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Is Introspection Possible?

I pose the question, Is Introspection possible? What I mean is, if introspection is generated by the brain, then how can one observe his own thoughts by generating his own thoughts? I would like to make an analogy to the eye, one can't see his own eye with his own eye. Similarly we also have trouble smelling our own bodily stenches and interpreting how our voice sounds vs how it actually sounds. On the other side, many people tout introspection techniques as being pivotal in understanding themselves and counteracting destructive patterns of behavior. What do you believe?

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  • Jun 6 2012: I had an interesting discussion with Mitch Smith in this (http://www.ted.com/conversations/11246/if_every_act_is_selfish_is_it.html) conversation where he explained a theory of empathic convergence and proxy selves...

    I wonder if the same theory of empathic convergence applies to the self. What I mean is; perhaps there is a proxy self for your actual self where you theorycraft about what you are and how you might influence your own actions. This might also suggest that there is a level of empathy and judgement for yourself depending on how well converged you are.

    The better you understand yourself, the more likely you are to forgive mistakes and perhaps the less likely you are to be depressed.
    • Jun 6 2012: To revise your last statement I would say the better you understand yourself, the better you understand reality. By stating that there is one reality that exists objectively, we can start to see some ideas materialize. I believe that there are blocks to reality and the brain must be imposing them. If defense mechanism allows for the self to cope with reality, then we have the brain imposing its will on our ability to understand concepts. So when we pull back the layers of delusion that exist and can begin to see how the self actually functions. We can begin to see how the objective world functions. I have no doubt that the way reality functions is exactly the same as the mental process. The brain governs perception and I would think it is there to serve evolutionary purposes. If the point of life is to replicate life and i believe it is then your perception should allow you to do so, but this does not always hold true. Here we have run into the definition of mental illness, what can we attribute psychotic breaks with, when applying this concept. If evolution is a governing dynamic and I believe it is, then the deeper one is rooted in delusion the deeper one separates not only from knowledge of the self, but from knowledge of the one true reality. What we are really getting at is the idea of the true self. The true self is a fully blossomed version of an individual who does not live in false reality in order to abide by the pleasure principle. I think you have hit on something here and it must be true that you cannot perceive reality without being able to perceive the self. Your idea of two proxys being in convergence with one another directly relates to this. A false self as well as the true self exists, i would think most people sit somewhere in the middle on this spectrum(I do). where reality is somewhat distorted and correlates directly to self understanding. Who knows what could reveal itself when directly in line with the true self.
      • Jun 6 2012: I would argue that a complete convergence of your proxy self and your true self is impossible since it would require an absolute understanding of yourself which is impossible since for every facet of your self you come to understand a new facet if created. (the universe computer example I gave)

        This might lead you to the conclusion that trying to understand yourself is the best way to expand your consciousness and improve and in some ways that may be true but I also believe that the brain is a finite space which creates a zero sum game for information.

        I would bet that there is a very direct link between what you spend your 16 wakeful hours of the day doing and how your memory and conscious understanding is divided and maintained.

        If you embark on a honest journey of self exploration and discovery with time spend in quiet contemplation, you will expand one part of your mind but others must retract in it's place.

        If the hour you spend in daily contemplation used to be spent studying quantum physics then that is the part which will logically retract.

        The relationship may not be so direct and predictable but my point is that understanding your self unavoidably comes at a cost to something else.

        You're right that understanding yourself is understanding reality but it is only understanding your own specific reality.

        If we were immortal, dedicating all your time to understanding yourself could turn into a game of chasing your own tail since once you run out of space, every new thing you learn about yourself would push something you knew out.
        • Jun 7 2012: the scenario in which you put forth about being immortal doesn't register with me, by stating that the brain only has so much space is both true and not true. There are memories that we retain that have become unconscious and sometimes with the probe of a photograph the memories rush into consciousness. I think the more appropriate statement would be that there is only so much you can store in conscious thought.

          I do agree that when devoting yourself to a practice, no matter what it is, you are losing what you devoted your time to prior.

          The statement you made "you're right that understanding yourself is understanding reality, but it is only your own specific reality" in my opinion is false. There is an objective reality, the world does not exist because your mind makes it so, thats not to say that there is no connection between your consciousness and the objective world. I hope through neuroscience we can discover what this connection is. But for example if you take the example of a car hitting you and damaging your brain or an injection of a chemical(both will alter the way you experience realty) this shows that the objective world does exist and that there is one reality that exists separately of your subjective experience.
          to take this a step further we may not be able to see what reality really looks like in the sense that one can never truly see the self. When all is said and done, nobody can lend you your their eyes. The world seems to be set up in this sort of unbalanced equation where a person can only experience reality and view the self to a certain degree.
          Due to the fact that you can never get around that the brain is generating reality, perception, all of the senses, logic, and all subjective experience the only way to circumnavigate this is to live without delusion and defense mechanism. Is this possible? Based on what I am saying I think there is some necessary delusion that we are forced to embrace during our time here?
  • Jun 5 2012: My understanding is that consciousness streams in a feedback loop of sorts.

    An idea is triggered and comes to the surface to be considered, analysed and evaluated. Whether it passes your consistency checks or not it may then form the basis of either a more complex idea or a slightly different idea.

    We are aware of the ideas we have and can have ideas about ideas and try to find underlying patterns to our own behaviour.

    You are right though, there is only so well we can ever understand ourselves.

    If for example you built a computer outside the outer edge of the universe itself which was big enough to store the location and momentum of every particle that exists within the universe, you might be able to say that you completely understand the universe. Unfortunately this computer you have build IS a part of the universe and it has no knowledge of itself. Your could go up one more teir and build a computer which understands the computer but you'd just be getting into infinte regression.

    I would argue that for every self complexity you manage understand, there is one you unwittingly create.
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    Jun 5 2012: Brian I'm starting a new thread but this is in reply to your comments below.

    Yes reality exists independently from or brain/mind. When I say reality is truth I am saying that it never changes, it is independent and it is true. Dreams, sight, brain damage, and math are all perspectives of reality which we create in order to understand reality.

    I.E. Reality is a pillar in the center of endless concentric circles. You are viewing reality from one of these circles, from any point on the circumference. The more circles or spheres your must see through, the farther you are from the pillar, the more distorted your concept of reality is.

    I have an equation which classifies how this works but unfortunately I cannot put it on this site because of it's 3D nature.

    As for the reptilian and frontal lobes I am not sure. I must do some research on this.
    • Jun 6 2012: I would absolutely love to somehow see this 3d model. I recently started a philosophy group and I know the members would also be elated to see something that gives us all a better grasp as to how we view reality.
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        Jun 6 2012: I'm making a video with a friend right now to describe it in a fully developed and easy to understand way. I'd be happy to send it to you or give you the link when it is finished.
        • Jun 6 2012: Either one is fine. Thanks Adam, i joined TED to gain and spread knowledge so far its working out quite well.
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    Jun 4 2012: I have taken a long, hard look inside myself and everything seems to confirm that introspection is possible.
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    Jun 14 2012: Reflection is interesting as an alternative to introspection. I posit that we all reflect on prior decisions, held opinions, and how we act or react to various events, people, and life in general. In some respects, I think internal reflection can be compared to looking at one’s reflection in a mirror. When you see yourself in a mirror, it is static. You don’t see yourself the same as you might see yourself on film or videotape. The movement of your body, your expressions, and the way you physically express yourself is completely different than the reflection in the mirror. How we believe we sound is similar in that we are not able to hear our own speech as others hear it. As with the mirror reflection our voice seems less fluid or mellifluous. I believe this is true when we reflect internally. The process of self-examination would be fundamentally the same as introspection. We would only acknowledge the thoughts and feelings residing in our conscious mind and access that we can accept and not hide from ourselves in our subconscious. Therefore, we attempt to discover gestalt as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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    Jun 13 2012: Introspection is possible and necessary. The caveat here is that introspection is coloured by subconcious biases, those we don't acknowledge because they are deeply held and withheld from consciousness.
    • Jun 14 2012: I think the term introspection should be replaced by reflection . Introspection seems be an illusion and a contradiction by definition. I do believe reflection is necessary to gain an understanding of the self and to make changes in behavior. I would think outside analysis combined with reflection would make for the ideal situation when dissecting the self. I think introspection and reflection can be a potential trap without outside analysis.
      Why is it that when we here a recording of our own voice it sounds so bizarre? Is it because your brain is recognizing it as an object and therefore distorting it for some purpose? Or is it because we are actually hearing what we truly sound like when we speak? What is the purpose for this is? Is it some branch of natural defense mechanism to not be able to view the self ? Or has it been a necessity for some evolutionary purpose? Is it a byproduct of consciousness to be unable to see outside of consciousness?
  • Timo X

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    Jun 8 2012: This questions sounds rather esoteric. Of course introspection is possible, people do it all the time. However, you seem to think that introspection requires observing your own unconsciousness, which is impossible by the very definition of the unconscious.
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      Jun 13 2012: Are not dreams an examination of one's own subconscious?
      • Timo X

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        Jun 13 2012: No. If you would be able to examine your subconscious 'thoughts' (which is a misnomer, considering that they are subconscious), they would have to enter your consciousness, thus immediately ceasing to be subconscious. I am not saying that subconscious 'thoughts' can't cross over and become actual conscious thoughts, they do that constantly. In fact, I'd venture to say that all conscious thoughts started subconsciously. It's just impossible to examine them before they have crossed over.

        An alternative question then would be whether dreaming helps introspection. In can't speak for others, but for me the answer is a resounding no. For me, dreaming is a rather limited state of consciousness, about which I feel to have little control and about which I usually remember very little if at all. Thinking about things while I'm awake is usually much more productive.
        • Jun 13 2012: In astronomy we can determine the presence of planets in a distant solar system which we cannot see by observing the wobble they create in the movement of the star.

          Similarly we might make inferences about the nature of our sub-conscious by looking at our patterns of thought and our ongoing behavioral patterns.

          I suppose you could argue that any sub-conscious pattern we correctly infer automatically becomes a conscious pattern since you're now conscious of it but you can still at least say that you've inferred the nature of what your sub-conscious WAS...
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          Jun 13 2012: 1) How can you be sure you only remember very little about your dreams? Is it not like a piece of information you are sure you once knew but now you can no longer recall? You cannot forget or remember something you never knew.Therefore, if you are aware that there is a greater part of your dream which is beyond your power to recall, that proves that you were once aware of that "missing" part.
          2) How do you prove that all thoughts begin in the subconscious?
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    Jun 5 2012: You are using the word 'I'. The sense of self, or detachment from self, is what allows us to introspect. We may look at our conscious thoughts and actions because we are aware.
    • Jun 5 2012: It seems as though we are aware and introspection seems to be possible, but if the brain is generating your ability to detach from the self then you haven't really detached from the self at all. The brain gives rise to your thoughts as well as your ability to observe your thoughts. So if a delusion is strong enough who is to say that the brain simply wouldn't continue to fool you by only allowing for certain aspects of the mental process to be observed. I would argue that we are aware of only so much, I would be willing to grant you that we can reflect, but as far as look at our actions from the outside in, I simply do not see how this could ever be possible.
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        Jun 5 2012: Ah I think your have hit on something here. You have hit the logic wall, now dig into metaphysical reality. How do you know that you are thinking at all and that you are "real". This logic can circle forever unless you accept one concept: Reality is truth but your view of reality shifts your perspective of truth."

        I am able to argue that you are incorrect but I don't think your are. I think you have asked the right question and I applaud you.
        • Jun 5 2012: I agree that this logical loop doesn't seem to end and leads to ideas similar to the movie the Matrix. However to accept that reality is truth I would have to concede that there is not one reality. I think there is evidence for both aspects. If you take something like brain damage then you cannot state that reality is truth but more likely that reality is based in the brain. When you are dreaming is that truth? If someone injects you with chemicals that alter your reality is that truth? Or has your brain simply put on a different pair of glasses? The objective world is not a product of subjective experience it exists independently. However that does not mean that the way we interpret reality is true at the end of the day all we have is human perspective and ultimately your perspective. For all we know evolution has not allowed for us to understand what reality really is. I do find it interesting that the idea of symmetry between opposing forces is so prevalent. Does this have something to do with the fact that we have 2 hemispheres in the brain, 2 arms, 2 feet ,2 hands ,2 legs,2 eyes?
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        Jun 5 2012: Also the sense of self or conscious is highly controversial because this is believed to be the soul. Empirical data on this subject is unbelievably lacking but there are many theories.
        • Jun 5 2012: I think I may have a natural solution to the idea of introspection. I will be upfront that I of course have absolutely no hard data to back this up but maybe in the future. When looking inward and observing the mental process it seems that at the very least there are 2 entities. Could this be a case of the frontal lobe vs reptilian brain. Our more developed frontal lobe allows for higher reasoning, language, logic, and separates us from animals. Is it possible that when employing an introspective technique you have made the frontal lobe dominant. I do subscribe to the belief that as human beings we naturally make ourselves into something more than we really are (one species of primate who seems to have used our brains to aid us in the evolutionary process) with that said the idea of the soul seems far to optimistic and characteristic of hopeful and living creatures(which I do consider myself to be). Maybe, maybe not. Thoughts?
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    Jun 4 2012: It is surely possible to try to understand ones behavior and motivations. What is highly unlikely is to arrive at an entirely accurate picture. We cannot see ourselves clearly.
  • Jun 4 2012: I agree that it seems as tho its possible and is absolutely real. But how can we be so sure that introspection is beneficial, again the eye can't see the eye.
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      Jun 4 2012: Eye can't see the eye but then someone dies and we look at their eye, introspection sounds a lot like philosophy. And yea it's only when you reflect on your actions that you realise if you've been a bit of a dick