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February 17th, 2020
In physics we have the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which describes how precisely we might measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously. Increasing that precision in one variable forces a los of precision in the other. It’s a essentially a trade off regarding what you want to know. This Uncertainty Principle is often confused or conflated with the Observer Effect which dictates that any observation affects the thing being observed.
A discussion of both these ideas, even at this elementary resolution, gives rise to an analogy regarding thought.
Take first for instance Observer Effect. We can look across the room at another person and suppose that they are probably having a thought. Given the pensive look on their face, the direction and movement of their eyes, or that glassy dazed look we sometimes get, it’s not an outlandish assumption.
So we ask: hey, what are you thinking?
The person looks up. Oh, I was thinking. . .
And then we get a little report about what they were just thinking. This is inevitably a report of what they were just thinking. It’s a record of past thought. What’s more interesting to wonder is what this person would have thought the moment we ask our question, if we had never asked the question. It’s easy to imagine that their thoughts, if they had not been interrupted by our question would have continued in some manner.
What’s more interesting is to realize that the person thinking that thought will never know what realization might have been waiting for them in the next moment had we never asked.
Our next thought is arguably as much of a surprise to our own conscious experience as it might as well be to anyone else.
It’s testable. Simply ask yourself: can you predict your next thought?
No matter how hard you try, it is in vain. Any prediction you make IS your next thought. It’s a paradox that reaches it’s expiration before you even get a chance to solve it.
Here we have a clue about the nature of attention and focus, and it gives rise to another question:
Can you have two thoughts simultaneously?
This might be an easier question to answer. A big maybe starts to arise, and there’s some scientific study to make a case for the answer being yes.
Starting in the 1960’s there was a particular procedure carried out on some people who suffered from epilepsy which had some fascinating ramifications. It was discovered that grand mal seizures would spread throughout the brain, and this would inevitably hit the bottleneck of the corpus callosum where the two major hemispheres of the brain connect and communicate with one another. The seizure would pass through the corpus callosum and spread throughout the second half of the brain. It was theorized that if this connection between the two hemispheres was cut, then the seizure would stay isolated to the half where it starts. The theory held, but with these so called split-brain patients gave rise to the unsettling notion that perhaps there was a consciousness in each half of the brain.
For example, since the area of the brain that enables speech is generally confined to one side of the brain, this hemisphere gained exclusive control over what a split-brain person would say. But this did not leave the other half without a way to communicate with the outside world. Each hemisphere controls a half of the body, and scientists were able to communicate with the muted side of the brain. One way that this was accomplished was by showing only the one eye that corresponded to the muted hemisphere a word, like the word ‘egg’, and then asking the person to use their hand that corresponds to the half of the brain that can see that word to reach behind a screen and pick an item from a random assortment. The hand would invariably pick up the egg, but when the person was straight up asked, they would not say it was because they were just shown the word ‘egg’. People would say something random that seemed to fit, like, it’s what I had for breakfast. The language hemisphere would simply make something up. Many experiments of this nature were carried out with the same finding: there seemed to be part of the person in the quiet hemisphere who could never get a word in. And this makes sense, it’s half of the person’s brain for thought’s sake.
These experiments seem to indicate that it’s possible for the brain to have two thoughts simultaneously since a good deal of the structure is duplicated. It’s really a matter of how that thought can be expressed that becomes an issue that’s teased out be the split-brain experiments.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle lends itself as a useful analogy here: the more we concentrate on one thing, the more everything else fades in our realm of focus.
Certainly there are many things going on at any given time, not just two or more possible thoughts. We are receiving all sorts of different information through our senses, whether that be temperature, pressure, light, sound, smell or the myriad realm of sensations that come to us internally from out body via interoception.
It’s certainly possible to take a step back – so to speak- and attempt to concentrate equally on everything going on: all of these sensations available. There’s benefit to it, but as with most things, this effort does not serve us equally at all times. Sometimes, indeed often, it’s of great benefit to concentrate on one thing exclusively. Many might think of this as a flow state. The rest of the world falls away and it feels as though all our cognitive powers are zeroed in on our task to our great pleasure and productivity.
But what happens to everything else while we are in this lovely state? The resolution of that pain in your back dissolves in the fade, the noise around you seems to crumble to mute whispers, hunger evaporates and indeed the rest of the entire cognitive realm, all our worries and cares, all possible thoughts take their respective seats in the stadium of our mind to watch this single performance of precision.
This is concentration. But as with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle our precise awareness of everything else drops as our awareness on a single things grows in precision.
Addendum: It seems as though a practice in a diffuse sense of awareness, that of concentrating on everything available within the realm of consciousness seems to increase the diametrical ability of zooming in one’s attention an concentrating on one single task for longer and more intense periods of time. Though, these two things might not be so different as they are both exercises in concentration.
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