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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Second Person Present Tense

If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale or when we exhale.
—Shun Ryu Suzuki

I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that.
—Emo Phillips

Recently, I read a profoundly insightful science fiction story by Daryl Gregory, "Second Person, Present Tense." Wonderful writing. I recommend it.

I won't try to summarize the tale, except to say that it tackles a profound insight into consciousness.

Forget id, ego, and superego. Replace them with the Parliament, the Page, and the Queen.

The Parliament refers to the idea that your consciousness is not one voice. It is a committee. It is made up of several different physiological or biological systems, all vying for action. At some point, they achieve consensus. This is the moment in which, for instance, fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) reveals that the muscular system is sending the signal to move your hand.

And then, the Parliament sends out a message that a decision has been reached. The part of your consciousness that carries that message is the Page. That event FOLLOWS -- does not PREcede -- the motion.

To whom does the Page report? The Queen.

The Queen is your sense-of-self, your consciousness. And she raises her scepter and pronounces that We Shall Now Do Something (a signal from the brain itself) -- which is already underway.

To repeat: this has all been demonstrated in the laboratory. This awareness, the Queen, is not in fact the one deciding anything. But it is she who assembles a narrative. She imposes a story around the action.

SELF is a story that is always running backward, snatching up and arranging actions that have already been taken. The effect then needs a cause -- and that's the job of the Queen. She imposes reason, she confers meaning, retrospectively.

I found this a remarkably lucid and illuminating way to look at how consciousness really works.

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