Tag Archives: metaphor

What It’s Like to Be Your Brain

Episode 1: What It’s Like to Be Your Brain

Have you ever wondered how electrical activity within your brain can give rise to the experience of a real world with you in it? In this episode, we explore how that is possible by putting ourselves imaginatively in the brain’s place.
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It may seem to you that you are a person, who looks out at the world through the portals of your eyes, as though through an open window. That’s the normal illusion we all live with. But your head is not a room with windows. It is a completely sealed chamber. This “you,” who seems to be looking, is a squishy ball of nerve tissue, filling up the space inside your skull. The eyes that seem like open windows are actually solid organs of flesh. They are like motion detectors or remote sensors, not open windows. They connect to the brain by wire-like nerve fibers. The same is true about your other senses, such as hearing, touch or smell. These all involve remote sensors sending information to your brain through wired connections, one pulse at a time. Your brain is like a vast computer processing all this information. Somehow it creates the illusion of being a person with a body, living and moving freely about in a real world. Let us try to understand how and why the brain creates this illusion, by putting ourselves in its place. That shouldn’t be too hard, since your brain has already done the reverse trick, which is to create you to stand in its place! So, in order to understand how it creates the experience we call reality, imagine yourself inside your skull. It is somewhat like being in a command center, inside a concrete bunker deep underground, without windows or doors. You are that command center, and you have no direct contact with anything outside the bunker, above ground.

However, human beings are creatures that move about and do things. We interact with our surroundings. So, instead of an immobile bunker, a better metaphor is to imagine yourself inside the control room of a submarine, which can move about and interact with an underwater world. This submarine has no portholes and no hatch, however. There is not even a periscope. All knowledge of the world outside the hull can only come in through wires from remote electronic sensors, such as sonar. All actions or movements of the submarine can only take place through commands going out from the control room, sent over wires connecting to motors, perhaps to activate the propellor or maybe a robotic arm.


Imagine also this strange situation: not only can you not see outside this control room, you have never set foot outside it either! You have no idea what lies outside, and no reason yet to believe that there is such a thing as “outside.” You have no idea how you got here. You know nothing about the parts or operation of the submarine, and don’t even know what a submarine is or that you are inside one. You are surrounded by dials and gauges of various sorts, and also levers, switches, and buttons. But you have no idea yet what they are for or why they are there. All this remains to possibly discover.

How can you discover it? There is no way but to try things out, more or less at random, and see what happens. So, let’s suppose you do that. You fiddle with a lever or switch and note any change that happens in the instrument readings on dials and gauges. You keep track of any patterns that emerge from this trial and error. But how do you know what is “error” and what is success? What do those even mean? And why would you bother doing this, or anything at all?

This brings us to an important further aspect of this imaginary situation. While the task of learning how to operate the submarine is metaphorical, the task facing the brain is literal and real: learning to operate a body and navigate the world. The brain must do this if the body is to survive. A child learns how to live in the natural and human worlds, but its brain must already be able and motivated to do that learning. Those conditions came about through natural selection—through a sifting process over many generations of evolution. The only creatures that exist are those that can do what is required to live in their world and are motivated to do it.


Of course, submarines are not living creatures. They are a product of human design and not of natural selection. While no machine (so far) has a stake in its own existence, an organism is defined by that stake. The living organism bothers because otherwise it would not exist. The organisms that do exist have learned how to negotiate their environments and would not exist otherwise. Natural selection is the process of eliminating failures, which drives evolution. So, we must imagine a corresponding principle whereby submarines that lack a “realistic” enough working knowledge of the underwater world are potentially eliminated. Because we are trying to understand the challenges facing the brain, we must imagine a sifting process parallel to natural selection. We must imagine a submariner who knows nothing yet of that principle, who simply succeeds or fails to preserve the submarine through trial and error. We must imagine generations of submarines that have adapted (or not) to the underwater world through some equivalent of natural selection.

So, imagine now that you are playing a computer game called “Underwater Survival.” You are the captain of your submarine, which can be destroyed through any mistake you make. But if you “die” in this game, you can “reset” and play again and again. As you gain experience over many such generations, your skills improve and you get better at staying in the game. You also care about the moves you make and their outcomes, because you have only gotten this far by embracing the goal to win—that is, to keep on playing.

Simply through pulling levers and reading dials, you have collected data and noticed resulting patterns. The patterns matter, because you want to stay in the game. You get the impression that these patterns are not arbitrary or random. Something systematically connects the levers and switches you control with those particular readings on dials and gauges that did not lead to destruction. You are trapped inside the submarine, but an outside observer can see that what connects them is the underwater world outside the hull. There are reefs and other obstacles to steer around. Perhaps there are other submarines or dangerous sea creatures, like the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Without being able to actually see this underwater world, you must learn to navigate it successfully, just by means of instrument readings. You learn to think of these readings as coming in from sonar, and to think of the levers as controlling speed and direction. You learn to think of the mysterious link between controls and sensing instruments as a world outside the hull. That intervening world is what completes the feedback loop between the inputs you receive from instruments and the outputs you make with controls. That world seems real to you, because it holds over you the power of life and death, according to what you do in the game. You take it seriously. If it was just a game, it would be no more than a fantasy.


Your challenge is to interpret the inputs from instruments, as evidence about a real external environment, and from that evidence to “visualize” that environment. In our metaphor, you have eyes to see the interior of the submarine and limbs to move about inside it and manipulate controls. But all that is no more than a concession to the metaphor. In relation to the reality outside the submarine, you begin blind, ignorant, and uncoordinated. Like for a baby, the task is precisely to learn to see and to navigate the surrounding world. Your goal, and your achievement, is to see straight through the hull, as though with x-ray vision. You accomplish this by creating a theoretical model of what you imagine lies outside the hull, using the data you have collected. To the degree the model works, you come to experience it not as a model you devised inside the submarine, but as a real world outside the hull.

You re-work that model as a virtual reality, to aid in visualizing the world outside. It’s a simulation of the undersea world, achieved through a long learning process you have formalized and computerized. Yet, the simulation does not in any way copy or resemble the real outside environment, to which there is no direct access for comparison. Let us therefore imagine a virtual reality that is an original creation, not a copy of something else. Let us suppose further that this original creation of yours—which you call your consciousness—is nonetheless guided by something outside your head, in the same way that the development of your model in the submarine was guided by the interaction between controls and instruments: through a feedback loop that includes a hypothetical real environment. Then your brain’s ability to see outside your skull is like your ability in the submarine to see right through the hull. In both cases, you project a virtual reality as a real external world.

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Music by John Nemy. Production by John Humphrey, Eureka Web Design.