The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Awakeness

Last week I had a short piece on two types of odd but unmystical experiences published at the new and interesting magazine Aeon. One of these is a peculiar, spontaneous iteration of self-awareness where it feels surprising to be me. In the article I asked if anyone else had it.

The response: lots of comments saying 'Oh, I have that too!'

Since writing it, I came across two things that seem relevant to the odd experience.

One is that I remembered a passage I'd read years ago - it may have been an essay in the now legendary anthology The Mind's I - in which the writer imagined abstracting from every personal feature of one's consciousness, and pointed out that what remained would be what is common to all conscious beings. What struck me is that if one could step back into that consciousness-as-such, one would have something like the experience I described.

Another was reading Chris Beckett's Dark Eden. One of the characters, Jeff, is an odd little tyke with the habit of saying, every so often and apropos of nothing: 'We're here. We really are here.' Later in the book we get inside his head, and find that he (unlike everyone around him) sees 'the same Awakeness' in the flat, blank eyes of the alien animals as people do in each other and remember in Earth animals. This is more or less what Schopenhauer said in opposition to Descartes and Spinoza: that animals may not think or reason, but they share the same awareness as we do, just by being aware.

I don't know where that line of thought is going, but if you're interested, have a look at my article, and especially the comments. And give Aeon a browse too - there's a lot of interesting stuff there that you won't find anywhere else.


I had an experience that might relate to your two. I had just finished a section of a probability text that took me about two hours two read. It was hard work. While reading, my attention was almost entirely focussed on the subject-matter, a bit of pure, abstract, math. I stopped, left my room, stepped outside, and looked across the street. It was hard to distinguish objects with borders, say a window. Or rather, I didn't try. For about one minute the surroundings appeared to be nearly completely fused. I don't remember if I thought about my mind then, but later I attributed the experience to a sudden visual change that my attention mechanisms were not prepared for. A brief brain glitch.

I'm intrigued by the first experience, which sounds deeply scary but clearly wasn't. Has it ever happened again? The second does sound very meditational; it reminds me of the experience (which people reach by different routes) of getting clear of all the endlessly clanking neuroses that clutter up our lives, looking around and thinking OK, here I am, so what now?

I'd also like to point you (if you haven't seen it already) to the latest post on my blog, you being the only person I know who will definitely follow it!

These experiences sound to me like what psychology has labeled "depersonalization" or "derealization," which they claim to be a response to extreme anxiety. That never rang true to me, though, since my experiences with it have invariably occurred while engaged in the most mundane of activities, like washing dishes.

That said, when it lasts longer than about half a minute, it's disconcerting enough to cause anxiety, since it isn't a state I'd want to be in for long.

Fascinating stuff. Thank you for writing about it.

Phil - thanks for the pointer to you post, and for the links from it, from which I've learned some surprising things. We were taught the Apostles' Creed as children, and (in answers to obvious-to-a-child questions) that 'Hell' there didn't mean, you know, Hell, and more than 'Catholic' meant Catholic. I've just been surprised to find that Calvin would have disagreed.

But I'm fairly sure the OT saints weren't thought of as suffering in Hell - they weren't exactly in heaven, but they were in Abraham's bosom, the more salubrious suburb of Sheol.

Nice thought-provoking piece, which I may comment further on at your blog.

I wonder whether those kinds of experiences are, in a sense, LESS in need of explanation than is our normal everyday subjective experience, i.e. the experience of having a secret subjective self looking out from its hiding place at an objective world.

As a matter of fact we aren't made out of different stuff from the rest of the universe - both the hardware and the software within which that 'secret self' apparently exists have their origins outside of the boundary of our own bodies - so this 'secret self' viewpoint isn't really how things actually ARE so much as a construct which (presumably) serves the biological purpose of making us look after ourselves. (In order for an arbitrarily bracketed off bit of the universe to survive, it mustn't actually SEE itself as an arbitrarily bracketed off bit of the universe, pehaps, but must experience itself as the centre of everything?)

In so far as it makes sense to talk about HOW THINGS REALLY ARE, perhaps it's actually more accurate to perceive subjectivity as being out there as well as in here, and to notice what an odd arbitrary, temporary thing that our secret self actually is.

Chris. You have touched on a central problem-complex of the philosophy of mind. Namely, assuming that there is a way things actually are, to what extent do the subjective models we have of ourselves as persons capture, or need to capture, it? Are these models-various notions of selves-accurate, needed, useful, or total illusions? If they are illusions, need they remain so as science advances? At the very least, are they mythological residues of less enlightened times (perhaps including today)?

I don't know whether this resonate with what you say but I have had two distinctly different kinds of 'strange feelings:

1) When a child I often had this odd feeling of being somehow a lot 'thicker' than I knew I was, that is physically thicker. This was accompanied by a feeling of being rooted in the world, rather than being an observer. It was an enjoyable feeling.

2) Later in life I used to get horrible feelings of 'presque vue', accompanied by nausea. It was as if I was on the edge of some kind of revelation, but it never came.

I suspected that this was some kind of epilepsy, and checked it out with a doctor, because at that time it was thought that people with a history of epilepsy should not have their children inoculated against whooping cough. My self diagnosis was confirmed.

The few times that I have repeats of this is when I have had a high temperature, a great improvement on the times when this could happen several times a day on a few successive days, with no obvious cause.

Fairly trivial to say that such experiences are 'neurological'.

What is fascinating is that these neurological 'blips' are experienced as having meaning that can be related to everyday functioning, not simply as outside the normal.

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