The functioning of humans




Formation, growth and evolution of the conscious Ego

Time has come to distill from all the information given up to now a synthetic but coherent and shared (or at least communicable) scheme of what we could define our condition as humans. The following considerations are related to my personal experience, but I think they can be valid for most people: everyone will be able to check if they adapt to his/her own experience. The formation of the conscious Ego takes place during our life, not at birth, as soon as consciousness succeeds in recording and memorizing certain psychic experiences. As a rule of thumb, the first organization of conscious nuclei in a structured unit capable of identifying itself as an «Ego» occurs between the second and third year of life. However, it is only between the fourth and fifth years that this unit acquires its own stable continuity over time: in the initial phase of the formation of the Ego we are facing something like an archipelago of conscious experiences, more or less intense and able to be memorized, which however still lack the coherence and stability necessary for their integration into a self-conscious unit of reference. 

In its formative state and in the early stages of growth the conscious Ego identifies itself completely with the psychic experiences to which it is subject, experiencing however – almost always automatically and without adequate critical capacity – a greater or lesser ability to juggle the same. This ability is essentially due to two rather obvious factors: the first, a genetic heritage that determines the development of faculties such as intelligence and will, to which the conscious Ego can resort, as we have seen in the pages on the Ego and the psyche and reality and the will; the second, a cultural milieu that can encourage growth through the transmission of information and advanced programs. However, in the light of what we have seen so far, the activity of a third factor of a spiritual origin – which could influence (not necessarily in a positive sense) the greater or less subjugation of the Ego to certain psychic dynamics – can not be excluded.    

The evolutionary path of the conscious Ego can be interrupted at one of the initial phases: in this case the Ego continues to remain for a lifetime in a state of complete identification with the psychic dynamics that involve it, unable to free itself from this state that we could rightly define as imprisonment. Or it can continue, through various stages, allowing the Ego to first differentiate itself by acquiring a role of observer and witness of the psychic experiences that involve it, then to develop an intelligent critical faculty that allows it to begin a process of separation and autonomy from the psychic tunings, and finally to free itself from its condition of forced subordination to the human psyche. This path of liberation has already been detailed in the page on reality and the will.    

Human creatures and human beings

It is now necessary to make a preliminary distinction between what is more appropriate to define «human creature» and «human being». Human creature is an organism whose existence over time is limited by two moments: that of birth (or, if you prefer, of conception) and that of death. This organism consists of a body and a nervous system with a brain (which grow and change over time), and it does not differ in complexity from the organism of many other higher animals, except in terms of size and organization of the cerebral organ. On the basis of current scientific knowledge we could say that are all organisms endowed with the human genome (chromosome kit) are humans. Even from this point of view, taking into account genetic variability, every human organism represents an individual singularity. 

The human being, on the other hand, is the product of an inner transformation of the conscious – and self-conscious – subject that becomes capable of understanding the problem of existence beyond the limits placed on human life by the time factor. In the following arguments I will refer above all to the functioning of human organisms as human creatures, subsequently taking into account the possibility that a transformation into human beings may occur. As we have seen in one of the pages dedicated to research on hypnosis, already Myers – at the end of the nineteenth century – had come to the conclusion that human creatures can be considered as living automatisms endowed with consciousness, whose functioning, however – in general and with a few exceptions – does not allow them to become fully aware of the way in which their structure operates. After more than a century and a quarter, today we can look at the latest research results in the field of neuroscience to see if new perspectives have opened up to enlighten us about our mind's functioning. As I am not a neuroscientist myself, able to do my own research, I will refer to informative essays of a good quality, whose authors are well-known academic specialists. Also in this case, however, some further clarification is needed.   

The brain as a complex of functional organs    

Obviously, the field of investigation of neuroscience is focused on the brain and its functioning. It was therefore necessary to refer to a standard model of brain, with respect to which the living brain of every human organism differs to a more or less relevant extent, also taking into account the fact that, to substantially homogeneous characteristics – under an anatomical profile – of many parts of the brain constituted by neural networks, correspond operating modes that vary from one individual to another. Therefore, even taking into account the prudence that characterizes scientific research in this field, it should be remembered that the standard model of the brain is an abstraction, reliable for some aspects, but not for others. In short, I can reasonably be quite sure that even in my brain the emotions are managed by the limbic system and in particular by the amygdala, but I do not know how – when I elaborate a thought in linguistic terms, as I am doing right now – some neural circuits of the neocortex are activated, which – of course – can not be standardized except in relation to their potential functioning.       

Although, for historical and cultural reasons, the human brain is still commonly considered as an organ, it is studied by neuroscientists as a set of complex functional structures, endowed with a high computational capacity and the highest level of information among all the structures known by humanity, at least in this part of the universe known to us. At a higher level than a single human brain we can then consider the information exchange network formed by groups of brains, as occurs not only in scientific research, but in all interactions between many individuals and groups of individuals, in particular in the context of our complex societies. For the mere fact of living in this world and in this historical period, the brain of each of us is continuously subjected to an enormous quantity of stimuli, solicitations and programs, which must be quickly elaborated, determining forms of behavior and verbal communication that become, in turn, stimuli to the activity of other brains.    

Some limits of scientific information

We have already seen, in the page on consciousness, brain and mind – which it is advisable to keep in mind also in relation to the following considerations – the position and reasons of those scientists who bring down every possible human inner experience and every transformation of the conscious Ego to the brain's activity, ruling out the existence of any other autonomous component with respect to the brain itself. We have also highlighted the limits of this point of view, for various reasons unsatisfactory and too hasty: it is as if someone wanted to quickly close a question that continues to present many enigmatic (and disturbing) aspects, especially after including non-ordinary states of consciousness and paranormal phenomena among the particularly significant human experiences. First of all, we must note how, in the literature on the progress of neuroscience, sufficient clarity has not yet been made about terms such as consciousness, psyche, mind and brain activity. Above all, the terms consciousness and psychic activity are often used as interchangeable, and the conscious subject (the Ego) is too easily identified with the psychic contents it experiences. Sometimes are also presented as incntrovertible conclusions – with a naivety and a superficiality that surprise us if the popularizer is also a researcher engaged in scientific activity – hypotheses and considerations that are still waiting to be demonstrated. Two fairly common examples of this attitude are summarized in the following two imaginary dialogues between a popularizer scientist and a critical iterlocutor.    

Dialogue #1

PS (Popularizer Scientist): «Human life, as welle as animal life and any other natural phenomenon, is devoid of any purpose and meaning and does not correspond to any program or plan aimed at any result». 
CI (Critical Interlocutor): «If so, why do you commit yourself to increasing scientific knowledge in the field of your interest (neuroscience)?»
PS: «Because this is determined by the way my brain works». (Perhaps a more proper answer could be: «Because my brain is programmed to work this way»).
CI: «And what determines the way your brain works?»
PS: «Natural evolution». 

At this point the critical interlocutor could rightly ask the scientist what he means by natural evolution, obtaining a more or less exhaustive answer according to the scientist's orientation in the vast field of Darwinian or post-Darwinian evolutionary theories, but the significant fact is that in any case natural evolution – so that these terms may have a meaning in the scientific field – must take place according to certain laws and therefore must develop according to a program that, over time, obtains certain results. Moreover, the same scientific research comes to results considered (demonstrably) valid, only in so far as it complies with operational programs consistent with the way of functioning of some faculties of our mind. So it makes no sense to deny that, as a whole, a certain evolutionary program is carried on, also through humanity: eventually we can discuss the role that different human organisms have – in their single individuality – in this program, which nevertheless exists and proceeds according to laws that are only partially known to us, and which we strive to consciously discover.    

Dialogue #12

CI (Critical Interlocutor): «Do you think that the conscious Ego can continue to exist after the death of the body (and the brain)?»
PS (Popularizer Scientist): «Certainly not».
CI: «Yet many people believe that some form of survival is possible».
PS: «It is one of the psychic illusions produced by the brain to drive out the fear of death».
CI: «Are you afraid of death?»
PS: «No».
CI: «And can you cope with life, with all its problems?»
PS: «Sure: indeed living gives me satisfaction».
CI: «So, not all brains need to produce the illusion of survival to death to deal with life. Why some yes and others no?»
PS: «I do not know».

It could also be added that not all human cultures – geographically and historically – have elaborated, theorized and transmitted an organized view of life after death, so we do not see why some scientists (thankfully not all), after having validly presented and motivated the reasons why they do not believe that the conscious Ego could still exist once the support of the brain is definitively lacking, want to attribute tha faith in survival to the fear of dying, fear that would be generated, or uncritically acquired, by the brain itself, which is in any case informed about its future dissolution.     

The «closed system» model

I think that this cultural model, according to which the conscious Ego is only an epiphenomenon of the brain's activity, whose existence is however determined and limited by the functioning of this organ, can be defined as a «closed system». This closed system does not limit to affirming, rightly, that the psychic events which the conscious Ego experiences are determined by the brain activity, but states that without cerebral activity there is no longer any possibility of a conscious existence, nor in the physical dimension of this life, nor in other dimensions. On the fact that in this world and in this life the psychic experiences made by the conscious Ego are determined and conditioned by the brain's functioning, I do not think there can be any doubts. What I believe to be the weak point of the closed system is the statement that there should not be other dimensions to which the conscious Ego may have access once the (psychic) experience of life in this physical world has ended. In this regard, experiences such as NDEs or non-ordinary states induced by some psychoactive substances are particularly significant, because they could be attributed not to an increase or exaltation of some brain functions, but rather to their temporary inhibition. Of course, this is an advanced hypothesis, not a proven theory: however – especially in the case of some NDEs – it seems rather unreliable to assume that, in extremely critical conditions, some parts of the brain are able to process such complex, intense and lasting psychic experiences.  

Beyond the closed system

If we then take into account mediumistic phenomena, the closed system no longer stands, since in any case we have to deal with a different dimension from the physical world's normal one, about which the brain's activity can not elaborate any coherent explanatory theory. As I have repeatedly pointed out, mediumistic phenomena – as a whole – do not offer an irrefutable proof of the survival of the conscious Ego at the death of the body, but open a window on a dimension to which the conscious Ego could gain access once its experience of earthly life is over. Access to this new dimension could take place through the integration of the conscious Ego into a different, organized and intelligent structure, which normally remains separate and alien to the conscious Ego in the course of human experience. On the pages of this site I have often referred to this structure, calling it usually with the term spirit, recognizing however that it is a label like another to indicate something we know little or nothing about. As we have seen, even the term unconscious, used as a noun and considered more acceptable by our cultural system (I do not understand well on which basis), could be referred to the same structure. The fact is, however, that until our conscious Ego has effectively and forever crossed the door of death, we will not be able to elaborate any form of knowledge about this alleged spirit and the experiences which we will eventually meet in the new dimension. All we can do about it in this life is to rely on our imagination.   

The brain and the acquisition of cultural programs

It is always advisable to keep in mind the individual differences that determine the functioning of billions of human brains, before arriving at too hasty conclusions. In particular we must carefully consider the ways in which different socio-cultural systems exert their influence on the brains of thousands or millions of human organisms through the transmission of true «conditioning programs». Not all brains can be conditioned in the same way, and the modalities of reaction to the various conditioning programs can be very different from one brain to another. Any theorization of a standard model of brain functioning that does not take into account the creative and critical capacity that the brain can have (and on whose origin it would be appropriate to wonder), risks to reduce to a sterile mechanism, unable to account for the variables that are found in fact in the psychic tunings of each person. 

From the point of view of the conscious Ego, we often have the impression that certain socio-cultural programs – transmitted not only through educational conditioning, but also, as more and more frequently occurs, through mass media – are opposed by an interior instance able to add valid reasons and arguments that contrast with the program itself (which is in turn supported by other motivations also presented as valid and reasonable). On the page on the  relationship between the Ego and the psyche we have already examined the possible results of these inner conflicts from the point of view of the experience and involvement of the conscious Ego: now we want to point out how, with the only possible exclusion of those cases in which a socio-cultural program conflicts with other programs of the same nature previously acquired, the very activity of this inner instance denotes the presence of something that is actually able to influence the brain's functioning. The issue about the origin of the human creative function show itself again under another aspect.  

The brain and paranormal phenomena

To the arguments already developed in the section on the human psyche, it is now necessary to add some more questions about the possible role of the human brain – or, at least, of some human brains – in those cases where paranormal phenomena occur, and in particular the mediumistic phenomena we have dealt with up to now. In brief, the explanatory hypotheses about the origin and causes of such phenomena – which, it should be remembered, present the requirements of objective reality – can be summarized in the following three points:   

  • The phenomena are produced by spirits associated with already deceased – or, in some cases, still alive – human organisms, which use the psychophysical energies of the medium's organism and also of the sitters' (spiritualist hypothesis of survival).
  • The phenomena are produced by intelligent alien entities not endowed with a physical organism, which use the psychophysical energies of the medium and the sitters, and the memories of living or already lived human organisms, to produce physical effects or to elaborate verbal communications (hypothesis of alien spirits: demons, angels, extraterrestrials, and so on).
  • The phenomena are produced by still unknown brain's faculties, of which some human brains are gifted in a much more relevant way than normally occurs, which allow the mind to operate directly on matter (within certain limits), to enter into direct communication with other minds, and to know and visualize past and future events (hypothesis of super-ESP or super-PSI).

Each of these hypotheses presupposes a particular role of the brain of a human organism (the medium), whose modalities of functioning still remain to be discovered. In any case, it is not acceptable, for the problem to be removed, simply by denying that paranormal phenomena can occur.  

The uncertain condition of the conscious Ego

Always keeping in mind the fundamental role of the brain in the temporal span of human life, we must consider that the hypothesis for which the conscious Ego is nothing but a product of mental activity (bound to brain functioning) puts the same existence of the Ego in an increasingly precarious condition as lifetime approaches its end. This hypothesis has increasingly rooted in our culture, as it rests on rather solid basis, at least from the point of view of scientific research. But the functioning of a person's brain, as we have already pointed out, is essentially determined by stimuli coming from the external environment and by conditioning programs transmitted by the socio-cultural system, as well as by internal programs developed according to her/his genetic heritage. Moreover, in the last decades, the exponential development of telematic and informatics communication systems has amplified the interactions between brains, especially in advanced societies, so much so that one can rightly speak of a human network, in which stimuli and information are exchanged at an increasingly intense rate among an amount of brains.    

If all this corresponds to an evolutionary design, whether aimed or not to a purpose, it must be recognized that the condition of the conscious Ego, in its individual essence, is very uncertain. In fact, for the mere fact of being operative, the brain of every human organism is activated as a functioning unit within the human system, to which it gives its own contribution, be it positive or negative, downloading in time on the conscious Ego the psychic experiences resulting from its organizational structure and mental activity. But, once its function is over, the human organism is deactivated, and mental activity determines – especially in old age – psychic tunings that leave the Ego in a condition of uncertainty about the very meaning of its existence. Here we are not dealing with the fear of death, which may possibly be a psychic element referable only to our human condition: in fact we can be afraid of dying only while our body is alive, while those who are dead – that is, each of us, sooner or later – have never more to worry about this. On the other hand, the sufferings that may precede death, even for long periods, are part of the inevitable destiny of some people, and the desire to avoid them, as far as possible, is well understandable. What must instead be carefully considered is that the condition of subordination of the conscious Ego to the brain functioning represents, for the Ego itself, a state of non-existence.  

The conscious Ego's attitude towards death

Many people of undoubted intelligence, some of whom engaged in science, are today willing to accept the annihilation of the conscious Ego at the body's death as an actual and incontrovertible fact. I think that this submissive acceptance is not compatible with the human dignity of the conscious Ego, even if the Ego's annihilation were inevitable on the basis of the mysterious and to us obscure laws that rule the life phenomenon. The existence, however temporary, of the conscious Ego in the course of human life is a fact, confirmed by our self-awareness, which gives us the feeling of existing as individual beings, even if we fail to understand the origin of our existence. That to the conscious Ego is almost always associated a need to continue to exist is demonstrated by the commitment and tenacity with which many people try to prolong their human life – despite the difficulties and misfortunes that it often involves – and by the futuristic fantasies about some form of prolongation ad libitum of the brain's functioning and the consciousness associated with it.     

Among those who believe in a form of survival of the conscious Ego at death, by personal conviction also mediated by the acquisition of cultural programs often not critically elaborated, many think that their commitment to play a positive and evolutionary role in relation to social life will be evaluated positively, granting them a better status in the afterlife. It is a reasonable form of faith, which tries to reconcile the evolutionary progress of humanity in this dimension with the human aspiration to existence and happiness in an otherworldly dimension. It must however be noticed how, in this view, the implementation of the «remunerative» program is entrusted to the evaluation of entities that we could define as «higher authorities». It can not be excluded that things may go so, for those who really believe in it, given that psychic experience plays a fundamental role in many aspects related to an otherworldly dimension, at least on the basis of what can be deduced from communications obtained through mediumship. In any case, according to this point of view, the meaning of human life would be of a scholastic type: diligently perform your tasks and you will be promoted. The nature of these tasks, however, is not entirely clear and unambiguous, and according to the attended school, it can also present conflicting aspects, reflecting all the contrasts in the human psyche, due to which what is a value for one person can be bad for another.   

The problem of non-knowledge

The fact that the destiny of the conscious Ego at the death of the body can not be the object of reliable knowledge, but only of fideistic beliefs originated by particular psychic tunings of an imaginary nature, represents a very difficult problem to solve. In the pages of this section we will examine some aspects related to this problem, and the way in which it has been dealt with above all in the field of psychical research. In fact, the mediumistic phenomena and the communications obtained, which at first seemed to shed new light – in terms of positive knowledge – on the survival of the conscious Ego in an otherworldly dimension, have then shown themselves contaminated, in many cases, by the same uncertainties and contradictions that characterize the human psyche, in its various individual manifestations. It is certainly true that some mediumistic communications present strongly indicative requirements – in terms of memory, knowledge and intelligent manifestation – of the survival of the conscious Ego of a personality who has lived an earthly life. To get some examples, see the book One Hundred Cases for Survival After Death by Alexander T. Baird (1944). However, these are rare pearls, to be fished in a sea of confused, contradictory or simply absurd communications.    

The problem of time

The observation that the life of every person is bound to a certain time represents, in its banality, a complex enigma that leads us to consider human existence in a new light. In fact, the passing of time in one direction makes most of our expectations and our needs oriented towards the future, since the past, once transformed into memories and experiences from which to draw, is fixed in its immobility. However, at a certain age (more or less around 60) we realize that the same psychophysical resources at our disposal begin to deteriorate, limiting the possibility of getting psychic experiences as intense and involving as those of the young years. The same ability to remember what of interesting, exciting and involving has happened to us in the past, may be lost through the years, making emotionally more dull even those memories that once seemed bright and colorful. In order to evaluate from an inner point of view, with knowledge of the facts, our own experience of human life, we should always wait for the last five years: the longer the lifespan, the more the condition in which human organisms find themselves in the terminal period resemble a state in which they are neither alive nor dead.     

But there is another aspect linked to the passing of time that leaves us disconcerted: our psychic experiences, our mental capacities and our cognitive possibilities are determined in large part by the evolution of the socio-cultural milieu in our time: every now and then we happen to consider (in a naive and illusory way) with a smile of benevolent superiority, the conditions of those who have lived in this world before us, two or three centuries ago, or even earlier. But how could our human experience be, I will not say in two or three centuries but – for example – in twenty thousand or thirty thousand years? A time that seems very long, in terms of our human history, but which, evaluated in terms of our planet's natural history, represents the equivalent of one second in a 24-hour day. In light of the knowledge of that age, our vision of the world and the interpretation of the meaning of human life could be radically different from the current one. Once again we find that, from the point of view of the conscious Ego, the reduction of existence to the only temporal adventure of this current earthly life is unsustainable, since it is a form of non-existence: the most surprising aspect is the meekness with which so many people are willing to accept this condition, persuaded that it is an incontrovertible fact.     

The end of the brain

In the following pages of this section we will examine some aspects of the cultural debate that in the last century has involved many people of culture, who – on the basis of the results obtained in the field of psychical research – have questioned the fate of the conscious Ego once the human brain has definitely ceased to function. In this respect, the term death appears historically dated, especially in our time, in which medicine progress makes so that human organisms, whose life processes appear seriously endangered (so much so that they can be declared clinically dead), are then brought back to life, recovering in whole or at least in part those mental faculties that for a while were suspended. But also those cases deserve our attention, in which brain lesions lead to hypothesize a condition of absence of a self-conscious Ego, which can also last for several years during which the body is kept in a vegetative vital state by means of machinery, or those cases in which the Ego, although present and self-conscious, can not communicate with the external environment due to damages suffered by the nervous system. For this reason, the end of the brain's functioning must be considered as an irreversible state that leads to the physical dissolution of the nervous system, causing the end of every mental activity determined by the brain itself.      


Human functioning
A  debate in the SPR
Saltmarsh's doubts
An interesting book
Freedom from psyche
The meaning of life