Revisting the Zombie Loop, Fractal Thinking - Deja You

Wednesday, August 4th 2010

Deja Vu is a strange experience. It also tells us something very interesting about basis for existence.

Deja You

I often think deja vu is a moment when you trigger exactly the same set of memories you did at some point in the past. Then this triggers that set of memories, with the addition of the memory you just created of having deja vu, which then triggers the same set of memories, plus the memory of the deja vu, plus the next memory you just created about having deja vu ...

... the strange sensation is the brain stuck in a loop.

(Computers do something similar, but they can crash. It's called a "stack overflow". But not always. Sometimes loops are deliberate. The loop might process connections to a web site, for instance.)

When the brain isn't crashing, the loop seems less obvious. But that magical (strange, uncanny) sense of mental feedback that makes for deja vu might give us a hint where the magical, mysterious sense of self comes from, too.

Doug's Loop

In his book, "I am a Strange Loop", Douglas Hofstadter makes a point like this. That as memories build up you react to new memories with old memories and create a sort of feedback loop that turns into a sense of "self". He calls it an "emergent phenomenon".

The phrase "emergent phenomenon" has been around since the 1850s.

Say you take a set of objects and let them interact. The interaction creates something else, let's call it a "system". If you take the system apart, break it into its constituent objects, the "system" no longer exists.

The "self" emerges from memories interacting. It can't easily be reduced to its constituent memories or physical components.

A feedback loop of memory observing itself is not actual observation, it is memories feeding back. That is what we call the "self". Deja vu is an cute version of this phenomenon.

The Other

Doesn't exist.

Mirror neurons, and our capacity to imagine other people is more than just imagination. Just as the experience of your own sensory input and memory creates the "self". It also creates a sense of other people too. Empathy, I suppose. But more than that - the sense of other people is constituted in the same way as the sense of "self". The boundaries between people are vague to say the least. Neuroscience is beginning to explain aspects of it. Look up "mirror neurons". People react to other people moving their limbs as if it was they were their own limbs, for instance.

Accuracy of representation of others is beside the point. We are not really separate. The point is because we share sensory input we, to a certain extent, share consciousness.

The actual content of a reaction to sensory input is also beside the point, I think. But as my father says:

It is easy to get stuck in a mental loop when you use your own thoughts to think about your thoughts.

More than that, though, I think paradox and circular thinking is where the limits of rational thought begin.

My father again:

You get a feedback loop and all too often you end up with what people in radio call a "howl round" which rapidly becomes an unbearable shriek that forces you to switch something off. Hofstadter's loop, perhaps, is that he believes the I is simply a pattern and if you believe that that is what the I is, then it's simply a kind of pattern . . .

Without that, I suspect he is just saying we store memories of other people -- lots of memories of those closest to us, very little of those we just pass in the street. Memories of our own lives, and our interactions with all those other people.

And we are those memories interacting. That's it. I wish I had put it so simply!

On a related topic:

zombie loop!