Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

29Apr/143

I Contain Multitudes

Within my body are over seven octillion atoms, each a cloud of gnats flitting around an infinitesimal nucleus and a relative ocean of empty space. They drift past each other, at times forming molecular bonds by sharing or trading electrons. Of the octillion-plus molecules in my body, seven out of ten are triatomic water. The hydrogen atoms in those molecules attract each other, so water molecules are likely to socialize. But for the most part, the molecules in my left hand will never have any interaction with the molecules in my right hand. They have no interest in clapping. They are strangers, similar yet isolated systems on either side of the complex galaxy that is me.

Within my body are some seventy-five trillion cells, separated by moats of watery soup. They are islands, organized into archipelagos yet unaware of each other's presence. Particles drift from cell to cell like canoes. We imagine our impulses zapping from neuron to neuron, leaping narrow synaptic gaps like impalas, but they actually change form on their way in and out of each cell. They're short-range Pony Express carriers, not lightning bolts.

My organs are the meat bags that keep me alive, slopped together in a wet sack of skin like sausage in a casing. My liver has no other name. It has no identity. It has no intellect or intent. It's just three pounds of offal put together in such a way that if oxygen and sugar water happen to find their way in, bile comes out. I need it to live, but I'd recoil in horror if ever I could look through my abdomen and see it. (The hole in my abdomen would also be a matter of some concern.) My organs don't know of each other. When food passes through my stomach, that organ has no idea what lies down the digestive road--and perhaps that's for the best.

As I look out my office window, the millions of cone-shaped photoreceptors in my eyes take in individual photons, encoding them as pixels of color. One sees red, another blue, another green. They don't share information with each other. They're how I take in the world, yet they're blind to each other. Like a fly, I see the world through compound vision.

We imagine we store memories the way an iPhone records video, but we're wrong. Is it any wonder I recall events differently from you or anyone else? We actually "remember" events as a series of addresses, each calling up a different sensory building block. Thus, if I try to remember, say, a childhood vacation, my memory actually goes something like "orca face/chlorine smell/popcorn smell/laughter." And that's Sea World. I don't remember what people said. I don't remember what I said. I just remember four or five bits of information. Then, if I try to remember what the hotel pool was like later that vacation weekend, my brain will access the very same "chlorine smell" bit as before, plugging it into the easy-bake memory recipe for "hotel pool." There's no real history in my brain or yours, no shared vision between all our cerebral cells. My autobiography has been written in fridge magnet poetry, not clear syntax or incontestable video. You and I remember shared events through altogether different sets of words. It doesn't matter. The past is mostly gone anyway. Of all those thousands of bits we took in on that long-ago day, a mere handful remain to make us smile.

My brain is not a single organ. It's more like nine member states in an awkward coalition, each part "single-mindedly" pursuing a different role. Even my cerebral cortex, the capital of my consciousness, is split down the middle, with surprisingly limited interaction between its two hemispheres. Sever the corpus callosum between them, and bizarreness ensues. Place an apple in such a person's left hand and tell him to name it; he'll nod politely but find it impossible till you or he transfers the apple to his right hand. However different I may feel about this, I am not a conscious unit. My brain is many, as is yours.

Yet I do have a mind. I perceive the world as if I had a single I to speak of. At every level, my body is a collection of disparate items. My mind is a cloud of mixed agendas. My physical structure is plural beyond imagining. My memories are choppy, my vision pixelated, my sensory intake discontinuous. Descartes was wrong: we are, yet I think.

In decades and centuries past, we humans imagined ourselves as bloody corpses with loftier, invisible ghosts residing inside to keep us moving, thinking, and feeling. We called those animating wisps our souls. We tried to find them by praying, then by weighing. Dr. Duncan MacDougall claimed a human soul weighed three-quarters of an ounce. He was wrong. Our souls are nothing. They are nothing at all. And yet...

We often speak of the "god of the gaps," then lose faith as the gaps in our understanding of the universe diminish. Yet here remains one gap that has never closed. In fact, it has widened. We have no idea why we see ourselves as selves, single selves gliding through the world as single points behind our eyes. I feel like an I in here, not a they, yet on every level I am vast and disunited. I am a hive mind.

Perhaps the word soul should be redefined as whatever it is that brings unity and focus to all those trillions of disparate voices, intentions, and activities within our bodies, all those organs coming together into one recognizable personality. No anatomist, physiologist, psychologist, or theologist can explain it, yet here I am. Is that a miracle? Am I a miracle? I say yes, for after all my selves' cacophonous chatter...here I am to say it.

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