It is said that language and thought are closely interlinked. For example in physics, if one were to attempt to explain some astrophysical or quantum mechanical phenomena, our vocabulary simply fails to grasp the essence of what is going on. But doesn't this also mean that our minds falls short of comprehending the phenomena? In psychology, the most elusive, intangible, and consequently incomprehensible phenomenon is that of consciousness - the feeling of "being me" and how "I" experience the world around me: "Selfhood".
I know I'm in there somewhere!
When psychologists, philosophers, and even neuroscientists try to discuss the phenomena it usually leads to all sorts of confusion and subsequent debating. They simply can't decide on how to operationalise the bloody thing! I say "thing", but it feels very abstract to be called a "thing", don't you think? In this day and age where physicists are able to explain almost everything in the universe - even things we didn't (don't?) think existed! - there seems to be an increasing demand for "hard evidence" within all fields of science. Philosophising about abstract objects simply won't do anymore. With increasingly advanced technology people want to know, and have the possibility to find out, exactly what's going on. Physicists want to measure the temperature of a star ten billion light years away, or find out what sort of quarks are inside the nucleus of an atom. Neuroscientists want to pinpoint the area of your brain that makes you like the smell of bananas, or makes you feel in love, OR holds the answer to your consciousness!
When scientists talk about phenomena that we cannot observe and which are abstract or hypothesised, they tend to reify it. Reify means treating an abstract concept as something concrete. And they do it with consciousness. One popular idea (it seems a bit ambitious and almost futile to call them theories) about consciousness is the "Cartesian theatre". This comes from good ol' Descartes' idea about the body being the physical entity of a human being, and the mind being the "mental" part of us; our immaterial soul which interacts with the body. Hypothetically, according to this idea, all our perceptions and experiences come together at one point in the brain, as if being monitored and experienced by a little "mini-me" who also makes decisions and commands us further.
Yourself: Worst movie director ever.
This "theory" has long since been discarded as purely philosophical, but still serves as a good analogy because, after all, it feels like this might be the case...! Most neuroscientists today, however, (because no one listens to psychologists or philosophers anymore) opt for some sort of accumulation theory, where all the brain processes in our head together make up our consciousness. Of course they have already tried to pinpoint the "me" in people's heads using neuro-imaging, but whenever they think they've found something the philosophers pounce on them and it usually turns out they've simply described "attention" - again. You can't really blame them, though. After all, attention seems very conscious doesn't it? Think about it: Are you conscious now? Are you aware of that you are aware? So when you weren't thinking about it earlier, does that mean you weren't aware or conscious? Were you passed out...? Ok, so when you woke up, I bet you were still pretty sure that you were you, right? Explain to me then, how the hell did you do that??
Do you see how perplexing this thing is? Wonderful isn't it? This blogpost obviously cannot lead anywhere as there is no natural conclusion to be drawn. I could of course present you with lots of different theories and research, but I'm not going to spoon-feed you like a child, or rather force-feed you like some foie gras goose. After all, my mind is a bit tired after all this thinking and pseudo-philosophising. If you find yourself being all confused and perplexed now, frustrated about what is what and who is who (are you really you?), just do like this guy: