Sum Ergo Sum

The state of agency

Doing my regular lunch-meditation I had one of these frequent flashes of dots being connected. Mr. Benjamin Libet came to visit just as I was looking at my breath, or att least trying to. He said- “There’s half a second gap between you being conscious about an action and the action being done. The gap tells us that half a second before you are consciously aware that you will do the action, the part of the brain that is responsible for the carrying out of it has alredy begun the action”. Yeah, I’ve read that before and it’s a cool finding, but how’s that related to my meditation? Benny had gone so I had to figure that one out myself. This is what I came up with:

If the consciousness always is lagging behind the action, there would be an experience of having to catch up on what I’m doing. There would also be a general feeling of not being in full contact with ones body. I think we all have experienced this. So what could you do to close that gap? How do you manage to be fully present, or aware, in your body and it’s actions if your consciousness is constantly lagging and, so to speak, trying to catch up? One might say, in the rearview mirror trying to make sense of what just happened. I think this relates to Susan Blackmore’s question – Am I conscious now? and the subtle difference between being consious (which we are most of the time) and being aware of being conscious (which we practice in meditation).
Well, you could try to speed up your conscioussness. To make it faster in some way. Is this possible? I don’t know! Maybe some drugs are designed to do such a thing? My guess is that such an approach will lead to even more unexplainable behavior. Perhaps some drug will, not close the gap, but blur it in some way so that the experience of “lagging” is transformed to something else. Myself I take methylphenidate for adhd, but in regard to this idea I think that effect is more of getting better hold of past and future, not closing the gap itself. Actually, I haven’t thought about that before…hmmmm, interesting, but that’s another post. That one will be about the advantage of having adhd in meditation practice, but only if you totally let go of your difficulties with memory and planning. After all, if meditation is about Not thinking in past and/or future, you might argue that having adhd is almost like being there already. Then again, I believe most people with this type of functioning regards meditation as a practice to overcome exactly these “deficits”. Stop and save the rest you restless motorbrain.
Continued on topic: Another way is to slow down action. That was my flash. The gap being one dot and sitting still the other. What if meditation in the shamatha form of “just” calming the mind is in it’s essence a practice in closing the gap between, not consciousness, but awareness and the organism?
I sketch a diagram over consciousness-action-perception-awareness. Underneath I scribble;

Perception cannot know itself
Action cannot know itself
Consciousness cannot know itself
Awareness knows them all

Am I aware that I’m aware know?

Awareness cannot perceive
Awareness cannot act
Awareness cannot think

Awareness is an observer in chains and thus, totally passive. By default we see a totally passive function/entity/object as of no use. It only comes into action if we explicitly calls for it.
-Am I conscious now, and the answer is always Yes. Then awareness is placed in the backseat again. Passivly waiting for the next assignement. When called for by consciousness, it is at your service again.

Back to the gap then. If there was no gap maybe awareness was the default and the sequence would be perception – conscious action instead of perception – action – conscious effort in making sense of what happened. I don’t have time to elaborate on this right now. We have to work out the role of mind in being one of the senses/perceptions. It’ll all be crystal clear by the weekend.


2 responses to “The state of agency

  1. Sue Blackmore 2011/12/14 at 16:22

    Thanks. Interesting reflections.
    Note that there are lots of people who deny there is a gap at all and interpret Libet’s findings in other ways – Dan Dennett especially. And if you take my line about C being an illusion created after the fact then the idea of a gap makes no sense anyway.
    Sue. B.

  2. Niklas 2011/12/14 at 23:32

    I appreciate your comment very much. I’ll have to re-read your thought on C as illusion after the fact because that is exactly how I saw the connection, i.e. the factual action comes before the consious illusion of decision. To me that made sense. But for now I’ll just acknowlege my comfortable confusion about what our words “illusion” and “fact” really means in this perpective. Could we have illusory facts and factual illusions, and even worse illusory facts on illusion. I’m in equal parts impressed and bored with the Oxford school of philosophy trying to solve all of philosophy’s questions by cleaning up in semantics, but defining concepts and labels can sometimes save a lot of work. I guess reading Dennett would be a valid starting point. Is “Consciousness Explained (away)” the place to go in your opinion, or has he some paper/article specificly on this?
    Again, thanks for taking your time.

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