Insight: The Simple Machinery of "You"

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

—Genesis, Verse 1:26

The default mind imagines itself as god-like. It is the controller, the decider, not the body but that which commands the body. It says and it is so.

This tendency is written into our very origin stories. Built in the image of God, we are given domain over all the earth. Like our bodies, this world is ours to command.

As gods, we imagine, too, that we must possess a great and rich complexity—the Walt Whitman theory of self:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.

Does this seem correct to you? Consider an alternative perspective:

We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dune let, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. Thus he makes his weaving, halting way back to his home. So as not to anthropomorphize about his purposes, I sketch the path on a piece of paper. It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal.

I show the unlabelled sketch to a friend. Whose path is it? An expert skier, perhaps, slaloming down a steep and somewhat rocky slope. Or a sloop, beating upwind in a channel dotted with islands or shoals. Perhaps it is a path in a more abstract space: the course of search of a student seeking the proof of a theorem in geometry.

Whoever made the path, and in whatever space, why is it not straight; why does it not aim directly from its starting point to its goal? In the case of the ant (and for that matter the others) we know the answer. He has a general sense of where home lies, but he cannot foresee all the obstacles between. He must adapt his course repeatedly to the difficulties he encounters and often detour uncrossable barriers. His horizons are very close, so that he deals with each obstacle as he comes to it; he probes for ways around or over it, without much thought for future obstacles. It is easy to trap him into deep detours.

Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant's path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant. On that same beach another small creature with a home at the same place as the ant might well follow a very similar path.


An ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself.


Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.

—Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial (emphasis mine)

The default mind has it exactly backwards. We do not control the environment. The environment controls us. Our thoughts and actions are determined by it. "You" are a simple causal response to the world. You don't contain multitudes—the multitudes contain you.

A visceral existence proof of this occurs in patients with transient global amnesia. Due to a temporary malfunction of "medium-term" memory, they are unable to recall anything beyond the last few moments and events several months prior. Their conscious experience is limited to what can be held in their short-term, working memory. Consequently, they can maintain a train of thought for about 90 seconds before forgetting and starting over again.

In practice, this means that they repeat the same behavioral response to their environment over and over again, like a simple if-then statement. And because it's 2018 and we live in the future, here's video:

In it, Mary Sue is speaking with her mother, Christine Campbell, who is in the hospital and suffering from transient global amnesia. You can watch in real time as her behavior loops, about once per minute—the first "reset" happens at around 1:17. 1

I've transcribed it below. Nothing is elided—the horizontal lines indicate, roughly, the start of another iteration of the loop. Notice how stable her responses are to her environment, the sort of thing we'd typically associate with a wind-up doll:

Mary: You have amnesia. Christine: Yeah, I was going to say. I have no idea what day of the week it is or anything. Mary: It's Tuesday. August 24th. Christine: My birthday's already passed!? Mary Sue: Yep. Christine: I don't know if I remember that. I'm trying to remember the last date I remember. I don't remember my birthday. Mary: We hung out. You came over to my house. We watched a video that I made for you when I was in Texas. And all of your sisters and some of your brothers said "Happy Birthday" to you on the video. Christine: (gasping) I don't remember that! Mary: Yeah, but we still have the video, so you can watch it again—but you're gonna remember eventually. It's just temporary. Christine: Where was it? Was it a home? Mary: You were at home, yep, doing some gardening and you called me and you were feeling confused, so you called the paramedics, had them come and get you, and then we came here, did a bunch of tests on you.

Christine: So what's the date? Mary: August 24th. It's Tuesday. Christine: I'm trying to remember the last date I remember because... I don't remember past my birthday. I don't remember my birthday. Mary: You don't remember your birthday, yeah? Christine: That must have just been recently? Mary: Yeah, a couple weeks ago. Christine: This is creepy! Oh my God! Mary: I know! Christine: Are you taping this? Oh Jesus. (laughing) I'm trying to remember the last thing I remember. You said it's August?

Mary: Mhmm. You know what the day is? Christine: No, I don't... It's August. Mary: That's good because before you didn't even remember it was August. Christine: Yeah, okay, so I remember it's August. I'm trying to remember the last date, the last thing I remember. Mary: Do you remember what day of the week it is? Christine: No, I don't have any idea what day of the week... Mary: It's Tuesday. Christine: And it's in August? I'm trying to remember... Mary: You remember what day of the week it is? Christine: No I don't have a clue. Mary: It's Tuesday. Christine: Is it after my birthday? Mary: Yes. Christine: This is so creepy! How bizarre.

Mary: You remember what day of the week it is? Christine: Tuesday. Mary: Yes! There you go. Christine: It's already past my birthday? Mary: Yep. Christine: Oh, darn it. I don't remember my birthday. (laughing) Mary: You're gonna remember it eventually. Christine: What happened? Mary: You were working in the garden and you gave me a call and said that you were feeling confused, weren't sure what day it was, and so... we called the paramedics and had them come and pick you up, and you took an ambulance here. And then I came and met you and they did a bunch of tests on you. You have temporary amnesia. They don't know what causes it. It's just something that happens. Usually lasts up to 24 hours. Christine: I'm trying to remember the last thing I, you know, remember. Mary: Do you know what day of the week it is? Christine: Mm-mm, no clue. Mary: It's Tuesday. Christine: I'm very confused. How weird!

Mary: It's okay. You're okay. You don't have to stress about it. Christine: I'm just trying to remember. It's August? Mary Mhmm. Christine: It's already after my birthday? Mary: Yep. Christine: Darn. Can we at least do my birthday again? (laughing) Mary: Yes, we can! Actually you'll remember again in a little while. Christine: Will I? Was I working in the yard or something? Got overheated? Mary: Yeah, they're not certain that had anything to do with it necessarily. It's just temporary amnesia, just kinda comes out of nowhere, sometimes it's from exerting yourself, but sometimes it's just random. They did a bunch of tests. They said that you didn't have a stroke. So you're okay. Christine: This is just so odd.

It continues in this way—you get the idea. The conversation continually loops back to what day it is, at which point Christine has the realization that she "missed" her birthday. Then she exclaims about how unsettling this whole thing is.

As an aside, it's interesting to note here that although the general structure of the conversation and realizations are consistent, Christine's expression of the same thought does vary modestly. This is especially noticeable in her expression of "feeling unsettled," which manifests in the transcript as:

Anyway, the point is that, given the same input, you will produce the same behavioral output. This is generally concealed by memory—instead of a consistent, identical input, the input becomes "input + memory of last time." Transient global amnesia, by interrupting this memory-inputting process, throws the deterministic nature of our behavior into stark relief.

You may be tempted to reject the notion that Christine Campbell and transient global amnesia imply anything about the human condition. After all, she is temporarily out of order, placed under the spell of cognitive dysfunction. Soon enough, her apparent free will will return.


I'm afraid not. Consider: Christine's range of potential behavioral responses is severely limited by her amnesia, which inclines her toward repetition. However, her daughter, Mary Sue, is psychologically well, possessing as much free will as any other healthy human and, yet, she reliably repeats the same answers to Christine's questions. It's always Tuesday, August 24th, never "a few weeks past your birthday," nor "August 24th, the kids return to school this week." She consistently asks, when Christine is trying to remember the last thing she can remember, whether Christine knows what day it is and, when Christine is disappointed that she "missed her birthday", Mary comforts her time and again with "there's a video that you can rewatch but oh, nevermind that, you'll remember soon." Even her most elaborate responses, those explaining what happened, are remarkably consistent:

If Mary's actions and words were more varied, they would in turn trigger different responses from her mother. The conversation's loops depend on the consistent, mechanical, habitual responses of both participants.

The view I'm trying to impress upon you here is that your thoughts, actions, and behavior are inseparable from your environment. They are a result of your environment. You are not an agent molding the universe according to your whim by virtue of divinely granted free will. You are a mechanical gear spinning along in an awesome, impossibly large interdependent machine, this universe.

Like an actor reciting lines in an already written play, the bulk of your behavior is not the output of thoughtful deliberation and conscious consideration. It is unthinking, rigid, habitual response. Given the same input, you produce the same output.

"You" are simpler than you imagine yourself to be, in more ways that one, which brings us to the heart of the matter, the actual meat of this post.

TODO Fix the aesthetic alignment/size of the embedded video.

Dependent Origination

Are you not aware of the insight that purports, "Those who have entered the gate are no family treasures. What is gained as a result of cause and effect has beginning and end, and thus will become nothing." Such remarks are like raising up waves in the windless ocean, or gouging a wound into healthy skin.

—Mumon, The Gateless Gate

Up to this point, we have imagined ourselves as behavioral gumball machines. A coin is inserted (something happens in the world) and out comes a gumball (behavior, reaction). This conceptualization avoids something that, from the inside, is unavoidable: The role of consciousness, of being a mind. The very thing that we are, in general, most identified with. You.

Surely we cannot be equated to simple, deterministic machines. We have minds. We are minds. There is consciousness here! And though we rarely say it aloud, most of us imagine this mind as a soul that animates us, a spirit, a lifeforce, an elan vital, that transforms us from mere matter into beings. Like magic: mysterious, incomprehensible, unknown and unknowable.

What a load of hooey! As curious men discovered long ago, when you cut into yourself, you don't find magic but, instead, simpler components, each understandable: bones coated in and animated by muscle, animated in turn by electrical impulses shooting through nerves.

The same is true of consciousness. Of you. Your apparent mystery gives way, with diligent investigation, to simpler components. These components are described, not in an anatomy textbook, but in the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination.

With fundamental delusion as condition, there are fabrications; With fabrications as condition, consciousness; With consciousness as condition, name and form (Pali: nāmarūpa) (or mind and body); With name and form as condition, the six sense spheres; With the six sense spheres as condition, contact; With contact as condition, feeling (Pali: vedanā; the sense of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral); With feeling as condition, craving (Pali: taṇhā); With craving as condition, clinging; With clinging as condition, becoming; With becoming as condition, birth; With birth as condition, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and tribulation. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

Further Reading

  1. As an alternative to the video, Radiolab has an excellent and entertaining segment featuring this audio plus interviews with those involved.

If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.