typographic illustration: what is my mind

What is my mind?

Dealing with AI and trying to build systems that emulate intelligence showed us one thing very clearly: we still have no satisfactory answer to what our own consciousness really is.

We can describe it from different scientific standpoints (neurology, psychology, biology) and analyse specific parts of our anatomy in great detail. But ultimately we still don't fully understand how the interplay of all these elements creates the human consciousness.

In my previous set of questions I explored very subjectively what my body is, how I use it and what it represents to me. The key concepts were:

  1. The body is an autonomous machine. It runs a lot of background tasks that I can't really interfere with (cells, organs, nervous system, digestion).
  2. The body is a vessel. I can use it to navigate and explore the physical world.
  3. The body is a medium through which I can perceive reality.

Building upon these initial considerations, the next question is: What is my mind?

Bodily experience
Staying with the machine analogy a simple way to describe consciousness would be the sum of my bodily and sensory experiences. Everything I feel, hear, see, touch and smell informs my sense of self and reality. This feels like an important point because it highlights that our consciousness is inseparably connected to our physical body. A simple insight we often forget when we talk about mind and body.

The captain and his ship
We talked about the body as a vessel, the mind being the captain steering the ship which by itself is running a lot of tasks autonomously. But again the captain is not detached from his ship. Every feeling and experience of the ship changes the captain as well. He is an integral part of it. Not simply a ghost inhabiting a mechanical inanimate object. Captain and ship form a holistic symbiotic entity.

Body as medium
The medium analogy β€” viewing the body as a medium through which I can experience reality β€” still fells intuitive and empowering to me in many ways. It fosters a sense of gratitude towards my body because it's the one thing that enables this whole experience. Sticking strictly to this analogy our mind could be regarded as the consumer, the thing thats experiencing reality through the body. The analogy is limping in a way though because of the interconnectedness of consumer and medium.

Presence and flow
What really strikes me about our mind is how effortless and fluently it switches between different modes. We have modes where our consciousness seems to run on pure auto-pilot becoming almost unrecognizable. This can happen through passive inactivity (sleep) but also in moments of presence and flow where we are completely immersed in the moment and forget everything around us (think of a moment of pure joy with friends or highly immersive activities such as dance, sports, gaming, consuming or reading).

In these moments of flow the self consciousness seems almost absent. The opposite of this are focused episodes of complete self-awareness. This could be a moment of reflection where we digress into a contemplating moment of self doubt and fears. Our mind completely hijacks our body and the over-focus on ourselves can result in extremely uncomfortable states.

Implications for AI and technology
The key takeaway from these reflections seems to be that our mind is inseparably connected to our bodily experience. This simple insight already eliminates a lot of utopian sci-fi fantasies where our brain would be detached from our body and preserved to grant us immortality. Digitising our consciousness and uploading it to the cloud β€” a noosphere β€” sounds unlikely and unfulfilling in this light.

It also raises the question of how we should interact with AI. We tend to forget that current large language models generate answers based merely on probability calculations of connecting words and letters. Although the output seems elegant and convincing in its eloquence we have to remind ourselves that this simulated intelligence cannot really understand it's surrounding (at least not yet). The lack of sensory bodily experience limits it from truly understanding the world and forming a sense of self consciousness. Currently AI can only emulate this process and give us beautiful probable answers tailored to what we want to hear as human.

So what?
I think it its worth asking yourself these questions time and time again. The answers might change but we should try our best to understand ourselves and our complexity better in order to be prepared to deal with rising artificial complexity.

Further topics to explore

How are different brain regions associated with self-awareness? How do they interact? What do we know about them? What not?

Cognitive Psychology
How do our cognitive processes, perception, memory, decision-making work? How do they shape our subjective experiences and form our self understanding?

How do emotions influence our mental states, our perceptions and choices?

AI and Consciousness
What is the current technological state of artificial consciousness? Can AI systems develop true consciousness in the long run or will they only be able to simulate it? What are the ethical implications of this?

Meditation and Mind-Body Practices
What is the scientific view on mind-body practices? Can they enhance self-awareness and mental clarity?