Getting out of bed late one night to answer bladder's demand for a release of pressure, I blindly walked in the darkness toward the toilet. With scant light, I was following a mental picture of the room, groping my way toward where I remembered the porcelain throne might be.
Suddenly a sharp pain shoots up from my toe. It had collided with a forgotten coffee table. A sensation of pain demands my focus. I had felt this pain before and knew it meant trouble.
Hopping toward where I remembered the light switch to be, I groped to flick it and gain a better sense of how the room was laid out. It was obvious that my mental map of objects did not meet it's reality. I was paying a price for a bad idea.
The sense of pain works by a series of events that starts in the toe and ends in my brain. The skin has cells which act like sensors, gadgets that detect temperature, pressure, damage and more.
These sensor cells respond to their environment by sending chemical signals to nearby nerve cells. The nerve cells are like long wires that feed the signal into the spinal column, up my back, and on to my brain.
From the top of my spine the signal is split into three parts. One part of the information goes onto the thalamus where memories are associated. A second signal is sent to the part of the brain governing awareness and attention. A third signal is sent to the body map laid out on the very surface of my brain.
My awareness of the pain, where it came from, and how it may have been caused, are all wired into what I am. My sense of the world is fed chemically from toe to thought.
The pain in my toe is experienced indirectly, but this is not how it feels. The awareness of my toe and its pain is triggered by conditions in the toe. What happens to the toe is relayed to my brain where the experience is felt and understood. I am wired in such a way that the map in my brain seems as if it is the toe, but it is not. The toe is connected by signals to an area of brain is associated with the toe. My experience of my toe is actually the part of my brain that understands my toe. The signal is understood to be the toe.
The direct connection between the sensor and the represented gives us an illusion of being all at once, when in reality we are manipulating signals, symbols, metaphors of the experience.
Symbols travel down the nerves to provide information. It is a symbol of the damage to my toe that reaches my brain.
A clearer example of this happens when a person's toe is amputated. The amputee continues to experience as if the toe existed when it is long gone from their bodies. The nerves which carry information about the toe can read false triggers. Symbols travel to the brain from sources that no longer relate to any toe.
Signals of existence of the toe are still mapped to the brain area that relates to the toe. This area of the brain tries to interpret the signals as if the toe where still there. If the amputee is lucky, the brain will adapt to ignore the false signals and begin to forget the toe. Unlucky amputees can experience pain from a toe that no longer exists.
This idea, that our experience is symbolic, runs counter to our experience. We feel as if we are a body in the world. Our sensors give us information about the world in what seems like presence. We are unaware of the translation of sense into symbol and so find it hard to accept. Our being is experienced differently than our actuality. What seems direct experience, is indirect as symbols.
Senses as Representations
Boxes are a thing we can put other things in. The box could hold fruit or toys or even just air. The box's function, its ability to hold contents, gives rise to the idea of what a box is. At first, this idea is confusing. The box is a squarish thing with five sides and a hole in the middle. When we think of a box, we think of the cardboard on it's boundaries, physical shape, and size. The boxes ability to contain other things comes later. Seeing the box's utility is added as a characteristic of the box as a thing.
This is also how our brain operates on sense data. We have the equivalent of boxes where symbols are stored. Our sensory data is is held in a mental equivalent of a box that allows us to put a boundary upon it, to fix a limit where the symbol can exist.
The things in the box are like the sensory experience held in our brains. We hold indirect, symbols of the sense data in our brains. We do not have the actual reality, only a symbol bounded by the boxes that make up our brains.
Understanding that our experience is not the thing that actually happens assaults the mind. Our moment to moment feeling does not feel abstract. Our lives do not feel symbolic. We feels as if it is in the now, as if reality is happening to us. Our symbols feels as if they are us. This feeling is an illusion, an abstraction of the reality we exist in.
Another way to approach this seeming disconnect between reality and our experience is to consider what it means to look at a tree.
When I look at a tree's leaves, I see green. That frequency of light that hits my eye is the wave length of the color green.
The light photon vibrates in a way that triggers my eye sensor, sending a chemical impulse to my brain saying "green was detected".
When I see the green from the tree, I'm seeing what the tree is not. The reality is that the tree is all the colors except green. My experience of the tree when I look at it is not what the tree is, but what the tree it is not.
If I go to a friend and say "The tree is everything but green", they will most probably think I am a little crazy. Their experience of the tree being green is a strongly held illusion. Challenges to the illusion violate their pattern of experience.
Not knowing the tree as it is, a thing that absorbs everything but green, we assume the green we see is what the tree is.
Our symbolic experience of reality can be understood, but remains remote from our seeming experience of it.
Symbols of Stored Experience
The brains neurons are plastic. The connections between them and the chemicals held inside the cells of our brain are in a constant state of flux. Each new sensory input changes quantity and position of chemicals held in each neuron cell. Neuron cells make connections, break them, and reconnect in new ways to hold symbolic representations of the total reality we experience.
In a sense, each neuron and its connections acts like a box. It holds symbolic information, a representation of the sensory data.
Each new sense from our body is layered on top of the senses we have had before. A more and more complex set of symbols is built through this chemical and mechanical storage of symbols we have experienced.
As we live life, we gain more and more sensory data. The experience is translated into symbols that wash over the brain. Each experience is layered into the very structure of our brains. Our brains become many symbols held together. The longer we live, the more symbolic information is layered, the more accurate our symbolic model of reality can become.
Experiencing the Moment
Each moment has a unique content of chemicals and structure that we experience as "now". Our constant plasticity, our constant changing of our brains structure, our constant input of new senses gives rise to the feeling of being in the moment.
Each thought can be understood as a brain structure of symbols experienced. This does not happen all alone. The brain is always receiving new signals. The symbols, the content of the brain is always changing.
Watching the waves crash or lap onto the a beach is another way of absorbing how the brain works. As the water flows in and out in waves or ripples, it acts like the sensory data hitting our brains.
Our brains store senses like sand on the beach. Each wave pushes the sand particles about, changing the shape and structure of the beach. The overall shape of the beach remains.
The waves never stop. The focus of changes can move up and down the beach.
Sensory data puts pressure on the pattern of our brains as the waves water pulls and pushes the sand. The beaches shape is constant yet plastic. The brain holds symbols from previous waves of thought, adding each new sensory experience on top of those that came before.
Our experience of consciousness, our experience of mind, is both the wave and the beach at once. Our sense data provides the waves of water, while our brain remembers the previous waves in the very structure of the beach. We experience both the wave and the sand at once. We are our memory and our senses at the same time.
Soul as Symbol
Experiencing the world through indirect symbols, feeling the sense data in context of what was already in our minds, gives us an experience of being. Our past experiences are apart of our interpretation of the moment of sensation. This constant connection between the experience of now and the past layers of experience gives us a feeling of self as a being in time.
Another way of thinking about this returns us to the box and its contents. We commonly view our body as a box that holds our mind. We put our mind's existence into the box of our body. We consider our mind is not the box, but our mind is it's contents. Yet the box is required to hold the symbol.
We are confused by the need for a box and the description of our minds as a symbol in the box. In order to understand this relationship between box and the symbol it holds, we isolate them, objectify them, considering the box as separate and apart from the symbol.
Assigning a separateness to the box and symbol is an misconception, a by product of how we experience reality, but not the actual reality we are experiencing. This leads us to see the world as dualistic, two separate but connected parts united into a single thing.
Starting with sensors of experience, our nerves send patterns representing the reality to our brains where a symbolic abstraction is held.
Our awareness is a symbolic translation of reality. Our physical experience of the world is indirect, metaphorical, an analogy of what is.
Knowing no other but the symbol, we presume it is the reality. Unable to transcend ourselves in experience, we are a bounded, closed system.
Our minds are symbolic representations of reality. In this way we only experience the symbols, never the reality.
Our symbolic experience maps so well with our expectations of being, we are tricked us into thinking the symbol is the reality. Never experiencing reality as it is, we only know tokens of being.