Archive for the ‘Avatar’ Category

The Neurology of Anticipation

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In the previous post, I asked what is the difference between having a painful experience myself and feeling sympathy for someone else’s pain.  The answer seems pretty clear.  My experience of my own pain is neurologically ‘hard-wired’, but there is no direct neural connection between other persons and myself which exposes me to their pain.  Things could have been different.  If we, like the Na’vi of the movie Avatar, had the physiological equivalent of USB-ports which allowed us to connect our nervous systems at will, then we could experience the pains, pleasures, and other sensations of other people while we were connected to them.  The ‘privacy’ of our minds is an anatomical limitation, not a metaphysical necessity.

A parallel question can be asked about future experience.  What is the difference between anticipating my own pain and having sympathy for a friend whose pain I can foresee?  As in the case of present pain, there is a vivid difference in my experience between anticipating having pain, and expecting you to have pain.   There is nothing resembling a direct neural connection between myself, now, and myself in the future, to explain this difference.  Nevertheless, neuroscience can help us understand it: why it is so vivid, why expectation of my own pain makes me anxious rather than just sympathetically concerned, why foreseeing pain in my own future feels like an unavoidable problem for me in a way that foreseeing your pain does not.

Another difference is that sympathy for others, unlike self-concern, seems at least partially under conscious control.  When we feel we cannot afford it, we tend to dial it down or switch it off altogether.  It feels optional, in contrast to the sense of unavoidability that clings to self-concern.

In his book, Hardwired Behaviour, Laurence Tancredi of the New York University School of Medicine offers some clues to an answer from a neurological perspective.  The engine of self-concern is a cyclical interaction between the limbic system, which generates our emotions (giving emotional ‘meaning’ to experience), and the prefrontal cortex, which makes plans and decisions. (more…)

Self-Concern as Motive

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

We are strongly motivated to promote the interests of anyone for whom we feel self-concern.  We are moved to prevent that person’s suffering, to work towards his or her well-being.  Motivation seems part of self-concern’s essential core.

A focus on motivation suggests that self-concern is primarily future-directed. We know we cannot change the past, and do not normally try.  But of course, our attitudes towards the past, as well as the future, are infected with self-concern.  Most events I remember in my own past are coloured by pride or shame, personal joy or pain.  Most of my memories of my own life have associated emotions which are qualitatively distinct from my memories of other people’s lives, and of events to which I had no personal connection.

Our mental models of reality include both past and future.  We imagine both (not always accurately).  But the imagined past is labelled, in our models, as fixed, beyond help.  The imagined future (and there are many) is flagged as possible.  The past is manifest, fixed, immutable.  The future is unmanifest, mutable, a realm of possibilities not actualities.  The ‘flow of time’ might be described as the production of the actual from the possible. (more…)

Phantom Self at the movies – Avatar

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Phantom Self at the moviesAudiences of the movie Avatar are asked to accept that, by means of a vaguely-described technology, Jake Sully’s mind is transferred into the body of a blue-skinned, nine-foot native of the moon Pandora.  And they do accept it, with ease – even I, who consider myself attuned to issues of personal identity, bought the story without thinking about its strangeness until later.

The strange thing is that it’s not strange.  We have no trouble at all accepting that the able-bodied Pandoran is the paraplegic Marine.  Why?  Because the personality, memories, desires, and so on, of the human are transferred to the Pandoran.  There is no physical connection between the man, motionless in a pod, and the alien who is learning Pandoran ways; the two are linked only by the flow of information.   The fact that this does not bewilder viewers is strong evidence that they – we – regard this psychological connection as identity.  We follow Jake through interleaved episodes as human and Na’vi, convinced that it is one person’s story.

The movie can be seen as a giant psychological experiment on its audience, who might have reacted differently.  (more…)