Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium
The Celebration-Worthy Science of The Self —
We spend so much time marvelling at the mysteries of the universe, while overlooking what is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable phenomena science has so far encountered: our extraordinary selves! Beyond recognising that the human heart beats more than three billion times in the average life-span, or the teacher favoured fact that, laid end to end, an adult’s blood vessels could circle Earth’s equator four times — surpassing such extraordinary statistics as these — our brains and bodies are almost incomprehensible, when explored from the right perspective. Here, we will delve into some of what science has discovered about the human being. Prepare to have your sense of self turned upside-down and inside out, before being reformed into something perhaps just a little more awe-struck, and a little more liberated!
Getting Some Perspective On The Stardust Concept
Most of us have come across a social media meme aiming to make us feel special by pointing out that we are stardust. As whimsical and charming as the concept is, you may not have stopped to absorb the gravity of the idea. Indeed, it is true that every atom within each of us has undertaken many manifestations, within many different forms, before becoming part of our current human whole. The extraordinary reality is that every atom in each of our bodies is billions of years old. The carbon and oxygen within the spectacular composition that is you would, by current scientific consensus, have been forged within stars some 7–12 billion years ago. That body of yours — the one with heart pumping, and lungs inflating and deflating, as you read this — contains hydrogen atoms which have made a tiny atomic-scale journey from the big bang, 13.7 billion years ago, to the present moment as part of what makes up you!
We’re Not Alone In Here
If you examine your hands for a moment, it is easy to imagine that you are made up of, well, mostly you, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. First and foremost, if you were to complete a diligent count of the cells making up your body, far more of them would be bacterial than human. In fact, bacterial cells outnumber your own cells at a staggering rate of ten to one! Most of these cells make up friendly residents, and some of them are essential. Beyond anything else, without our ride-along amigos, we wouldn’t be able to digest all of the delicious and nutritious foods that we do.
The You Within Your Body On The Tip Of A Pin
If the bacteria numbers threw you, then perhaps take a seat. Our intuitive sense of self is a little misleading — you just need to go really small scale to appreciate it! Trying to grasp the miniscule nature of atoms is near impossible, but it helps to recognise how many of them each of our bodies contain. A human adult is comprised of roughly seven octillion atoms. Long form may give you a clearer grasp on that: it’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 per person! What really flips things on their heads is realising that each of those atoms is mostly empty space. The nucleus of each atom accounts for most of it’s bulk, but in terms of scale to the whole, each atom’s nucleus could be likened to an ant in the middle of a football pitch. If all of your empty space were eliminated, your body could fit into a cube measuring only 1/50th of a millimetre. Now, ponder for a moment on the epic complexity of your brain and body: as a spectacularly automated entity; as a processing power; as a dynamic, learning, evolving, and ageing thing. Not bad for what ultimately amounts to matter that could rest on the tip of a pin!
Quantum Leaps Within You
The plot thickens yet further within each of those largely empty, and miniature atoms. For most of us, memories from school science class might lead us to imagine atoms in a form likened to a solar system — with the nucleus playing the part of the sun, while electrons play the part of the planets. In reality, electrons are quantum particles which exist more as a collection of probabilities than a tangible, present thing. They cannot exist anywhere between their paths within atoms, and yet electrons do move about. To do this, they in effect make tiny quantum leaps between atoms. A more accurate way of imagining electrons is a hazy, there-and-yet-not-there presence around each atom’s nucleus!
Along For The Ride
As part of our sense of self, we tend to instinctively assume that our conscious mind steers our decisions and actions. This can leave us a little baffled when we make bad decisions such as snapping at our spouse, or polishing off the ice cream at 3am. In her book, Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, author Annaka Harris highlighted a study from Germany that might help you lay that snack-related guilt to rest. You may blame your conscious “self” for the moments of moral failure, but your conscious mind wasn’t actually at the helm in the way you imagine. Using FMRI, scientists were able to observe what goes on within the brain when we make decisions and choose our course of action. While we may experience life as if we are constantly making conscious decisions, our conscious mind is usually the last to know! Monitoring different areas of the brain revealed that the conscious mind did not get the memo about the decisions made by the brain until up to four seconds after the fact! In essence, this tells us that our conscious mind is more along for the ride than steering the ship.
An Open System, Ready To Evolve
If our decisions are not in fact driven by our consciousness, what does it mean for our experience? We can begin by embracing the freedom of knowing that our conscious mind is not responsible for our past miss-steps, while awakening to the idea that we can consciously choose to alter the code that drives those decision making processes for next time. The human brain is a vastly complex processing machine — the most complex thing known to man. It functions as an open system, which constantly allows for adaptation, re-framing, reflection, and learning. Our conscious thoughts constantly contribute to the tuning up of our thought processes, but does not drive our will. This feedback can take place very quickly — giving real gravity to the phrase “pause for thought” — but in the moment, decisions are formulated by our beautiful brains, based on all of the information they have assimilated so far. So, what will you choose to teach your brain next?
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