The Five W's of You
The Rabbit Hole of Consciousness
A few years ago, I received an MRI of my head as part of a multi-day diagnostic evaluation for traumatic brain injury (TBI). As the doctor reviewed the results with me, she stopped at an image like the one below and told me that everything looked fantastic. I showed no signs of significant trauma. The contents of my skull were shipshape. Naturally, this was a huge relief to hear.
But I couldn’t stop staring at this image of my digitally bisected head. Out of all the pictures she shared, this one actually looked like me. It was trippy. I could see the outline of my face and my brain simultaneously. How often do we literally see inside ourselves? That we peer back into the place we gaze out from. And as I sat rooted to the screen, I became fixated on that basic idea - the location of consciousness. It led me to a seemingly simple yet potentially profound question:
Where are you?
I mean, this brain that I was looking at somehow produces the feeling that is me, right? At least that’s how I understood it. But where exactly? Is there a place that sentience originates from? Some specific spot?
Such thinking aligns with the general concept most of us have of ourselves. If you’ve seen the movie Men In Black, there’s a scene where the protagonists are examining what they believe is an alien (who looks like a human), only to find it’s a machine shell of sorts, controlled by a much smaller extraterrestrial in its head. This is how we envision the seat of consciousness. As some kind of ether or “mini-me” that has a locale, rides around behind our eyes, and looks out on the world.
But from a neuroscience standpoint, such a paradigm is wrong. There is no location whence our sense of self emanates. It’s not like we could cut away all of our brain matter until we were left with an infinitesimal point that would contain our self-awareness. If you understand this, you are forced to admit that there is no center. In many ways - you are nowhere. So as I sat there looking at me, realizing I couldn’t locate “me,” a follow-up question came to mind:
What are you?
Or, more broadly - what is consciousness exactly? As I said, I always assumed it was simply something our brains produced. But after listening to a couple of podcasts and reading a few books on the topic by people far more intelligent than me, I learned that might not be true.1 It certainly could be. But alternatively, it may potentially be a fundamental property of all matter.2 Or something your brain tunes into, like a television or radio. We don’t know. It’s one of our greatest mysteries.
Whatever the case, we do know that it’s not a fixed entity. You are not a thing. Your body is a thing. Your brain is a thing. But you are an output. A process. Think of it in the context of the music produced by a guitar or piano. You aren’t the instrument. You are the music - an action without form or location.
However, I prefer the term “pattern” over “process.” Because the process repeats itself over and over. It’s part of why we feel like the same person day in and day out. If it weren’t a pattern, we would act entirely differently from moment to moment. It’s complex to be sure, layered and fractal, but a pattern nonetheless. So now the question became:
Who are you?
In other words, where does the pattern come from? Is it there on day one, or does it develop over time? I think the answer is a little bit of both. Anyone who has kids knows that part of who we are is simply innate. We don’t emerge as a tabula rasa. Despite having the same parents and the same basic upbringing, my three sons have unique personalities that they brought with them out of the chute.
However, we can’t be utterly beholden to some kind of predeterminism that predicts how we will react in any given situation. And sometimes, we capitulate to the idea of “just the way I am” too quickly, almost as a cop-out. Of course, “free will” in the way we typically think of it is essentially an illusion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t choose how we react to things or shape ourselves in many ways.3 And that shaping comes from our experiences.
So I reflected on mine. How they may have contributed to my sense of being me. As I did this, I was struck by a stark fact - I can’t remember most of my life. Here’s an experiment to try for yourself. Pick a random date from your past and ask how much you recall from it. May 18, 2017. Anything? Unless that’s your birthday or some other date of significance for you, probably not. What about May 19? 20? 21? The entire month? The year…?
The reality is that off the top of my head, I don’t remember anything at all from 2017. Literally nothing. And it’s not like I have amnesia. I know we lived in Atlanta, and I was the President of Kill Cliff at the time. But as for any specifics about what I did during a certain day, week, or month, none come to mind.
Looking at my digital calendar does help jog my memory a bit. We took a few family vacations, and there were other unique events, like my college 20th reunion. But even with those reminders, what I can recount is fragmented. It’s a combination of broad generalities and disparate moments. I certainly can’t remember every second of any particular experience. If forced to narrate my recollections, I could talk for maybe an hour at the absolute most. Assuming that describing life takes roughly the same amount of time to live it, I can remember sixty minutes in aggregate from 2017. That’s 0.0167% of my conscious time.4 Extrapolate this out to every other year I’ve been alive and I have forgotten over 99.9% of my own life. And I would say that’s a generous approximation. What makes matters worse is that many of our memories are wrong.5
When faced with this reality, I must concede that the only thing I can recall with certainty is who I was in the last twenty-four hours. As Sam Harris puts it, I am the world champion at waking up each day and acting exactly like I did yesterday. That’s all this pattern I call “Chris Irwin” is based upon. Very short-term memories and not much else. This brings me to:
When are you?
While not intuitively obvious, this may end up being the most critical question we ask ourselves. Not where, or what, or who we are. But when we are. Because as I discovered, our sense of self is simply a pattern, mainly based on the recent past, that isn’t tied to a specific location. Which means all that matters is what we choose to do now, in this present moment.
Sadly, most of us don’t do this. We spend our time lost in thought, obsessing over the past or the potential future. We drift from moment to moment without actually being here. We lack presence. And it’s the one thing we need most because it’s truly all we have.
Lastly, there is of course the remaining “W” of:
Why are you?
But that’s more of a discussion about the purpose of consciousness, not its nature, which I’ll save for another time. Even leaving that topic aside for now, this rabbit hole into the heart of our awareness can get quite deep if you take the red pill and follow it down. Things can get unsettling and even destabilizing at times. However, what you might find is worth exploring. I don’t have all the answers. But I’ll keep asking questions. And you should too.
As for this article, I suppose there’s only one left to put forth:
How are you?
Disclaimer: None of the ideas expressed here are intended to diagnose or treat any condition or disease. Nor do they represent the opinions or official position of an organization or individual other than me personally. If you are suffering from a mental or physical disorder or illness, please seek medical attention from a licensed professional.
For a great quick read about consciousness, I recommend Conscious by Annaka Harris.
Such a theory is called “panpsychism.”
If you doubt that free will is an illusion, I suggest reading Free Will by Sam Harris.
You are awake for roughly 6,000 hours per year.