Mind the Gap

Whatever its relation to the physical body it is generally agreed that mind is that which enables a being to have subjective awareness and intentionality towards their environment, to perceive and respond to stimuli with some kind of agency, and to have consciousness, including thinking and feeling (see here for reference).

The model of decision making I am proposing has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously) […] (Dennett, D., 1981).

I contend that the agency in the Wikipedia quotation and the agent in Daniel Dennett’s (1981) passage are one and the same and are what I have called ‘ego’. There may well be a large number of objections to a statement like this but there hasn’t been much agreement about what is ‘mind’ (as in the first quote) or Dennett’s ‘agent’ in the second, since Descartes. And finding the seat the ‘true self’ behind the ego is so far just a pipe dream in social psychology, psychotherapy, philosophy or the neurosciences. One person’s conjecture is another’s false hypothesis.

I have been supporting a young boy in his final year in school here in Tanzania. He was an orphan in his village, one of many. Life in Africa is much more precarious than in the west. As he grew up in a village with no cars, he developed no road sense. When we took him into town for the first time he was afraid to cross the road. He didn’t know how to, with cars coming in both directions. He was unable to judge speed and distance. Recently as he got out of a bus he absentmindedly crossed the road from behind the bus and walked straight into oncoming traffic. He was in a coma for 4 weeks, waking up occasionally but showing few signs of improvement. He only partially woke up for a further 4 weeks. He was diagnosed with severe brain stem injury. With no CT scanner at the local hospital, a more precise diagnosis was not possible and the distance he would need to travel to get a CT scan here would have been too dangerous for him. With brain stem injury (non-specific) some of his involuntary functions were affected – functions such as breathing (he needed oxygen in the first three weeks), body temperature maintenance (he would sweat regularly), ability to assimilate oxygen from the blood, blood pressure (constantly monitored) and more. Brain stem also affects wakefulness or ‘switched-on-ness’ if I read it right (see here for reference) and hence the initial coma.

We could say from this that the brain stem harbours our activation centre – the seat of our computer POST. POST is what happens when you first switch on a computer – the ‘Power-On-Self-Test’:

POST includes routines to set an initial value for [input] and output signals and to execute internal tests, as determined by the device manufacturer. These initial conditions are also referred to as the device’s state (see here for reference).

If we consider the importance of the brain stem to our most basic functions, and that it acts as a conduit between inputs and outputs, we could say that our ego, or who we think we are, is a manifestation of brain stem activity. When adverse inputs come in through our senses our brain stem initiates appropriate reaction. It even reacts before we are conscious of the need to react. It may be who we think we are but it is, in fact, only a reactor and motivator. If the brain stem is inactive or damaged, as with my young student, then the ego may emerge but the person himself may not ‘wake up’. Communication between ego and ‘person’ may not resume even though his POST tests were successful. Indeed this was the case. After 4 weeks in a coma the patient only partially ‘woke up’. He was obviously alive, conscious  and reacting to stimuli such as aggressive gestures but he himself (as we knew him) never re-emerged. He died 8 weeks after the accident.

In the London underground you often hear the phrase “Mind the Gap” alerting you to guard against tripping over the gap between the train and the platform edge. Why use the word ‘mind’  – a peculiar English command. In translation it means ”engage your mind (brain stem, senses, motor control as well consciousness) to be watchful when boarding or alighting from the train so that you don’t trip over the gap”. My student would have benefited from such a command before crossing the road.

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About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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