seemingly one of the most intractable. So what the hell, I'll give it a shot, maybe I'll come up with something. The best place to start would be the physical site of consciousness, the brain. Without it, no more consciousness, but with it, what wonders of experience we behold.

But now here I am, in grad school. And the grind plunges on. Maybe I take too many classes, do too many readings, study too much, but it's beginning to wear. I feel like in my quest to understand consciousness, the major sacrifice necessary is my very own consciousness. Because when I'm grinding in deep productivity, I'm not really there. I go away, my brain does its thing. Working on a problem set can be a trip to another place, the abstract nether regions of perception and experience. I go there, deep in focus, and the world around me might as well not be there. "Tunnelvision", some call it. But this is not a clear place - it is a place wrought with confusion and abstraction, nothing sits still, nothing is solid. I emerge several hours later, with an answer to the question, my efforts of lunging harpoons into the dark eventually snagging on something, the right something. I get something out, but I've auctioned off those conscious moments to the tyranny of productivity.

Maybe instead of an external pace-setter, I should let my natural curiosity set my pace? Instead of doing a problem set the night before it's due, maybe I should do it at the pace that supports my interest and understanding best? If I do that, my consciousness is not bartered, though my overall productivity would drop precipitously. So what? Maybe that's OK. What do we have if we don't have the satisfactions of our own conscious experience? Is the trade, consciousness for productivity, really worth it?

I think it's time to slow down. But I just can't. I have this opportunity to learn so much in grad school, so I seize it. We have the entire month of January off between semesters, and if you include Christmas it's a whopping 7 weeks off. But what do I do? I've signed up for 5 optional classes during January - I'll probably drop a few of them, but not until I have to. Why do I do this to myself? I feel like I have 2 wills inside me - on the one hand, I want to be productive, *need* to be productive, yet on the other I just want to enjoy the brief moment of life that we the living still have. This is the tension that is tearing the fabric of my mind (OK, I couldn't help myself with that melodrama-soaked metaphor :)

Ultimately, though, it's the physical that seems the most real.

Maybe I'm just burned out - this was my first semester back in school in 5 years, and though I finished 2 finals, it's not quite over (I have a paper that I'm not going to finish due tomorrow). I love what I learned in the past 15 weeks, and I learned a lot. I came in wanting to study nothing but the phenomenon of perception, but after doing a ton of reading I've been confronted with the unfortunate fact that we still lack some of the most basic principles of how nervous systems work. How can we possibly understand the mechanisms underlying perception if we don't even know what neurons are even doing? We like to refer to the "computations" that neurons do, but this is more metaphor than anything else. I still remember when I was in 12th grade and thinking about college, I went to visit my 11th grade history teacher's friend who was a neuroscience professor at Caltech. I still remember one thing he told me: that we always seem to compare the brain to the most advanced technology of our time. He said that ancient societies used to think of the brain as a series of interconnected irrigation ditches (their most advanced technology), and we today think of the brain as a kick-ass computer (our most advanced technology). They were wrong before, so who's to say we've got it right today? We don't even know what "matters" in most neural circuits: if the neuron fires a few milliseconds early or a few more times than before, does this *mean* something in the brain? We don't even understand the most simple of nervous systems, that found in our tiny nematode friend, C. elegans. A worm only 1 mm long, every C. elegans has exactly 302 neurons in its ~1000 cell body, and yet we still don't know what each neuron does and how it affects behavior. We have a historical map of the cell lineage (we know how every cell came from the organism's first cell), and we even have an anatonmical map (we know where every cell, where every neuron, is in the body). And this is pretty invariant from worm to worm, generation to generation. Yet our understanding of the system is extremely rough. Nematodes actually have somewhat complex behavior, but how the organism's nervous system creates the behavior is still unsolved for the vast majority of behaviors. All this with only 302 neurons - how do we ever expect to understand the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons, if we can't even understand an organism with only 302? With what right can we bluff such hubris? Confronted with this truth, it seems like it may be necessary for me to put my search for the mechanisms of consciousness on hold, while I study the mechanisms of behavior in general.

I'm planning to do a research rotation studying C. elegans starting in January, which pretty much means I'll work in a lab for a couple months, and if I like it, stay in the lab for my dissertation work.

Back to the issue at hand, I'm concerned that now I'll be trading my consciousness not even for an understanding of consciousness, but for the understanding of a tiny worm. Is that worth it? Understanding the worm seems like a prereq for understanding consciousness, but maybe I should just give up now and focus on enjoying the bounty that is life? Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't forsake productivity altogether, I would just use my pace-maker instead of someone else's.

Of course, as with most choices, this is a false choice. I think I need to find the right level of structure, as well as train my mind to not take school too seriously. Deadlines, schmedlines, that should be my attitude. Understanding is what matters most of all, after appreciating the pleasure of my consciousness.

Read comments (5) - Comment

Garry - May 25, 2008, 2:53p
What's your opinion of Csíkszentmihályi's work around flow? He seems to posit that perhaps flow is a desirable / good state, one that brings us a step closer to self actualization. But is that the same thing that you experience when studying hard or working hard, when consciousness gets traded?

nikhil - May 26, 2008, 12:13a
I read his "Flow" book a few years ago, but I think what I experience when studying is something a bit different.

What I experience is an absence.

You may experience something similar when you're giving a presentation. Esp. if you're a little nervous and you've practiced a lot, once you get into the preso, you may have a feeling that your words and movements are not in your control. Afterwards, you may even feel like you've "blacked out", because you have very little memory of exactly what you said and did. It just goes by in a blur, and like that <snap> it's over.

I think of flow as a different state, one where your level of perception and awareness is quite high, perhaps even peaking, while you're working or doing something else that has a clear path ahead. My problem sets often don't have a clear path ahead, instead being shots in the dark that hopefully eventually hit. So no, I wouldn't describe it as flow.

Flow may be a good state. But since it seems to require a clear path (in my experience), I question whether it's not just the easy road ahead. Perhaps shots in the dark, while uncomfortable and risky, are a better/more exciting/more unpredictable/higher pay-off, though rougher, avenue through the wilderness. But, depending on your persuasion, maybe such avenues are better avoided...

neha - May 30, 2008, 4:04p
how are things going now, nikhil? i think many grad students struggle with the balance of the rat race (need to have concrete accomplishments) and free time to think and explore. maybe you just need to find the way you work best -- if i left myself to go at my own pace, i wouldn't get anything done :) i've realized after the fact that when i've learned the most is when i felt like i was running on a hamster wheel. sometimes it's not a bad thing.

george - Jun 11, 2008, 12:24p

problem is that when you look at things in an intellectual state, you are looking to solve something that may not be a mystery.

You've sat alone in the dessert, you already have the understanding and knowledge of what you seek. You have known conciousness.

Don't lose the forest because can't see past the trees.

Harpoon - Jul 25, 2008, 10:16a
I think you hit the nail on the head toward the end - Do you want to study consciousness or do you want to experience it? Perhaps to experience, we have to give up on studying it in a lab, and vice versa.

My rather unscientific views on consciousness are that you can only go a very short distance to study it in a lab, you can only pinpoint where it isn't. The brain is a physical object with physical properties and consciousness is metaphysical. That is to say even after you have fully documented neurons and their phenomena, you won't ever be able to describe in mathematic, linguistic, or biological terms something purely conceptual such as "love" , "pleasure" , or "suffering". It's like poking through the software for a game with a hex editor, and trying to locate where the "fun" is.

Furthermore, what if consciousness exists not as a process of the brain, but as function of interactions between individual and society? How can you ever hope to control what the environment has done to your subject, in a lab setting?

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