What do Consciousness and Science Share?

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Susan Silver

I’m the writer with a mathematical muse. I love words, numbers, dreaming big & helping others. I believe that whatever you imagine, you can become. They/Them.

email: Susan@beautyofmathematics.com

In 1999, I was diagnosed with a mood disorder. In the dormitories at UCI, I began experiencing paranoia and an anxiety that I had not known before. I dropped out that year to seek help. This is why, as a mental health advocate, that I support Active Minds. College is a vulnerable time; students are away from their parents, creating new support networks, yet feel pressure to succeed – all as their brand new lives unfold in front of them. You may not have heard, but there is a mental health crisis on college campuses, right now. 

This is why I went on to found NAKED for Mental Health at Humboldt State. I had firsthand experience of what it was like to go through these changes. I wanted to help people with their insurance needs and usher them to use the counseling services on campus. You don’t need to have a diagnosis to benefit from therapy. This was before the Affordable Care Act, when most kids were kicked off their parents insurance when they got to college. If you had a pre-existing condition,forget it. Just another hassle kids used to live through.

And it’s scary to go back to the days of junk insurance policies, such as those we are facing now in the USA. American priorities for health care are whack.

An Identity Crisis

Now, the thing about having a mood disorder is the intensity of your emotions and the duration of the symptoms. I don’t believe there is anything that I have felt which is outside the normal experiences of others. It’s just, I am so much more aware of how my mood impacts my life. Learning to cope and adapt my life to deal with emotions which had no origin. I know some of my triggers now; but in the beginning, it was very difficult to predict episodes.  

This was the hardest thing of all, mixed episodes. It is so weird to be depressed, at your lowest, experiencing anhedonia yet feeling totally wired and energetic. If you have never experienced this, it is hard to explain to another just how it feels. This is what I say; “I feel really good about being depressed right now.”

It is an identity crisis, because you begin to challenge your thoughts and ask yourself, “Who is this person who feels sad right now?” Because everything in your life is golden. Yet, you are weeping hysterically as if your pet just died. It’s hard to recognize yourself. If you are an empath like me, it is very disturbing to know that your internal circuitry is malfunctioning and you can’t trust the reality of your own emotions.

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So, how do you get outside yourself to understand the truth of your experience?

A Contradictory State of Being

If you really want to go crazy, start thinking about your thoughts and judging them. This is probably why it took me a decade to recover from my diagnosis. I went through a period where I couldn’t trust my own mind. My mixed episodes taught me an important lesson.

Humans are messy, beautiful, and a bag of contradiction.

An Exemplary Mathematician

Let’s take a look at my friend G.H. Hardy.

Two of my favorite things about Hardy:

1. He knew he was really good at mathematics. Some people online wrote how much they disliked “A Mathematician’s Apology” because of how he brags about his own ability. I would say, if you are a Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge and you say you are good at math, then you have healthy self-esteem. The contradiction here is that Hardy is most well known for his collaborations with John E. Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanujan. He also believed them to be better mathematicians than himself.

“I still say to myself when I am depressed and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’”

2. He was an atheist who played games with god. When he attended cricket matches, he would bring his anti-god battery.

” This consisted of thick sweaters, an umbrella, mathematical papers to referee, student examination scripts etc. His theory was that God would think that he expected rain to come so that he could then get on with his work. Since Hardy thought that God would then have the sun shine all day to spite him, he would be able to enjoy the cricket in perfect sunshine.”

I find this all delightful actually. I’ve had to accept that I can feel multiple layers of emotion at the same time which may also contradict themselves. I can’t see depression and mania as separate states. While my moods may rankle the people in my life, they are uniquely mine. And that’s okay. I love myself even more because I contain such multitudes.

What Consciousness and Science Share

I am writing about consciousness and science today because I want to take this paradigm deeper. When I changed my major from physics to psychology,many saw this as a betrayal of my values. Truthfully, you know that people hold natural science superior to the social sciences. This is because it is so much harder to apply the scientific method when we are talking about human behavior. So, I will say, that I specialized in cognitive psychology, where we study the processes of the brain. We focus on topics like vision, memory, and language.

This really intrigued me because I have a question that I want to resolve from philosophy, and it is known as the “Mind-Body Problem.”

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Where does consciousness live?

What does it mean to have mind?

What really happens when I tell my fingers to snap? I understand this biologically,but who directs my fingers to move! Who gives the command? How do we just know how to do it?

That’s the part of me that loves meta stuff. My favorite TV and movies are those that break the fourth wall.

And that’s the thing, I gravitate towards the relatedness of consciousness and science because of my own experiences. I believe two things to be true;

  1. Mathematics and Science teach us objective truths about the universe that we sometimes find hard to conceive.
  2. Our minds are subjective, piecing together the world through our sensory perceptions and our interpretation of their meanings.  

Understanding how Consciousness and Science are Connected

Pursuing cognitive psychology was not a betrayal of my interests in science, rather, it was completing the picture. I don’t see ideas of consciousness and science as separate things. They inform each other.

So what I am saying is, get off my back! I made a decision for myself that is unique to my life experiences and I don’t regret it. Even as I prepare to go back to school for a degree in mathematics.

Why do we have to choose? I can like and appreciate both, even if it causes a contradiction.

I was just thinking of Schrödinger’s cat and the Quantum superposition.

And that’s it, right. Until you open the box and observe the cat, it exists in a state of being alive and dead. That’s my point in a nutshell.

Further Reading on Consciousness and Science

I’ll probably make my way back to the topic of consciousness and science. This is more of an introduction to larger ideas that I want to tackle. I wanted to leave you with recommendations of two books which may interest you if you liked this blog. They would make great science gifts for those looking to surprise someone.

The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra

This book blew my mind as a teenager, because of my interests in Buddhism and astrophysics. Capra outlines an argument about the parallels between Eastern mysticism and quantum mechanics. Some theorems are like koans.

Would it surprise you to know that the Dalai Lama wrote about these parallels as well?

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

I just picked up this book from Powell’s a few months ago,and haven’t had a chance to read it. It is super promising in subject matter. The book discusses the  development of human conscious by looking to our ancestors. The ones who lived in the seas before coming on land. Turns out the octopus may hold the answer. I knew they are clever and I’m excited to learn more about them.

Bonus Video

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What role does consciousness play in science? We attempt to answer with a little bit of philosophy.