Oct/Nov 2007 Salon

The Body Electric

by Thomas J. Hubschman

A century and a half ago, Walt Whitman sang of the body electric. Back then electricity was still a novel and exotic idea. It had not yet been used to light houses or drive engines. It was still a thing of wonder, its provenance that of the laboratory and the sideshow. But Whitman, with his poet's insight, saw prophetically what we take for granted today: that electricity is at the heart of our very being, and by implication that the electron from which the word electricity derives is the essential atomic particle that drives not just our brains but every aspect of our bodies and that of all the rest of creation as well.

We take electricity so much for granted that we fail to see how much it really does account for. In a way, we know less about how the world around us works than when we understood it less scientifically, because back then we did not take it for granted. When we say it is gravity that causes a stone to fall, do we understand what is happening better than before we had that concept?

As moderns, we also know that we are made up of cells, and that cells are made up of smaller components and eventually molecules which in turn are made up of atoms that are composed of smaller constituents among which are electrons. We are thus an accretion of electrons as much as we are a conglomeration of cells—a "clubbing together" of bacteria, as one scientist has put it. And just as a critical mass of cells produces something greater than the sum of its parts, a critical mass of cells wired together and exchanging electrons seems to produce something more than a mass of electrified tissue, something we call "consciousness" or "mind."

We have seen something similar take place in the intelligent machines we make. Computers ape organic intelligence, though presumably without reaching that critical mass we call mind. Nor are they self-perpetuating as we are—at least until our current is turned off and as long as we provide ourselves with the nutrients, oxygen, and other basics we require to keep the electrons flowing through our gray matter in an efficient manner.

If a computer were to become conscious, though, would it assume that its mind is somehow distinct from its hardware and declare that it has a "soul"? That is the conclusion we came to at some point when our own consciousness became sufficiently sophisticated—a "soul" that is not just distinct from our material selves but is capable of surviving our physical disintegration. Even today, knowing what we do about our brains and how they work, we hold to the belief that what we experience as mind is something other than an electrical process, a very sophisticated light bulb experiencing itself, even though we now can see the evolutionary process that resulted in the creation not just of our own mind but the minds of other species. We claim a precedence among these species based upon arguments that amount to little more than assertions of our own superiority or choseness. But our arguments involve a moving target, only recently including all members of our own species, for instance.

The main reason the idea of a non-corporeal soul or disembodied mind appeals to us, remains such an ingrained prejudice, is because we have convinced ourselves that rational thought and human self-awareness are not possible for mere flesh. Also, we have no experience of consciousness ending without it reawakening, usually the next morning. We cannot imagine oblivion because we cannot experience it. It is actually logical for us to assume that we will survive death, because nothing in life corresponds to it. Combine this with our refusal to accept the established fact that increased complexity yields new life forms and new abilities, and you have a formula for denial. We prefer to go on believing that we are spirits trapped in physical bodies than that we are very sophisticated electrical systems.

We hear a constant debate about what will happen when computers begin to think for themselves, i.e. become conscious. This is an old conundrum, based largely on our ignorance of what makes us conscious in the first place or what consciousness is. Back in the 1950s, it was assumed that the easier forms of knowledge for computers to navigate would be the learning of language and that really difficult matters like mathematics and chess would remain safely within the purview of humans for the foreseeable future. Just the opposite turned out to be the case. We are probably making the same kind of false assumptions about the super-computers of the future.

Much of the reason why we find our physicality so hard to accept or even imagine is our ignorance of how our bodies work. Consider the sense of vision. Even the better educated among us assume there is some kind of direct correspondence between a so-called reality and what we see. We know that the image projected onto the backs of our eyes is upside-down and that our brain makes it look right-side- up. But we assume that light reaches our brains more or less directly and that the images it carries corresponds to "reality."

What actually happens is something much more artificial, more like how a television camera functions. The light that enters our eyes does not penetrate any further than that organ, where a cascade of electrons is set off that travel up the optic nerve and are fashioned by the brain into what we "see." We no more perceive anything directly then does the TV camera. Light in the camera is transformed into electrical impulses, electrons, which are then transmitted as an electromagnet field, which in turn is amplified and turned back into electrical impulses in our TV sets, ultimately as light. We then convert that light back into electrical impulses in our eyes and brains. It bears repeating: we no more "see" anything directly than the TV camera does.

Nothing could be more counterintuitive. Yet, we depend upon our eyes along with our other senses to make contact with reality. Indeed, that's how we define a person's sanity, their so-called mental health. And not just mental health; loss of contact with reality is a basic definition of life itself.

We certainly cannot live our lives on the assumption that what we see and hear is a construction of our brains rather than a direct perception of reality. Too much is at stake, not just sense perception but everything that follows and flows from it: judgments of the most basic as well as the most sophisticated kind. The most arcane abstraction starts with some sort of sense datum.

If we have any doubt that images and sound are the creation of our gray matter, electrons firing between our synapses, and not of light and vibrations directly entering our brains, consider what dreams are made of. We experience them in nearly total darkness, so they cannot be the product of light. And yet we "see" them as vividly as we do anything we apprehend with our eyes open and awake. How could this be if no light is involved?

Neurologists tell us there is a part of the brain that shuts off when we are conscious, but when consciousness shuts down it comes alive—in normal people. Out of this part of our brains, inactive during waking hours, we create our dreams. And, to show that the reality we see when conscious is made in the same way, the same neurologists tell us that hallucinations appear to be the result of this dream-making part of the brain remaining active during our conscious hours when it should be shut down.

Obviously, there is a difference between the nature of the images and sounds we perceive during our waking versus our dreaming states. But the fact that the images and sounds of an hallucination are indistinguishable from those based on our conscious perceptions speaks volumes about the nature and locus of those perceptions and their remoteness from so-called reality.

In a sense, we already are the thinking machines we want to create but are so worried about creating—very sophisticated, complicated devices run on electricity but with an elaborate support system of organs, muscles and whatnot which, with proper care, run automatically, without batteries or wires, for seventy, eighty, even a hundred years. Try getting that kind of longevity or performance out of even the best inorganic machine. And don't forget, we are "on" full-time, night and day, with no absolute downtime for maintenance.

Seeing ourselves as walking television sets, in effect very clever robots with no direct connection to the real world, can be a blow to our amour propre. It's bad enough we have to share a status as sentient, intelligent beings with other mammals, if not with a still wider category of creatures with whom we share the planet. John Stuart Mill underwent a similar crisis when he found he could no longer enjoy the sunset because he kept thinking that the red sky was nothing more poetic than pollution in the atmosphere. What would he have felt if he had realized that he wasn't "seeing" at all, that his brain was creating the sunset along with everything else out of electrons produced by his own eyes?

But Mill eventually got past his funk and learned how to enjoy life again. And we should do the same. So what if we are a kind of electronic toy and must live not by direct apprehension of the world around us but by faith in the second- or third-hand data of our senses? We can't see in the infrared spectrum without the use of special goggles, but we don't fret on that account when we look at a beautiful face or contemplate a work of art. Nor should this realization diminish our enjoyment of music or the sounds of our children's laughter.

For those of us who find this description of who we are too materialistic, let them consider that this view of our nature requires more faith, not less. It means, in fact, that we literally live by faith—faith in the fallible but generally trustworthy images and sounds produced by our brains with the help of the very raw data gathered with our senses.

Consider the platypus. It has 40,000 sensors in its "bill" that detect the slightest electrical current generated by the flexing of the muscle of any animal in its path. It is by this means that the platypus finds food in environments too murky for its eyes to be of any use. In fact, when "seeing" in this manner, it shuts down all its other senses.

Who can imagine what the platypus experiences when it is sensing in this fashion? It may be very like sight itself, or it may be a way of experiencing reality that is as unique and exotic as anything we can dream up for a creature from another galaxy.

Someone, probably Jorge Luis Borges, though it must have occurred to untold numbers of people before modern times, suggested that our real life, the one we were born for and, in more contemporary terms, evolved to, actually takes place when we are dreaming. What we do during our so-called conscious hours is just a support program, a time for supplying our brains with the nutrients, exercise and other necessities without which our dream states could not be possible.

This is not as absurd as it might first seem if we take into account some of the data cited above about how our brains construct rather than reflect reality out of the exterior world, and how the brain continues to do so when we're sleep in much the same fashion and using the same materials, such as electrons.

Consider as well how much of art in all its various forms, from the most refined to the most plebeian, seems to be as much a necessity to our waking state as dreams are to our unconsciousness. It is almost as if when awake we long to return to our dreams and only find our true homes there. Certainly the sense we have when experiencing art seems to be that we are partaking, if only fleetingly, in a reality that is truer and more essential than the one we see around us ordinarily.

Dreams are not just rehashes of our conscious experience. They are original adventures, each with its own unique plot and set of characters, even if there is similarity and even repetition—something not unusual in the work of an individual artist.

Sleep is certainly restorative, but we need only rest the other parts of our bodies to refresh them. Deep sleep, the kind that is too deep even for dreaming, seems to be what our brains really need and what we miss most when deprived of. But dream sleep, what the people who study these things called REM, for "rapid eye movement," occupies most of our unconsciousness after childhood. Why?

I have heard a neurologist describe our brains as dream machines, full-time generators of images and narrative complete with sound and color, 24-7, except during those few hours when we are in a comatose-like deep sleep. In other words, our brains are continuously creating a version of reality out of its own raw material (not the least of which is our friend the electron) sometimes using the stimulation received through our senses and sometimes relying on impressions already recorded, also with a great deal that is also new and inexplicable.

Yet we forget almost all our dreams, as if they are sufficient to themselves without any direct relation to our waking selves. Some of us try to create out of a kind of semi-dream state fixed narratives and images that are meaningful and moving. But we all of us do this every night effortlessly and with a great deal more success than all but a fraction of art the world produces.

Isaac Newton was fascinated by "electricity"—his own name for it—which he knew principally as the magnetism and light produced by rubbing a piece of glass with wool. He knew it was important, and he charged future generations with its investigation. He wondered what it could be, considering many possibilities including "spirit"—by which he did not mean something supernatural. Although a confirmed believer in an omniscient and omnipresent God, he did not allow for the intrusion of the supernatural on the natural world. Rather, he may have meant by that word merely something immaterial in the sense that we still use the word when we refer to alcoholic "spirits."

Newton would gladly accept the notion of the mind as an intricate network of electrons, and he could do so without abandoning his belief in God. Despite his religious faith, he differed with the orthodox doctrine of his day to the point of heresy, refusing to accept the church's teaching on the Trinity, supporting his point of view in Newtonian fashion by comparing different versions of the Gospels over time to show that the text did not support the idea or that words had been added to make it seem as if the Trinity had been the Evangelists' own idea. But what he could demonstrate to be true by experience and mathematical proof must, he believed, be accepted as true.

That our very being, what we call "mind" as well as body, should be a state of existence sustained, run, and made conscious by electricity, our heart regulated by electrical current, our sight and hearing the creation of a brain run on electrons as surely as a light bulb or a cell phone, and yet still a process almost as opaque to our understanding as the mystery of gravity or the beginnings of life itself, should not be an impediment to reverence, but just the opposite. Newton, a man with one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the modern scientific world, would understand that. And so should we.


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